Welcome to “Friday Favorites” which highlight some of my favorite movie-related things.
The Birdcage is, for my money, a perfect movie. I’ve seen it dozens of times and it has lost none of its wit, heart or humor. I watch it fairly often on DVD, and I can’t pass it over when I see it on TV (truly, the sign of a great movie). I could easily pick half a dozen scenes and lines as favorites (John Wayne, “It’s ASPIRIN with the A and the S scraped off,” the soup bowls, “Why you gotta be such a bitch to everybody?”), but for me there’s no scene better or more representative of The Birdcage than this one:
The highlight of the scene is Robin Williams’ brilliant improvisational “eclectic celebration of a dance” ending with “but you keep it all inside.” The scene, however, is full of brilliant moments. Nathan Lane’s comeback, “Sweetie, you’re wasting your gum,” could not be funnier, especially when coupled with his later advice, “Try more gum!”
The Birdcage is, of course, a remake of La Cage aux Folles, and was very progressive in 1996 when it came out. It’s a bit of a shame that it’s been 17 years and gay characters are still largely being played as jokes and stereotypes. Armand and Albert are allowed to be funny without ever being the butt of a joke. They’re funny because they’re funny, not because they’re gay. If, after all these years, we’re still having to hold The Birdcage up as a model for gay film characters, then something is very wrong.
Of course, in addition to being a pioneer in the depiction of gay characters (in a comedy), The Birdcage also benefits from teaming up the perfect cast and director. I can’t imagine anyone other than Mike Nichols (The Graduate) directing it, and the choice to have Robin Williams play the less flamboyant character (against type) was genius, as was the casting of Nathan Lane. But the film is more than just a funny, cross-dressing comedy. It’s a heartfelt story of “non-traditional” families and the love that they share, while confronting prejudices on a personal and a political level.
But as much as I love the film’s politics (I can understand having relatives like the Keeleys), I come back for the characters. The way Armand and Albert play off each other, like the old married couple they’re not allowed to be, is so fun to watch. When Armand tells Albert, “Let me handle this,” you can imagine how many times they’ve been through this over the years. And the later scene when he gives half of the club to Albert, it’s like the culmination of a lifetime of love, and it couldn’t be more romantic.
But I’m getting away from the scene. This is the scene I keep coming back to, that I have to watch through when I find it on TV, or am disappointed to have missed. It’s two comedians at the top of their game, allowed to improvise by a director who understands film and comedy on a level beyond most of us. It makes me want to do an eclectic celebration of dance, but I mostly just keep it all inside. Or, sometimes, I guess I blog about it.
What do you think? Do you have a favorite scene or line from The Birdcage? (“Fuck the shrimp!” perhaps? Or “I never wear shoes, because they make me fall down”?) Isn’t it sad that it still feels so unique after 17 years and a drastic shift in American politics? Let me know in the comments!