Movies of 1996 Bracket Game: The Hunchback of Notre Dame Vs. The Birdcage

Hunchback Vs. The Birdcage

Due to the nature of this bracket game, the round two match-ups can feel a little random.  Perhaps none more so than today’s.  What do Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Birdcage have in common?  They are both based on French source material.  Hunchback obviously is based on  Victor Hugo’s famous novel and Birdcage is a remake of the French farce, La Cage aux Folles.  And while it may not be immediately apparent, both movies have similar themes.  In The Birdcage a gay couple pretends to be straight to help their son fit into his fiancée’s family.  In Hunchback, an outsider sings of his desire to be “Out there” which many have interpreted as having a homosexual subtext.

Admittedly a stretch, but you try finding commonalities between these two movies!

In yesterday’s oddball pairing, readers send Jerry Maguire packing in favor of the clever horror-comedy, Scream.  So the meta slasher flick will face off against the alien invaders from Independence Day in the semi-finals.


So far in round two we have been concentrating on the directors.  The directors we have covered so far have all been well-known.  But when it comes to animated features, most people don’t think about the directors.  Instead, people think about the animation studio that produced the movie.  This goes back to the early days when Walt Disney took credit for everything.  But animated movies do have directors just like live action movies do.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame actually had two of them.  It was directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise.  The two directors had collaborated before on Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.  That movie was the first-ever animated feature to be nominated for Best Picture by the Oscars.  It lost to Silence of the Lambs, but just to be nominated was a huge accomplishment.

The nomination whetted the appetite of Disney’s then studio head, Jeffrey Katzenberg.  He was convinced that if an animated feature could be nominated for Best Picture, then an animated feature could also win.  He set his sights on finding the right project to accomplish this lofty goal.  He finally decided on Hunchback.  Like Beauty and the Beast, the story had French origins.  Sure, it was dark.  But Disney had a long history of sanitizing the source material of its movies.

Belle from Beauty and the Beast makes a cameo appearance in The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Belle from Beauty and the Beast makes a cameo appearance in The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Trousdale and Wise were chosen to direct because they were the only two directors in history to be nominated for Best Picture for an animated movie.  The thinking was that if anyone could direct an animated Best Picture, it would be them.  But very early in development, there were problems.  Katzenberg was fired by his mentor, former Disney CEO Michael Eisner, and the studio was plunged into turmoil.

For a time, Hunchback was delayed.  It was uncertain whether or not Disney would proceed with the project following Katzenberg’s departure.  Eventually, the decision was made to move forward.  According to the directors, while they missed Katzenberg’s involvement, they also enjoyed an unprecedented level of artistic freedom on Hunchback.

“We were given a lot more free rein on this and not having every single choice or decision second-guessed or questioned,” Trousdale said.

“Or beaten into the ground,” added Wise. “I really admired the fact that Jeffrey was relentless in trying to get us to constantly do better and challenge us to not necessarily settle for the first idea that came down the pike. I think we found ourselves challenging ourselves even more in terms of making sure that this was the best choice creatively on any decision, just by virtue of the fact that there wasn’t going to be someone in the executive ranks who we knew was going to be breathing down our necks and challenging us. We had to provide the challenge for ourselves.”

Unfortunately, Hunchback wasn’t nearly as successful as Disney had hoped.  The directors collaborated once more on the Disney animated feature, Atlantis.  After Atlantis bombed, Trousdale and Wise were broken up.  Wise has continued to work with Disney, but hasn’t directed another movie in over a decade.  Trousdale ended up joining Katzenberg at Dreamworks Animation.  There, he has directed several TV specials involving Shrek and the Madagascar characters.

The Birdcage was directed by Mike Nichols.  There is no way I can do justice to Nichols’ career within the parameters of one half of a bracket game write-up.  In broad strokes, Nichols and Elaine May were a successful comedy team in the sixties.  Nichols was also an accomplished theater director which paved the way for him to transition into film.  He was nominated for Best Director for his first movie, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  He won Best Director for his second movie, The Graduate.

For decades, Nichols worked as a director alternating between stage and screen.  He was nominated for Best Director both at the Tonys and the Oscars.  Nochols received Oscar nominations for Silkwood and  Working Girl.  Additionally, Nichols racked up a Grammy, four Emmys, nine Tonys and a Peabody making him one of only two people to claim a PEGOT.  The other is Barbra Streisand.

You could write a book about Mike Nichols, but we don’t have time for that.  We’ve got a bracket game to vote on.  So what’s it going to be?  Disney’s bid for Best Picture or a remake of a French farce?


Posted on January 29, 2016, in Bracket Game, Movies and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.

  1. It’s beginning to look as though we’re going to see a Scream vs. Fargo final this time.

    Meanwhile, for today’s vote–eeny, meeny, miny, mo. 🙂


  2. I’m hoping for Fargo to win it all moreso than expecting it. We’ve seen that anything can happen in these brackets so that’s all I will say for now.


    • A Fargo win would make me happy. If ID4 wins, I will lose my faith in humanity.


      • Sadly, if such a shocking event occurred it wouldn’t be on behalf of humanity, it would be because of your readership. AGHAST!

        ID4 is a fun popcorn movie, but let’s be real, folks. We don’t want to see Lebeau lose his faith in humanity, or even worse lose his faith in you. Do what’s right here. Make sure that Fargo wins it all. Not for the Coen brothers, and no not for yourself. No, do it for Lebeau. It’s time to do the right thing here. Exploding White Houses are cool, yes. But human legs in a woodchipper are a hundred times cooler. Criminals getting shot in the jaw are a hundred times cooler. William H. Macy saying “You’re darned tootin’!” is a lot cooler than some aliens with tentacles threatening “No peace!”

        Do the right thing, people. Vote Fargo…. for Lebeau. He deserves this.


        • If ID4 wins, I will have done it to myself. Daffy dummy-proofed his 1986 bracket game by leaving the bad, popular movies out. I opened the door to an unworthy winner by being less selective. So I’ll take whatever outcome the readers give me. But dang! That would be hard to swallow.


  3. While I will steadfastly defend 95% of Hunchback, that remaining 5% is a real problem. On the other hand, I don’t think there’s much in Birdcage that needs defending at all. Repeat viewings have only made me like it more. You could maybe criticize the characterization of the son, as he is a little hard on his Dads, but that’s paid off with the eventual reveal so it’s a quibble.

    It looks like the Disney fans who showed up last round are back, so this could be a close contest.


  4. This one’s easy, for me anyway. Nathan Lane and Robin Williams.


  5. many people asked if Nathan Lane was gay after that flick. This movie came out before he did lol. I loved the birdcage but I wish the meeting between 2 parents happened a little longer. like a weekend thing like meet the parents


  6. After The Birdcage, Hollywood shoved gay comedies back in the closet
    By Nico Lang–234273

    In 2013, news broke that Channing Tatum and John Milhiser (formerly of Saturday Night Live) were set to star in a gay romantic comedy from director Paul Feig, who was fresh off the massive success of Bridesmaids. The premise sounded endearing enough: A relative average Joey (Milhiser) lands a hunky hottie, played by the former “Sexiest Man Alive” himself, and can’t believe his good fortune. In the time-honored tradition of romantic comedies, hijinks ensue.

    If you’re wondering why you haven’t heard of that movie, it’s because it never existed: Feig pitched executives the idea of the 21 Jump Street actor playing the lead, and his “pie-in-the-sky” choice trickled its way onto the internet as a genuine casting announcement. Nearly three years later, that film hasn’t been made with Tatum, Milhiser, or anyone else. In fact, there hasn’t been a gay studio comedy at all since Sacha Baron Cohen released Brüno in 2009, based on the flamboyant Austrian reporter Cohen originated on Da Ali G Show.

    Even worse, there’s never been a comedy with a queer female lead that’s played in more than a thousand theaters. Ever. Thus far, the widest-ever release for a LGBT-themed comedy starring women was Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right in 2010, a movie that topped out at just 994 theaters. Kissing Jessica Stein, Jennifer Westfeldt’s 2001 rom-com hit about a “straight” woman in a same-sex relationship, hit its ceiling at 319. In contrast, the most recent Adam Sandler vehicle, Pixels, screened at 3,723 locations on its opening weekend. (Speaking of Sandler, it’s telling that the highest-grossing gay-themed comedy of the past decade is I Now Pronounce You Chuck And Larry, a film that preaches tolerance while promoting homophobic, unenlightened attitudes about gay men.)

    This deficit is underscored by the recent 20th anniversary of The Birdcage, the Mike Nichols-directed film that broke box-office records when it was released in 1996. The movie was a historic smash, earning $120 million in theaters. In today’s dollars, that would be the equivalent of a $237 million haul—around what the most recent Star Trek and X-Men movies earned domestically. After The Birdcage opened on March 8, the film held on at number one for four weeks, while earning an additional $61 million overseas.

    Its blockbuster success, however, was not unique: The Birdcage was just one of a string of profitable gay-themed comedies well-received by the public. Drag comedies like To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar (which made the equivalent of $72 million back in 1995) and Victor Victoria (the equivalent of $83 million in 1982) also proved sizable hits. In addition, La Cage Aux Folles, the French film from which The Birdcage was adapted, was the most successful foreign film ever (the equivalent of $70 million in 1978) until the release of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2000.

    When The Birdcage debuted, the L.A. Times’ Kenneth Turan suggested that there was a reason that gender-bending gay movies proved so successful. He wrote that these films “[demonstrate] that homosexuals, otherwise practically taboo on domestic screen… [are] acceptable to audiences if they were made up to look like the opposite sex.” In The Birdcage, Albert (Nathan Lane) is a nightclub diva who works in his partner Armand (Robin Williams)’s club. His drag name is “Starina.” Albert spends most of The Birdcage attempting to pass himself off as a Nancy Reagan clone (“Mrs. Coleman” grew up on Fisher Island and believes in a “return to traditional values”) at his son’s request, to impress the Republican parents of the young man’s girlfriend.

    The following year, Kevin Kline starred in the decidedly non-drag In & Out. Kline plays Howard Brackett, a schoolteacher who is outed by a former student. His one-time pupil wins an Academy Award for playing a gay character (à la Tom Hanks in Philadelphia) and thanks Brackett in the speech for teaching him to be tolerant of others. There’s one problem: Howard is engaged to be married to Peggy (Joan Cusack) and he’s straight—or at least he thinks he is? His friends point out that he does own a lot of Barbra Streisand records. In & Out, which received acting nods at the Oscars and Golden Globes, made the equivalent of $121 million in 1997.

    What made the reluctant coming-out film successful was not the presence of makeup and heels, but its universal themes of acceptance—of others or yourself. Most of Howard’s friends know that he’s gay before he does and don’t care, but it takes Howard a while to catch up. His fianceé has objections to his realization, of course, but her major complaint is that he waits until their wedding day to figure himself out. Who wouldn’t be upset? But it’s worth it to see hysterical Joan Cusack yell to a crowd of wedding guests “Does anybody here know how many times I’ve had to watch Funny Lady?” before laying into her formerly betrothed.

    In an essay on The Birdcage, Decider’s Tyler Coates argued that Nichols’ film is likewise a meditation on tolerance and “the need for acceptance”:

    What The Birdcage does display perfectly, and not quite like any other movie before or after it, is the burden of performing normativity. I’m quite sure that most queer people have felt the desire or need to “be like everyone else,” to “prove that they are normal.” Who gains the most from that?

    Certainly not Albert, who spends the entire movie tripping all over himself to pretend to be someone else. In The Birdcage, it’s living a lie that’s cuckoo, whereas the truth sets us free.

    The Birdcage deals with the absurdity of masking, an idea that everyone—gay or straight—can relate to. But in the years since that movie’s release, gay comedies have been increasingly treated as niche experiences, ones the public at large won’t be able to stomach. The screens on which those stories are told have been getting smaller and smaller. Two decades ago, I Love You Phillip Morris, a black comedy starring A-listers Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor as inmates who fall in love, would have been a major release. In 2009, it maxed out at 100 theaters, making just $2 million. No studio wanted to make Behind The Candelabra, Steven Soderbergh’s seriocomic Liberace biopic, so it landed on HBO in 2013. Soderbergh was told the film was “too gay.”

    The world has made a great deal of progress in the intervening years, but Hollywood has gone backward. While TV is undergoing a queer renaissance—with shows like Orange Is the New Black, Modern Family, and American Horror Story—the film industry has become more conservative about sexuality. As BuzzFeed’s Adam B. Vary writes, this has to do with the bottom line, which favors projects aimed at the “broadest possible audience, forever chasing the ‘four-quadrant’ golden goose.” Because movies cost more to market and produce, it’s seen as more of a gamble to have an out LGBT protagonist and risk alienating a portion of your audience.

    In 2016, it’s much more likely to have a gay character in a movie who’s mocked—or even murdered—than one we’re allowed to laugh with. I previously wrote for The A.V. Club that it’s easier to win an Oscar playing a gay person if you die (see: Monster), but this issue isn’t relegated to queer tragedies. In GLAAD’s 2015 report, the organization pointed out that LGBT characters were most likely to appear in comedies (Horrible Bosses 2, Top Five, Get Hard) where they were the butt of the joke. Why? Ridiculing gays makes the public comfortable by reaffirming their marginalization. It’s hardly the audience’s homophobia, however, that’s the issue.

    Today’s Hollywood has gone back in the closet, and it’s not just Rupert Everett urging gay actors not to come out. A 2014 Williams Institute report attested to widespread bias against LGBT actors behind the scenes. The think tank polled queer SAG members and found that nearly half “strongly believed that producers and studio executives think [gay] performers are less marketable.” A majority personally witnessed discrimination. “An openly gay extra was fired because the lead character felt uncomfortable having him around,” the Institute reports. “In fact, two were fired a week apart for the same reason.” If the industry is uncomfortable with gay people even being on set, it’s no wonder they’re treated as worthless and laughable on screen.

    Movies like The Birdcage and In & Out, however, show that there’s an incredible power in laughter: It helps break down boundaries and create empathy for those unlike us. While someone like the flamboyant Albert might appear to be the film’s comic whipping boy, he’s the strongest character in The Birdcage, the only one who sees the futility of the film’s duplicitous endeavor. He knows it’s impossible to hide who he is, so why bother? But 20 years after The Birdcage’s success proved audiences could embrace fabulous, funny gay characters, it’s Hollywood that needs to learn a little acceptance.


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