THE BIRDCAGE (1996) ***
The milking of the cash-cow through remakes and sequels is common in the world's film industry but nowhere as frequent as in US cinema. Hollywood, first and foremost re-does its own movies. In second position,far outdistancing the rest of foreign sources, comes a long list of American versions of French movies.
It is axiomatic that, with rare exceptions, remakes and sequels are artistically far inferior to the originals. Box-office profits can be high, however.
This said, "The Birdcage" does a good job of Americanizing and updating "La Cage aux Folles," and following the original's plot almost step-by-step, down to details.
In both movies a longtime gay couple run a gay nightclub,respectively in St. Tropez ("La Cage") and in Miami's South Beach ("The Birdcage").
The American pair are Armand (Robin Williams) who owns and runs the club, and drag queen Albert(Nathan Lane), its star performer. An unexpected big rock disturbs the peace of the high-pitched but essentially contented pond when 20-year old Val--Armand's accidental (and straight) son from his one and only sexual experience with a woman,--announces that he will marry 18-year old Barbara. It happens that she is the daughter of Senator Keeley (Gene Hackman), R-Ohio, the very rightist co-founder and Vice-Chairman of the Coalition for Moral Order.
The Senator is running for re-election. Suddenly he is all over the media. His sidekick Senator Jackson, the Coalition's President and other founder, has dropped dead in the bed of an underage black prostitute. "Black!" exclaims Senator Keeley, as this were the straw that broke the camel's back.
(For the French viewers of "La Cage" it was a clear reference to the notorious case of a President of the French Republic. In 1899, Felix Faure suddenly died in his bed while exerting himself with a habitual guest, an upper-level courtesan. To make matters worse, the bed was at the Elysee Palace, the Presidential residence. The scandal, fanned by politicians, had major repercussions--but this did not prevent a major street of Paris and a Metro station to be named after Mr. Faure).
Fleeing the press, Mr., Mrs. (Dianne Wiest) and Miss Keeley drive to Florida to meet the family of Val, whose father is vaguely described by Barbara as "a cultural attaché. "
Val is the apple of the couple's eyes. He loves his father and his "mother"(Albert) and is totally at ease with their homosexuality and lifestyles. But the senatorial visit calls for drastic measures, for an impossible job of camouflaging the gays as straights. The deceits become the center of the movie, complete with mascarades, confusions, double-entendres, gags, jokes, and quid pro quos.
"The Birdcage" is a funny film. It opens cleverly with a long, swooping shot that takes us from the sea, past the beach, to the street and inside the club. Those places teem with people, often minimally clad. More street shots will are added throughout the film. They baffled me at times as South Beach is supposed to be a gay hangout yet it gave me the impression of being laden with straight couples too. Was this done in order not to alienate a conservative public? To single out the protagonists?
After this good start comes the interior of the club, with a dancing drag chorus singing the interminable and dull "We are Family. " In the subsequent early parts, the tempo drags compared to what I remember of "La Cage. " but picks up fairly soon and keeps its energy.
I felt rather uneasy with the portrayal of gays, mostly the flamboyant, self-absorbed and self-pitying Nathan Lane as "a screaming queen"--his own words. Think how "un-queenly" Terence Stamp was off-stage in "The Adventures of Priscilla.. . " and the cliches or caricatures in "The Birdcage" jump out at you. However, Lane does his shtick very well.
There was also much more feeling and warmth in "La Cage," especially between the two partners/lovers and in their rapport with Val.
The US version will no doubt delight a public that's looking for something other than screen mayhem or dumb and dumber comedies for mindless teens. Almost certainly it will cause an outcry in some quarters. The first salvo has already been fired in an interesting article by cultural critic Bruce Bawer, in the New York Times of March 10: "Why Does Hollywood Continue to Get Gay Life Wrong?"
Though disinclined to add fuel to the fire, I must point out that "The Birdcage, "while true to the events of "La Cage," deviates in spirit. It takes something away from the French matter-of-fact and affectionate mood, replacing it with over the top political satire. Curiously, the understanding of gay life in the less "evolved" and more "in the closet" days of 1978 had empathy that the 1996 "Bird" lacks. It is as though the dates had been switched.
The no-holds-barred mocking of Senator Keeley is a diversionary tactic that could not have been better timed, given the nature and hollow speeches of politicians on the campaign trail in the pre-election, 1996 United States. The ridicule is far stronger and more topical than in the original since in Europe, then as now, the Moral Order thing has been seen as a risible quirk rather than the force it is in this country.
The gap between gays and the Keeley couple is made even wider because we seem to have dirtier minds than denizens of many other lands. There, ordinary people leer much less than we do. Think of the casualness with which nudity has been treated for decades in European life and media, as opposed to the prudishness of our film ratings, while at the same time sex is blatantly exploited in the media for selling products and services.
Note too than in "Bird" the outrageous Agador (the Latino male maid) and Albert are shown as quite dumb. Still, they are small potatoes compared to Mr. and Mrs. Keeley who, in plain language, are plain idiots (she doesn't even know what a cultural attaché is).. . and very funny in their naiveté.
It's all most unreal, always at someone's expense. Yet here comes the big BUT. As the Birdcagers are preparing for the Senator's family (in impossibly record time), Val instructs Armand on heterosexual procedures from changing the decor to changing behavior. In turn Armand instructs Albert. Scenes that could be or are offensive can also be very comical, as when Albert is schooled in how to speak or how to put spread on toast. A hilarious moment is the illustration of John Wayne's walk, which, we realize, is weirder than we ever suspected.
Then, in the key scenes of the meeting of the two families, scripter Elaine May reaches comedic heights simply with the Senator's attempts at small-talk. Another telling touch comes when Keeley learns that Val's parents are gay ... and Jewish to boot. His reaction: "You can't be Jewish!!!"
Verbal and physical farce distract the viewer from the movie's more reprehensible aspects. So does the outrageous, well-orchestrated ensemble acting. The hardest role belongs to Robin Williams. This once, he acts well below the top, in rather sober fashion. He does not conceal from us his gayness,but he does not flaunt it.
No matter what the resistance to "The Birdcage" might be, the movie's key and kernel lies in one fleeting sentence. Speaking to Armand about his plans and college life, Val says: "I have a role model. I'm the only guy in my fraternity who doesn't come from a broken home." I wish this had been underlined by the remake, as in the French model.