robin williams

“Straighten, Tighten:” Intersections of Fatness and Queerness in The Birdcage (1996, dir. Mike Nichols)

When I woke up on a Friday morning a few weeks ago to Twitter blowing up about SCOTUS declaring same sex marriage legal in all 50 states, I was happy that my home country was finally moving away from a gender-discriminatory policy.  Not deliriously happy, mind you.  I feel some kinda way about the political energy and focus poured into marriage equality.  But I do have a sentimental side, and I see how much joy getting married has brought to the people in my life who decided to take the plunge.  (This post isn’t more timely because I traveled halfway across the country to attend the wedding of one of my oldest friends.)  I had a solo mini-celebration for marriage equality that evening with The Birdcage, which I was fond of in high school and had been meaning to revisit.  I remembered the excellent comic performances; it’s enjoyable enough to take the film at face value.  What surprised me was how deeply I empathized with the character at the epicenter of the film’s tumultuous humor, Albert (Nathan Lane).

The opening scene in which Armand (Robin Williams) and their houseman Agador (Hank Azaria) cajole a hysterical Albert into rallying herself* for a drag performance ushers the audience into a first impression of her that is intertwined with her self-image. She describes herself as “fat and hideous”– a declaration Armand, her director and significant other, knows so well that he mouths the words along with her– and says that she’s “gained and lost over 100 pounds in the past year” in an effort to be thin and beautiful enough to maintain her star status and his love.  Although not an extremely large person, she does have a stocky body, where the other performers at the Birdcage (and many of the thong-clad extras in scenes of the public milieu of South Beach) are slender and muscular.

the birdcage, nathan lane, albert

Albert’s sensitivity and flamboyant nature are frequent sources of humor.  Armand and his son Val (Dan Futterman) react to Albert’s outbursts with a certain level of weariness that suggests a routine scenario for their family.  But even though she is an outlandish character in a farce, her anxieties come from a very real place.  The nonplussed reactions she receives from strangers, plus Val’s unwillingness to introduce her to his conservative future in-laws speak to her outsider status in the vast majority of the world.  Despite being a headliner who plays to sold-out houses and is more than willing to self-advocate, she lacks necessary social capital to navigate on her own outside her South Beach bubble.  In a subplot, she wants Armand to sign a palimony agreement so that she will be provided for in case their relationship ends.  Although talented, there is no denying that she is older and fatter than the other performers; who’s to say what her career would look like without Armand and the Birdcage?

The Goldmans’ underlying family tensions are exacerbated when Val declares his intention to marry Barbara (Callista Flockheart), the daughter of staunch conservative Senator Kevin Keely (Gene Hackman) and his wife Louise (Dianne Wiest), who is Barbara Bush by way of Lady Macbeth.  Hit with scandal when Kevin’s “common redneck” colleague dies in bed with an underage black prostitute, Louise suggests using the wedding as a distraction technique to symbolize a return to family values.  Convinced that the Keelys will never connect themselves to a gay, Jewish** family, Val asks Armand to pretend he’s the father of the heterosexual “Coleman” family.  Val initially asks that Albert not be present for the Keelys’ dinner, but Armand insists they compromise and pretend that his companion is heterosexual Uncle Al.  Although the Goldmans want their son to be happy, there is ultimately no sugarcoating that Armand is willing to side with Val and pretend Albert isn’t part of their family unit so that Val can access a social institution the two of them can’t by ingratiating himself to a politician who thinks they’re destroying America.  Her reactions, oversized in most situations, are appropriate in this case. When she refers to herself as “the monster, the freak,” neither Armand nor Val deny that she is characterized thus by their plans to hide her.

For the Goldmans, achieving normalcy is largely about restraining (“straighten, tighten”).  Not only is Val the beneficiary of the charade, he is the main orchestrator, the ambassador of straightness in a queer enclave.  He is a man of few words, forever tolerantly waiting for the exuberance around him to die down.  “Don’t add, just subtract,” he repeatedly advises the Birdcage staff, who help transform the Goldmans’ colorful home into a “monastery.”  The subtraction includes wanting to present Katherine (Christine Baranski), Val’s biological mother, as Armand’s wife.  Albert can barely hide her discomfort around reserved, athletic Katherine, who owns and operates a successful gym.

the birdcage, nathan lane

Although Armand is more masculine and paternal than Albert, Val asks him to tone down his stereotypically gay mannerisms (eg. how he walks, talks, and gestures).  Armand, in turn, coaches Albert to restrain herself, emotionally and physically, in order to play is straight.  “Look at your pinky!  Look at your posture!”  He tells her to hold her unruly body more firmly and tone down her emotional responses.  Dismissing small setbacks (e.g. breaking a piece of toast) seems like a revelation to her:  “Of course!  There’s no need to get hysterical.  All I have to remember is I can always get more toast.”  But the couples’ desire to help their child achieve the life he wants comes at the expense of their own.  Right before the Keelys’ arrival, the family gathers in the master bedroom, their vivacity stripped away in the pursuit of heteronormativity.  Armand remarks that he looks like his grandfather, who “killed himself when he was 30.”  Their clothing and demeanors suggest a funeral, Albert the most uncomfortable of all.

The performance of straightness that the Goldmans put on is a wickedly funny inversion of the colorful, campy drag show that is their profession.  Agador calls himself “Spartacus” and lowers his voice by an octave or two, Armand is so stiff that Val feels the need to fabricate a football injury for his father, and Albert presents herself as an old-fashioned housewife from Smalltown, USA whose ludicrously conservative political views terrify her family, but manage to charm Kevin.  Appropriately, the Keelys themselves are practically drag versions of straight conservatives, wearing clothing so drab as to practically be Orwellian and barely hiding their elitist, repressive viewpoints under jes’ folks rhetoric.  One of my favorite moments in the film is after the two families first meet, when Kevin responds to a polite question about his trip to South Beach with a soporific monologue that spins out into a patriotic travelogue gone wrong.  Of course, they too look at the dinner party as a path to social legitimacy (or, as Louise puts it, “salvation”) that will hide their own connection to deviance.  The Keelys too have a fat skeleton in their closet, as Lousie tries to prevent Kevin from stress-bingeing on candy, and they are stalked by a tabloid journalist (Tom McGowan) who’s “put on so much weight since the Simpson trial.”

As a fat, gender nonconforming person, I deeply felt Albert’s need to be loved and, when people do express love for her, the fragility of her trust.  It’s rough living in an environment where people like you are constantly positioned as inherently unworthy of respect.  Even in the safety of home, family, and community, it is impossible to completely forget the hostility of the outside world, or how easy it is for that hostility to be present in a loved one.  As Albert says, fed up with the emotional burden of being a source of shame for Val, “…everyone laughs at me.  I’m quite aware of how ridiculous I am.”  She says this as she is leaving for the cemetery, dramatically communicating that she feels she is dead to her family.  The scene is not completely serious, as her tone and gestures mimic a diva in a classic melodrama, but it does reflect the real emotional fallout that many LGBTQ people have experienced due to being rejected by their families, including suicide in some instances.

This isn’t the first film I’ve seen with parallels between fatness and queerness, even if fatness is a less explicit factor in The Birdcage than In & Out.  They are barriers to achieving a goal (in both cases, a wedding that will provide social legitimacy).  Albert’s size doesn’t threaten Val and Barbara’s engagement, but she does worry that Armand isn’t attracted to her any longer and doesn’t want to make their partnership legally binding.  Albert’s body, specifically her emotions and mannerisms, is seen as excessive to the point of threatening the family’s social legitimacy.  Her queerness is irrepressible, and the men of the family take it upon themselves to orchestrate a solution.  However, once her influence is removed from the family, Val and Armand alone are not enough to win Kevin and Louise’s trust.  It is only through relying on her “threatening” inclinations to be feminine and maternal (Armand describes her as “practically a breast”), and her skill as a drag queen, that Albert can pass as Mother Coleman.  Once seen as a heterosexual, female mother, she becomes a legitimate (and favored) member of the family in the eyes of Kevin, who is the apex of power in the film, both in terms of social capital and allowing Val to marry Barbara.  The facade of normativity cannot be maintained for long, but the temporary diversion from her outcast status is enough for Albert to sustain the dinner party longer than Val or Armand could on their own.  Her drag skills come in handy again to prevent the Keelys from being spotted by the press, ending the film with a power reversal where the heterosexual elite are sheepishly reliant on the queers for a different kind of salvation than Louise originally anticipated.

Albert and Armand’s happy ending isn’t just because they get to be themselves, but because they triumph due to how their lives have been shaped by being marginalized.  It’s not an explicit score for the fat kids, like Hairspray, but it does find power in qualities that get combined with fatness: femininity, sensitivity, and excess.

*Albert identifies as a gay man and is referred to with both masculine and feminine pronouns.  There are several points in the movie where Albert shows a preference for feminine pronouns, thus my use of she/her/hers in this article.  Apologies if this is confusing.

** Sander Gilman’s Fat Boys: a Slim Book includes an interesting history of the conflation of Jews and fatness in the historical Gentile imagination.  Suffice it to say that there are stereotypical characteristics common to Jewishness, fatness, and effeminacy, such as a lack of athleticism and a penchant for heavy foods (“When the schnecken beckons!”).

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RIP Robin Williams (1951-2014)

Next door the tv’s flashing
Blue frames on the wall,
It’s a comedy of errors, you see,
It’s about taking a fall.
To vanish into oblivion
Is easy to do,
And I try to be, but you know me
I come back when you want me to.

–Elliott Smith, “Miss Misery”

Very few people would categorize Robin Williams as a fat actor, but as the blogger is a child of the 90’s, he deserves a brief memorial on CPBS.

Grief isn’t a zero sum game, and I know that people around the world from all generations are mourning today.  But Robin Williams has a special place in the hearts of many early millennials as one of the main actors of our childhood, our first celebrity.  He was one of the first to make that connection in my mind between movies and real people, the idea that a person could make a life out of playing make-believe.

When I was in second grade, my “boyfriend” was a huge fan of Mork and Mindy.  Our romantic life consisted of me giving him a smooch on the cheek, to which he would respond “Nanoo nanoo!”.  I wonder how he’s doing today.

I remember the excitement when Aladdin came out, that Robin Williams was the voice of the Genie, a casting choice that ushered in the era of stars lending their voices to animated features as a norm.  I remember the excitement about seeing Hook in theaters because Robin Williams was playing Peter Pan, also there was some guy named Dustin Hoffman in it who my parents liked.  I didn’t even know that Steven Spielberg directed it until a few months ago, if you were clinging to any delusions about me being any kind of authority on film.  His performance in Mrs. Doubtfire holds similar nostalgia for me, making me reluctant to admit its problematic areas as a grownup feminist.

I started high school and started taking acting lessons and getting interested in Deep Art Films around the time that Good Will Hunting came out, and Robin gained attention for doing a spate of more serious roles.  I didn’t know about his earlier films like Good Morning Vietnam at that point, but it felt like a cultural shift that paralleled my own sudden moodiness and dissatisfaction with the world I had been dropped into.  I never got around to seeing One Hour Photo, but just knowing that the silly, wacky guy from my childhood was now an obsessive weirdo felt appropriate on a cosmic level.  And then I saw Dead Poets Society, which told me that I could find an internal freedom through art, and as the detainee of a Catholic high school, that means everything.  (On a similar note, his grounded and warm performance in The Birdcage was one of the first gay characters I saw who was neither a hollow stereotype nor a sterilized victim.  I tend to have political reservations around straight actors portraying queer/trans characters, but that film was a very welcome respite during a time when I was trying to sort through my own sexual and gender identity while being steeped in cis/heterosexism.) 

In my sophomore religion class, two classmates of mine had written on the chalkboard: “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may/ Old time is still a-flying/ And this same flower that smiles today/ Tomorrow will be dying”.  I wonder how they’re doing today.

I didn’t know about his struggles with mental illness.  It’s scary to be living with a mood disorder and see someone else who is successful and talented and “supposed to” have more reasons to live succumb to their illness.  I felt that shadow cast by my own mind when Elliott Smith died, and I feel it today.  Many other people who live with mood disorders feel that way today; if you are one of them, and you’re struggling, please reach out to friends or family.  It can be difficult to share your pain, but please believe that there are people in this world who want you in it, and listening to you vent or being there while you cry or helping you distract yourself are tasks they do willingly.  If you feel like you may harm yourself and don’t know who to talk to, please consider calling a number from this list of suicide hotlines.  If you want to express concern and support for a loved one who is depressed, advice blogger Captain Awkward has some ideas for how to do so.

In response to news of Robin Williams’ death, film critic Keith Phipps referenced the old joke about the man who goes to a doctor because he’s depressed.  The doctor recommends he take his mind off his worries by going to the circus to see the famous clown Pagliacci.  “But Doctor,” the man replies, “I am Pagliacci.”  It’s so easy to see people in one dimension, to see them as means to an end, to shoehorn them into our expectations.  The comedian who must always be in a joking mood, who exists for our entertainment (and only one specific type, as we express surprise that a funny person would be able to give a competent dramatic performance).  The person who says they’re depressed; I don’t see what there is to be so sad about, they should cheer up.  The fat character whose pathetic antics make the slim protagonist look better by comparison.  The black youth who must be up to no good, whose lives are regulated and terminated by law enforcement “just doing their job”.  This mentality is the slippery slope to alienation and oppression, and it affects all of us sooner or later. I’m not saying that his public persona drove Robin Williams to die by suicide, but I can only imagine that it must have been lonely inside that persona at times.  

Robin Williams was a man of great talent, and gave the world decades of work to appreciate and enjoy.  As we remember him, let’s think of a blue genie and an alien and a Southie psychologist, but above all, let’s think of a human being who struggled and triumphed and failed and carried on and loved and was loved.  

Was deeply loved, even if we didn’t realize how much so until yesterday.

A Selection of Articles Memorializing Robin Williams:

Please share your memories of Robin Williams in the comments.