Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Birdcage


During my morning perusal of 'E 'on line, I found a little news item that has sent my usually serene blood pressure skyrocketing. Miss Margo Channing, that hack actress of years past, granted an interview to some gossip monger announcing her return to the screen as Regina Giddens in the new film Toxy Foxy from Troma studios. Part of the interview read. "They thought about casting that has-been, Vicki Lester, in the part; but she was apparently too busy shilling for useless products and dragging her tired hips around on that pyrotechnically dangerous concert tour of hers." Margo then goes on to say, "...between the arthritis and the incipient Alzheimer's Vicki would never be able to handle the demands of the role...". I have placed a call to my lawyers looking into the possibility of a libel suit and have informed Joseph and Madame Rose that this is war.

I was planning on spending my day furthering the preparations for filming my infomercial, but after reading that, something more relaxing was in order. Therefore, I phoned Mr. Pepper, my personal stylist, and had him squeeze me in for a quick facial, scalp treatment, pedicure, and bikini wax. Off I went to the local branch of Jose Eber. The hair is beginning to grow back after the fire and the burns are all healed up and I should be able to leave the turban behind in another three or four weeks.

Mr. Pepper, like so many of my previous stylists, is 'that way' (if you know what I mean) and the two of us had a simply dishy time cutting Miss Channing down to size. I asked him to recommend a comedy that would make me laugh and he told me to pick up The Birdcage from Best Buy on my way home. I always do what my beautician says, so into the home theater system it went while Norman was busy grinding up his next month's supply of OxyContin and readying the straws.

The Birdcage is a Mike Nichols comedy, a reteaming with his old partner, Elaine May, who wrote the screenplay. It is an Americanization/remake of the French film La Cage Aux Folles that was an international hit in the late 70s and early 80s. Normally, I avoid American remakes of Gallic comedies like the plague as they usually star Steve Guttenberg and have all the humor leached out of them by four successive teams of writers. This one, however, works, as it comes from a single point of view and Nichols and May are in sync with each other, given their long history together.

Armand (Robin Williams) and Albert (Nathan Lane) are a long-term gay couple who own a nightclub in South Beach, Miami which features drag entertainment. The star attraction is Albert's drag persona, Starina. Together, they have raised Armand's son from a brief liaison with Katherine (Christine Baranski). Val, the son (Daniel Futterman), away at college, has fallen in love with and wants to marry Barbara (a pre-Ally McBeal Calista Flockhart). The catch- Barbara's parents (Gene Hackman and Dianne Wiest) are a right wing senator in the Jesse Helms/Trent Lott mold and his Lynne Cheneyesque wife.

Val wants to keep his parents’ lives secret from his prospective in-laws, but when the senator’s political partner expires in a sordid situation, he and his wife decide the best way to divert attention will be a rapid wedding celebrating all the joys of traditional family values and off they head for Miami, thinking that the new in-laws are a Greek cultural attaché and his wife. How will Val hide the fact that he grew up over a gay nightclub and his 'mother' is a professional drag queen? Will his parents deny themselves? Will the senator and his wife find out and forbid the banns? And how are they ever going to disguise the Guatemalan 'house maid' (a hilarious Hank Azaria)? This is a comedy, so things, after many complications, do resolve themselves happily.

Mr. Pepper warned me that many gay men, the ones who march around calling themselves activists and whose too tight Doc Martens have drained them of all sense of humor, find this film offensive. They do not think gay men should be portrayed in a comic light and that Nathan Lane's over the top portrayal of a hysterical female impersonator gives all gay men a bad name. They think all films about gay and lesbian people should be about successful gay doctors and lawyers who are fully integrated into society. They made that film. It was called The Next Best Thing and it marked a low point in the career of all associated with it (and that includes Shanghai Surprise ). Personally, I think everyone should just lighten up a little bit. I don't see why a gay or lesbian character can't be a figure of fun; it's not as if the Jewish community feels a need to protest the types Bette Midler or Woody Allen play or the Black community pickets Martin Lawrence and Eddie Murphy.

The screenplay follows the original fairly faithfully. May didn't find it necessary to 'improve' on the original with a new ending or different plot elements. The Americanization, for the most part works by injecting a lot of topical political humor into the proceedings. The actual references will eventually date but the film will hold up, as bluenoses never change. Some of the gags are in questionable taste and it could have worked as well if Nathan Lane wasn't quite so effeminate, especially in a scene where Robin Williams tries to teach him masculine table manners, but it's straight out of the original.

Nichols has a mixed record as a comedy director. At times, he gets career bests from people ( Working Girl ). At other times, he's execrable ( What Planet Are You From? ). Here, he's assembled a top-notch cast of farceurs with strong material and stays out of the way. There are some trademark moments (The long opening helicopter steadicam shot which goes from the waters of the Atlantic, up the beach, across Ocean Boulevard and into the club in a seamless single take. The extended sequence in which the whole cast gathers for dinner that plays very much like stage drawing room comedy (and with exquisite timing from everyone), but on the whole, there's no unique stamp.

The cast is exceptionally strong. Robin Williams, who can be one of the most annoying of actors, is remarkably restrained, even in scenes that he would usually turn into bathetic nonsense. I'm assuming Nichols kept him on a leash. He only cuts loose once, in a moment where he does a whole history of American stage dance in about thirty seconds, it's inspired. Nathan Lane is suitably over the top. I would have brought him down a notch but I wasn't directing. He does, however, let the humanity of the character shine through, especially in the latter half of the film.
The supporting cast are all gems. Hackman very rarely gets to indulge his flair for comedy. He's the straight man here but so much of his character and the jokes depend on comic timing and he has it down pat. His monologue on scenery is an underplayed delight. Dianne Wiest, who is a fabulous comedienne, matches him trick for trick. Futterman and Flockhart, as the young lovers, were early in their careers when this film was made (1995) and their talent shines, especially in their reaction shots. Hank Azaria is a scream as the maid, a wannabe drag queen who shimmies in hot pants and a red wig to Gloria Estefan. Even Christine Baranski has her moments, and gets to do a wonderful little soft shoe with Robin Williams that made me regret that they weren't doing the musical version. They had the cast for it.

The production design has come up with a pastel dream of South Beach. Bright colors, jet age furniture and decor, throngs of hard bodied extras in thongs rollerblading through the streets - a far cry from the reality of the neighborhood, but gorgeous to imagine. The nightclub has been lit by the Broadway genius, Jules Fisher and is most impressive, nothing like the usual venues of drag shows. I almost got the boogie like the rest of the cast during the 'We are Family' finale.

Pirin tablets. Chilled white wine. Gum snapping. Gratuitous crucifix. Johnny mop conga. Forgotten shrimps. Tabloid reporters. Gratuitous Bob Dole joke. Bridge traffic. Phony cultural attaché. Neon ringed bar trays. Wig slippage. Modest proposals.

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