The world is idle and pastel pink. But Albert is aflame.
He sits, waiting, at a bus stop. You’re not really sure for what—a bus, allegedly; Armond’s attention after their fight, more likely—but you know Albert will do it resolutely. There’s a giant tanker floating behind Albert; surely he notices. You notice everything when you’re sitting at a bus stop, tears burning in the corner of your eyes, waiting to be taken away from this pain shadowing you. That’s why he notices the Thunderbird pulling up, and turns his gaze away.
Albert scoots, in order to accomodate Armond on the bench. Armond can be here, if he likes—it’s a free country—but that doesn’t mean Albert has to forgive Armond just for coming back—it’s a free country. After all, Armond had spent all day lying about the in-laws, colluding with Val to cut Albert out, and canoodling with his mother. It’s the kind of betrayal that throws you into a dark hole and takes away every chance to claw your way out. So he’s leaving.
Albert’s ready to yell, or at least to tensely hear out an apology. But what happens next surprises him.
That’s the magic of Robin Williams.
I don’t have to explain the soothing blanket that is Robin Williams. Though some will point to Hook or Jumanji as the thing that first endeared them to Williams’ heartfelt comedy, I can’t remember not knowing him. Growing up he was a funny, brunette dude who I could easily meld with the image of my own father. He was a constant, popping up in movies that seemed to always be on, even when they weren’t touchstones in the house.
It wasn’t until much later that I heard he suffered from depression. Of course he does, I remember thinking. All us funny folk do.
And it wasn’t until well after that when I found myself chilled on a warm summer day by the news of his death. I remember it was glaring and hot that day, but mostly I just remember feeling defeated in a way I hadn’t in a long time.
I don’t remember how many days later it was, but I do remember there was an online outpouring of sentiment, and on streaming services, of his catalogue—truly, a blessing.
My mom suggested The Birdcage and I agreed, not sure if I was up for something unfamiliar that night, but deciding I wanted the kind of comfort that only Williams could provide, a comfort I hadn’t really thought through until I was knocked askew by the tragic news. The movie seemed to be fitting for the mood: a farce about a gay couple, struggling to make their home ready to greet their soon-to-be in-laws, one half of whom is a conservative senator. It was all comical and simple, fun and games, until Armond sat down on that bench and Robin Williams did his thing.
What happened next won’t surprise you.
“My cemetery’s in Key Biscayne. It’s one of the prettiest in the world. Lovely trees, sky’s blue. There’re birds. The one in Los Copa’s really shit.”
That’s not the line Albert expected to hear. It briefly blows through his concentrated effort to not dignify Armond with a look, and he partially turns towards him momentarily.
People often ask how to help a depressed person, and the only thing I can say across the board is: tell us the truth in the way we don’t expect. When you’re at your lowest, in your darkest moments, the simplest startle can pierce all the way down to where you are.
How do you deliver a line like that without breaking the hold of the scene? Mike Nichols knows how to hold a shot—ever, ever so gently pushing in on the two of them, the camera thawing with the confused patience of Albert’s anger. The tanker continues passing through. A family with fishing poles wanders past. The whole bus stop feels dreamy, almost otherworldly and (I know, I know) softly Lynchian, with a Miami palette.
But it’s Robin Williams who provides the lullaby.
Known for his rapid-fire, vivid, gut-busting comedic chops, it’s still almost cliche to say Williams was underrated in his serious performances. But it wasn’t because he had depression. Mental illness didn’t make him a genius. Your art is not worth your sanity; you can’t credit a pathology for a human’s brilliance. It’s a bizarre ouroboros, wherein depression is inexplicably tied to you but doesn’t define you, all the while affecting and molding who you become.
There are days when you do not feel strong, and it’s depression’s fault. And there are days when it’s not. But happiness comes, one way or another. Often in the strangest ways.
Williams was prolific and wide-reaching in his work, and The Birdcage is no exception. He finds a gentle truth in being the “straight man” of the pair. We’ve seen his Armond reign Albert in over and over again with quick, droll comments, but now he needs to do more than make amends—he needs to make Albert fall in love with him.
That’s not always easy to do with a volatile partner. In scenes like this, which put Williams’ comedy stylings in a straight-jacket, Armond has to pick up the pieces and show the audience what he’s made of. And, softly, he connects.
It’s quiet in my living room. It’s not something I expected to find so soon after the news. In hindsight, it’s amazing that depression can pin you so quickly that you just accept it was always like that. In the moment it’s terrifying.
I felt so thrown; I had already seen my therapist guy, who told me that he had gotten a lot of people like me. People who encounter heavy moments behind the light laughter in pleasant company; people suddenly worried that they never had that infectious charm, so what if they’re not strong enough, either. Robin Williams’ death had sent us all spiraling a little, many of us falling prey to the insidious whispers and anxiety spells that depression so often wreaks.
It’s odd the people you can touch.
The truth I know about depression, and those who are battling it, is that it responds to the strangest things. Depression lies heavy on your heart, ensnaring it until you can no longer remember what things were like without it; a particularly perverse rendition of Plato’s Parable of the Cave.
Depression loves reality. It knows how hard it can be to suss out the real from the fake, the concocted from the evident. So it perks up its ears when it hears a truth, ready to strike like a snake and twist it all around before you can use it to pull yourself up.
But it often can’t reach the surprising things; the ones that would never, could never have originated from your own brain. It’s the reason depression often presents as anger; we want our person to fight for us, to bring us close in a way we can’t do for ourselves, and remind us that there will be a day when we can do this for ourselves. Our inner self-talk is exhausted. But other people can whack through depression, like a hot knife through butter—or a tanker through a pensive, Miami day.
That’s how to reach us. By reaching out, and giving it the verbal left hook. What happens next might surprise us.
“What a pain in the ass you are. It’s true, you’re not young. And you’re not new. And you do make people laugh. And me? I’m still with you because you still make me laugh. So you know what I gotta do? I gotta sell my plot in Key Biscayne so I can get one in that shithole Los Copa, so I never miss a laugh.”
A perfect line.
Albert wasn’t expecting this. And just like that, the cloud of venom in his chest is gone, replaced with a few butterflies.
“Read it,” Armond says, calm and assuring.
“I don’t understand.”
“What’s so difficult? It’s the palimony agreement. I told you I had it.”
“…it says, I have the right to give you half of everything I own.”
“Well I thought it’d be safer if something happens to one of us.”
Albert never saw this coming. In all the ways he ever imagined or dreamed of Armond coming for him, he never thought he would be able to literally pass that promise between them.
These are the kinds of things depression can’t anticipate. It turns out it’s not a very good opponent, just a bully. And when someone is with you, it becomes all bark and no bite. Which is why people advise you to pull it into the light—you never know what cracks you’ll finally be able to see.
“Well who owns it now?” he sputters.
We are suddenly much closer to the pair than when we started. Nichols wants us to see their faces, to know the years of love that have built to this moment.
Nathan Lane finds the perfect mixture of bewilderment; there’s a lot swirling in Albert’s head, things he never knew Armond was doing. Things he never heard Armond say.
It’s a new conversation, but it’s a delicate one, and Nichols knows this. This won’t be the last time Albert overreacts, and it won’t be the last time Armond reels him in. But it’s a step. A quiet, major step in the direction of firm, physical truths. Commitment you can hold in your hand. A vow you can cradle to your heart.
But you need the right words to sell it. You need the words that will surprise you.
“What does it matter? Take it all! I’m 50 years old, there’s only one place in the world I call home, and it’s because you’re there. So take it. What difference does it make if I say you can stay or you say I can stay. It’s ours.”
We’re a medium distance away again. Slightly askew. Armond reaches for Albert’s hand. Albert reaches back. Armond sighs. Albert sighs too.
I think of this scene often. I count it among the more beautiful things in life. I consider it among Robin Williams’ greatest scenes, and by at least one Youtube video’s count, at least 81,000 people tacitly agree with me.
There’s moments like this in every Robin Williams film. He can tell a fairy tale, share a memory, or sign a legal document, and the whole world sighs, too. That was just him. He betrayed something kind about the world; effortlessly showing what it was like to care for a partner whose temperaments are unpredictable and sometimes feel at the whims of the world. For three minutes, he helps The Birdcage float down from whatever heightened reality it exists in to meet our own; he bridges the gap between Albert and Armond with a soft, sweet surprise.
And in those moments it really does feel that simple: It’s a corn kernel under the fridge, or the freckle you just discovered that feels like your own little lighthouse. The joke in the movie you forgot existed. The crack up you couldn’t imagine. It’s starry nights and pastel summer days.
It’s that shithole Los Copa, where you never miss a laugh.