Birdcage DVD/ B+,B

US/1996/Color/Widescreen Anamorphic 1.77:1/DD,Surround/119 minutes/Directed by Mike Nichols/Starring Robin Williams, Nathan Lane, Gene Hackman/MGM-UA/24 Chaps/Theatrical Trailer/$24.95 

     The colorful setting and lives of the characters of The Birdcage make an interesting offering in the first wave of DVDs. Of the four new DVDs I have viewed, The Birdcage looks least like the new Messiah of video. The transfer calls into question what may be a problem in coming months as DVD appears in more and more homes. Where to set the sharpness control on your monitor. The new optical system clearly can deliver more information than the competition. In general, it will be necessary, absolutely necessary, to turn the sharpness control on your display device all the way off. Now, in the case of The Birdcage, it appears that the DVD transfer has been rolled off from the potential resolution of the medium and consequently, with the sharpness off, it looks somewhat soft. Overall, the transfer is lackluster. The explosion of color that dominates director Nichols palette for this film is muted on the DVD.  
     Carping commentary aside, The Birdcage is often an unrestrained laugh-feast. This remake of La Cage aux Folles, the delightful French comedy, is one of the best Americanizations of a foreign film I can recall. Often, translating humor generic to another culture is problematic. This is not the case with The Birdcage, which combines the deft screenwriting of Elaine May and the polished direction of Mike       Nichols to capture much of the madcap humor that drove the French farce. 
     The Birdcage takes us into another world, the world of the diva transvestite, her legion of male supporting players in high heels, and the live-in relationship between two gay men. The son, a product of Armand’s brief heterosexual experimentation, has been brought up by this odd couple. When he announces his intention to marry the daughter of a U.S. Senator, a leader of the ultra conservative right wing moralists, all hell breaks loose is the wild household located over the transvestite nightclub owned by Armand.      The visit of the girlfriend’s parents is the culmination of some inspired comedy. 
After dressing up as a nanny in Mrs. Doubtfire, Robin Williams plays the less flamboyant role of Armand Goldman in The Birdcage, and Williams is admirably restrained in a polished performance punctuated by several patented Williams comic riffs. Nathan Lane plays transvestite mate Albert, nee Starina, searching for a core of seriousness underneath the garish clothes, wigs, and high heels. It’s ironic that while Williams’ restraint makes a better movie, Lane’s failure to go all out wild as Albert tempers the potential hilarity of the film, though he is mostly up to the high comic antics. Gene Hackman and Diane Wiest are terrific as the Senator and Mrs. Keeley.      Hackman’s flare for comedy through truth is reminiscent of the great Spencer Tracy. 
     The Birdcage is a very good looking video. Make no mistake about that. However, it’s not all that it could be.  I fear that if the variety of DVD transfers necessitates consumers playing with their sharpness controls for best results, DVDs could suffer. It’s more likely that the consumer will choose to over-enhance the image, leaving sharpness controls at the point normally used for broadcast or laser viewing. Lack of consistency in DVD delivery may  wreck havoc in teaching the consumer how to best set up a monitor to see the best of DVD. Are my eyes deceiving me?  Perhaps they were soft the evening of viewing The Birdcage, but experience and a re-check have confirmed that the transfer for this film is simply too soft. There are rumors floating around the industry that Studios fear consumers will not turn down the sharpness controls and consequently DVDs won’t look as good as they can. Have the Studios opted to soften some of the initial DVD offerings? Not Space Jam, not Blade Runner, not The Mask. Are there conflicting transfer philosophies that will muddy the DVD waters? Subsequent releases will tell the tale in vivid terms. 
      The Birdcage is presented Anamorphic 1.77:1 and Pan & Scan on respective sides of the DVD. A theatrical trailer is included on the disc