Carol, Tennessee Williams, and The Birdcage

Okay, bear with me, I promise this makes sense.

I finally got around to seeing Carol (2015) last night, and yeah, it is that good. And while watching it, I noticed connections to the works of playwright Tennessee Williams, connections I also noticed when rewatching The Birdcage the night before. So I thought I’d do a post about all of them!

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This movie has some very pretty posters.

The first character followed in Carol is a man. We watch him recognize someone in the restaurant he’s in, who’s dining with another woman, and he goes over and says hello and invites her to a party. It’s clear from the way the two women look at each other (and a lingering hand on a shoulder) that there’s something important going on here, but we’ve not yet been clued in to what, exactly, it is–we have as much information as the man.

The movie then goes back in time to tell the story of the two women before revisiting this scene toward the end of the movie, but it now opens following the titular Carol, and we now understand the relationship between her and the other woman, Therese. We see this time how meaningful the conversation between them is before it’s so carelessly interrupted by what we’ve learned to be a totally inconsequential character. The movie has shifted us from this male perspective, ignorant of the inner lives of these women, to their perspective, showing us how much is going on under the surface of 1950s repression.

Repression is really a key theme of the movie. For Therese to go on a weeks-long vacation with a woman she just met might seem bizarre in other contexts, but it makes perfect sense when you consider how this is the first time she’s experiencing real attraction, not just going along with what others expect from her. Carol has opened Therese up to a whole new world, one that’s more fulfilling and exciting than what she’s previously experienced.

It’s not as simple as just going away with Carol, however. Both Therese and Carol have men in their lives, who represent not just literally but also I think figuratively the way that society traps women, forces them to relate to men even when they have no desire to. Therese and Carol both have to extricate themselves from their preexisting relationships to be with each other in a way that other couples never would.

And that’s where the relation to Tennessee Williams comes in. I’ve been reading some of his plays lately, and being trapped by social situations (albeit usually familial rather than societal) is a big theme of his work, at least the one’s I’ve gotten to.

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Minimalism!

This is best summed up in an early scene in The Glass Menagerie, when the protagonist Tom tells his sister about a magic show he saw where the magician trapped himself in a coffin and escaped “without removing one nail.” He then says:

“There is a trick that would come in handy for me–get me out of this two-by-four situation!”

It’s this impossibility of escaping his mother and sister without removing metaphorical nails that prevents Tom from leaving as he’d like, and it’s what keeps Carol and Therese from each other, too. These situations that they’ve been trapped in, by society or by family, prevent them from living their lives on their own terms.

While Tom, Carol, and Therese all eventually do escape their coffins, mess and all, we see another side of this issue in Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. In it, the more-or-less protagonist Brick is very clearly gay, but seems unwilling to admit it even to himself. He’s trapped by his wife, by his family, and the conflict of it all has led him to a state of alcoholic depression. In the end, he’s not willing to disturb the nails, and is seen prepared to conceive a child with his wife. We see how it’s so much simpler, not to mention easier, to just go with the flow, to let others’ expectations for you run your life. Brick just isn’t capable of breaking free.

Through this lens, The Birdcage has a lot in common with a Tennessee Williams play. The vivid dialogue, the exaggerated characters, the themes of family conflict and repression, all would fit in pretty nicely among Williams’ works.

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This movie’s poster is surprisingly understated.

The Birdcage sees repression from the other side, though: its gay characters are flamboyant and totally out, but through the course of the movie’s events find themselves playing straight to get along with their future in-laws. They put themselves back in the coffin, and while the movie is too much of a comedy to really get into the thematic material behind this, the fact that things go so wrong is evidence of how hiding one’s self and playing by society’s rules just doesn’t work. Albert and Armand are gay; no amount of drag or fancy suits can change that.

It’s notable to the progress made over the course of the 20th century, though, that Albert and Armand are even able to be out as they are. They’re afforded more room by society to refuse to conform, living in 1996 and not the ’40s or ’50s. Carol and Therese barely even have language to describe who they are; the movie’s characters only ever speak of being “that way” or other vague euphemisms. The Birdcage is, in a way, a sequel to Carol and Therese’s story, showing how their lives could have been just 40 years later.

Something unrelated I noticed on the rewatch of The Birdcage is how much of a dick Armand’s son is. You’d think that having grown up with a gay dad would teach him a thing or two about homophobia and how much damage it can do, but he’s perfectly content to ask his dad to go back into the closet with basically no sympathy. Pretty selfish, dude!

I don’t have a good closing for this post, so instead I’d like to point to a great post about Carol written by one of my favorite authors, Malinda Lo. You can find it here!

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