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Viewer Guide: “The Birdcage” and “Maude”

May 17, 2023 | Richard Peña


The Birdcage (1976).

 This week’s double feature begins with The Birdcage, Mike Nichols’ 1996 adaptation of Jean Poiret’s much-beloved French farce La Cage aux Folles, starring Robin Williams, Gene Hackman, Dianne Wiest, and Nathan Lane. Williams and Lane play a South Beach nightclub-owning gay couple who agree to put up a straight front so that their son can introduce them to his fiancée’s right-wing moralistic parents. 

Nichols enjoyed challenging his cast to play against type. While Robin Williams was known for his outrageous comedy, in The Birdcage, his character is more restrained, keeping the energy beneath the surface. Gene Hackman started out, as Nichols did, in improvisational comedy. Wiest won her two Oscars playing comic characters. Nichols discovered Nathan Lane after seeing him in a production of a Neil Simon play, Laughter on the 23rd Floor. According to Lane, “Mike came backstage afterward and said ‘I’d like you to star in a movie….’ It was like a dream.” 

When it came time to adapt the story for the screen, Nichols turned to his longtime friend and collaborator, Elaine May.  According to the director, “Elaine’s triumph was to ask the question “How would it be if this story happened right here, right now, in today’s society. She understood that you have to include every possible kind of prejudice, because in the final reconciliation, you represent everyone: not just gays and heterosexuals but Jews and gentiles, Democrats and Republicans… the whole country.”   

The idea of Nichols and May teaming up together again—no matter in whatever combination—was for many of us a cause to celebrate. Their routines as a comedy duo in the late Fifties and early Sixties were simply extraordinary: witty, and with an incredible edge that cut through so much of the era’s hypocrisy and pretension. The Birdcage was a perfect project for the two of them, and they certainly didn’t disappoint. And they clearly enjoyed their reunion:  two years later, they were back at work together again, on Nichol’s next film, Primary Colors. 

The Birdcage was a great commercial success. It received an Oscar nomination for Best Art Direction, and received Golden Globe nominations for Best Comedy, and for Nathan Lane’s hilarious performance. 

When adapting a play to the screen, many directors seem to do all they can to hide or erase the work’s innate theatricality—but not Mike Nichols. Possibly owing to the fact that he’s as comfortable directing for the stage as he is behind the camera, Nichols in The Birdcage plays up all the theatrical elements, transforming the action into a continuing series of performances. The result is a work that transcends every boundary and barrier, both formally and politically. 


Ten Thousand Saints (2015).

This week’s double feature continues with Ten Thousand Saints, a 2015 coming-of-age drama, adapted from the novel by Eleanor Henderson, and written and directed by Shari Springer-Berman and Robert Pulcini.  

It’s New Year’s Eve, 1987, and 17-year-old Jude and his best friend Teddy, played by Asa Butterfield and Avan Jogia, are at loose ends, looking for something do—and new ways to get high—in the winter cold of Lintonburg, Vermont. An adopted child mostly raised by his single-mother Harriet, played by Julianne Nicholson, the blame for Jude’s aimlessness seems largely due to the near total absence of his father Lester, a magnetic but undependable 60s rebel winningly played by Ethan Hawke, who now makes his living as a marijuana dealer in the East Village. But this humdrum New Year’s Eve takes an unexpected turn with the arrival of Eliza, played by Hailee Steinfeld, the daughter of Lester’s current girlfriend, a retired British dancer played by Emily Mortimer. Passing through town on her way back to New York, Eliza joins the boys in crashing a party; however, after that night takes a tragic turn, Jude drops out of school and withdraws deeper into isolation and drugs, prompting Lester to undertake a counterintuitive form of intervention and bring Jude to live with him back in New York. Against a backdrop of the East Village’s gentrification conflict of the late 80s, Jude embarks on an odyssey of self-discovery, entering the culture of hardcore “straight edge” punk music with Teddy’s older half-brother Johnny, played by Emile Hirsch. And along the way, Jude’s origin as an adopted child takes on an unforeseen new significance.  

Adapted from Eleanor Henderson’s debut novel of the same name, Ten Thousand Saints offers an updated coming-of-age story from a new angle, focusing on a generation of kids struggling to grow up with parents who never fully grew up themselves. The film’s husband-and-wife writing and directing team of Shari Springer-Berman and Robert Pulcini were new arrivals in New York City at the time of the Tompkins Square riot, and were drawn to the novel’s account of East Village life during an era that was dangerous yet also energized with creativity. However, with production taking place 25 years after the riot, finding areas in the East Village that still looked authentic to the late 80s proved challenging, with production designer Stephen Beatrice devising an art direction kit to help “grunge up” locations, including temporary graffiti decals. And instead of the now standard practice of shooting in high-definition video, 16mm film was utilized to help create the movie’s period look.  

Richard Peña is a Professor of Film Studies at Columbia University, where he specializes in film theory and international cinema.  

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