Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu says the film is a labyrinth of the mind of its main character, Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton); hidden within that maze are a series of deep-inside jokes and meta-commentary that most viewers might miss, so, to help you dazzle your friends, here's our viewer's guide to the movie's erudite Easter eggs
1. Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges
Edward Norton plays Mike Shiner, an actor who, in one scene, is reading Borges’ 1962 collection of short stories and essays while in a tanning bed. The Argentinean author is recognized as a master of magic realism — a matter-of-fact acceptance of supernatural or fantastical elements in an everyday environment. The film does this too as Riggan begins to lose his grip on reality.
2. ”Bad Actor” Jeremy Shamos
Early in Birdman, Riggan wishes to be rid of the hammy actor (Shamos) he thinks is ruining his play. In real life, Shamos is a Tony-nominated thespian. ”Our ‘bad actor’ was a great actor,” Keaton says. ”I would fight not to laugh during his scenes.”
3. Celebrities As Punchlines
Birdman slips in some sharp commentary on modern stardom: Michael Fassbender, Jeremy Renner, Robert Downey Jr., Justin Bettman, Meg Ryan. All get gentle (or not-so-gentle) ribbing.
4. ”What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” by Raymond Carver
In Birdman, Riggan is attempting to adapt, direct, and star in a play based on this 1981 short story by Raymond Carver. ”What We Talk About” is among the most famous of the author’s works. Its bare-bones plot — two couples drink gin and discuss the mysteries of the human heart — and minimalist prose have been credited with reinventing the short story.
5. Bill Camp as Macbeth
At one point in the film, Riggan wanders by a seemingly homeless man spouting lines from Act 5, Scene 5 of Macbeth — that whole ”Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage” bit — outside a run-down bodega. In the stage world, even saying ”Macbeth” inside a theater is considered bad luck. (It’s usually referred to as the Scottish Play.) And Camp, the actor reciting it, is an Obie-winning stage actor.
6. Literary Theorist Roland Barthes
A journalist, in one scene, asks Riggan why he’d jump from being a superhero-movie star to adapting a Raymond Carver work for the stage. ”As you’re probably aware,” the journalist says, ”Barthes said, ‘The cultural work done in the past by gods and epic sagas is now done by laundry-detergent commercials and comic-strip characters.”’ He’s referring to French literary theorist and philosopher Roland Barthes — specifically to his 1957 book, Mythologies.
7. Playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis
In one pivotal scene, a stranger comes to Riggan’s aid. The actor playing the savior is gone in a flash, but sharp-eyed theater regulars will recognize him as acclaimed playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis (The Motherf—er With the Hat, Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train). He was also (wink, wink) co-artistic director of New York City’s Labyrinth Theater Company.