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Saturday, 3 December 2016

Retro Movie Review: The Birdcage (1996) #RobinWilliams

The Birdcage
Cast: Robin Williams, Nathan Lane, Gene Hackman, Dianne Wiest, Hank Azaria, Calista Flockhart, Dan Flutterman 
Genre: Comedy
Worldwide Box Office Gross: over $185 million 

Trivia: Steve Martin was originally cast as Armand with Robin Williams as his partner, Albert, but scheduling conflicts meant that Martin dropped out of the role & Williams was recast as Armand

Plot: In this remake of the classic French farce ''La Cage Aux Folles'', engaged couple Val Goldman and Barbara introduce their future in-laws. Val's father, Armand, a gay Miami drag club owner, pretends to be straight & attempts to hide his relationship with Albert, his life partner and the club's flamboyant star attraction, so as to please Barbara's father, controversial Republican Sen. Kevin Keeley 

'Comedy Farce Spearheaded By Robin Williams & Show Stealer Nathan Lane'

Audiences in America, Britain and Australia flocked in their droves to the cinemas for this remake of the French comedy, ''La Cage Aux Folles'', during the year of 1996 and for Robin Williams, this was his follow-up to Jack, which was another box office smash for him, despite the mixed reviews it had received. In contrast, though it is yet another comedy movie for Robin, The Birdcage was in many respects different to his previous comedies that came before it.

Two reasons for this being 1) he plays a homosexual character and 2) this is (probably) the only comedy film where Robin plays the straight man, - and I don't mean it from a sexual orientation sense, but from a movie tropes sense, as in straight man/wise guy where the straight man is essentially the serious character or the one person who approaches everything in the movie, hastily and the wise guy exists to be outright funny and hilarious throughout. Armand Goldman is the straight man in comparison to Adrian Cronauer (Good Morning, Vietnam), Mrs Doubtfire, Dale Putley (Fathers' Day), and even Aladdin's Genie and Mork from Mork & Mindy: Robin Williams'a other characters who are all essentially the wise guys and goofy and act over-the-top in their humour.

Therefore, it made a change to see Robin Williams here being toned down as club owner Armand, and that in itself softens this film but not in the way that cheapens it or tarnishes it further, thus, allowing Nathan Lane to take centre stage and to let him dominate proceedings - this of which he succeeds. Yet by allowing Nathan to practically go all crazy and be outrageously funny, Robin, as much as he underplays his character - Armand is still an integral part of the plot. He still acts as the focal point of this film yet all of the craziness, wackiness, silliness and the comedy stems from his other supporting characters, Albert and Agador. Yet if there is one disadvantage with this itself, but for the dance rehearsal scene in The Birdcage, it is that Robin Williams's improvisational comedy, which has been the major selling point in many of his other comedy movies, has been slightly missed in this feature. It needs more of it; that and that this should have been the type of film that warranted it. Another thing that bothered me is how it hadn't occurred to me up until now how cruel and rude Armand he can come across and can be, especially his treatment towards Agador. Some of the remarks he made towards him were rather unpleasant and not nice.

When Armand and Albert's son, Val tells Armand of his impending marriage to his girlfriend and convinces them to pretend to be straight in front of his girlfriend's parents: one of them being an ultra-conservative senator played by Gene Hackman, events take an amusing and at times, unbelievable turn. It's up to Armand, along with Albert to make sure they do all they can to pass the grade and to make their son happy - even if it means by pretending they are something or someone that they are clearly and evidently are not. There are a few other notable characters that come into play, not least so the biological mother of Val's -who had a relationship with Armand. Yet despite her feelings towards him and Albert, she is also willing to help.

What I like about the film is the comedy and the manner of which this all unfolds: though it is flamboyant and at times over-the-top, it never goes overboard and becomes too wacky that it makes The Birdcage become so ludicrous and embarrassing. Even for a comedy that is labelled as a gay/lesbian film, because of its commercial approach, it makes it more accessible for general audiences as well. For all of the general wackiness that goes on, there is also a subtlety to this film that is so enjoyable that underpins it and that is through the cultural and class differences between the two parents of the bride and groom. The dinner table scene is so farcical - yet conjures up 1 or 2 hilarious scenes and amusing quips from Armand and Albert.

The Birdcage was one of two American remakes of French comedies starring Robin Williams: the other being Fathers' Day, based on the original 1980s Gerard Depardieu vehicle, Les Comperes, which was released the year after this film. & though both vary and differ accordingly to plotting, themes, storyline, characters etc, The Birdcage did better financially and commercially for Robin Williams, because it was marketed better, - whereas the marketing for Fathers' Day was derisory.

Not to be outdone by Robin Williams, who is arguably the headline maker of this movie, it is indeed Nathan Lane as Armand Goldman's partner who truly revels in his role as the even more flamboyant Albert, in this culture clash of a comedy farce. He's funny, his reactions and tantrums are so exaggerated yet amusing to see, his bickering with Armand is delightful - yet camp to the core. Oh and I share the same birth date as Nathan in real life: February 3rd to be more exact, which for me is pretty cool. But indeed, it is Nathan who is the true star of this movie ahead of Robin, whose comedic turn in this movie is, surprisingly restrained, which is typically unheard of for a comedy starring Robin Williams as one expects him to be more outrageous and silly. The Birdcage is certainly that, but its silly exploits mostly come courtesy of Nathan, rather than from Robin. 

The rest of the supporting line-up, but for Calista Flockhart & Dan Futterman as the stuck-up son of Albert's and Armand, Val, who brings this film down a bit, are wonderful too. Val is a douchebag and a dud as a character, compared to his parents, who feel somewhat ashamed of his parents' sexuality, well, in wanting them to cover it up to impress his girlfriend's conservative parents. The usually staid Gene Hackman turns in a rare comedic turn, although the real highlight is seeing him in drag with the rest of the other drag queens! Dianne Wiest excels as the stuffy wife, as is Hank Azaria is offbeat and quirky as Agador, and arguably the most attractive looking character in the entire movie! He's like the camp version of Manuel in Fawlty Towers. It is also probably worth noting that the performances are what elevates this film and the material that with a completely different cast, The Birdcage would not have garnered the same reaction and reception as it did; and so for that alone, the casting was key to its success and Mike Nichols and the casting director did a great job luring Robin Williams, Gene Hackman and Nathan Lane especially. Although I still wished Armand was a tad nicer and pleasant than the character portrayed onscreen.

Much like with 1993's Mrs Doubtfire, The Birdcage shares one other thing: deception and lying and pretending to be something they are not to impress other people, whilst putting on a mask & hiding underneath it. 

Yet beneath all the farce, wacky shenanigans, the colourful glittery and sequined outfits, lies warmth, sincerity, honesty and a human quality that Mike Nichols has successfully tapped into and exuded throughout. The message about tolerance and accepting and treating people with courtesy, respect and kindness, no matter what their sexuality is, is conveyed in such a way that doesn't come across on-screen as preachy and mawkish. I think it is more satirical, as opposed to being blunt. I mean, perhaps some of the characters, such as Agador could be construed as stereotypes of gay characters - yet it's not done deliberately to offend, rather than to highlight their existence, even if it is fictional, it is not to say that that type of lifestyle doesn't exist in real life. 


Pros +

- Wonderful performances throughout

- Nathan Lane's outrageous turn as Albert 

- Well written and conceived 

- Humour and comedy is never too over-the-top that it makes the film embarrassing

- Highly and consistently entertaining and watchable 


- Not enough of Robin Williams's improvisational humour & Armand is not always nice

- The senator's daughter and Val and Armand's son, who I liked the least 

- Apparently, some scenes were cut and removed from the actual movie that appears in one of the DVDs

Final Verdict: 

The Birdcage's primary intentions were to entertain and for that alone, it does so by retaining the heart and feel of the original movie, La Cage Aux Folles.

Though it is still one of Robin Williams's successful efforts, one could say he is overshadowed & outshined by Nathan Lane's, rip-roaring surge as Armand's long-suffering, transvestite wife/hubby. To say that this is a gay film and that only gay people will get more out of it is like saying only African-American and Black audiences will take to Boyz N Da Hood and less so with Whites, Asians, Hispanics. Wrong - it is a comedy that deals with love, acceptance and tolerance and it does so in a non-patronising way. 

Everyone should see and watch The Birdcage; not just because it is a film that tackles these themes, but it is also because it is so darn and entertaining, watchable and funny. & as Robin Williams and, but moreso, Nathan Lane, are so marvellous in it. 

This movie is c'est Magnifique!


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