The Birdcage Two Decades On

The BirdcageI just watched The Birdcage after having not seen it since it was in the movie theaters back in 1996. It is probably not quite as good as I had remembered it. But it has a great script by Elaine May. It is especially good in that May managed to take what is basically a filmed play in La Cage aux Folles and turned it into a movie. What’s more, Mike Nichols gets every bit of comedy out of the material. And he gets great performances out of everyone — especially Robin Williams, who is often just unwatchable.

But there are problems. One is that Nichols does tend to get a little film-craft crazy — and this really doesn’t mesh well with what is otherwise a very direct style. For example, there is a really amazing long helicopter shot that seamlessly dissolves into a steadicam shot that walks across the street, inside the club, and all the way to back. I appreciate that kind of thing because I marvel at the technique. I also think that it is narcissistic and unnecessary. It was also an incredibly trendy thing to do. As I remember it, pretty much every film in the mid-90s did it. Regardless, for people who know film, such tricks are simply a distraction. And for everyone else, they are just a waste.

The bigger problem is that The Birdcage is still a faithful remake of La Cage aux Folles. And so the plot is entirely dependent upon upon the kids behaving foolishly. Regardless of how well this one dinner goes, the story will never play all the way to the wedding — much less after it when the daughter’s last name will be Goldman and not Coleman. But that would be okay, if the adults had some possible reason for not noticing this. And so, even when I first saw the film, I thought the kids behaved terribly right up through the denouement. But that strikes me as picky. May dealt with the problem as well as I can possibly imagine it being done.

Another thing about the film is that I had remembered it as being more toned down than La Cage aux Folles. I don’t think that’s true. It’s very much the Looney Tunes of portrayals of gay culture. This is exactly what conservatives must be thinking when they talk about the “homosexual lifestyle.” What’s remarkable is just how much more authentic the portrayal of gay people has become over the two decades since then. The Birdcage probably was state of the art for Hollywood at that time. We seem now to be at the point where a homosexual relationship is hardly worth noting. I suppose this is something that should cheer us up when we look at so many other areas where we are regressing.

Otherwise, the film is delightful. It has some of the best movie lines ever written. I had remembered some of them like, “Oh I see, so you’re going to a cemetery with your toothbrush. How Egyptian.” But one line I had totally forgotten that busted me up was, “I’m very maternal. And Albert’s practically a breast.” But what most stood out to me were two short speeches by Armand (Robin Williams). The first is the defense of his life, when his son really is asking the unacceptable:

Yes, I wear foundation. Yes, I live with a man. Yes, I’m a middle-aged fag. But I know who I am, Val. It took me twenty years to get here, and I’m not gonna let some idiot senator destroy that. Fuck the senator, I don’t give a damn what he thinks.

And the other is after Albert has announced that he is going to the Los Copa cemetery — implying suicide:

My cemetery’s in Key Biscayne. It’s one of the prettiest in the world. The sky is blue, palm trees, rolling hills. The one in Los Copa’s really shit. What a pain in the ass you are. And it’s true: you’re not young, you’re not new, and you do make people laugh. And me? I’m still with you because you make me laugh. So you know what I’ve got to do? I’ve got to sell my plot in Key Biscayne so I can get one next to you in that shithole Los Copa, so I never miss a laugh.

Like all great comedy, The Birdcage is at heart sentimental. If you haven’t seen it in a while (or ever), you should really check it out. And you can also remember Mike Nichols and Robin Williams, who both died this year.

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