The Birdcage

The Birdcage

29 January 2008

(From an e-mail exchange with a friend. We were apparently comparing Birdcage with its original French version La Cage Aux Folles.)

You thought “The Birdcage” was a better film than the French original?? Mon Dieu! The French film, happily unencumbered by Yankee PC (well, it was still the 70s), allows these characters their dizzy gaiety in all their magnificent flamboyance but still manages to treat them like genuine people. Albin (the one later played by Nathan Lane) may be a total flamer but, as portrayed by the terrific French actor, he had a real personality that earned our sympathy fairly, not just by the fact he was gay. He wasn’t just bitchy, as we saw in his banter with the shopkeepers early on, and he seemed generally caring for his family. This was the character I was most curious about in a US transfer, and this was the one that proved the most disappointing. Also, I guess there was no way that an American filmmaker could keep that hilarious black maid, but it’s emblematic of the fact that the French accept such characters to such a degree that they’re not afraid to make fun of them. The Hispanic maid in the US version was not a bad idea, particularly given the Florida setting, but the original is more outrageous – I still don’t think the US could do this today. The whole show is helped by having the time period in the 1970s, where such a story was very believable; I remember seeing it in my sophomore or junior year at college (1973 or 1974) and marveling that these guys could be on screen at all. Anyway, the director keeps a firm hand on the proceedings from start to finish, refusing to let it fall into a plea for “tolerance”, and my feeling was that it was less a plea for acceptance than just another take on a classic sex farce. Everyone gets laughed at along the way, which seems fair enough.

The American version is off in so many ways. First of all is the setting. You have two guys living in South Beach in the 90s and allowing themselves to be cowed into going straight? They’re collecting tacky Greek statues rather than trendy modern art? Nathan Lane is popular as such a flaky drag queen in a world of Rue Pauls? This is a straight person’s version of a gay world, and a very old one at that. A braver director would have created people instead of going for stereotypes, or at least changed the setting of the show to make that world more likely. And bringing on an ultra-right-wing politician is such a cop-out. It could have been any middle class American family or even many a left-wing family, which would have been less obvious but just as true. As it is, it seems a cartoon rather than real characters: You must hate the homophobic right-wingers, you must love the gay people. Yuk. I was not surprised when Nathan Lane started talking about his dignity, rather than simply portraying the character in a way that demonstrates it. It’s all PC mush.

There are also a lot of very irritating brief shots thrown in for no reason: At the drag show, there are shots of straight audiences, which makes it “safer” but dampens the effect considerably. There’s a distracting shot of the two lovebirds driving in a convertible and talking on their cell phone, a meaningless moment that doesn’t tie in or add to anything. The politician’s wife explains to her befuddled husband after the party that the guys are gay and suggests that they leave. Gay? Couldn’t she at least say faggot or queer or something vaguely offensive? Or just say she’ll explain later, as if it’s too distasteful to mention? We already know they’re gay, so that comment not only adds absolutely nothing to the film but actually distracts from it. Oh, and prior to that, Robin Williams rushes into the kitchen in a panic during the dinner party, gasping that everything is going wrong – something we already know perfectly well, since after all we were there too. It ruins what was a funny moment by overdoing it. In the French version, that character does his best to hold his cool in a rapidly deteriorating situation, which I think is much funnier. We know he’s panicked, so his efforts to maintain a straight face (so to speak) add something different and thus sustain the humor rather than drag it out. When everything unravels at the end, it comes in a bang, as Albin dramatically whips the wig off to the horreur of the bureaucrat. The US version ends in a whimper; that action flies by without the proper dramatic weighting. This is the moment when everything should come together, when, before we know it, we’re instantly hit by the realization that Albin truly is the real “mother”. The US version rushes through that great moment without actually understanding it, too eager to get to the next cheap laugh. It badly flunks the test.

That’s not to say that the French film is perfect: it has a big flaw right at its heart with the treatment of the son and his fiancée. They were basically there to trigger the plot, then virtually disappeared (even when they were still on screen). The original play version handles that better – not the bumbling musical, which makes it even worse by actually giving the kid a song. The American film inherited that weakness. I had been hoping for an improvement in the remake, but that hope was dashed pretty quickly.

The one good point in The Birdcage is the acting. Robin Williams does a great job in a nicely restrained performance (until that party), I love Dianne Wiest as always, and Hank Azaria is properly over the top. (Christine Baranski was sadly underused as the biological mother.) On the other hand, Nathan Lane, usually one of my favorites, is not up to par here and is a key reason that the couple never feels genuine. His French counterpart managed to be impossibly campy but still grounded in reality, and his self-outing at the end is a fantastic moment, perfectly in tune with the farce without being preachy or moralistic in the least. Nathan is good at the ranting and screaming, but he doesn’t too sincere very well. Since that role is the lynchpin of the show, his failings are damaging. But the one actor that I did think equal to the original was Gene Hackman. He was pretty much perfect, and I can only wish that his role was written in a way that matched his talents. The scene at the apartment between him and Robin Williams was far and away the best thing in the movie and certainly equal to its equivalent in the original; if the rest of the film could have stayed at that level, they would have had a “Tootsie”. Instead, they don’t even have a “Birdcage” – just the lining.

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