By Simon Miraudo
August 25, 2014
Play It Again is a weekly feature in which our classic-film connoisseurs revisit a revered motion picture from the annals of movie history, to see if it holds up… or if it has aged terribly. And yes, it takes its name from a famously misquoted Casablanca line. Hey, whatever. It fits!
The Birdcage grossed nearly $200 million worldwide in 1996, and that is significant. Box Office Mojo says it’s the highest grossing queer film of all time, though they’re not counting Frozen and 300, and they probably should. It was such a big hit, my parents felt inclined to bring me along to see it at the not-yet-worldly age of eight. I’d like to think I left the theatre pushing 12, at least. The presence of Robin Williams no doubt made the subject matter more welcoming to mainstream audiences, but that doesn’t mean he diminished it one bit. The film contains one of his most layered comic performances, whilst also making a name out of Nathan Lane and gifting us with the sight of both Dianne Wiest and Gene Hackman in drag. I don’t know which of these to be more grateful for.
Williams stars as Armand Goldman, owner of ‘The Birdcage’ nightclub on Miami Beach, where his loyal, hysterical, long-time partner Albert (Lane) performs. When Armand’s son Val (Dan Futterman) gets engaged to the waspy Barbara Keeley (Calista Flockhart), he begs his parents to tone down their flamboyance, lest Barbara’s right-wing folks Senator Kevin Keeley (Hackman) and Louise (Wiest) call off the nuptials. The Keeleys, in actuality, are desperate to host “a big white wedding” – their emphasis – to escape the controversy from the death of a colleague, found in flagrante derelicto with an underage prostitute. It all builds to a brilliant farcical climax in which the Keeleys visit the Goldmans in their newly hetero (and newly Catholic) home, Armand and Albert’s true identities perpetually on the cusp of being revealed. Case in point: manservant Agador (Hank Azaria) neglecting to hide their china set that, as Louise innocently describes it, shows “young men playing leap frog.”
A remake of 1978’s culture clash comedy La Cage aux Folles – itself based on the French play from earlier in the decade – it begs the question: can an American do-over arriving twenty years after the original ever truly be necessary? First of all, anything directed by Mike Nichols and scripted by his legendary comedy partner Elaine May will always be essential, so there. To quiet any further concerns, I only needed to think back to 1996 and all the gay and lesbian characters that weren’t being represented in cinema and on TV. In that context, twenty years later, The Birdcage somehow feels more essential. In 2014, a progressive depiction of a gay man is one who doesn’t act gay in the slightest, which seems evolved, but isn’t really. Lane is undeniably relishing the opportunity to camp it up as Albert, and Williams rises to the occasion alongside him, but identifying Armand and Albert as only ‘camp’ is unfair and inaccurate. Everyone recalls the scene in which Armand teaches Albert how to smear butter on toast like a man. The real highlight comes later, on a park bench, where Armand grants Albert palimony, pledging the rest of his life to him with understated affection.
A movie about coming to terms with your personal shames and understanding others by (sometimes literally) dressing up in their skin, The Birdcage never condescends, nor does it shield its true, fabulous, capri-pant wearing self. The political satire skewers effectively too; Hackman in particular is taking great delight as a stuffy, self-righteous windbag Republican with a great affection for foliage. The laughs come thick and fast in The Birdcage. It truly has too many memorable quotes for any one feature to boast. I could relay the best ones, but when a picture does you the service of assembling Robin Williams, Nathan Lane, Gene Hackman and Dianne Wiest – oh! and Christine Baranski as Val’s mother – to perform them for you, the least you can do is let them.
The Birdcage is available on Quickflix.