Friday, March 18, 2016
Based on the 1978 film La Cage aux Folles by Edouard Molinaro that was based on the play by Jean Poiret and Francis Verber, The Birdcage is the story of a gay nightclub owner and his partner who both pretend to be straight in meeting the family of their son’s fiancee whose father is an ultra-conservative Senator caught up in a scandal that he’s not involved in. Directed by Mike Nichols and screenplay by Elaine May, the film marks a twenty-five year reunion between Nichols and May who were a famous comedy duo in the late 50s as they explore two gay men struggling with meeting a man who might not approve of their lifestyle. Starring Robin Williams, Gene Hackman, Nathan Lane, Dianne Wiest, Dan Futterman, Calista Flockhart, Hank Azaria, Tom McGowan, Grant Heslov, and Christine Baranski. The Birdcage is a dazzling and witty film from Mike Nichols.
The film revolves around an openly gay couple in a nightclub owner and his partner who is the star of the show where they learn that their son is going to marry the daughter of a powerful, ultra-conservative senator who is embroiled in a scandal that involved the death of a colleague. When the son learns that his fiancee’s family wants to meet them, trouble brews forcing Armand Goldman (Robin Williams) to pretend to be straight as well as trying to get his partner in the effeminate Albert (Nathan Lane) to act straight so that they would make a good impression for Senator Kevin Keeley (Gene Hackman). Along the way, hilarity ensues which leads to a crazy night of confusion, chaos, and amazement while Keeley is trying to shield himself from the press.
Elaine May’s screenplay isn’t just filled with some funny dialogue and situations that add so much to the chaotic tone of the story. It’s also in the fact that Armand and Albert are portrayed as a loving couple that has been through ups-and-downs where Armand is a man that organize things as well as be the one to direct Albert for a performance. Albert is the maternal figure who deeply cares for Armand’s son Val (Dan Futterman) though Val’s real mother in Katherine Archer (Christine Baranski) had never seen her son until she is later asked by Armand to aid them in dealing with the Keeleys. Though Senator Keeley and his wife Louise (Dianne Wiest) aren’t bad people as the latter is the more sensible of the two, the senator is overwhelmed by the fact that one of his colleagues who had helped found this moral coalition was found dead with an underage, African-American prostitute.
When it is time for the two families to meet that would include Val’s fiancee Barbara (Calista Flockhart), it is one of the most tense moments in the film as it relates to what role Albert would play despite the many attempts to include him or to have him act straight. It plays into the fact that he is sort of a liability as Val doesn’t want to see him get chewed on for who he is but it also showcases that he really does underestimate exactly what kind of man Albert is. Especially where he pulls a surprising stunt that makes Armand and Val extremely nervous while displaying some revelations of his own in how views things into the world that would even amaze someone as conservative as Senator Keeley. All of which showcases that despite these lifestyle differences that both gays and straights can share similar views. Then there’s the subplot as it relates to Keeley being hounded by a tabloid reporter Harry Radman (Tom McGowan) who is eager to make Keeley’s life a living hell though Keeley isn’t doing anything wrong or scandalous but it does play into the viciousness of the American press who are more interested in headlines rather than the truth.
Mike Nichols’ direction is definitely exquisite for not just capturing that sense of intimacy and realness to the life of a gay couple but also in finding the humor of the situations Albert and Armand have to go through. Shot largely on location in Miami, notably the South Beach section of the city and some shots in California as part of the American Northeast, the film does have this sense of vibrancy that play into who Armand and Albert are as well as a world that is very in tune with the times as it is something that Senator Keeley would have a hard time understanding. While Nichols would create some unique compositions including medium shots and close-ups to play up the intimacy and interaction between multiple characters to showcase some similarities on the concept of family values. He also uses some wide shots to play into the world of South Beach but also in a key scene where Armand and Albert are on a bench together which then cuts to a medium shot as it play more into the idea of why they’re meant for each other.
Nichols’ approach to humor is definitely lively in the way it just camps up the element of gay stereotypes as well as make fun of tabloid media in how ruthless they are in getting the story. There are also these moments that are just naturally funny in a scene where Armand is directing a performance that Albert is planning to do along with the scene where Albert tries to walk straight. By the time the film reaches its third act where the Goldmans meet the Keeleys, there is that sense of tension and uncertainty that looms until Albert makes an appearance in only a way that he can make an appearance. It is as if Nichols decides to cut that unease and let things become funny and natural all over again though there is still that sense of danger of how it could go wrong as well as what is happening outside of the home that would lead to one of the most hilarious payoffs in film. Overall, Nichols creates a dazzling, touching, and extremely funny film about a gay couple pretending to be straight for an ultra-conservative Senator.
Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki does incredible work with the film‘s very lush and colorful cinematography with the vibrant look of Miami and South Beach in its exteriors to the usage of low-key lighting schemes for some of its interiors in the day as well as some stylish lighting for the scenes inside the club. Editor Arthur Schmidt does excellent work with the editing as it is largely straightforward to play into some of the humor as well as the film‘s climax with the families meeting each other. Production designer Bo Welch, with set decorator Cheryl Carasik and art director Tom Duffield, does amazing work with the look of the nightclub that Armand runs as well as the home that is next to the club that is quite stylish while the look of it when it is being changed is quite rich in its humor. Costume designer Ann Roth does fantastic work with the costumes from the stylish costumes that Albert wears in his performances to the colorful clothes of Armand and Albert to the more conservative clothes of the Keeleys.
Hair/makeup designers J. Roy Helland and Peter Owen do nice work with the wigs that Albert would wear as well as some of the makeup he sports for his performances onstage. Sound editor Ron Bachar does superb work with the sound to play into the atmosphere in the clubs as well as a few moments in the background during the tense meeting between the Goldmans and the Keeleys. The film’s music by Stephen Sondheim is brilliant for its mixture of show tunes, Latin-based music, and a few orchestral pieces to play into the different tones and landscape of the locations while music supervisor Steve Goldstein would maintain that mixture of styles of music featuring not just show tunes but also contemporary music from Sister Sledge and Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine.
The casting by Ellen Lewis and Juliet Taylor are phenomenal as it features some notable appearances from Kirby Mitchell as the Keeleys’ chauffer who will reveal anything to the press for money, Grant Heslov as a photographer for the National Enquirer, and Tom McGowan in a terrific role as the opportunistic tabloid journalist Harry Radman. Christine Baranski is wonderful as Val’s biological mother Katherine who was a former lover of Armand as she agrees to help them while admitting she still has some feelings for Armand. Hank Azaria is hilarious as Armand and Albert’s housekeeper Agador Spartacus who always wear very little clothing while his attempts to act like a straight butler are just a riot. Calista Flockhart is fantastic as Barbara Keeley as Val’s fiancee who is trying to protect Val and his family by lying to her parents in who they are where she realized that she and Val just only caused more trouble. Dan Futterman is excellent as Val as 20-year old man who is in love and wants to marry Barbara but becomes worried about what Barbara’s father would think of the two men who raised him as he copes with the chaos of what his father is trying to do to help.
Dianne Wiest is amazing as Barbara’s mother Louise as the most sensible one in the family who believes that Barbara’s wedding to Val would help her husband while being unaware of the truth of who Val’s family are. Gene Hackman is incredible as Senator Kevin Keeley as an ultraconservative political leader overwhelmed by scandal as he ponders what good will come of this union between Barbara and Val where Hackman would have some funny moments later in the film. Nathan Lane is brilliant as Albert Goldman as an effeminate performer who is really Val’s mother as he copes with what is going on while trying to act straight and such only to come with a plan of his own that is just hilarious. Finally, there’s Robin Williams in a remarkable performance as Armand Goldman as a club owner/performance director who does whatever he can to help his son as well as his partner Albert as Williams largely plays it straight while displaying some great comedic timing in a scene where he is directing Albert as well as some moments in the way he reacts to Albert’s stunt at the dinner meeting with the Keeleys.
The Birdcage is a magnificent film from Mike Nichols that features great performances from Robin Williams, Nathan Lane, Gene Hackman, and Dianne Wiest. It’s a film that isn’t just one of the funniest and most engaging stories about gay-and-lesbian relationships but also displaying how to different views can meet and find some common ground. Especially as it is told with such wit by screenwriter Elaine May and presented with such beauty by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. In the end, The Birdcage is a spectacular film from Mike Nichols.
Related: La Cage aux Folles
Mike Nichols Films: (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) - (The Graduate) - (Catch-22) - Carnal Knowledge - (The Day of the Dolphin) - (The Fortune) - (Gilda Live) - (Silkwood) - (Heartburn) - (Biloxi Blues) - Working Girl - Postcards from the Edge - (Regarding Henry) - (Wolf (1994 film)) - (Primary Colors) - (What Planet Are You From?) - (Wit) - (Angels in America) - Closer - (Charlie Wilson’s War)
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