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.

When Mississippi Once Banned Sesame Street

Children's Television Workshop/Courtesy of Getty Images
Children's Television Workshop/Courtesy of Getty Images

Since it began airing in the fall of 1969, Sesame Street has become an indelible part of millions of children's formative years. Using a cast of colorful characters like Big Bird, Bert, Ernie, and Oscar the Grouch, along with a curriculum vetted by Sesame Workshop's child psychologists and other experts, the series is able to impart life lessons and illustrate educational tools that a viewer can use throughout their adolescence. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone—even Oscar—who would take issue with the show’s approach or its mission statement.

Yet that’s exactly what happened in early 1970, when a board of educational consultants in Mississippi gathered, polled one another, and decided that Sesame Street was too controversial for television.

The series had only been on the air for a few months when the newly formed Mississippi Authority for Educational Television (also known as the State Commission for Educational Television) held a regularly scheduled meeting in January 1970. The board had been created by the state legislature with appointees named by Governor John Bell Williams to evaluate shows that were set to air on the state’s Educational Television, or ETV, station. The five-member panel consisted of educators and private citizens, including a teacher and a principal, and was headed up by James McKay, a banker in Jackson, Mississippi.

McKay’s presence was notable for the fact that his father-in-law, Allen Thompson, had just retired after spending 20 years as mayor of Jackson. Highly resistant to integration in the city during his tenure in office, Thompson was also the founder of Freedom of Choice in the United States, or FOCUS, an activist group that promoted what they dubbed “freedom of choice” in public schools—a thinly veiled reference to segregation. Mississippi, long the most incendiary state in the nation when it came to civil rights, was still struggling with the racial tension of the 1960s. Systemic racism was an issue.

Entering this climate was Sesame Street, the show pioneered by Joan Ganz Cooney, a former journalist and television producer who became the executive director of the Children’s Television Workshop. On the series, the human cast was integrated, with black performers Matt Robinson and Loretta Long as Gordon and Susan, respectively, appearing alongside white actors Jada Rowland and Bob McGrath. The children of Sesame Street were also ethnically diverse.

Zoe (L) and Cookie Monster (R) are pictured in New York City in November 2009
Astrid Stawiarz, Getty Images

This appeared to be too much for the Authority, which discussed how lawmakers with control over ETV’s budget—which had just been set at $5,367,441—might find the mixed-race assembly offensive. The panel's participants were all white.

The board pushed the discussion aside until April 17, 1970, when they took an informal poll and decided, by a margin of three votes against two, to prohibit ETV from airing Sesame Street—a show that came free of charge to all public television stations. (The decision affected mainly viewers in and around Jackson, as the station had not yet expanded across the state and was not expected to do so until the fall of 1970.)

The members who were outvoted were plainly unhappy with the outcome and leaked the decision to The New York Times, which published a notice of the prohibition days later along with a quote from one of the board members.

“Some of the members of the commission were very much opposed to showing the series because it uses a highly integrated cast of children,” the person, who did not wish to be named, said. “Mainly the commission members felt that Mississippi was not yet ready for it.”

The reaction to such a transparent concession to racism was swift and predictably negative, both in and out of Mississippi. Board members who spoke with press, usually anonymously, claimed the decision was a simple “postponing” of the show, not an outright ban. The fear, they said, was that legislators who viewed ETV as having progressive values might shut down the project before it had a chance to get off the ground. It was still possible for opponents to suffocate it before it became part of the fabric of the state’s television offerings.

The concern was not entirely without merit. State representative Tullius Brady of Brookhaven said that ETV exerted “a subtle influence” on the minds of children and that the Ford Foundation, which funded educational programming, could use its influence for “evil purposes.” Other lawmakers had previously argued against shows that promoted integration.

Grover is pictured at AOL Studios in New York City in May 2015
Slaven Vlasic, Getty Images

Regardless of how the decision was justified, many took issue with it. In an anonymous editorial for the Delta Democrat-Times, a critic wrote:

“But Mississippi’s ETV commission won’t be showing it for the time being because of one fatal defect, as measured by Mississippi’s political leadership. Sesame Street is integrated. Some of its leading cast members are black, including the man who does much of the overt ‘teaching.’ The neighborhood of the ‘street’ is a mixed one. And all that, of course, goes against the Mississippi grain.”

Joan Ganz Cooney called the decision a “tragedy” for young people.

Fortunately, it was a tragedy with a short shelf life. The following month, the board reconvened and reversed its own informal poll result, approving of Sesame Street and agreeing that ETV could air it as soon as they received tapes of the program. Thanks to feeds from Memphis, New Orleans, and Alabama, Sesame Street could already be seen in parts of Mississippi. And thanks to the deluge of negative responses, it seemed pointless to try to placate politicians who still favored segregation.

In the fall of 1970, the Sesame Street cast appeared in person in Jackson and was met by representatives from the board, which helped to sponsor the live performance, though it’s not clear any apology was forthcoming.

Sesame Street would go on to win numerous awards and accolades over the proceeding 50 years, though it would not be the only children’s show to experience censorship on public television. In May 2019, ETV networks in Alabama and Arkansas refused to air an episode of the PBS animated series Arthur in which a rat and aardvark are depicted as a same-sex couple getting married.

Attention Movie Geeks: Cinephile Is the Card Game You Need Right Now

Cinephile/Amazon
Cinephile/Amazon

If you’ve got decades worth of movie trivia up in your head but nowhere to show it off, Cinephile: A Card Game just may be your perfect outlet. Created by writer, art director, and movie expert Cory Everett, with illustrations by Steve Isaacs, this game aims to test the mettle of any film aficionado with five different play types that are designed for different skill and difficulty levels.

For players looking for a more casual experience, Cinephile offers a game variety called Filmography, where you simply have to name more movies that a given actor has appeared in than your opponent. For those who really want to test their knowledge of the silver screen, there’s the most challenging game type, Six Degrees, which plays like Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, with the player who finds the fewest number of degrees between two actors getting the win.

When you choose actors for Six Degrees, you’ll do so using the beautifully illustrated cards that come with the game, featuring Hollywood A-listers past and present in some of their most memorable roles. You’ve got no-brainers like Uma Thurman in Kill Bill (2003) and Arnold Schwarzenegger in Total Recall (1990) alongside cult favorites like Bill Murray from 2004's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Jeff Goldblum in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984). Of course, being a game designed for the true film buff, you’ll also get some deeper cuts like Helen Mirren from 1990’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover and Sean Connery in 1974's Zardoz. There are 150 cards in all, with expansion packs on the way.

Cinephile is a labor of love for Everett and Isaacs, who originally got this project off the ground via Kickstarter, where they raised more than $20,000. Now it’s being published on a wider scale by Clarkson Potter, a Penguin Random House group. You can get your copy from Amazon now for $20.

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