Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: With the release of Gia Coppola’s new movie, Mainstream, we’re highlighting other work from the extended Coppola family.
One of Nicolas Cage’s trademarks as an actor is dedication: He chomped on an actual cockroach in Vampire’s Kiss, for example, and filmed himself drunk to perfect his mannerisms for his Oscar-winning performance in Leaving Las Vegas. One of the first examples of this commitment to the craft was his decision to have two teeth pulled to play a wounded Vietnam vet in Birdy. If that sounds extreme, it seems to have helped him get where he needed to go; the star’s performance in this sleeper is a highlight of his early career.
Directed by Alan Parker, scored by Peter Gabriel, and based on William Wharton’s National Book Award-winning novel, Birdy is the story of two childhood friends in gritty Philadelphia who couldn’t be more different on the surface but who develop a lifesaving bond. Matthew Modine portrays the title character, an introvert whose obsession with everything ornithological eventually manifests as the lofty aspiration of learning how to fly. Cage plays his best friend, Al, the extroverted, swaggering, good-looking jock who everyone loves. So when he loves Birdy, we do as well.
At the start of the film, both characters have returned from the war. Birdy has completely detached from reality (a condition almost miraculously captured by Modine); he lives in an institution and has completely withdrawn into the mental state of becoming a bird. Al has external injuries, his face covered in bandages—a tremendous hurdle for someone who was once so good-looking that he couldn’t help but grab a glance at himself in the rear-view mirror. Visiting the hospital in a last-ditch attempt to reach Birdy before he’s committed for life, Al regales his friend (and the audience) with flashback tales of the two boys growing up.
Post-war, Al is just as broken as his institutionalized friend. “We didn’t know what we were getting into with this John Wayne shit, did we?” he asks. “Boy, were we dumb.” He’s the type of kid who effortlessly pounds out home runs in the local vacant lot ball game, but still cries when his dad slaps him. And so maybe Birdy starts to understand that they’ll only get through the horrible ravages of war together. Eventually, after a heartfelt monologue from Al (beautifully delivered by Cage), the two mount an attempted escape from the hospital that’s as joyous as their trip to Atlantic City to see the ocean or the time they let all the dogs that the dog catcher caught go free.
Cage has said that one of his favorite performances is James Dean in East Of Eden, and you can spy a lot of that influence in Al: the appealing adolescent who appears to be tough as nails on the outside but is incredibly fragile underneath. Modine has the title role, but it’s Cage’s combination of charisma and vulnerability that draws us in. We view Birdy through the eyes of his heartfelt, protective performance, and become as fascinated with him as Al is. The result is a coming-of-age tale unlike any other.