Overlooked & Underseen: Birdy (1984)
Remember those good old days when Nicolas Cage wasn’t just a parody of himself? No? Well, lemme tell you, for me (I stress for me to preempt your comments about The Rock, and his other action roles. You like that Cage, I get it), I think he peaked when he won his Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas. If winning an Oscar is your ultimate goal, where do you go from there? Bat shit crazy could be one answer, in his case anyway. I just prefer early Cage, the one you get in Valley Girl. This Cage is still there in Wild at Heart. Hell, I ever like him in Peggy Sue Got Married. This week’s Overlooked and Underseen is one from early in Cage’s career, when they were selling him as a beauhunk because, when you see this movie, he really was one.
Birdy is based on William Wharton’s 1978 debut novel of the same name. Al (Cage) is just back from Vietnam. Part of his face has been pretty much blown off. His best friend growing up, Birdy (Matthew Modine, also hot during this time period. Vision Quest, anyone?), has also been over in Vietnam. He was wounded, too, but unlike Al’s physical issues, Birdy’s are mainly psychological. He’s been institutionalized while doctors try to find a way to help him. One of his doctors thinks bringing in Al might be of some help because they are running out of ideas at this point. Birdy just sits in his locked cage, never talking, unable to feed himself. Doctors can’t figure out what is going on with him but as soon as Al sees him, he knows.
Al spends a lot of time in Birdy’s room, reminiscing about the time they spent together before the war. Most of the film is spent in flashbacks depicting the stories Al is describing to Birdy. Stories like how they met or how they used to pick up on girls, well, how Al used to pick up girls anyway, Birdy was more interested in females with feathers. There is one particular story that is rather harrowing, especially if you are an animal lover, so please consider yourself warned.
Al is having some issues of his own. He’s unsure about what his face is going to end up looking like. He’s also dealing with the same sorts of emotional issues that his friend is having. The longer he talks with Birdy, the more frustrated he gets. He does have some contact with people other than Birdy; the orderly on his ward (the always great Bruno Kirby) is friendly as is Birdy’s nurse. The more Al talks with him, the more he begins to question his own sanity.
Eventually, the doctor thinks Al has done all he can and tells him he is sending him home. Al thinks of one last thing that might help Birdy have a breakthrough. When that, too, fails Al becomes desperate. He knows if Birdy goes to that state hospital, he’ll most likely never make it out alive.
Alan Parker has had quite a varied career. He’s directed everything from Pink Floyd: The Wall to Angela’s Ashes and from Midnight Express to The Commitments. It’s fair to say he’s had more hits than misses. Birdy falls somewhere in between. It was a box office flop, sure, but that doesn’t make it a bad. In this case, I think it is just misunderstood. Parker and company had the mammoth task of trying to make movie out of Wharton’s nearly impossible to film book. It is lovingly shot, for sure. It probably could’ve done with a shorter run time. The film also has a beautiful score from Peter Gabriel. Some of the acting, especially by Birdy’s mom, isn’t particularly good. Cage is great here but he is outclassed by Modine.
Birdy is one of the those films crying out for a Blu-ray release. For now, you’ll just have watch Cage and Modine in all their hotness on DVD. If you’re a fan of either one of them, it is definitely worth your while.