“Maybe life is shitty. It is shitty. I’ll tell you something. I’m not trying to pin life anymore. I don’t even fucking understand it. I just want to make it through with some dignity, like everybody else. Of course, if there was any real dignity, there wouldn’t be any sex.”
When it comes to off the radar and wholly underappreciated Nicolas Cage movies there may not be one further off the radar and more underappreciated than Birdy. It’s one of those movies that I never hear anyone talk about. Granted, it is 34 years old so that could be part of the problem, but it never seems to get mentioned when discussing the best of Cage or even the best of Matthew Modine. Let’s rectify that issue by talking about it now!
Birdy is the story of an unlikely friendship between two Philadelphia boys from blue-collar families. Cage is Al, the neighborhood cool kid. He’s not a bully by any means, but he is a bit of a troublemaker, and people know not to mess with him. Modine plays Birdy, Al’s reclusive neighbor. We never learn Birdy’s real name, but we quickly find out that he earned his nickname as a result of his fascination with birds.
Al and Birdy meet when Al’s little brother claims that Birdy stole his pocketknife. Al intends to pound Birdy’s skull in, but it turns out it’s all a misunderstanding. The two become friends when Birdy takes Al to his aviary to show him his pigeons. Al seems to find it all weird–but he’s also intrigued, and eventually starts to help Birdy capture new pigeons.
The two friends go through high school together, experiencing your standard coming of age moments along the way. Every awkward high school situation for Birdy is made all the more awkward given his strange nature. Upon graduation, they both enlist in the army and are shipped off to fight in the Vietnam War.
During the war, both friends undergo traumatic experiences and end up in the same hospital. Birdy’s trauma turns out to be psychological, and he stops speaking. Hoping to elicit some sort of response from Birdy, his doctor calls on Al to speak to him.
Birdy is a fascinating film on a number of levels. It features a hauntingly beautiful score from Peter Gabriel. This was Gabriel’s first time serving as composer, and he only had one weekend to finish the music. As a result, he recycled a bunch of stuff from his solo albums but it all works so well.
Another first in the film was the use of the Skycam, a crane that is computer-controlled. It was used to capture some gorgeous shots during dream sequences where Birdy believes he is really flying.
However, what makes Birdy such an extraordinary film that should be more widely discussed are the performances from Cage and Modine. Both actors were so green and virtually unknown that when they found out that they landed parts in the film, they were shocked to discover that they were the two lead roles. Modine was particularly caught off guard that director Alan Parker had chosen him for the titular role.
“I was flabbergasted because I hadn’t auditioned for Birdy,” Modine told The CW Atlanta in 2014, at the 30th-anniversary screening of the film. “I had never imagined playing the part of Birdy. So, I had to really go through an extraordinary transformation in my mind of trying to bring this remarkable character to life. I [sic] was an incredible experience making the film.”
Cage had an equally tough time wrapping his head around the role of Al and talked about those difficulties with the New York Times shortly after the film’s release.
“I was terrified of the role of Al, because it was like nothing I’d ever done before, and I didn’t know how to get to the places the role was asking me to go emotionally,” Cage shared. “With a couple of those monologues – like at the end, when Al says, ‘I’m just going to sit in this room forever’ – how does somebody really come to that decision and mean it? I didn’t know if I wanted to feel that way, or could feel that way.”
Not counting a minor cameo in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, this was Cage’s fifth film and only the third that wasn’t directed by his uncle. Birdy does, however, mark the first time in his career that Cage took on a truly method approach to acting. Throughout most of the film, Cage’s character is completely covered in bandages so the actor committed to wearing them during the whole shoot.
“I could have taken those bandages off, but I didn’t. I left them on for five weeks,” Cage said in the same New York Times piece. “I slept in them. I’d wake myself up in the middle of the night and say, ‘Don’t sleep on that side; that’s the side that was hurt.'”
Cage didn’t stop with the bandages either. He removed two of his teeth because as the victim of a bomb explosion, it only made sense to lose a couple of teeth. Further, because the character’s mouth was damaged, Cage figured they would have difficulty eating. He accounted for this by losing 15 pounds.
Birdy was given a limited theatrical release in December of 1984 by TriStar Pictures. The intent was to get some Oscar nominations that would result in some nice buzz allowing for a wide release. The film failed on both fronts. Critics liked it for the most part with Roger Ebert giving it four stars, but it wasn’t enough to get noticed by the Academy and it picked up little fanfare along the way. Eventually, Tri Star scrapped the wide release and ever since the film has largely flown under the radar.
Over the years Birdy has received a few different home video releases; first on VHS and then on a couple of different DVDs, most recently by Mill Creek. The DVDs have all been subpar, leaving a lot to be desired. Most have been bare-bones releases with a few including Cage trailers, but nothing in the way of bonus content for the film.
A Blu-ray release is long overdue, and Birdy is a film worthy of getting the Criterion treatment. I’d personally settle for a nice release from Mill Creek since I believe they still own the rights. This film deals with relevant themes like depression and anti-war sentiment, and it features two outstanding performances from two of America’s finest actors. It’s about time that Birdy takes flight.