Tag Archives: farce

276 – The Birdcage

Mike Nichols and Elaine May, whose partnership in the 50s and 60s helped define American comedy, collaborate on a film for the first time in 1996, as director and screenwriter respectively, giving us a comedy so sharp and outrageous that José’s laughter made Mike miss half the dialogue. An adaptation of the French farce, La Cage aux Folles, The Birdcage sees Robin Williams’ South Beach drag club owner, Armand, attempt to force his life into the closet for one night, for the sake of his son, Val, whose deeply conservative in-laws are set to visit for dinner. But Nathan Lane’s flamboyant Albert, Armand’s longtime partner, is unable, and at first unwilling, to participate in the subterfuge as requested, and chaos ensues.

The Birdcage relies heavily on stereotypes – it’s not only theatrical but a farce, in which everything is heightened – and though they’re enjoyably insane in themselves, the film’s brilliance is in how it reveals the real people within them, people whose love and pain are rendered sensitively and richly, through the truly genius performances from Williams and Lane, which work together beautifully while in two different registers, the former internal, the latter external. José suggests that the film’s outlook, despite embodying so vividly a pro-gay message, is nonetheless normative of a certain kind of structure of love, the only difference between the film’s two families being that the mother in one is male – and even then, Albert is occasionally referred to as Armand’s wife and Val’s mother. He even, at one particularly stressful moment early on, claims that he is a woman. (“You’re not a woman”, replies Armand, to which Albert cries, “You bastard!”) But although this could be suggestive of a trans identity, and the drag club certainly houses trans people, 1996 is a little early for such complexity – publicly coming out as gay, never mind trans, was still rare, shocking, and even dangerous.

There’s a lot more to discuss, including the portrayals of Gene Hackman’s conservative, scandal-embroiled senator, Hank Azaria’s Guatemalan houseboy, and Val, who Mike thinks is a bit mean and smug, and Mike Nichols’ overall filmography, which José has been considering of late, having been reading his recently released biography by Mark Harris. The Birdcage sits high among his oeuvre, for José, and it’s not hard to see why – he’s literally never laughed as much in his life.

The podcast can be listened to in the player above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

226 – Twentieth Century

Listen on the players above, on Apple Podcasts, or on Spotify.

A prototypical screwball comedy, 1934’s Twentieth Century sees John Barrymore delightfully chewing the scenery as a pompous theatre impresario who discovers and makes a star of Carole Lombard’s lingerie model. Having separated after several successful years, the former power couple meet by chance on the luxury Twentieth Century train, and it all kicks off as schemes are put into action, conflict erupts, and some religious bloke keeps putting stickers that say “REPENT” on everything he sees.

Barrymore is sensational, sending theatrical types up and orating floridly and dramatically, while Lombard clashes with him spikily. We consider how well Twentieth Century fits into the screwball genre – the dialogue is snappy and witty, the situations farcical, the relationships barbed, although it’s less of an even two-hander than you might expect, the focus heavily on Barrymore. Mike argues that the chemistry between the couple doesn’t play as enjoyably as intended, and that the bits of business on the fringes, and the knowing weariness with which Barrymore’s two assistants handle their jobs, are where the real joy lies. And José effusively compares Barrymore’s ability to move between stage and screen to Laurence Olivier’s, another actor renowned as the greatest of his day, but who appeared fussy and busy on film.

While it’s no new discovery, Twentieth Century holding places in the National Film Registry and the history of film comedy, it’s a new one for us, and a corker.

P.S. Corrections and clarifications: Burt Lancaster never performed a part written by the New Yorker film critic Terrence Rafferty. He did perform a part written by the British dramatist Terence Rattigan. José apologises profusely.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

14 – The Party

Sally Potter’s all-too-brief comedy drama polarises us, which makes a nice change to the agreements we’ve been having recently. Is it smug or knowing? Is its range of incongruous acting styles engaging or distancing? Who knows. But Sally Potter is very very very important in British cinema and feminism and queer representation, says Jose, who then has the nerve to criticise The Party for having its right-on cake and eating it.

Includes a reminiscence of seeing a man stand up in a screening of I, Daniel Blake and a magic trick where Mike convinces Jose he possesses an extraordinary memory.

The podcast can be listened to in the player above or at this link.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.