I Pierced the Toast!

I recently re-watched one of my favorite movies of all time, Mike Nichol's 1996 film of the longtime stage staple, The Birdcage.  It's quick and witty and clever and feels very modern, despite being rooted heavily in its French farce origins. It feels like watching a louder, longer episode of Frasier. The gags are basic, the script is perfect, the cast is brilliant. Dropping Nathan Lane's outrageous, oversized personality into a room of straight-men (pun!) just works. 

The plot, for those of you who haven't had the pleasure, is that the son of two South Beach Miami gays (one is a drag club owner, the other is the drag star) decides to marry the daughter of a moral majority Republican Senator from Ohio. And it's time for the parents to meet.  It's like Guess Who's Coming To Dinner, but sillier and louder and gayer.

Maybe it's so funny because everyone plays it like a drama (at the direction of the magnificent Mike Nichols, who pulled moments of the same naive, deadpan humor out of Benjamin Braddock).  My old acting teacher always directed us to "play the opposite:" drunk people don't try to be drunk, she said, they look drunk because they are trying so hard to be sober. When overcome by emotion, people don't try to cry, they try NOT to cry. The more someone feels, the harder he has to work to hold it back that's where acting comes in. So maybe The Birdcage is so sidesplitting because everyone in it takes it so seriously.

Or maybe it's just really funny to see men in lady wigs. Here's a clip from my favorite scene in the movie, and one of the funniest in movie history. It's brilliant physical comedy the really rare, wonderful kind that's subtle and exaggerated at the same time.  Apparently, Nichols agreed: legend says the director laughed so hard during the filming of this scene he had to be covered with a blanket. And the last line is one of the most perfect punchlines in movie history.

Robin Williams teaching Nathan Lane, his longtime gay partner and star of his drag show, how to act like a straight man: 

If you like that, watch the whole "act like a man" scene here. Immediately. This post and clip only scratches the surface of this perfect movie: there's also a largely-naked Hank Azaria as the Guatemalan pool boy, the epic Gene Hackman as the delightfully stilted, mid-scandal conservative Senator, and the understated Diane Weist as the perfect, much-ignored Senator's wife.

Once called, "the first movie about gay people that isn’t a tragedy," there has been some discussion about whether the film accomplished something positive for LGBT culture, or whether it reinforced negative stereotypes and binary gender roles (even within the gay relationships: Robin William's Armand is a "man's man" to Nathan Lane's effeminate portrayal of Albert.) However, even its critics agree that The Birdcage displays a deep humanity: it imparts layers and tenderness to its characters and relationships of all orientations, and "display[s] perfectly, and not quite like any other movie before or after it, is the burden of performing normativity." Ultimately, I agree very much with Tyler Coates, who concludes:
The Birdcage is one of the most radical Hollywood depictions about gay men in particular, because it offers both diversity and humanity while accomplishing an even more difficult feat: it’s funny as hell.

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June 20, 2010 at 9:48 PM delete

Can't wait till the remake with me, Jason Perlman, and you as Gene Hackman.


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