THE BIRDCAGE (1996)
A gay cabaret owner and his drag queen partner agree to put up a false straight front so their son can introduce them to his fiancée's right-wing moralistic parents.
Hollywood may be churning out remakes and reboots on a massive scale, but back in the 1990s there was a short-lived trend of US remakes of old French films. Mike Nichols’ The Birdcage was one such example, refashioning the Franco-Italian comedy La Cage aux Folles (1978) for an American audience. A star-studded ensemble inhabited the pastel-pasted Miami South Beach (substituting for Saint-Tropez on the French Riviera), the home of Armand’s (Robin Williams) titular drag club and the setting of this radical and absurd LGBT comedy.
The original French film was itself an adaptation of a 1973 stage play, and has since played on Broadway and the West End. There’s something timeless about its story: a bunch of characters trying to make sense of the most absurd situation (a gay family ‘playing it straight’ for the sake of their son’s fiancé’s conservative family), and in doing so, overcome bigotry and homophobia, while lifting the curtain on the facade of toxic masculinity and suppressing one’s true self and identity.
The Birdcage, however, is more than just a cut-and-paste remake with an American accent. In fact, the casting and screenplay help make it an improvement on the original. Elaine May, who previously collaborated with Mike Nichols back in the early-1960s as one half of groundbreaking improv comedy duo Nichols and May, provides a razor sharp script full of witty one-line zingers and contemporary references for a modern audience. The ensemble offers a refreshment of the familiar material, and although Robin Williams is more restrained than some of his other comedies (despite an obvious license for his usual flamboyance, especially considering he was originally cast as Albert with Steve Martin as Armand), his subdued performance brings depth and poignancy to the film’s more pensive moments.
We’re introduced to the titular drag club with a sweeping camera flying over the Atlantic, the Florida coast, and right up to and through The Birdcage’s crowded front doors, delving us into a colourful opening tracking shot. It’s reminiscent of the legendary Copacabana tracking shot in Goodfellas (1990), and set to Sister Sledge’s “We are Family”. Armand lives above his club with his partner Albert (Nathan Lane), the star of the drag show, and their Guatemalan houseboy Agador (Hank Azaria). While Albert performs on stage, Armand’s son Val (Dan Futterman) arrives for a visit and reveals that, aged just 20, he’s getting married to Barbara (Calista Flockhart), the daughter of the conservative Senator Keeley (Gene Hackman), co-founder of the ‘Coalition for Moral Order’.
In the midst of a political scandal (which involves Senator Keeley’s co-founder being found dead with an underage sex worker), the last thing he needs is to be seen visiting a drag club in South Beach (a hub of LGBT communities), marrying off his daughter to an openly gay family. But when the young couple lie to the Keeleys that Armand is a ‘cultural attaché’ for Greece and that Albert is a ‘housewife’ to set up a family dinner, all hell breaks loose.
And that hell includes stripping Armand’s flat of all its well-endowed phallic sculptures and colourful interior, sending Albert away, and dressing up in suits. It’s a depressing affair; in one effort to ‘straighten up’ Albert, he presents himself in a grey suit to Armand and Val whilst wearing a brightly coloured pair of socks, a final vestige of his true self, before they decide he’d be better of staying away whilst Val’s birth mother Katherine (Christine Baranski) stands in.
Before giving in because of how much he loves his son, Armand protests: “Yes, I wear foundation. Yes, I live with a man. Yes, I’m a middle-aged fag. But I know who I am, Val. It took me twenty years to get here, and I’m not gonna let some idiot senator destroy that. Fuck the senator, I don’t give a damn what he thinks.” It’s one of Williams’ best moments in the movie, and although Senator Keeley may be the obvious ‘villain’, it’s hard to imagine today that the child of a gay couple would ask his parents to put on such a facade for the sake of a bigoted politician. Val, by today’s standards at least, is a simply awful person.
We take same-sex marriage and equal rights for granted in 2021, but in the same year of The Birdcage’s release, the US Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act, which legislated that marriage was strictly the union of one man and one woman and granted states the power not to recognise same-sex marriages. It wouldn’t be until two Supreme Court cases in 2013 and 2015 that the law become unenforceable. In light of this, it’s difficult not to see The Birdcage as a radical LGBT film, one that not only portrays an openly gay family, drag culture and a same-sex couple, but actively celebrates them.
But The Birdcage goes one further. In one scene after Albert runs away, Armand finds him and offers him a long-awaited palimony agreement (basically a prenup for long-term, unmarried couples; the closest to marriage a gay couple could get in the US in the 90s), and reveals he’s had his grave plot moved next to his, “so I never miss a laugh.” He finishes with “there’s only one place in the world I call home and it’s because you’re there, so take it,” and the couple hold hands at the pastel-coloured bus stop, their union an act of rebellion and solidarity in the face bigotry.
It would be easy to watch The Birdcage today simply as a silly, slightly slapstick comedy that camps it up for a few extra laughs. But place the film in its proper context and it’s so much more; a film in which good overcomes the forces of old and evil, and that goodness just so happens to come in the form of hiding a disgraced conservative senator from the press by disguising him in drag. Talk about poetic justice.
USA | 1996 | 117 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
director: Mike Nichols.
writers: Elaine May (based on the play ‘La Cage aux Folles’ by Jean Poiret).
starring: Robin Williams, Gene Hackman, Nathan Lane, Dianne Weist, Dan Futterman, Calista Flockheart, Hanz Akaria & Christine Baranski.