Usually, when we praise comedians for their acting, it’s when they Get Serious in a dramatic role. When Melissa McCarthy goes dark for a Can You Ever Forgive Me? or Bill Murray dulls down his irreverence for a Lost in Translation, it almost feels like a cynical Oscars play – because those are the roles that get prestige-circle accolades. Robin Williams’s career is an excellent sample of this pattern, since the hyperactive goofballery of his comedy and the reserved vulnerability of his dramatic performances are at such drastically opposed extremes. Williams’s dramatic turns in grounded, sober films like Dead Poets Society & Good Will Hunting are paradoxically showy in their restraint, considering how starkly different they are from the frantic, coke-rattled mania of his comedic sidekick roles and his on-stage stand-up routines. His awards attention for those more somber, restrained performances practically register as a child getting a lollipop for good behavior.
If we’re going out of our way to highlight Williams’s finest roles as the ones where he’s most restrained, there is at least one frantic screwball comedy that belongs in the conversation: 1996’s The Birdcage. A collaboration between comedy legends Nichols & May (as director & screenwriter, respectively), an early credit for overachieving cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, and a remake of a popular French farce, The Birdcage has enough built-in prestige to appear Respectable in a way that other Robin Williams comedies like Mrs. Doubtfire & Death to Smoochy do not. More to the point, it’s a performance that explicitly asks Williams to tone it down and keep his flamboyance under wraps for the sake of the plot – a self-inflicted restraint that you can practically see is eating him alive as the rest of the world around him gets exponentially zanier. The Birdcage might just be the one movie where Robin Williams is the best-behaved adult in the room, and much of its humor derives from the fact that he so badly wants not to be.
The Birdcage is a traditional screwball comedy about a tense, disastrous dinner party in which a gay couple (Robin Williams & Nathan Lane) hide their true personalities from the straight Conservative parents (Gene Hackman & Dianne Wiest) of their child’s fiancée (Calista Flockhart). Ironically, Williams is cast as The Straight Man in this comedic set-up, a proud but accommodating nightclub owner who’s willing to tone down his eccentricities to appease his monstrous asshole of a son. His main job is to sweat & fret as the deception unravels from every direction. Meanwhile, other comedic performers are set loose to go as over-the-top as they please: Lane as a drag queen doing Barbara Bush schtick; Hackman as a cartoon exaggeration of Republican Party cruelty (one that’s only become closer to the truth in the past couple decades); Hank Azaria as a hot-to-trot houseboy; etc. It’s a rare instance where Williams sets aside his usual “Look at me! Look at me!” manic comedy to merely react to the buffoonery that surrounds him, and that silent frustration elevates every other performance handily.
There is one isolated moment in The Birdcage where Robin Williams is set loose to do his usual hyperactive child routine. In a scene where he’s choreographing a stage number for his drag club, he excitedly shouts the directions “You do Fosse, Fosse, Fosse! You do Martha Graham, Martha Graham, Martha Graham! […] Madonna, Madonna, Madonna!” while acting out each impersonation in pantomime. It’s a brief moment where his manic stand-up persona (later repurposed for the eccentric sidekicks he voiced in kids’ movies like Aladdin & Happy Feet) is allowed to invade the screen. For the rest of the runtime, he’s asked to keep that flamboyance in check, and the act of bottling it up is visibly crushing him in a consistently hilarious way. If Robin Williams’s acting chops are mostly going to be remembered & lauded in roles where he exercises a toned-down restraint that contrasts his over-the-top comedies, I think it’s worth singling out The Birdcage as a performance where we can see that self-discipline being practiced in real time. If nothing else, it’s a lot more fun to watch than snoozers like Good Will Hunting or What Dreams May Come.