Robin Williams was unobtrusively settling into his seat in a San Francisco movie theater a few months ago when suddenly he heard a horrifying noise. As the trailer for his new cross-dressing comedy, The Birdcage, unspooled on the screen, the audience began to hiss. ”It was an early teaser and it was kind of bad,” Williams recalls. ”I wanted to get up and shout, ‘Stop the projector! It’s a good movie, I swear to God! Give it a chance! Pleeease!”’
This month, much of America did give Birdcage a chance. The picture earned $18 million over its March 8 debut weekend and $16 million more the weekend after that — making it the largest opening so far this year. And while not everyone has stopped hissing — some critics have sniped at what they see as the film’s offensive gay stereotypes — it does seem that a breakthrough of sorts has been achieved: The drag queen movie has finally sashayed into the mainstream in a big way.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the film’s cast is headed by one of the most bankable comic stars in Hollywood: After 1993’s Mrs. Doubtfire and last December’s Jumanji, it’s beginning to look like Williams can do no wrong (”But I’m still the same man who made Being Human,” he points out). Veteran producer-director Mike Nichols (The Graduate, Working Girl) knows his way around the mainstream as well, even if he has taken a few bizarre turns in recent years (Wolf, Regarding Henry). And that Birdcage isn’t an entirely unknown quantity — it’s a remake of the French farce La Cage aux Folles, a 1978 arthouse hit — has probably helped too.
Still, a mainstream movie about a happily settled gay couple? It’s a tricky pitch, particularly in these neoconservative times. That MGM/UA has been able to pull it off is a major triumph for the long-suffering studio — and one that couldn’t have been more astutely timed. Last week, as Birdcage was drawing crowds around the country, MGM/UA went up for sale. For the past four years, the studio has been owned by Credit Lyonnais, a French bank that, by U.S. law, must find a buyer for it by mid-1997. If Birdcage had flopped, it wouldn’t exactly have helped the search. Its success, on the other hand, may have just added a few more digits to the studio’s price tag.
”Two billion dollars?” Williams asks, stunned. ”That’s what they’re saying the studio is worth now? Well, hell, what are 18 zeros between friends?”
Last spring, Nathan Lane was trying on his drag costumes for the first time at a fitting in L.A. As he swept into the room looking like Margaret Dumont with a five-o’clock shadow, the tailor almost swallowed his pins.
”I’ve worked all my life for this,” the Broadway actor grandly pronounced. ”To stand in front of a bunch of Teamsters in a dress.”
As most of America knows by now, Lane and Williams play Albert and Armand, longtime companions who share an apartment on that pastel-drenched strip of neon known as Miami’s South Beach. Like the original La Cage, Birdcage is part bedroom farce, part political satire — a sort of Guess Who’s Wearing Panty Hose to Dinner. When Armand’s son (Dan Futterman), conceived during a youthful indiscretion, announces that he’s getting married, Albert and Armand play it straight for their in-laws-to-be (Gene Hackman and Dianne Wiest), a U.S. senator and his wife so right-wing they think Billy Graham is too liberal.
??It’s a perfect plot,?? insists Nichols. ??It’s one of the great comedies of all time. It’s an express train that comes bearing down on you. I’ve wanted to make the American version from the moment I saw the original.??
As it turned out, he only had to wait 16 years — and that was just to secure the screen rights. The film’s European producer, Marcello Danon, turned away all offers (although he did permit a 1983 Broadway musical version). And that wasn’t the only stumbling block: MGM/UA owned the film’s North American distribution rights, and the studio had zero interest in artsy French flicks about guys in dresses — it was content to release schlocky cheese-oramas like Hot Dog…The Movie.
It wasn’t until 1994 that Nichols snagged La Cage, thanks to UA’s new president, John Calley, who also happens to be one of the director’s closest friends. ??I knew if Mike did it, we’d get top talent,?? Calley recalls. ??I knew we’d get a Robin Williams. So I said yes.??
Actually, Williams wasn’t the only top talent Calley and Nichols had in mind. Originally, Steve Martin had been approached for the film, but there were scheduling conflicts and, besides, Martin got cold feet about the material (??He didn’t think he could do the camping that goes with being a drag queen,?? says Nichols). Hiring a screenwriter turned out to be an easier job: Nichols called Elaine May, his old sketch-comedy partner from the 1950s (surprisingly, the two have never formally worked on a film together). After filling out the cast — Hank Azaria (Police Chief Wiggum on The Simpsons) as a Guatemalan houseboy who sees himself as ??a combination of Lucy and Ricky??; Christine Baranski as Armand’s hot-to-trot ex-lover — shooting began in Miami and L.A. last April and wrapped in July.
Then the real work began: the marketing.
The challenge, of course, was selling a gay-themed cross-dressing movie to a predominantly straight audience. Others had swished down that runway before, and the results were not always pretty. The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert never broke out of the indie circuit, grossing only $10 million. To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar was a modest success but was by no means a breakthrough, pulling in only $36 million (slightly more than Birdcage’s gross after just two weekends). The strategy MGM/UA ultimately came up with to market the film: Don’t ask, don’t tell.
??For me, it was just an exercise in not shooting yourself in the foot,?? explains Gerry Rich, MGM/UA’s president of worldwide marketing. ??The majority of our efforts were in reaching the more commercial audience, the broad mainstream that was predisposed to a Robin Williams comedy.?? Translated from suitspeak, that means Birdcage’s trailers, TV spots, and print ads pitched the film less as a gay love story and more as another wacky Robin Williams laugh riot. Even the drag angle was downplayed in the film’s posters, with Lane wearing a straitlaced business suit.
This cagey marketing tactic worked big time: Birdcage has been tracking brilliantly over the past two weeks, attracting a mostly 35-and-older, slightly more female than male audience — just the sort of crowd that tends to come back for repeat business. In fact, there may be only one slice of the demographic that the film seems to have trouble pleasing: gay moviegoers.
??I saw the movie with a gay friend and we sat there in horror and disbelief, while the straight audience around us was just laughing it up,?? says cultural critic Bruce Bawer, who recently wrote a scathing piece on Birdcage for The New York Times. ??They don’t get gay life. They don’t get anything outside of a narrow Hollywood idea of gay life. These characters had no dignity, no pride. It reduced gay people to cartoons.??
??That poor schmuck in the Times,?? Nichols responds. ??He says this isn’t how gay people act? Let him hang out with RuPaul for a couple of days. We’re not just talking about gays — we’re talking about drag divas, theatrical stars! They’re not the nice couple that works in the agency and goes shopping together in their horn-rimmed glasses and khaki suits. It’s completely different.??
Azaria offers a slightly more restrained defense. ??We were aware of everything — the gayness of it, the politics,?? he says. ??But the first priority was always, Is it funny? We weren’t making Philadelphia. We weren’t making Longtime Companion. We weren’t even making Jeffrey. We were making a comedy.??
Inside Hollywood’s executive suites, the only orientation that counts is the direction your money is flowing in. And despite gay critics, the mood at MGM/UA is definitely on the upswing — and not just because of Birdcage. Just when it looked like the old lion was ready to cough up its final fur ball, it has surprised everyone with a string of hits over the last two years — StarGate, Get Shorty, Species, and Goldeneye.
It’s an astonishing turnaround, considering how close the company came to extinction. Over the past three decades, Louis B. Mayer’s ??dream factory?? — once home of Clark Gable, Judy Garland, and Katharine Hepburn — has suffered a humiliating decline, thanks mostly to Kirk Kerkorian, the flamboyant Las Vegas financier who bought MGM in 1969, merged it with UA in 1981, and almost ran the company into the ground. Piece by piece, he dismantled the studio’s assets, bulldozing its historic backlots and selling MGM’s vaunted film library to Ted Turner (who used the old films to start his TNT cable network). But Kerkorian was a dream boss compared with MGM/UA’s next owner: Giancarlo Parretti, a slick Italian entrepreneur who bought the studio in 1990 and almost had to run it from a prison cell because of questionable business practices. (He settled a fraud investigtion by the Securities and Exchange Commission in January and all U.S. charges were dropped, but he still faces extradition hearings by the French government, which has accused him of embezzlement, among other crimes.) Quicker than you can say ??involuntary bankruptcy,?? Parretti defaulted on his bank loans, and in 1992, the studio was turned over to his creditors.
That put Credit Lyonnais in charge. And — go figure — the bank has done a cracking job. Its first smart move was hiring Mike Ovitz as a consultant. With his help, a new creative team was picked: former Paramount head Frank Mancuso as CEO, Nichols’ old pal John Calley to helm the UA division, and former agent Michael Marcus to oversee MGM. The results have been remarkable. In 1992, MGM/UA released 7 pictures and grossed $52 million; three years later the studio released 15 films, which took in $333 million.
In fact, it’s possible MGM/UA’s new brain trust may have done too good a job of fattening up the studio for the auction block. As the company went on the market last week, insiders were saying that Credit Lyonnais now expects bids to range from $1.5 billion to $2.5 billion — an awesome sum for a studio that has only half a film library, no serious music division, no theme park, and no physical plant. And it’s possible that the bidding could go even higher. ??If Birdcage turns out to be a $100 million hit,?? says Harold Vogel, an entertainment analyst for the investment banking firm Cowen & Co., ??it could easily add another $50 million to the studio’s price.??
With the stakes so high and the payoff so speculative, why would anyone be crazy enough to bite? Because MGM/UA is the only studio currently for sale, that’s why. Among those rumored to be whipping out their checkbooks are Disney, PolyGram, and New Regency (backed by Samsung and Australian billionaire Kerry Packer, a sort of outback Howard Hughes). Even MGM/UA’s own Mancuso is said to be formulating an offer, although it’s possible he’s done such a good job with the studio he may have priced himself out of the bidding. According to Credit Lyonnais, the sale will take at least six months; meanwhile, MGM/UA continues to plan future movies, including a likely Birdcage sequel. Who’ll be running the studio by the time that comes out is anybody’s guess.
??But whatever else happens,?? notes Nichols cheerfully, ??there’s going to be some very happy French bankers out there.??
— Additional reporting by David Karger, Gregg Kilday, and Richard Natale