14 Fun Facts About The Birdcage
A remake of La Cage aux Folles (1978), The Birdcage starred Robin Williams as a gay cabaret owner, and Nathan Lane as his drag queen partner. The two pretend to be something they are not when Williams' son (Dan Futterman), his fiancée (Calista Flockhart), and her parents (Dianne Wiest and Gene Hackman) come to visit. Here are some facts about the movie to read before the Dolphins leave you feeling betrayed and bewildered.
1. IT WAS THE LONG-AWAITED FIRST ELAINE MAY/MIKE NICHOLS MOVIE COLLABORATION.
Mike Nichols and Elaine May were an influential improv comedy duo in the 1950s and 1960s who both achieved fame individually in feature films. Nichols (director of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Graduate) saw La Cage aux Folles and believed it could be remade as an American movie, and May (screenwriter of Heaven Can Wait, Ishtar) wrote the adaptation. "We've never done a movie from first to last together," Nichols said in the official production notes. "This is a project we've wanted to do for 15 years because we knew from the first that it was a timeless comedy with a terrific plot and a wonderful ending." Two years later they would collaborate again when May adapted Primary Colors (1998) for the screen, with Nichols directing.
2. STEVE MARTIN WAS ORIGINALLY SET TO STAR AS ARMAND.
Steve Martin was set to play Armand, with Robin Williams playing his partner Albert, but there were scheduling conflicts on Martin's end. Williams said he didn't want to play Albert anyway, believing he had already dressed in drag enough with Mrs. Doubtfire (1993).
3. NICHOLS CAST ACTORS FROM THE STAGE.
Nichols offered Nathan Lane the part of Albert while he was starring in Neil Simon's Laughter on the 23rd Floor on Broadway. Lane said it was a "dream come true." Nichols also cast Calista Flockhart, despite minimal Hollywood experience, after seeing her in an Off-Broadway production of The Loop.
4. HANK AZARIA GOT THE JOB BECAUSE OF HIS WORK ON QUIZ SHOW.
Nichols liked what he saw in Hank Azaria, who played a TV producer in Quiz Show (1994). Azaria's role was expanded from initially playing Albert's dresser to Agador Spartacus, the couple's Guatemalan maid.
5. AZARIA WAS WORKING ON HEAT AT THE SAME TIME.
On his 30th birthday, Azaria worked on Heat (1995) until 6 a.m., then headed to The Birdcage set. When Nichols found out it was his birthday, and that he had been working for 18 hours straight, he sent Azaria home.
6. DAVID ALAN GRIER WAS SUPPOSED TO PLAY THE BUTLER.
Expanding Azaria's role, as Azaria explained to The A.V. Club, was Robin Williams' idea. "That first scene where I’m dressing Nathan Lane, getting him all dressed up? The maid/houseman was supposed to be a whole other character, who was supposed to be a black character like it is in the French version, and … I think he was going to be played by David Alan Grier. And they thought David was brilliant, but they thought that in an American context, the idea of a black houseman would be somewhat distasteful and have racist overtones. So since it’s set in Miami, they decided to make it a Latin character. And I was already playing the other character. So I think it was Robin Williams’ idea: 'Why not just combine the two roles and just let Azaria do it?'"
7. NICHOLS TRIED TO PREVENT WILLIAMS AND LANE FROM IMPROVISING TOO MUCH.
"We had a rule on the picture," Nichols said. "The actors would do the written script until I was satisfied and then we would do one take in which they could improvise. Given this cast, there were obviously some improvs that were insanely funny, but didn't fit the story. But there are moments all through the picture that are improvised and were perfect."
8. AGADOR WAS BASED PARTLY ON JUDY GARLAND'S DRESSER.
When Azaria couldn't figure out how to play a scene where Agador had to calm an anxious Albert down before a show, Nichols gave him some background to help. "Your character is partially based on Judy Garland’s dresser," Nichols told his actor. "Judy would panic before every performance and her dresser would panic with her and he would panic more than her so that she’d have to be the one to tell him to calm down, and that was the ritual they had."
9. A FEW WEEKS INTO FILMING, AZARIA REALIZED HE WAS IMITATING HIS GRANDMOTHER.
"I realized after about two to three weeks of working on it that it really kind of sounded exactly like my grandmother," Azaria told NPR. "Realizing it sounded like her also gave me a good piece of the character, because she was so maternal and mothering and loving, if I sort of had her mentality it was easy to be kind of feminine."
10. WILLIAMS' SLIP ON THE KITCHEN FLOOR WHILE PANICKING OVER THE SHRIMP WAS UNINTENTIONAL.
11. NICHOLS HAD A SERIOUS CASE OF THE GIGGLES.
12. IT FEATURES ORIGINAL MUSIC BY STEPHEN SONDHEIM.
13. THE MOVIE'S SUCCESS WAS A PERSONAL VICTORY FOR NICHOLS.
After he showed the final cut of The Birdcage to his editing team in Martha's Vineyard, they all had a celebratory meal. “I was very emotional and very angry: I couldn’t speak all through lunch,” Nichols said of that day. “The film was so good, so strong. I realized I’d had no inkling of my anger at the people who had written me off. My reaction, instantaneously, was ‘F**k you, bastards. You thought I couldn’t do this anymore. Well, look at this.’ The Birdcage would go on to make over $185 million worldwide.
14. PAUL THOMAS ANDERSON LOVES IT.
Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia) wrote in 2009 that there are two films "that without fail or question will make me stop dead in my tracks and watch all the way to the very end, no matter what else is happening or needs to get done." One was The Shining (1980). The other was The Birdcage.