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If I Could Believe That

The Birdcage (1996)

Robin Williams and Nathan Lane in THE BIRDCAGE | MGM
MGM

In college I studied comedy, because the dying breaths of liberal arts education allows one to do such a thing, and those who study comedy well—eat their vegetables, drink their milk, and so on—study Elaine May and Mike Nichols. May and Nichols met at the University of Chicago, and subsequently took their relationship to an off-campus improvisational group known as The Compass Players, where they performed until, as the legend goes, they were kicked out for being too good (or left of their own accord). From then on, they were a double act, until, of course, they weren’t. Nichols and May. Or for the sake of this issue, May and Nichols. 

Their talent and ambition led them, as it does for many who pass through the Chicago improv scene, to New York City where in no time—okay, in some time—they were on Broadway. “An Evening With Nichols And May” opened on October 8, 1960 and ran for nearly a year. The show was non-narrative: a collection of unrelated, mostly improvisational scenes. In class, we watched a whole slew of them. There are a handful to be found on YouTube, their quality lacking but their substance fulfilling. The first scene we watched was between a mother and son—May and Nichols, respectively. Not just any son, but a Jewish son, the son of a Jewish mother, and one who has forgotten to call one too many times. “Hello, Arthur,” May begins, feigning cheeriness at first, before the guilt hits like a punch to the gut, “this is your mother. Do you remember me?” The scene is based on an actual conversation Nichols had with his own mother, who once began a call in the same way. Nichols told May about the line right afterwards, and the two of them took it from there.

What follows is a rapid-fire dance of scolding and excuses. It does not matter that the son is a rocket scientist, that he is busy. It matters only that he did not call. And May, whom I loved—her face angular, her brows arched, her eyes squinting and ever-recalculating—digs so fully into Nichols, his face open, doughy, accepting to a fault. “I feel awful,” Nichols says, to which May snaps, “If I could only believe that, I’d be the happiest mother in the world.” By the end, Nichols’ character, so fully depleted that he’s babbling like an infant, believes he is the worst son of all time.

I write all this about May and Nichols, about a comedy sketch I’ve already written about for this very magazine some years ago, because this sketch is essentially what they walked away from in 1961. The pair, at the height of their fame, separated. No big blowup, no scandal. They walked away from each other to pursue other projects and passions. (“We were fools to give it up,” Nichols said in 2013, to which May agreed, “We were.”) But time cannot be undone, what’s past is past, and what matters is that the project that brought them back together some 35 years later was The Birdcage.

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Robin Williams in THE BIRDCAGE | MGM

The Birdcage reunited May and Nichols, not in front of the camera, but behind it. With May penning the script and Nichols directing, the two brought a signature sharpness and warmth to what otherwise might have been just another undersalted American remake of a European film (1978’s La Cage Aux Folles, itself an adaptation of a stage play of the same name). The Birdcage is a classic tale of 20th century culture clash: A gay couple and a straight couple, ideologically opposed, forced to sit down at a table across from one another out of the shared love of their respective children. This felt quietly revolutionary in the late 1970s—sympathetic, let alone funny, portrayals of gay couples were largely unseen at this point in time—and it still felt moderately revolutionary in the mid 1990s.

To watch it now though, more than 20 years after its release, The Birdcage feels both dated and resonant. We still have gay couples. We still have straight couples. Both versions of these look different now than they did back then. As tides turn against both traditional marriage and the traditional family, there continues to be pushback. I think of a well-meaning friend who once told me that the perfect American family is a father, a mother, an older brother, and a younger sister. Not to go all Philosophy 101 on you, but what does that even mean anymore? I’m grateful, then, that movies like The Birdcage (and La Cage aux Folles) exist, if only to bridge the gap between how things were and what things could be.

The plot, as simply as possible: Armand Goldman (Robin Williams—subdued and divine), a night slash drag club owner in South Beach, Florida, and his partner Albert’s (Nathan Lane—hysterical in every sense of the word) college-aged son Val (Dan Futterman—charming enough in a thankless role) springs his sudden engagement to his girlfriend, Barbara (Calista Flockhart—hello!) on his parents, only to later reveal that his fiancé is the daughter of wildly conservative parents, Senator Kevin Keeley (Gene Hackman—I MISS YOU) and his wife Louise (Dianne Wiest—simpering). And they all have to have dinner together! For crying out loud. 

But, this is complicated by a number of things—The Birdcage is a movie after all, and movies are not simple. Not really, not ever. A lie has been told. It starts with one lie, but soon multiplies like rabbits. It becomes essential for the engagement of Val and Barbara that the Goldmans are not the Goldmans. They can’t be Jewish, they can’t be gay. They’re diplomats, can’t you see? Fine, upstanding, morally conscious folks. Even if you haven’t seen it (but what the fuck is wrong with you if you haven’t?), you can probably guess how it all winds up: Albert essentially does a Barbara Bush impression while pretending to be not Val’s other father, but instead, his mother.

Nathan Lane in THE BIRDCAGE | MGM

The whole production of The Birdcage is a rogue’s gallery of people who make movies feel like real fucking movies. If the cast alone—rounded out with Hank Azaria and Christine Baranski—doesn’t speak for itself, it’s worth noting that the film was shot by Emmanuel Lubezki (who shot a number of things you love and admire) and the production design—at one point, Armand eats breakfast while sitting on a bicycle—was done by Bo Welch (who is responsible for the production design in the Tim Burton films you actually enjoy). 

But a script is a script is a script and that’s where The Birdcage jolts to life. The jokes start as early as the opening credits sequence, a long sweeping shot from outside South Beach and into the nightclub (the titular Birdcage), where we watch as Armand observes one of his chefs picking up a piece of chicken that fell onto the floor and placing it back on a plate. His silence is telegraphed beautifully—that, too, can be written.

Later, Albert bickers with Armand, refusing to go on stage, and he cries, “I was adorable once. Young and full of hope. And now, look at me. I’m this short, fat, insecure, middle-aged thing.” Without missing a beat, Armand replies, “I made you short?” and is met with one of Albert’s trademark shrieks. 

What May understands so wonderfully, and here I must credit her longtime friendship with Nichols, is that relationships are largely about a constant transferring of power. No two people are ever really equals. No couples are ever really partners. There’s so often a hope when we take a leap of love that the balance of power will strike evenly in each direction until death do us part, but there’s never a guarantee. Thus, the jokes in The Birdcage aren’t simply clever bits of wordplay, but rather a continual give and take, take and give. This is the May touch—no one ever fully wins an argument; it’s a constant battle to have the last word.

Nathan Lane and Robin Williams | MGM

There’s a scene in The Birdcage that is, to me, the funniest scene in all of American cinema in the 20th century. Around the halfway point of the movie, Armand and Albert make a plan. Armand (a self-proclaimed great director) will guide Albert (an Armand-proclaimed great actor) into a performance as A Man. A Man’s Man. And so, while dining al fresco alongside a pool, Armand gives Albert a food-centric lesson in manhood. This scene, it should be said, is lifted directly from the original, but May and Nichols give it a level of unparalleled playfulness. Every single shriek of Albert’s is not only riotously funny (when people yell, it is almost always funny), but a signifier of pain. He hates this. And when he wails “I pierced the toast”—a line for the ages—it is emitted with the utmost sense of tragedy.

“So what?” Armand says. “The important thing to remember is not to go to pieces when that happens. You have to react like a man. Calmly. You have to say to yourself, ‘Albert, you pierced the toast. So what?’ It’s not the end of your life. Try another one.”

“‘Albert, you pierced the toast. So what?’” Albert mimics back. “All I have to remember is that I can always get more toast.” That the lesson in toast-piercing, in men and material and food, is about excess and access is perfect. May’s crystallization of masculinity is: no matter how many times you fuck up as a man, you will be given endless chances to try again. Apt!

But comedy is a conversation, and before May can run away with the script, Nichols does her one better. Armand and Albert switch from eating to walking. How exactly a man should enter a space. The reference point, also taken directly from the original, is John Wayne.

“Couldn’t we start with someone easier?” Albert protests.

“Come on,” Armand argues, while the camera lingers on Albert, “you’re a big fan.” 

Albert proceeds to give the most elegant eye roll I’ve ever seen committed to film. A fan of John Wayne? Well, maybe. Well, kind of. Well, him? Nichols knows to give the space to Lane. Lane owes nothing to John Wayne, nor does Albert, and to take a second, maybe a millisecond, to mock the legacy of masculinity of one of Hollywood’s most iconic stars is so monumentally funny. I have to laugh!

But May, as always, steals it right back. After Albert butchers the walk, he asks Armand, “No good?”

“That’s not John Wayne, that’s John Wayne’s sister,” is the joke in the original. But Williams instead gives a slow, easy blink. His face is open, warm. “Actually, it’s perfect,” he says softly, before coming down with the hammer: “I just never realized John Wayne walked like that.”

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Hank Azaria, Dan Futterman, and Robin Williams | MGM

To write about the quality of jokes, to make this essay function essentially as a list of punchlines that I adore (and trust me when I say I’m leaving more than half of them out) does The Birdcage a great disservice. Because all of this talk is just a smoke and mirror show. To make the case for something being quote-unquote actually good is redundant, tiresome. We know it’s good. We know it’s funny. So let’s stop beating around the bush and just say what this movie is really about: The Birdcage is a horror film about having the worst son of all time.

I possess no grand bitterness towards Dan Futterman, who is as handsome and charming as he is repulsive, but the character of Val is reprehensible to me. Annoying, perhaps, in 1996, but nearly hateful to watch in 2019. How much he reminds me of so many smarmy heterosexual people, those who claim no issue with homosexuality but just don’t want to see it. Don’t want it quite so visible or in their faces. And sure, we can cite “love.” We can say that all of this is just to get through one night, so he—and everyone else—can move on in the world. But we can also choose not to say that, and instead say that this guy is a fucking asshole.

To watch Val now—in the year 2019, let me remind you, as a queer woman, one constantly grappling nearly every second of the day with whether or not having a family of my own is something I want—breaks my heart, but it also goes one further: it activates my inner Elaine May. (You might have one of these too, if you are lucky; she can be a most valuable resource.) Val, with his big eyes and floppy haircut, claims to feel bad. He feigns guilt as much as any straight white man can. But if he really felt awful? If he really grappled with the monumental selfishness of his request? To quote one of the greats: “I’d be the happiest mother in the world.”

It is good, fundamentally, that The Birdcage is a comedy that’s actually funny, but it soars when its characters are funny on purpose. Just as much as they are surrounded by jokes and the grand irony of being a person in the world, they, too, are capable of making jokes. It is paramount to their survival. I am not here to wax poetic on what comedy “means” and what it “does,” but allow me to offer a vague theory that comedy ought to be 95% coping and 5% people falling down.

Indeed, when the dinner finally begins and Albert is there, wig and all, in front of the Keeleys, the jokes come a mile a minute. “Talk about gays in the military,” Albert crows, after suggesting Alexander the Great had a preference for men. And though everything feels slapstick—Armand drops an ice bucket in sheer terror—make no mistake, this is painful. Where May’s script shines is that she does not “not all Republicans” the Keeleys. Kevin and Louise are snide, pompous. They do believe they are morally superior to most American families. And for Albert to suggest, in the midst of a heated discussion about abortion, that the correct response is to “kill the mothers,” the suggestion feels so barbaric it’s difficult not to laugh. There are spots of brightness—Armand and Louise at the piano together, joined, if briefly, over a love of music. And later, when the nightclub is surrounded by the press and the jig is up, Kevin says—after accusing Barbara of ruining his career with her engagement—that he hopes it does not influence the Goldmans’ votes in the coming election.

“Daddy, I’m sorry,” Barbara says—an extension, no doubt, of Val’s selfishness. “If I could believe that”—well, you know the rest of the quote. It is always those with the most power who are getting apologized to over a sense of decorum. Kevin, drinking and eating candy, a warm compress on his head, reacts to the truth of the Goldmans’ interior life as if though his world is collapsing. It is Albert who saves the day, who offers an olive branch in the form of drag, and disguises the Keeleys in gawdy club attire to sneak them out of the club. No doubt the moment of our beloved Gene Hackman dressed to the nines brings about a sensory pleasure otherwise unseen in motion pictures, but what goes unsaid is the quiet strength of the Goldmans in the back half of the film. They take everything in stride, Armand and Albert. They’re hearty, lion-hearted. In the midst of the spectacle of conflict, they do—above all else—stay united. It’s here I often forget I’m watching a May and Nichols film. I’ve given myself over so fully to this world, its laws, its compassion. The Goldmans’ generosity of spirit, wry smiles in the face of bigotry, is a comfort, a balm. 

It matters, I believe, that though they come together for their children’s wedding in the credits of the film, the Goldmans and the Keeleys are not friends. Perhaps they have some similarities between them––perhaps they share a love of their strange, selfish children, for example—but the Keeleys’ relationship to each other comes nowhere near the intimacy of Albert and Armand. I found myself, on most recent rewatch, thinking five, ten years into the future of my own life. Whether I will settle down with a significant other, what gender that person will be. I think a lot about the word partner in lieu of a gendered titl—–husband, wife, boyfriend, girlfriend. I associate partner with equality (or worse: with John Wayne, and the cowboys of the past). Though it works for some, I have a hard time imagining myself with an equal. What would that relationship look like? The constant negotiation, the push and pull, the magic that makes May and Nichols rise above so many feels essential to me. Maybe all of this is semantics. Useless monologuing about a situation that has not yet come to fruition. What would it mean to build a life with someone, and then try to hide the evidence? I’m not sure I could be brave enough to laugh at it.

“What a pain in the ass you are,” Armand says to Albert before dinner. “You’re not young, and you’re not new, and you do make people laugh. And me? I’m still with you because you make me laugh. So you know what I got to do?” And he explains that he’s moving his burial plot to be next to Albert’s, so he can “never miss a laugh.” Humor is essential to them. They need it to survive, and so they need each other. What Albert and Armand go through in The Birdcage brings them closer to partnership, I’d argue, than to love. It’s about finding the balance in everything—what does it matter as long as each has half? 

They hold hands. The sun sets. They are there, albeit briefly, together.