20 years ago, Robin Williams and Nathan Lane starred in “The Birdcage.”
The movie that brought a political scandal into a Miami drag club to create a raucously hilarious comedy about an unorthodox family turned 20 years old this month.
Written by Elaine May and directed by Mike Nichols, “The Birdcage” — an adaptation of the French film “La Cage Aux Folles” — allowed Robin Williams and Nathan Lane, two masters of improvisation, to thrive in their respective roles — Williams as Armand, the owner of the nightclub, and Lane as his romantic partner Albert, the effeminate and melodramatic entertainer.
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Two decades ago, the film paved the way for future depictions of gay lead characters onscreen. In honor of the film’s anniversary, here are 20 fun facts everyone should know about “The Birdcage.”
1) In the original French film, Agador Spartacus — the family’s flamboyant maid — didn’t say much and gave a mostly silent performance, according to Hank Azaria, who played Agador in “The Birdcage.” Azaria told the Daily News that he wanted to create a character that was as vocally outrageous as the original character was visually.
2) In order to do that, Azaria said he landed on two different versions of the character — the one that ended up in the movie, and another one that was more street. He showed both to a friend who was a drag queen, and he encouraged Azaria to go with the more exaggerated one that ended up in the film.
Hank Azaria (center) realized that the voice he used as Agador Spartacus eventually started to sound like his own grandmother’s.
3) Ultimately, that voice started to sound a lot like Azaria’s grandmother. “She was very loving and sweet and maternal and it was helpful to me to have her in mind as sort of this inner lady I was channeling,” Azaria told the Daily News.
4) One of the film’s iconic scenes takes place in the kitchen, as the dinner begins to take a turn for the worse. Agador is crying because he’s being berated for making soup for an entrée (“Sweet and sour pesa soup is an entrée. It’s like a stew!”), and Armand (Robin Williams) tries to calm him down. But as he carries the pot back into the dining room, he slips and falls. Azaria said the fall was completely unscripted and that Williams slipped because the floor — already purposefully slippery to help aid the clumsy Agador’s falls — had become even slicker from a mixture of shrimp and water.
5) In that take, Agador seems to be crying as Armand berates him for only making soup. But Azaria said he was actually laughing at the Williams fall, and that he had to pretend to cry to hold himself together. Williams, too, can be seen hiding his laughter.
6) With master improviser Robin Williams in the lead role, ad-libbing was an inevitable part of the filming process. But director Mike Nichols wanted to make the improvisations part of the script and then stick to it. So they rehearsed the film like a play before beginning to shoot, and Nichols and May stole any ad-libs they liked for the final script.
7) Before they wrote this film, Nichols and May worked together as an improvisational comedy duo act. They won a Grammy and three of their comedy albums reached the Billboard Top 40.
8) Williams wanted so badly to improvise filming that Nichols would give him what Azaria called “wild takes” to release some energy. “At the end after we got what we needed, Robin would get a take to go completely crazy,” Azaria said.
9) Nichols often ruined takes by laughing out loud on set. “We kept having to move Mike farther and farther away from set, like put a blanket over him so that he wouldn’t ruin takes laughing,” Azaria said.
10 ) The original working title of the film was “Birds of a Feather.”
11) As Timon in “The Lion King,” Nathan Lane uttered the unscripted and strange line, “What do you want me to do, dress in drag and dance the hula?” Two years later in the “Birdcage,” he essentially did just that.
12) In press interviews before “The Birdcage” came out, Lane refused to talk about his sexuality.
“I wasn’t ready to meet 12 people I didn’t know and discuss my personal life. It wasn’t as if I was in the closet in my personal life, but I didn’t want to talk about it,” Lane told The Independent. Lane came out publicly in 1999.
Williams played Armand, the owner of a Miami drag club who has to contend with his son’s marriage into a conservative family.
13) Nathan Lane’s wig and outfit during the dinner scene were modeled after First Lady Barbara Bush.
14) Robin Williams was originally offered the part of Albert, but he declined it because his wife thought it was too similar to his character in “Mrs. Doubtfire.” “Done that, been there, big woman,” he told “The Georgia Straight” in a 1996 interview. Williams felt the role of Armand was more complex and challenging.
15) Originally, Steve Martin was supposed to play the role of Armand.
16) When asked if he had to give Nathan Lane any advice on how to play a woman, Robin Williams had this to say: “Play it sexier? Use your hips? Lead with your tits? No, he didn’t need any help.”
17) The movie grossed $ 18.3 million in its opening weekend, the highest mark for a film with an openly gay character until “Bruno” was released in 2009. It remains the top grossing movie with openly gay characters of all time, according to Box Office Mojo.
18) When Azaria was struggling in a scene where he dressed Lane, director Mike Nichols tried to help by saying Agador was based on Judy Garland’s dresser. “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,” Azaria said in a Vanity Fair tribute to Nichols. From that point forward, Azaria understood his dynamic with Lane.
19) The film provided cinematic breakthroughs for Lane, who had mostly appeared on Broadway previously, and Azaria, who went on to win numerous “silly voice” roles.
20) When Gene Hackman — who plays Senator Keeley — is hanging from the ladder above a mass of reporters, he gives the peace sign as a reference to Richard Nixon. Hackman was reportedly on Nixon’s enemies list, a compilation of the president’s political opponents that came into the public eye during the Watergate hearings. Hackman was also later considered for the role of Nixon in a film about the president.