The Birdcage

Originally published in 1996 | Premiere Magazine

Poor Nathan Lane. Doing an interview with Robin Williams sitting next to him in a bathrobe, shooting out one-liners like a human BB gun, must make wearing a girdle for 79 days seem downright liberating. No need to feel sorry for the Broadway actor best known as the voice of Timon the meerkat in The Lion King. So what if director Mike Nichols made Lane wear a dress for three months while doing The Birdcage, a remake of the 1978 French comedy La Cage aux folles? Who cares if Elaine May, the film's author, made him scream queeny lines for days on end? So what if The Birdcage is fraught with stereotypical gays from a pre-AIDS, pre-ACT-UP bygone era? Lane's got bigger problems, like trying to survive an interview and photo shoot with his costar, who keeps uttering lines like "You can lead a whore to culture, but you can't make her drink!" Lane, if a bit reluctantly, joins the hoopla. So I begin by sneaking off with the New Jersey-born thespian to discuss the pitfalls of putting on a skirt while putting down a first lady; Williams joins us later.

Is it true that you based your character on Barbara Bush?
Lane: Well, they gave me these big pearls to wear and it just became the image that everyone used. The sad thing is that that's what I do best--the matronly look.

Did it surprise you to be cast in the movie?
Lane: Yeah, because what I'm basically known for is that rat thing in The Lion King!

From the rat thing to Barbara Bush.
Lane: Yes, I found the Barbara Bush inside me. My inner Bush.

Was Robin ever jealous of your part?
Lane: Everyone is surprised when they find out he's not playing my part. He did tell me that the first few weeks, it was hard for him to watch me go off. But then he said he found the comedy in his character. I think we understand each other very well. I remember, at one point, the two of us standing there and saying to [Nichols], "Can we, can we do it again? Can we, can we try that again?" And I said, "We are the two most insecure, neediest people I've ever seen in my life."

Any reservations about doing your first big Hollywood role in drag?
Lane: How could I, when it's with Mike Nichols and Robin Williams? These are my heroes. Besides, it's not like I'm Tom Cruise.

Was Mike, in a way, more intimidating than Robin?
Lane: Yeah. You know, I still, I still get a little nervous every time I see Mike. [Laughs]

Why is that?
Lane: I don't know. He--because he's Mike Nichols. [Laughs] I think I've sort of slightly gotten over it. He's the most charming man in America, and whomever he's with, he makes you feel like the most important person in the world, and the most interesting. Mike and Elaine May are, you know... I, I still haven't gotten them to sign--I have the album An Evening With Mike Nichols and Elaine May, and I keep meaning to give it to them...

They wouldn't sign it for you?
Lane: No. I just kept... I was too embarrassed. I almost brought it to Miami when we went down to shoot the exteriors.

Did Diane Sawyer give you any fashion advice?
Lane: Accessorize, accessorize, accessorize.

[Williams joins us now, looking elegant in a smoking jacket and a silver Mickey Mouse pinkie ring.]

Robin, Nathan told me it was love at first sight when he met you. Was it the same for you?
Williams: It was laugh at first sight! We started riffing the moment we met. Originally, they wanted me to do Nathan's part, and I said no. Done that. And when I heard he was doing it, people told me he was hilarious.

Lane: An act of faith, ladies and gentlemen!

If Nathan's doing Barbara Bush, who are you doing?
Williams: Oh God. Not gonna say it. Not gonna go there. [Looks at Lane] Are you really doing Barbara Bush?

Lane: Well, the look, not the voice.

Williams: You did look like her.

Is Mrs. Bush aware of your inspiration?
Lane: You know, Timon and Pumbaa appeared on [the radio program] Mrs. Bush's Storytime. In fact, they told me I'm the only person who ever referred to her as Barbara... [Williams laughs] 'Cause you record it at different times. And I was saying all these rude things, calling her Babs and Barbara. They said, "No one's ever called her Barbara. Uh, they always say Mrs. Bush."

I just hope that you go to the White House screening.
Lane: I just should go in drag to the White House, and scare the hell out of the whole staff. [Laughs] "I left an umbrella. Does anybody remember where it is?" [Both laugh]

What's the most difficult thing about wearing a dress?
Lane: Finding the right bag? [Williams laughs] Well, they give you breasts with little nipples that attach. [Looks at Williams] Remember the Velcro nipples?

Williams: Yeah, but Mike didn't want us to use them.

Lane: There is pain involved.

Williams: You had to do more than I did in Doubtfire--because, basically, I didn't have a figure or hips. I was just a walking settee: "Oh look, here comes the ottoman." They gave you hips and legs and the whole number.

Lane: And leopard boots!

Williams: But, you know, in Doubtfire she was everyone's aunt; I didn't have to do all the stuff the dancers [in Birdcage] do.

Lane: Some very attractive women!

Williams: Even the grips were going, "I know it's a guy, but..." [Laughs] "It's the most beautiful Oriental girl I've ever seen, and I was standin' next to him at the urinal..." [Both laugh] "It just makes me nuts, man, I'm so attracted to that guy!"

Whose idea was it to make up Gene Hackman as Margaret Whiting?
Lane: Margaret Whiting?

Williams: [Laughs] Gene was amazing...

Lane: He's such a man's man and then he would always surprise me. He'd say, "You know, I was just listening to Barbara Cook in my trailer..."

Williams: Oh, Gene. You'd go into his trailer and there would be all these show posters!

How do you think this film, with its stereotypical gays, is going to survive the PC police?
Williams: God knows! The one thing that will help is the tenderness of it. We may have sacrificed something, but we tried to get across a couple who were just as loving as any heterosexual couple. It's a love story. But you have to brace yourself, though, because there's gonna be people pissed off.

Lane: Well, those are people who come with their own agenda, and if you don't fulfill it, they get mad. Is this a big political statement? No. This is entertainment! And if you start to think about what's politically correct, you wind up in big trouble. I know at times we both wished that my character was a little hipper or had more of an edge, but that's not the character.

Williams: Or what Mike wanted. We would try it and he'd say he'd look at it--and we kind of went, "Yeah, fat chance."

Where are the love scenes?
Lane: [Coughs] Well, I think the scene at the bus stop [when Williams and Lane make up after a fight] is the love scene, really.

Did you establish some sort of relationship internally? Was one the top and one the bottom?
Lane: [Laughing] That's the basis for all my characters! Because once I establish that...

Williams: [Interrupting] The Three Sisters! [Lane laughs] Obviously, the two of us sounded more kind of butch...

Lane: ...but once we get in the bedroom...

Williams: ...Oh Daddy!

Tell me about the etiquette of comedy. When is it going too far?
Williams: Boy, are you talking to the wrong guy!

Lane: I remember when I read the script, I worried about that abortion thing, when I say, "Kill the mothers." I thought, Gee, that's sort of a touchy area.

Williams: I think it's taken like Swift--as the ultimate satire of the conservative point of view.

Have either of you ever gone too far?
Williams: Oh yeah. I mean, I'll be on a roll and say something that's either tasteless or cruel, and you sense it and pull back.

When does it become tasteless?
Williams: When people don't laugh.

Lane: Or when there's projectile vomiting! [Laughs]

Williams: [Laughs] Or when you hear this. [Clears his throat]

Where do you draw the line? AIDS? Oklahoma City?
Williams: If it's at the expense of the thing, if you're just using it as a laugh. It's a hard call. I did a thing about the antiabortion forces, basically. It seems, like, that they never hang out; once a baby's born, that's it. So I did a thing about delivering a crack baby to a woman who is right-to-life and she screams, "No!" It got a huge laugh. Then you get people who just get furious. Is it tasteless? Yes. Does it make a point? Yes.

Lane: Look at Lenny Bruce.

Williams: Talking about Kennedy?

Lane: Yeah.

Williams: After the assassination, he was talking about Jacqueline Kennedy, that she wasn't going for help, that that was bullshit, that she was just trying to get out of the car and they were throwing her back in.

Lane: But he did it, like, the day after the assassination. You know, it's like they say: Comedy is tragedy plus time. You need a little distance.

Williams: I think you're right.

Was it wrong of Joan Rivers to make all those fat jokes about Liz Taylor?
Williams: Well, it was strange when Joan Rivers finally met Liz Taylor and Liz iced her. And Joan was wondering why Liz did it. Sweetheart, you called her a fuckin' balloon! She's not gonna want to hang out with you! [Laughs] You can't have it both ways. You have to understand that. But for every rule you make in terms of comedy, somebody will violate it and be brilliant. You know, [Sam] Kinison's best stuff was about Ethiopia. He would say, "Here's some luggage--move!"

Lane: [Joining in] "GO WHERE THE FOOD IS!" [Laughs]

Williams: People loved that he had the balls to talk about it! But in other cases, he could be tasteless and ugly. In the end, he was apologizing for some of the shit he said. I think he was just so driven.

Who's funny today? Jim Carrey?
Williams: Yeah. He's funny in a physical--you know, he chose the thing to do and he's the master of it. To do that just straight out. When it works, it just hits you. I went to see Dumb and Dumber in a theater in Hawaii with my children and they laughed. And you find yourself laughing with them at stuff.

It's so stupid and so hilarious.
Williams: Because it's absolute commitment to it. There's no comment on it. It's the pure fucking energy of it! But when he starts being honored in France, we'll know we have to worry. [Laughs] Ugh! [In a French accent] "Wee are proud to geeve thees, the three double spit-take, for a man who izable to light a fahrt [Both laughing hysterically] wees both legs behind his head!" [Laughter and clapping]

Lane: Bravo!

Williams: Bravo!

Who isn't funny?
Lane: Uh... [Laughs]

Williams: Kissinger doesn't rip a laugh. [Imitating Kissinger] "I haff been on ze board ov MGM now for..."

Lane: Oh, he's a prankster! Did you ever see him pull out the fake vomit?

Williams: "Am I bombing or is this Cambodia? I'm kidding. Good night!" [Laughs] Not funny? That's hard. There are so many great new comics. Have you ever seen Dana Gould? He's knock-you-on-your-ass funny.

Lane: Really funny.

Williams: Or Marga Gomez. She's amazing! She's like a lesbian Lenny Bruce.

You're both comedy junkies. What feeds that?
Williams: Laughter! [Both laugh]

What drives you?
Williams: More than one person in a room! It's that cheap. Once you start to hear laughter, it just takes you.

Will you do anything to get it?
Williams: Will I go on Comic Relief and be a ventriloquist doing Whoopi Goldberg's vagina? Yes. But I've walked offstage. I've said, "I'm going to do something really awful, like try and make my penis talk." Sometimes the laughter just gets so infectious that you get taken by the spirit, and you have to back away.

Do you have any regrets about having gone too far?
Williams: I've bombed--I bombed at the Academy Awards once. It was years ago, and I came out in mouse ears and mouse hands. I remember Gregory Peck going, "You're not going to grab yourself, are you?" Well, I didn't get one laugh.

You still do stand-up here in San Francisco, don't you?
Williams: Yeah, I also go out on the road, which gives you a clue about the rest of the country. You find out exactly what the taste levels are. It's real interesting, because people come expecting Mork and... [In a redneck voice] "Uh-oh! Is he talkin' about birth control? Oral sex with women? What the hell...?" I remember once doing something about the Cunning Linguist School--and then realizing I was at a feminist benefit!

Did anyone laugh?
Williams: Oh yeah. But I also think people were horrified. In a weird way, I understand why Tom Arnold bombed [at the Golden Globes].

I heard that's quite a painting Disney gave you for all that Aladdin tsuris.
Williams: It's beautiful. It was a wonderful thing they did. It was what happened afterward, though, when things got strange. Then [Disney] did this violation of an agreement we had. I said, "I'll do the movie for free, just don't place me with products." And they did. Then they put up this whole front that I was trying to shake them down. So I just walked away. But they apologized, which is all I wanted anyway.

You never had a suit against the studio?
Williams: People said I should have sued the shit out of them, but why? It wasn't that type of relationship. I did the movie as a favor! The relationship just went sour, that's all. It was a hurtful thing. I went, "Okay, fuck it, then, until they apologize." And they did.

So what did Disney send with the apology, the Hope Diamond?
Williams: Just the apology.

Whom do you go with now--Michael Eisner at Disney, or Jeffrey Katzenberg at Dreamworks?
Williams: Nobody for now.

You and Nathan should do an animated film together.
Lane: Yeah!

Williams: Wild!

Lane and Williams: [Singing together] "There's a plaaace for us..." [Both laugh]

Williams: Oh God! Boy Story! [Laughs] They're doing a straight-to-video with that.

Did either of you ever play dress-up as a kid?
Williams: [To Lane] You go first.

Lane: [Laughs] Play dress-up? Uh...

Williams: Just my mom's teddies. There was never any harm. And they were great to wear under hockey clothes. [Laughs]

Lane: Dress-up? What kind of dress-up? Evening wear? A child wearing evening wear?

Williams: Nathan, do you remember your mom's gowns?

Lane: Yeah.

Williams: Do you remember stuff that was really comfortable?

Lane: [It's coming to him now] I think I do have some sort of memory of Halloween...

Williams: Dressing up?

Lane: Yeah, in my mother's clothes...

Williams: [Relieved] As a drag queen!

Lane: Poverty led me to it: "Can't we have a Casper costume?" "No! Put on the evening gown!"

Williams: "You're going as Joan Blondell!"

Robin, were you ever jealous of Nathan?
Williams: Oh yeah. My wife would say, "You know, he's gonna kick ass in these scenes." And then you just have to cycle into it. You're going, "Look, fucker, I turned down that part! I could have looked like Barbara Bush!" [Laughs]

What's next for you both?
Lane: A remake of Pillow Talk! This time, he's Doris! [Laughs]

Williams: I'm not going to do anything for a while. I've been working too many movies back-to-back. I'll perform and chill for a while. Or maybe some small parts. [He has, however, expressed interest in starring with Billy Crystal in Fathers' Day, another remake of a French film.]

Nathan, you're on quite a ride these days.
Lane: Yeah. I'm just trying to allow myself to experience it and, and enjoy it. I was at the Kennedy Center honors for Neil Simon, and Sid Caesar said, "Try to enjoy it while it's happening. Don't be like me." Which I thought was really good advice.

If you were a car, what kind of car would you be?
Williams: The one I have, a Defender. It's like a Humvee.

So you're real tough?
Williams: On the outside. But with a soft, Corinthian-leather interior! [Both laugh]

Lane: And I'm a Tercel! [Both laugh] The Humvee and the Tercel--that's our new animated show!

Williams: This fall on ABC. Come on, Humvee! Come on, Tert!

Now we know who's on top.
Williams: Yeah, but who parks?

Wall of Tributes >