98. The Birdcage (1996)

When I was doing the essays on the Top 100 Songs of My Lifetime, one of my arbitrary “rules” was that I didn’t want to pick a song that was a cover, meaning an artist covering another artist’s song.  Two songs, however, were so good that even with that rule; they made it on my list.  With movies, it wasn’t really a consideration for me, because most remakes are pretty different from the movies that inspired them.  For #98 on my list, The Birdcage, that’s not really true.

The Birdcage is based on the 1978 French film, La Cage Aux Folles, and is very faithful to the original.  For me, that makes it much more like a cover than a normal Hollywood remake, like The Departed or Ocean’s Eleven.  And much like Van Halen’s cover of The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” is far superior to the original, so The Birdcage is superior to La Cage Aux Folles.  I know the arty folk out there will throw hot espresso at me for blaspheming La Cage Aux Folles, and think that I’m just some dumb American who would rather have chicken fried steak than bœuf bourguignon.  But don’t worry, I’ll tell you why they’re wrong, all the while munching on a chocolate chip cookie dough pop tart.

Don’t get me wrong – La Cage Aux Folles is a good movie.  It’s quite funny and over the top and it was groundbreaking in 1978.  The first time I saw it, I was fifteen years old and it was 1985.  I was trying to broaden my horizons and see movies that were outside of the Hollywood blockbuster box.  I felt so cultured watching it. It was French! It had subtitles! So when I heard that they were remaking it, I was terrified that this would be a sucky Americanization of it. The Birdcage is definitely an Americanization of the original, but it’s not sucky.  It turned out to be even better.

The Birdcage was directed by Mike Nichols, a man who started out his career as a comedian best known  for his improv work with Elaine May.  You say the word improv today and everyone knows what you’re talking about.  But May & Nichols were doing this in the late fifties and early sixties, when comedic improvisation was something brand new.  They were at the forefront of the movement that would give us Second City, SCTV and The Groundlings.  To show that comedy teams are no different than musicians, there eventually came a split.  Elaine wanted to improvise more – that’s where she had the most fun and thought they could have the most influence.  Mike wanted to craft things they had already done, honing them to a final perfect performance that could be replicated.  That desire to craft performances led to his becoming a very popular Broadway theater director. 

Nichols then made the natural transition to film director.  He’s been very successful, with five Academy Award nominations and one win (1967’s The Graduate).  Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate were his first two movies. He took what could’ve been the distraction of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton and turned it into a fiery pair of performances in Woolf (which won Liz an Oscar).  The Graduate is a movie that can still speak to audiences today. The themes- uncertainty about the future, willingness to take risks and the distrust (bordering on disdain) of authority, will ring as true to a twenty-three year-old today, just as much as they did to that 23 year-old’s father in 1967.  She had a hit & mostly miss career as a film director herself (her biggest miss would probably that she wrote and directed Ishtar*).  In between her directorial efforts, she was a script doctor back in the days when that was seen as a bad thing.  She honed the screenplays to, among others, Reds, Tootsie, and Scrooged.  The pair hadn’t worked together for thirty years until they finally reunited for The Birdcage.

While it’s a faithful remake of the French original, Elaine May goes all Muhammad Ali with her script, assaulting us with powerful combinations of punch lines.  I see the humor of the original as a sparring match; many of the jokes are telegraphed or rushed into.  In The Birdcage, it’s a heavyweight bout of laughs.  She wants you to laugh so hard it hurts, and she succeeds.  Case in point:  in the original, the Albert character is taught how to be more manly by mimicking the walk of the ultimate man’s man, John Wayne.  That’s funny in its own right, but Lane and Williams add even more humor when  Albert comes back after his John Wayne walk and says,  “No good?”  To which Armand replies, “Actually, it’s perfect.  I just never realized John Wayne walked like that.”

There are a few moments in the original where for some reason Nichols and May left comedic gold in the mine.  When Senator Keeley is talking about his colleague dying after visiting with a prostitute, he blurts it out.  In the original, it’s far funnier when Simon Charrier delivers the lines in an almost deadpan.  “She was a prostitute……  and a minor……  and black.”  You see him visibly deflate as he utters each couplet.  It’s a far funnier delivery.  Then again, if Hackman had delivered it the same way, Nichols would’ve been slammed for his blatant copying of the original.  I guess you can’t win for losing.

What brought it all together, though, and what makes The Birdcage one of the Top 100 Movies of My Lifetime, is the cast.  May crafted a brilliant script, but somebody had to say all of those brilliant words – and say them just right.  It’s not coincidence that the Sister Sledge song “We Are Family” is the defacto theme song for The Birdcage.  The themes of the song are echoed in the themes of the film, and even the production.  Ensemble, the French word for together, is apt for the gathering of actors that Mike Nichols gathered for the film.  Here’s what he had to say:
It's the only time in my life that I haven't thought, 'Well, this one character, I should have gotten so-and-so.' It was exactly the actors who should have been these characters. Every single one, right down to the non-speaking parts.
It’s rare in movies nowadays to have a true ensemble.  With a stage play, it’s pretty much the nature of the medium.  With television, they have entire seasons to build a strong connection to multiple cast members.  With a movie, however, you only have two hours of film to get the story across.  Getting people to also care (and be entertained by) a variety of characters somewhat equally is a much harder challenge.  With The Birdcage, Nichols succeeded on every front.  The ensemble ended up winning the inaugural Screen Actor’s Guild award for Best Cast in a Motion Picture. So let’s take a look at the actors and characters who made The Birdcage such a success.

Robin Williams (Armand)
When the script for The Birdcage was done, it was sent to Robin Williams with a name highlighted – Albert.  The producers wanted him to play the over-the-top “wife” to Armand’s “husband.”  There’s no actor better for over-the-top than Robin Williams.  He was perfect for the part.  And he said, “No.”
I thought:  I want to try something different, something more elegant.  People expect me to be the more flamboyant one. I wanted something new.  It's a dry, restrained comedy, versus being so outrageous, and that's what was interesting for me. It's like learning a whole set of different muscles.
Since Williams decided not to take the role of Albert, it appears that he wanted to stay as far away from gay stereotypes as possible in his performance as ArmandDoing his most restrained work since 1990’s Awakenings, his performance is a joy, especially considering the subject matter and the performance that Nathan Lane gives.  Normally, Robin is Mr. “Look At Me!”, with his manic persona taking over.  In The Birdcage, that beast shows its head for just a moment (when he hilariously shows one of his dancers what he’s looking for) before sticking its head back into its shell for the rest of the movie.

One of Williams’ shining moments is the scene where Armand changes his mind and decides to do what his son asked of him, no matter how difficult it was.  He would lie to the Keeleys and send Albert away for a few days.  The camera stays on him for a full forty seconds.  That was a real ballsy move by Nichols, especially in a comedy.  Clint Eastwood once said, “My old drama coach used to say, ‘Don’t just do something, stand there!’ Gary Cooper wasn’t afraid to do nothing.”  And neither is Robin Williams.  But he’s not really doing nothing.  Although he’s not moving – he’s moving, if you get my drift.  You can see his brain working and that’s the true feat of brilliant acting.

One complaint leveled at the movie is that Armand and Albert don’t act like lovers.  And in that regard, that’s right.  They’re not lovers - they’re married.  Until gay marriage becomes legal and acceptable, everyone tries to play the label game with gay couples.  It’s lovers, boyfriend, life companion.  But in The Birdcage, it’s husband and wife, just the way it’s supposed to be. It's just that the wife happens to also be a man.  Albert and Armand are, for all intents and purposes, a married couple.  They’ve been together for twenty years and it comes across on the screen.

That’s not to say that Williams isn’t funny.  Robin knew he needed to be the straight man (pun intended) of the duo, but he also wanted a chance to be funny, too.  “The challenge for me was to play the more subtle Armand and see if I could still get my share of laughs,” he said.  And he does.  Although not as flashy as Albert’s role, when he delivers lines like, “I made you short?” or “I’ve never seen so much go so wrong so quickly,” they’re some of my heartiest laughs.  But all of this would’ve been for naught if they’d got the casting of Albert wrong.  Luckily for us, they didn’t.

Nathan Lane (Albert)
With the star power of Robin Williams well established, Nichols had more freedom to find the right actor for the role of Albert, rather than the right movie star for Albert.  Nathan Lane was the perfect choice.  Having starred on Broadway in Guys and Dolls and a Tony winning turn in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Nichols knew the stage presence that Nathan had would work well with the ensemble cast and the story.

When The Birdcage came out, many people thought the character of Albert was too over-the-top.  But in reality, I’ve known people just like him- men with more estrogen than most women.  If you think I’m kidding, just look at the new season of Survivor.  A member of the One World castaways is a guy (pun intended) named Colton. Let me have him introduce himself:

And if you need further proof, check out the Albi/Zara character in the ’78 original.   He makes Albert look like Harrison Ford.  Albi/Zara is exponentially more over the top than Albert.  And compare the two apartments that the couples live in.  I find it interesting that The Birdcage is often criticized for perpetuating negative stereotypes about gays, while the original, which is even more stereotypical, gets a free pass.  It must be because it’s French.  Both Lane’s Albert and Michel Serrault’s Albin are drama queens to be sure, but both actors weave full, well-rounded performances in what could’ve been very much a one note character.

There are some great, tender moments with Albert in The Birdcage where you see another side to himThere’s one scene, in particular, that sticks out in my mind.  Val is asleep in his room after a difficult conversation with his father.  Albert walks into his room, in full makeup from his performance as Judy Garland’s hobo from Easter Parade’s song, “A Couple of Swells.”  After a full night on stage, and without showing an ounce of the exhaustion he must be feeling, Albert looks lovingly at his son and picks up Val's dirty clothes.  Almost as an afterthought, like any parent would do, he covers Val up with a blanket.  They’re not paternal or maternal looks, they’re parental. It’s his son and the love is palpable.

Williams had never met Lane before the first rehearsal for The Birdcage but recalls it was "love at first laugh. In just minutes Nathan and I were like an old vaudeville act.”  Nathan had some trepidation about playing Albert next to Robin:
Everyone is surprised when they find out he's not playing my part. He did tell me that the first few weeks, it was hard for him to watch me go off. But then he said he found the comedy in his character.
Both Lane and Williams did a stunning job.  Sure they both pulled off the comedy (I had no doubt that they would), but what makes The Birdcage a truly great film are the quieter, relationship moments between the two.  The scene where Armand gives Albert the palimony agreement, basically giving everything he has to Albert, touches me deeply.  “I’m fifty years old.  There’s only one place in the world that I call home, and it’s because you’re there.”  It’s lines like this that give The Birdcage the emotional soul that transforms it from good movie to great movie.

Gene Hackman (Senator Kevin Keeley)
Gene Hackman doesn’t get to flex his comic chops all that often.  Normally, his characters are the “furrowed browed serious” type or the “so tough he chews on nails” type.  But he does do comedy well when he does it (see:  Get Shorty, Superman and The Royal Tennenbaums).  In The Birdcage, Hackman mostly plays Senator Keeley in much the same way Leslie Nielsen played Dr. Rumack in Airplane.  Nielsen said that he approached Rumack as a dramatic character who didn’t know he was in a comedy.

It’ was a smart choice for Hackman. He’s funny – sometimes startlingly so. The scene where Albert is revealed immediately comes to mind. When he’s shaking his head, looking bewildered and saying, “I don’t understand” is golden. But he doesn’t go too outside the box, calling attention to himself, and that’s a refreshing trait in an actor. They’re supposed to call attention to themselves, that's what acting is. But like a great sixth man in the NBA, he knows he’s not going to get as many shots. Making the best of those shots is what makes a great supporting player, and Hackman is at his best here. 

Hackman gives Keeley that out of touch vibe that often accompanies the mildly addle-minded (kind of like former senator Ted Stevens of Alaska).  Often in this movie, Hackman reminds me of my father, in that “a little too close to home” way that makes you feel uncomfortable.  But it’s a performance that’s grounded in realism, even as he delivers ridiculous lines like, “Louise, I'm the Vice President of the Coalition for Moral Order! My co-founder has just died in the bed of an underage black whore!”

Hank Azaria (Agador)
The performance of Hank Azaria as Agador could’ve been a distraction in the movie. In a movie with many over the top characters, Hank Azaria’s Agador could’ve been a distraction. His acting would’ve almost certainly come off as a caricature if he weren’t so gosh darn funny and lovable. There’s a tenderness to the character that goes beyond his antics. Agador truly cares for Armand and Albert.  In just a few scenes, you can tell that Agador is family to Armand and Albert. And although I can make it around with shoes on without tripping every five feet, being shoeless is me in my natural state, so Agador had me at “I don’t wear shoes.”

When we meet Agador, he’s clothed in a white mesh tank top and jean cut-offs.  It’s absolutely brilliant.  He wouldn’t need to say a word for the entire film and it would still be some of the greatest costuming in film history.  In the original, Benny Luke gives a great performance as Jacob (also with wonderful costuming), but he’s there exclusively as a comedic force.  Don’t get me wrong – Benny’s a powerful comedic foil, but Agador adds a layer of tenderness and familial love for Armand and Albert that’s just missing from La Cage

Dianne Weist (Louise Keeley)
In a role that could’ve been merely a parrot role to her husband, Elaine May writes Louise with a feisty spirit.  Dianne Weist gives those words extra punch in the way she stands up for, and to, her husband.  She’s supportive, sure, but she’s fiercely protective of her family.  Like any mother, mess with her family and there’s hell to pay.

There’s also a naiveté to Louise.  When she’s looking at the dinner bowl (which portrays a bunch of men in, shall we say, an amorous pose) and says, “What interesting china.  Why it looks like young men playing leapfrog,” you believe it.  She’s been sheltered her entire life and all of these things are so foreign to her that she just doesn’t know what to make of it.  Much like Hackman’s Kevin Keeley reminded me of my dad, Weist’s Louise Keeley reminds me of my mom.  I could picture her looking at a bowl like that and saying something very similar.  And while I was uncomfortable with Kevin Keeley being a little too much like my dad (and not in the conservative Republican way, more in the oblivious way), having Diane Weist remind me of my mom brings a little smile to my face.

Dan Futterman (Val)
For the majority of the movie, Val is an asshole.  He’s a kid who thinks he’s a grown up.  When he asks his parents to pretend to be something they’re not, he’s so self-centered that he doesn’t realize what a betrayal it is.  And Armand, being the loving father he is, moves on from the betrayal and does his best to help his son when he’s in need.  Val bosses people around, snapping at the people who are trying to help him – everything a narcissistic young adult does when they’re trying to act “adult.”  I should know.  I used to be one.

Futerman’s performance shines when he asks his father to send Albert away.  You can see the humiliation in his face as he presents it.  As misguided as Val is, he does love his father and mother.  He just doesn’t know another way out of it and doesn’t have the maturity to find one. Futterman also does a good job of making Val, if not likable, at least relatable.  We may not agree why he asks so much of his parents, but we understand his motivation for doing so.

In an interesting side note, Dan Futterman later moonlighted from his normal acting and transitioned his Hollywood career into that of an actor/screenwriter.  He won acclaim (and an Oscar nod) for his screenplay for Capote in 2005+.

Christine Baranski (Katherine Archer)
Another character that could’ve come across in a very negative light, since she gave up her son, is Val’s birth mother, Katherine.  Christine Baranski gives Katherine a complexity that’s absolutely amazing, considering that she has maybe twenty lines in the whole movie.  Katherine is a strong, professional woman and doesn’t have time for other people’s needs and is pretty unapologetic about that.  That being said, what comes across in Katherine is that she gave up Val because it was best for Val.  Sure, it happened to be best for what she wanted in her life as well, but Baranski shows that slight tinge of humiliation that Katherine must feel to even admit that. 

Christine has played grand comedy all over the place; on Broadway, TV and film.  Much like Gene Hackman, she plays Katherine very straight, giving up her penchant for laughs to be an emotional supporting beam to the rest of the cast.  Katherine gave up Val because it was the right thing to do, and mirroring that, Christine gave up the laughs to make a better movie.

Calista Flockhart (Barbara Keeley)
Before she was Ally McBeal, she was the eighteen year-old Barbara.  In one of her first motion picture rolls, Calista unfortunately gets overshadowed by the veteran cast that surrounds her.  It’s not entirely her fault, though.  I think Robert DeNiro would’ve had a hard time keeping up with the whirlwind of the rest of this all-star cast.  While Barbara has a few funny lines, her presence in The Birdcage is mostly as “the girl that Val wants to marry.”  There’s only so much time for character development (and running time) in a film, and Nichols rightfully sacrifices a well-rounded Barbara to make room for the other characters.  Even the Screen Actor’s Guild agreed.  The cast members they nominated for the Best Cast award were Williams/Lane/Hackman/Weist/Azaria/Baranski/Futterman.  Ouch.  Sorry, Calista.  Don’t feel too bad for her, though, she’s Harrison Ford’s wife now.  Indiana Jones, Han Solo and Jack Ryan?  Yeah, I’d be okay with being Harrison Ford’s wife, too.

The Birdcage doesn’t break any ground in the worldview of homosexuality.  Both sides of the controversy have criticized it for that.  But what they don’t get – and what is the ultimate sign of how we’ve progressed as a society – is that it wasn’t supposed toThe Birdcage isn’t trying to change anyone’s preconceived notions one way or the other on the matter of being LGBT, because it’s too busy just being a damn funny movie.  Sure, The Birdcage is filled with gay stereotypes, but so are other great “straight” comedies, like Ghostbusters and Office Space.  When asked about the reaction to the movie’s gay themes, Robin Williams said:
God knows! The one thing that will help is the tenderness of it. We may have sacrificed something, but we tried to get across a couple who were just as loving as any heterosexual couple. It's a love story. But you have to brace yourself, though, because there's gonna be people pissed off.
The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), which you might have thought would have a problem with The Birdcage, instead praised the film for "going beyond the stereotypes to see the character's depth and humanity. The film celebrates differences and points out the outrageousness of hiding those differences."

Nichols, May and the entire cast ended up making a great movie about people – not gay people or straight people, just people.  It’s a movie that may challenge the conventional notion of what family might be, but you cannot deny that these people are a family.  Albert absolutely IS Val’s mother.  He’s nourished Val and supported Val, as any parent would.  There’s no thought in Albert’s mind that although this isn’t biologically his son, Val’s not his son.  It doesn’t matter, because Val is, in every way that matters, his son, just as much as Armand’s. 

The Birdcage takes everything that was great about La Cage Aux Folles and just fills it out.  It takes what was more of a two dimensional comedy and given it a depth that the best comedies have.  You laugh, for sure, but there’s a soul to the film that makes you think about your own preconceived ideas in life.  And that’s what all artistically successful movies do – make you think.

* To read a great article about the spectacular failure of Ishtar, I found a New York magazine story that goes in depth into its production and the resulting artistic and commercial epic fail.

+Dan Futterman isn’t the only actor to do some serious screenwriting.  Grant Heslov, who appears in The Birdcage as the assistant to the National Enquirer reporter, is a great friend and collaborator of George Clooney’s.  Heslov and Clooney were nominated for their writing on 2006’s Good Night and Good Luck, as well as 2012’s The Ides of March.

(Fun Fact #254:  Mike Nichols is one of only twelve people in history who’ve won the entertainment grand slam, meaning he’s won all four of the major entertainment awards (Academy Award, Tony, Grammy, Emmy).  The other eleven?  Of course, there’s a Wikipedia page.  Check it out.)

(Fun Fact #425:  The score of the movie was done by two guys, Jonathan Tunick and Mark Mothersbaugh.  You might know Mark a little bit better from his day job – lead singer of the new wave pioneering band, Devo.  Are we not men?)

For those who want to do your homework for our next assignment, #97 of the Top 100 Movies of My Lifetime is the hilarious sci-fi spoof, Galaxy Quest.
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