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A 'Bird' in the fist: Author Leslea Newman found 'The Birdcage' to be condescending and redolent of old anti-gay stereotypes.
Lesbian author trapped in 'Birdcage'
David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in an ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This time around, David calls up outspoken writer Leslea Newman (Heather Has Two Mommies) to discuss the new film The Birdcage, a broadly played farce about a gay couple who agree to play straight for one excruciating evening.
So there I was in the theater last night," describes the voice on the phone. "And I was watching the movie, and I was trying to gauge the audience. It was a full house, and I just kept wondering what these people were laughing at. I mean, were they laughing with the fags or at the fags?"
Leslea Newman is speaking from her home in North Hampton, Mass. After two months of bicoastal phone tag, we've finally found a movie that (a) deals with gay or lesbian relationships and (b) is playing at both ends of the United States. We settled on The Birdcage, a remake of the French farce La Cage aux Folles, about two gay men (Robin Williams and Nathan Lane) who have raised a son, now 20 years old; when he asks them to play straight for one evening, hiding their homosexuality from his fiancée's ultraconservative parents (Gene Hack-man and Diane Wiest), they can't say no. It's what Guess Who's Coming to Dinner would have been like had the daughter asked Sydney Poitier to pretend he was white.
"I actually talked to someone this morning," Newman continues, "who saw the movie in Springfield, very different from North Hampton, though it's only 15 minutes away. And he was sure the audience was reacting in a homophobic manner. They were laughing, but they were laughing at the spectacle of it."
"Sounds like you didn't much like it?' I suggest. "Oh, I didn't," she agrees. "And I really wanted to."
Leslea Newman is such a prolific writer that some have referred to her as a "one-woman cottage industry." Though best known as the author of the groundbreaking children's book Heather Has Two Mommies (a widely publicized target of conservative Republicans, it is in truth quite charming and sweet), Newman has also produced 20 volumes of poetry, fiction, self-help, and inspiration.
Her latest, My Lover Is a Woman: Contemporary Lesbian Love Poems (Ballantine, 1996), is a stirring, stunning, funny, sexy, politically charged, and uplifting assemblage of poems featuring the work of 126 lesbian and bisexual women from around the globe.
"Sometimes I try," Newman continues, "to just check my politics at the door and enjoy the movie, but it doesn't work, you know? This movie made me really sad, that in this day and age these parents were willing to devalue their lives so much for the love of their son, and I know it was a farce and I know that without that you wouldn't have had a movie, but . . ." There is a long pause. "When Albert [Lane] walks out dressed in that suit, and everyone was laughing, I just wanted to cry.
"It made me wonder how this kid could grow up in this family, a warm, affectionate family, and then turn out this way. I guess all kids rebel against their parents in some way, but he was horrible to them. I would think that if he felt this strongly, he'd just say that his parents were dead."
"But by asking them to play it straight . . . ?" I ask.
"He's asking them to agree that there's something to be ashamed of."
"Some would say," I suggest, "that the importance of this movie is that, with so many people, straight people, going to see it, it's bringing them one step closer to being comfortable with the presence of homosexuality."
"I don't know about that," she replies. "What I really felt like doing last night was doing an exit poll and asking people what they thought. What would they do now if they saw a really queeny guy walking down the street? After this movie, would they think any differently of him?"
Aside from the political aspect, the lack of movies with believable gay men and the even greater absence of screen lesbians have taken a personal toll on her, Newman explains. "We're constantly translating. Every love story we see, we translate it into our own experience, and you get used to that. So when I saw a movie like, oh, The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love [a small independent film, released last year], it blew my mind. I didn't have to translate! It was just . . . two girls in love.
"I came out of that theater singing," she laughs. "Like I never had before."
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From the Mar. 21-27, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent
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