Today I Read…The Birdcage

Today I read The Birdcage, the novelization by Robert Rodi based on the screenplay by Elaine May.

Weddings are always stressful, especially when the two families meet for the first time. But Val and Barbara have some special challenges ahead. Barbara’s parents are a senator and a senator’s wife–proudly white, upper class, conservative, heterosexual, Republican, God-fearing folk, and her father is the Vice President of the Coalition for Moral Order. Whose fellow co-chair was just found dead. In the bed of a prostitute. An underage black prostitute. Well, at least she was a girl.

Val’s parents, on the other hand…well, his father is Armand, a flamboyant gay Jewish man who runs a nightclub in South Beach, and his mother is the noted drag queen Starina, diva extraordinaire and star of The Birdcage, who becomes Albert the neurotic and insecure middle-aged even more flamboyant gay man when the spotlight turns off.

Dinner is going to be interesting.

I love the movie, so I was interested to read the book. Since the screenplay came first, the book does stick fairly close to the movie, unlike what usually happens when a book is turned into a movie. The movie and the book are from 1996, so the scenario of having to pretend a gay man is actually a woman to pacify bigots is a little out of date, but it’s still a good story.

The story is really about people who get so caught up in appearances that they start to forget what really matters is underneath. Val is afraid of the Keeleys’ reaction to Albert, his very male ‘mother’, so at first he wants Albert to leave and not meet them at all and then to invite his birth mother,  whom he’s never met, to pretend to be the mother who raised him, and finally to pretend that Albert really is a woman. Armand and Albert want to make Val happy, so they pretend that Albert is a woman, redecorate their home to appear more ‘straight,’ and lie about every aspect of their lives in order to seem more appealing to the Keeleys. Senator and Mrs. Keeley want Val’s family to be perfect (meaning exactly like them), so a nice white wedding will distract the press from the sex scandal of Senator Jackson’s death. Then Senator Keeley decides he likes “Mother Coleman” a bit more than Mrs. Keeley is comfortable with. Barbara just wants to marry Val, so she goes along with all of the various masquerades to avoid upsetting people. The book has the usual moral of be who you are, and love your family whoever they are–even (especially) if they’re really screwed up.

I really love Armand and Albert’s relationship. They spend most of the book quarreling, over everything. Albert is neurotic and insecure, and Armand is impatient and put-upon and constantly worries when things don’t go according to plan. And they’ve been together for twenty years. They’ve run a business, raised a child, fought and made-up and fought again and made-up again. They never actually use the word ‘love’ in the book, or in the movie, but they do use the word ‘home’. And in some ways, I think that’s much more powerful.

*********************************************************************************************

Yes, I use foundation. Yes, I live with a man. Yes, I’m a middle-aged fag. But I know who I am.”

“Pop,” Val started to protest.

Armand stopped him. “It’s taken me twenty years to get here, Val, and I’m not going to let some idiot senator destroy it. Fuck the senator! I don’t give a damn what he thinks!” His eyes narrowed. “I know that kind. Their intolerance always catches up to them. Lays them flat. Sooner or later. You mark my words: sooner or later he’ll get what’s coming to him.”

*******************************************************************************************

Armand got out of the car and went to the bench

“Yes?” said Albert.

Armand sat anyway. He put his hands in his lap. “You know,” he said, “my cemetery is in Key Biscayne. It’s the prettiest in the world. There are lovely trees, the sky is blue. There are birds. The one is Los Copa is really shit.” He leaned back, and observed that Albert was munching faster. “What a pain in the ass you are.” Albert stopped munching, his hand suddenly halting while still in the bag. “And it’s true: you’re not young and you’re not new. And you do make people laugh. And me–I’m still with you because you make me laugh.”

Albert lowered the bag to his lap, and sighed.

“So you know what I have to do? I have to sell my plot in Key Biscayne and get a plot beside yours in that shithole, Los Copa, to make sure I never miss a laugh.”

“There,” said Armand, putting his hand over Albert’s. “We’re partners. You legally own half my life and I legally own half of yours.”

“But half of the club…”

“Don’t you think it matters?Take it all! I’m fifty years old and there’s one place in the world I call home…and that’s because you’re there. So take it. What difference does it make if I let you stay or you let me stay?”

“Oh, Armand.”

“It’s home. It’s home for me, and I think, it’s home for you, too.”

Albert stared into Armand’s eyes, willing himself not to melt, and failing. “Of course it’s home for me,” he said. “Where else?”

Armand patted his hand. “Where else,” he said, in confirmation.

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