Adaptation at the Movies


I recently wrote a reflection on Birdman, the Michael Keaton film about an actor who played a superhero in the ’90s and now is trying to resurrect his career by staging a play. I described the “Birdman” voice that only Riggan, Keaton’s character, could hear–telling him that he was better than others, and asserting that those around him were scheming to deprive him of the recognition he deserved. In other words, the voice was megalomaniacal and paranoid. I am going to write here about Riggan from the perspective of this blog; in other words, I’m going to look at how he is handling aging.

We don’t know how old Riggan is, but he is definitely past midlife. His former celebrity as a movie superhero was twenty years earlier. Keaton himself is 63, and he looks it. Midlife is a time of reappraisal, of examining our accomplishments to that point with a critical eye. Pretty much all of us are forced to conclude that neither we nor our accomplishments are exceptional. This diminishes or deflates the ego. Midlife is also a time of realizing that our lives are about half over. Our eventual deaths become more salient. As I described it a few months ago, “When we then think of those accomplishments in light of our eventual deaths and the centuries afterwards, during which all we did will be forgotten, our little stack of successes seems even punier. Eventually, all we can do is acknowledge that we will never be what we dreamed of being ”

What if we have a primitive style of adaptation that doesn’t allow us to see any of us about ourselves, though? What if we use the psychotic defenses of paranoia, hallucination, and megalomania? What, in other words, if we are like Riggan? Then we can’t come to terms with our limitations and with the prospect of our eventual death. We’ll be driven to assert our greatness, even if we have to live in a fantasy world in which we alone are supreme. This is what his inner voice does for Riggan; whenever he suffers a setback–a performance goes badly, another cast member receives more attention than him, or a theater critic threatens to eviscerate his play–there is Birdman, assuring Riggan that he is great and all of these hassles are beneath him.

Adapting by way of megalomania also insulates one from having to contemplate mortality. Birdman assures Riggan that he can go back to his superhero role, as if the years since he left that phase of life don’t matter and he is still young. The problem with this way of coping is that mortality has a way of slicing through even the thickest defenses. Riggan describes to his ex-wife riding in a plane that was shaking violently. He feared that it would go down, but, even more, feared that, when his daughter opened the Times the next day, his picture wouldn’t be on the front page. He then adds, “Farrah Fawcett died on exactly the same day as Michael Jackson.” In other words, not only does Riggan fear dying, he fears that something more important than his demise would have occurred that day, and he would be denied being immortalized in print. There’s an underlying terror of insignificance here. The problem with primitive defenses is that what’s behind them hasn’t been tempered by gradual exposure to reality, so, once the defenses are breached, what remains is brittle and weak.

During the course of the film, Riggan doesn’t grow: he doesn’t become more accepting of his limitations or able to acknowledge he isn’t as important as he wishes he were. The same happens to us if we use extreme strategies to avoid realizing that we haven’t succeeded as we had hoped and that age is diminishing our capacities. How much better it is to adapt as does another character in the film, Lesley. Lesley is played by Naomi Watts, who is 46, so she is also in midlife. She tells Riggan that it was always her hope to be a Broadway actress. She is thankful that she had the chance, and will be glad to have been in the play even if it is cancelled after opening night. I hope that I look at life more like Lesley than like Riggan. I’m glad for the opportunities to do what I did. Regardless of how I’m remembered after I’m gone, I’m grateful for all the grace I received.

The movie’s epigraph is the following quote from Raymond Carver:

“And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so?”

“I did.”

“And what did you want?”

To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.”

It doesn’t seem that Riggan’s defenses would ever permit him to feel beloved. Famous, maybe, or relevant or memorable, but not beloved. Lesley, on the other hand, has a chance of calling herself beloved. That, too, is what I hope that at the end of life I will be able to call myself.

About Bob Ritzema

I am a fourth-generation American of Dutch ancestry and am trained as a clinical psychologist. In 2012, I retired from Methodist University in North Carolina to return to . Michigan to help family, and, in 2023, I started again with a move to Milwaukee to be near my children. I maintain a part-time therapy practice. I can be reached at
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