A little PSA before I start my review of the Birdcage from 1996. In the last couple of weeks, I just moved to New York City, started graduate school and started working at various places. So let’s just say my plate is full right now. I hope to keep posting like usual, but I may need to take some time off from time to time because my load might be too much. This is why you barely heard from me last week. In the next couple of months the blog may be a little sporadic. I apologize in advance.
Robin Williams passed away on August eleventh. This sudden passing was a shock to me as it was to everyone else in the world. Depression is a terrible disease that eats away at your motivation and sense of self. I can completely understand where he was coming from. I just hope that his decision to take his life has helped prevent other people from taking theirs through the dialogue that has taken place surrounding his passing. If you are depressed, please seek help. Even if it is some random person on the internet, like me. Talk to someone. I am here if you need me.
Ha! You just got two PSAs for the price of one.
In order to celebrate Robin Williams great contributions that he gave the world, I watched the Birdcage for the first time since I was young. (Yes, I saw this movie when I was ten or so. My parents saw Robin Williams as an actor that was safe for children to watch. I guess they didn’t really know what this film was about…. Neither did I, but I was obsessed with Hank Azaria’s character for the longest time.) What I found was a great example of Williams’ ability to turn a caricature into a real person.
Armand runs the greatest drag cabaret club in Florida. He does it with the help of his long time partner, Albert. Albert is the star of the show both on and off the stage. He overreact to the smallest things. One night while Albert is on stage, Armand receives a visit from his son. His son, Val, is getting married. Despite his young age, Val is in love with Barbara, who happens to be the daughter of a very conservative Senator. The Senator is involved in a vicious scandal and decides to escape to Florida to get some conservative press time with his daughter’s fiance’s parents, who he believes are ambassadors to Greece. Armand must get Albert out of the house and turn his over the top apartment into a sedated residence before they get there. It proves more difficult than he first imagines.
This movie feels like a filmed version of a Broadway play. There are whole scenes that could have been cut out to save time. Instead we get long inserts of Armand reuniting with Val’s mother and the Senator trying to out run the press with a car. It gets bogged down and drags through most of the middle part. It also feels like the script had been watered down and made safe for middle class audiences to view it without all of their sensibilities getting hurt by their being too much “gayness” in the picture. Yes Albert and Agador (Hank Azaria) are flamboyant but they are the nice, safe kind of flamboyant that never talk about actually having sex with other men (ick!). While there is gay imagery all over, it becomes a caricature of what a real house inhabited by two gay men who were life long partners both romantically and financially would look like. But all of this is forgiven because of the performances.
Robin Williams, Nathan Lane, Hank Azaria (my personal favorite still!), Gene Hackman and Dianne Wiest all turn in magnificent performances. Nathan Lane is perfect as an over the top gay man (I guess because he is one…) and drag queen. Robin Williams lets Lane be over the top and steal the scene from him but is able to take it back with some graceful maneuvers. Watching them together is a wonderful example of how two great actors can share the same screen without killing each other by yelling constantly “look at me!” When Robin Williams puts his mind to it, he is a really great subtle actor. Of course Gene Hackman and Dianne Wiest are perfect as the two uptight conservative parents that get turned around at the end. They are both able to play the stiff upper lip so well that they seemed to have gotten type cast for it. (Thanks in no part to this movie which was wildly successful in 1996) Hank Azaria steals the show every single time he appears. My favorite gag of his is when he can’t properly wear shoes and he tip toes around them as they constantly fall off. While his character could be reduced to a stereotype, Azaria elevates him into great comic relief.
Don’t watch this movie for any nuanced approach to the lives of gay men in modern times. Don’t watch this movie if you are scared of the skeleton that is Clarisa Flockhart (she was in this movie way too much for my taste… eww). Do watch this movie if you want to see great actors elevating mediocre material.