14 Fun Facts About The Birdcage

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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.

Williams' tumble was not on purpose. "And if you watch that little piece of film again, you’ll see me laughing and Robin laughing," Azaria promised.

11. NICHOLS HAD A SERIOUS CASE OF THE GIGGLES.

The director would laugh so much that he had to move his chair into another room. Williams once said Nichols would laugh so hard "they would have to put a blanket over his head."

12. IT FEATURES ORIGINAL MUSIC BY STEPHEN SONDHEIM.

Stephen Sondheim said it was fun to write "It Takes All Kinds." The song was meant to play over the opening titles, but when Nichols heard "We Are Family" by Sister Sledge, he changed his mind.

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.

11 Fun Facts About Them!

Joan Weldon and James Arness star in Them! (1954).
Joan Weldon and James Arness star in Them! (1954).
Warner Home Video

In the 1950s, Elvis was king, hula hooping was all the rage, and movie screens across America were overrun with giant arthropods. Back then, Tarantula (1955), The Deadly Mantis (1957), and other “big bug” films starring colossal insects or arachnids enjoyed a surprising amount of popularity. What kicked off this creepy-crawly craze? An eerie blockbuster whose impossible premise reflected widespread anxieties about the emerging atomic age. Grab a Geiger counter and let’s explore 1954's Them!.

1. Them!'s primary scriptwriter once worked for General Douglas MacArthur.

When World War II broke out, the knowledge Ted Sherdeman had gained from his career as a radio producer was put to good use by Uncle Sam, landing him a position as a radio communications advisor to General MacArthur. However, the fiery conclusion of the war left Sherdeman with a lifelong disdain for nuclear weapons. In an interview he revealed that upon hearing about the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima, he “just went over to the curb and started to throw up."

Shifting his focus from radio to motion pictures, Sherdeman later joined Warned Bros. as a staff producer. One day he was given a screenplay that really made his eyes bug out. George Worthing Yates, best known for his work on the Lone Ranger serials, had decided to take a stab at science fiction and penned an original script about giant, irradiated ants attacking New York City. "The idea appealed to me very much,” Sherdeman told Cinefantastique, "because, aside from man, ants are the only creatures in the world that plan to wage war, and nobody trusted the atomic bomb at that time.” (His statement about animal combat is debatable: chimpanzee gangs will also take organized, warlike measures in order to annex their rivals’ territories.)

Although he loved the basic concept, Sherdeman felt that the script needed something more. Screenwriter Russell S. Hughes was asked to punch up the script, but died of a heart attack after completing the first 50 pages. With some help from director Gordon Douglas, Sherdeman took it upon himself to finish the screenplay. Thus, Them! was born.

2. Two main ants were built for the movie.

Them! brought its spineless villains to life using a combination of animatronics and puppetry, courtesy of an effects artist by the name of Dick Smith. He constructed two fully functional mechanical ants for the production, with the first of these being a 12-foot monster filled with gears, levers, motors, and pulleys. Operating the big bug was a job that required a small army of technicians who’d pull sophisticated cables to control the ant’s limbs off-camera. These guys worked in close proximity and often crashed into each other as a result, prompting Douglas to call them “a comedy team.”

The big insect mainly appears in long shots, and for close-ups, Smith built the front three quarters of a second large-scale ant and mounted it onto a camera crane. During scenes that required swarms of ants, smaller, non-motorized models were used. Blowing wind machines moved the little units’ heads around in a lifelike manner.

3. Them! features the Wilhelm Scream.

Fifty-nine minutes in, the ants board a ship and one of them grabs a sailor, who unleashes the so-called "Wilhelm Scream." You can also hear it when James Whitmore’s character is killed, and the sound bite rings out once again during the movie’s climax. Them! was among the first movies to reuse this distinctive holler, which was originally recorded three years earlier for the 1951 western Distant Drums. Since then, it’s become something of an inside joke for sound recording specialists. The scream has appeared in Titanic (1997), Toy Story (1995), Reservoir Dogs (1992), Batman Returns (1992), the Star Wars saga (1977-present), all three The Lord of the Rings movies (2001-2003), and countless other films.

4. Leonard Nimoy makes an appearance.

In one brief scene, future Star Trek star Leonard Nimoy plays an Army man who receives a message about an alleged “ant-shaped UFO” sighting over Texas. He then proceeds to poke fun at the Lone Star State, because, as everybody knows, insectile space vessels are highly illogical.

5. Many different sounds were combined to produce the screeching ant cries.

Throughout the movie, the monsters announce their presence with a haunting wail. Douglas’s team created this unforgettable shriek by mixing assorted noises, including bird whistles, which were artificially pitched up by sound technicians.

6. Sandy Descher had to sniff a mystery liquid during her signature scene.

Like Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, Them! has a deliberate pace and the massive insects don’t make an onscreen appearance until the half hour mark. Douglas took credit for this restrained approach, saying, “I told Ted, let’s tease [the audience] a little bit before you see the ant. Let’s build up to it."

So instead of showing off the big bugs, the opening scene follows a little girl as she wanders through the New Mexican desert, listlessly clutching her favorite doll. That stunning performance was delivered by child actress Sandy Descher. Later, in one of the most effective title drop scenes ever orchestrated, a vial of formic acid is held under her character’s nose. Suddenly recognizing the aroma, the traumatized youngster screams “Them! Them!” Descher never found out what sort of liquid was really sloshing around in that container.

“They used something that did smell quite strange. It wasn’t ammonia, it was something else,” she told an interviewer. Still, the mysterious brew had a beneficial effect on her performance. “They tried to create something different and it helped me a lot with that particular scene,” Descher said.

7. Them! was originally going to be filmed in 3D and in color.

To hear Douglas tell it, the insect models looked a lot scarier in person. “I put green and red soap bubbles in the eyes,” he once stated. “The ants were purple, slimy things. Their bodies were wet down with Vaseline. They scared the bejeezus out of you.” For better or for worse, though, audiences never got the chance to savor the bugs’ color scheme.

At first, Warner Bros. had planned on shooting the movie in color. Furthermore, to help Them! compete with Universal’s brand-new, three-dimensional monster movie, Creature From the Black Lagoon, the studio strongly considered using 3D cameras. But in the end, the higher-ups at Warner Bros. didn’t supply Douglas with the money he’d need to shoot it in this manner. Shortly before production started on Them!, the budget was greatly reduced, forcing the use of two-dimensional, black and white film.

8. The setting of the climactic scene was changes—twice.

Yates envisioned the final battle playing out in New York City’s world-famous subway tunnels. Hughes moved the action westward, conjuring up an epic showdown between human soldiers and the last surviving ants at a Santa Monica amusement park. Finally, for both artistic and budgetary reasons, Sherdeman set the big finale in the sewers of Los Angeles.

9. Warner Bros. encouraged theaters to use Them! as a military recruitment tool.

The film’s official pressbook advised theater managers who were screening Them!& to contact their nearest Armed Forces recruitment offices. “Since civil defense in the face of an emergency figures in the picture, make the most of it by inviting [a] local agency to set up a recruiting booth in the lobby,” the filmmakers advised. Also, the document suggested that movie houses post signs reading: “What would you do if (name of city) were attacked by THEM?! Prepare for any danger by enlisting in Civil Defense today!”

10. The movie was a surprise hit.

Studio head Jack L. Warner predicted that Them!, with its far-fetched plot, wouldn’t fare well at the box office. So imagine his surprise when it raked in more than $2.2 million—enough to make the picture one of the studio's highest-grossing films of 1954.

11. Them! landed Fess Parker the role of TV's Davy Crockett.

When Walt Disney went to see Them!, he had a specific objective in mind: Scout a potential Davy Crockett. At the time, Disney was developing a new television series that would chronicle the life and times of the iconic frontiersman, and James Arness, who plays an FBI agent in Them!, was on the short list of candidates for the role. Yet as the sci-fi thriller unfolded, it was actor Fess Parker who grabbed Disney’s attention. Director Gordon Douglas had hired Parker to portray the pilot who ends up in a psych ward after an aerial encounter with a gargantuan flying ant. And while his character only appears in one scene, the performance impressed Disney so much that the struggling actor was soon cast as Crockett.

By the Texan’s own admission, his good fortune may’ve been the product of bargain hunting. “Walt probably asked, ‘How much would Arness cost?’ and then ‘This fellow [Parker], we ought to be able to get him real economical,” Parker once said.

George R.R. Martin Doesn't Think Game of Thrones Was 'Very Good' For His Writing Process

Kevin Winter, Getty Images
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

No one seems to have escaped the fan fury over the finals season of Game of Thrones. While likely no one got it quite as bad as showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, even author George R.R. Martin—who wrote A Song of Ice and Fire, the book series upon which the show is based, faced backlash surrounding the HBO hit. The volatile reaction from fans has apparently taken a toll on both Martin's writing and personal life.

In an interview with The Guardian, the acclaimed author said he's sticking with his original plan for the last two books, explaining that the show will not impact them. “You can’t please everybody, so you’ve got to please yourself,” he stated.

He went on to explain how even his personal life has taken a negative turn because of the show. “I can’t go into a bookstore any more, and that used to be my favorite thing to do in the world,” Martin said. “To go in and wander from stack to stack, take down some books, read a little, leave with a big stack of things I’d never heard of when I came in. Now when I go to a bookstore, I get recognized within 10 minutes and there’s a crowd around me. So you gain a lot but you also lose things.”

While fans of the book series are fully aware of the author's struggle to finish the final two installments, The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring, Martin admitted that part of the delay has been a result of the HBO series, and fans' reaction to it.

“I don’t think [the series] was very good for me,” Martin said. “The very thing that should have speeded me up actually slowed me down. Every day I sat down to write and even if I had a good day … I’d feel terrible because I’d be thinking: ‘My God, I have to finish the book. I’ve only written four pages when I should have written 40.'"

Still, Martin has sworn that the books will get finished ... he just won't promise when.

[h/t The Guardian]

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