I was 11 years old when The Birdcage, Mike Nichols’ adaptation of the 1978 film La Cage aux Folles, was released in 1996. The film depicts (the late, great) Robin Williams and Nathan Lane as Albert and Armand Goldman, life partners who own a nightclub/cabaret called The Birdcage in South Beach, Florida, navigating their son Val’s (Dan Futterman) engagement to Barbara (a very young Calista Flockhart), the daughter of a homophobic Republican Senator, Kevin Keely (played with hilarious bombast by Gene Hackman). Seriously, how wonderful of a cast is that already? And there are still more actors to come!
I was probably too young to have been watching the film given its content and the time: Armand is the manager and artistic director at the club and Albert is a drag queen and the headline act, featuring a large crew of beefcakey male backup dancers and more drag queens - this at a time when depictions of longterm gay couples or any facet of gay culture were decidedly uncommon (and still somewhat taboo) in mainstream media. Their housekeeper, Agador (Hank Azaria), parades around the house wearing very little clothing, and there is a prolonged scene featuring him visible in the background of the shot, cleaning the pool while wearing a thong, butt cheeks un-ignorable. And the subplot involving Senator Keely’s colleague’s sex scandal with an underage prostitute was definitely not 6th grader material, though at the time it flew clear over my head.
But I was completely blown away by the performances in this film - a sprawling ensemble of exceptional actors firing on all cylinders. One of the most notable things about The Birdcage is that despite the fact that one-half of the leading couple is played by the larger-than-life comedic force of lightening that is Williams, Armand is the straight man (so to speak) of the two. Lane’s Albert is the comedic center (and the bleeding heart) of the film, and it’s astonishing to see someone hold his own so strongly while sharing a screen with Williams. Azaria is absolutely hysterical as the hapless Agador, who is desperate to land a role within the nightclub’s company of performers despite an acute lack of talent, and somehow manages to steal the show in every scene he is in, even when sharing the frame with Lane and Williams. Hackman is clearly having the time of his life playing the deplorable Kevin Keeley, flailing as he attempts to reconcile his role as the co-founder of the Coalition for Moral Order with the news of his co-founder’s sex scandal all over the news, and Dianne Wiest does some lovely, subtle work as his long-suffering wife Louise. The sublime Christine Baranski is also here, playing Katherine, Val’s biological mother (Armand had a drunken one-night stand with her many years ago and in exchange for full custody of Val, paid her a large sum of money that allowed her to open a very successful dance studio).
The performances hold up to this day - this movie is just as funny in 2021 as it was in 1996 - even if some aspects of the plot haven’t aged well. For instance, Barbara, in an effort to have her conservative father approve of her engagement to Val, has lied to her parents, telling them that Armand is straight and a cultural attache to Greece. (She also lies about their last name - saying it’s Coleman - to conceal that Val’s family is Jewish. Yes, really.) Armand is not happy when Val explains this to him, saying that he doesn’t want to be shoved back into the closet, but ultimately agrees to play along for Val’s sake. He recruits Agador and his club employees to completely redecorate their apartment to look more like a traditional Christian household before the Keeleys come over to meet them, and he enlists Katherine to join them for dinner and pretend to be his wife. Worst of all, Armand and Val realize that Albert is so effeminate that he would blow their cover, so they literally attempt to keep him out of his own house - this despite the fact that Albert helped to raise Val - which is just horrible. Albert discovers what is going on and says that he will pose as Val’s straight uncle, but after he fails at Armand’s crash course in performing masculinity accurately, he gets upset and locks himself in the bedroom - which Armand and Val decide is a good thing for this evening. Seriously.
Armand and Val are fucking awful, y’all. And Barbara sucks too, for getting them into this mess.
When they Keeleys arrive at the Goldman’s (sorry, Coleman’s) redecorated apartment, Kevin is agitated because he is trying to hide from the press so as not to have to answer questions about the sex scandal, and he’s also slightly worried that the Colemans (Goldmans - see, this is getting tiresome, Barbara, why, why, why?!) have heard about the scandal and will judge him. Armand and Val are agitated because there are so many lies they have to remember to keep the evening from going awry. Agador is awkward, attempting to act like a straight Greek butler named Spartacus. (Also, he has to wear shoes. He never wears shoes. This causes many problems.)
And then, Katherine gets stuck in traffic, and everyone starts to wonder where “Mrs. Coleman” is.
But Albert saves the day, by entering the room dressed and styled as a middle-aged woman. This terrifies Armand, Val, and Barbara at first, but he charms Kevin by pretending to be a small-town girl, espousing the traditional values of a housewife, and even makes Louise a bit jealous. The evening is a success - until Katherine knocks on the door and the whole complicated ruse is revealed. As the Keeleys are about to leave in a huff, taking Barbara with them, there is a knock on the door from two tabloid journalists looking to get dirt on the sex scandal, and they get a photo of Kevin. Turns out Keeley’s chauffeur tipped them off. More and more reporters begin to turn up outside the nightclub, and Kevin despairs.
And then Albert saves the day - again - by realizing that they can sneak the Keeleys out of the apartment unnoticed by the media, by dressing them all as drag queens and sneaking them into The Birdcage through the back entrance and then out the door during the final number “We Are Family” amongst all of the other dancers and club-goers (Kevin looks utterly ridiculous in his dress and wig, but Louise actually looks pretty good in her leather-daddy getup, weirdly enough). And then, the happy ending - Val and Barbara do end up getting married, in an interfaith ceremony, attended by both families, the nightclub staff, and Kevin’s Republican friends and colleagues. (Bob Dole is declared a hottie by one of the club’s bartenders.)
Moral of the story: DON’T LIE ABOUT YOUR FIANCE’S FAMILY AND FUNDAMENTAL IDENTITY TO YOUR PARENTS. BARBARA.
And yet… despite Albert getting bagged on, insulted, and essentially erased from his son’s identity during Armand and Val’s desperate attempt to fool the Keeleys, there are some moments of true hilarity in the struggle - most notably Armand’s attempt to show him how to “act” straight, involving lessons in How Not To Hold A Glass Of Water With One Pinky Raised, How To Talk About Sports, How to SMEEEEAR Mustard On Bread In An Aggressive Manner (“Oh god, I pierced the toast!” “So what? The important thing is to remember is not to go to pieces when that happens. You have to react like a man, calmly. You have to say to yourself, ‘Albert, you pierced the toast, so what? It's not the end of your life.’”) and How to Walk Like The Ur-Straight Man, John Wayne. Watching Albert attempt to mimic Armand’s impression of John Wayne’s physicality makes me weep with laughter.
And yet… despite Armand treating Albert like a freak of nature that needs to be hidden through a large part of the film, there are also some moments of genuine pathos. Armand chases Albert down after Albert melodramatically declares that he is going to the cemetery, as he is getting old and is clearly no longer wanted by his family. He catches Albert at a bus stop, and tells him he loves him: “...it's true: you're not young, you're not new, and you do make people laugh. And me? I'm still with you because you make me laugh. So you know what I got to do? I got to sell my plot in Key Biscayne so I can get one next to you in that shithole Los Copa, so I never miss a laugh.” After which he gives Albert a set of legal documents that he has had prepared for months that declare Albert to be 50% owner of The Birdcage - effectively declaring that they are, for all intents and purposes, married.
Not gonna lie, the power and sweetness of this scene, completely lost on me when I was 11, now makes me tear up.
In fact, one of the loveliest things about this film is how believable Williams and Lane are as an old longtime couple - before Barbara turns everything to shit with her lies, we see the warm, genuine affection between Armand and Albert, their comfort with each other, Armand’s willingness to put up with Albert’s anxiety-ridden ranting before a show, Albert’s pride in his home and his work and his family. We even see how much Val loves Albert, who he eventually introduces to the Keeleys as his mother when the jig is up.
A lot has happened since this film was released - Flockhart’s brief dance with celebrity as the infamous Ally McBeal, the juggernaut that was The Producers on Broadway starring Lane, the tragic loss of Williams to suicide in August of 2014, Nichols’ death only a few months later of a heart attack, and Azaria being raked over the coals in 2017 for being a white voice actor playing a broad caricature of an Indian man on the Simpsons when people finally figured out that hey, that’s actually pretty racist. (Progress? Progress!) Even though 1996 feels like a whole lifetime ago, and despite the many plot elements that read as just plain cruel with the hindsight of 25 years, The Birdcage still manages to be funny. And ultimately, with the Keeleys’ embracing of Val and his unconventional-to-them family - which, to be perfectly frank, was groundbreaking in a mainstream film of its time - this story is a celebration of the messy realities of a family in general, where you love each other no matter what, warts and all. Love is love is love, as they say, these days. With that joyous premise as the film’s foundation, I’m willing to overlook the stuff that seemed normal when I was 11 but now looks ugly in my mid-thirties. And in a roundabout way, that also makes me happy - that our society has progressed so much in the last quarter-century that the main conflict that drives the plot of this story can now be seen for the heartlessness towards Albert that it is, as opposed to belly laughs at a man just for being effeminate.
I hope I haven’t put anyone who hasn’t seen The Birdcage off with this write-up. It is still one of my favorite movies - again, with a cast like this, a witty script penned by Nichols’ longtime collaborator Elaine May, and flawless performances, it is a wildly entertaining ride. A lot may have changed since The Birdcage was in theaters, but the talent on display in this film is timeless.
Reeya is a Hudson Valley-based musician and writer. In her other life, she works as a hospitality finance associate, enjoys watching Law & Order SVU reruns while eating gummy bears, and has a film degree from Vassar College that she does not use. She can frequently be found in various coffee shops and bars drinking IPAs while reading pop culture news on her phone.