Val Goldman (Dan Futterman) is the worst villain of 1996 cinema. Not the demonic vampire strippers in From Dusk Till Dawn! Not John Travolta’s nuclear missile-stealing traitor in Broken Arrow! Not the twisters in Twister! None of them compares to this 20-year-old jerk who forces his father back into the closet to appease his fiancée’s buffoonish rightwing parents, who is astonishingly cruel to his father’s longtime companion, and who doesn’t even have the decency to elope instead of literally telling his parents that they’re too foppish to be presentable. Even the virus from 12 Monkeys that nearly cripples all of humanity watches this movie and is like, “Wow, Val, you’re a real asshole.”
Revisiting The Birdcage in 2021—25 years after its release, six years after the legalization of gay marriage in the United States, a few months after the end of the infuriating Trump presidency, and a few weeks into the questionably effective Biden presidency—is to realize, with a growing sense of disappointment, how much this is a movie about civility, that loathsome word of our recent political landscape. Curse that sentiment, and the appeasement it requires! Elaine May’s script is still devilishly funny, and the performances from Robin Williams and Nathan Lane are still perfectly tuned, and Mike Nichols’s direction still honors the physicality of these performers and the lightness and verve they bring. And yes, you’ll still hate Val. But the inherent “When they go low, we go high” messaging of The Birdcage, which was so intentionally hopeful in the neoliberal heyday of the 1990s, doesn’t slap quite so hard anymore. Williams’s Armand Goldman looking around his home and realizing how many erect penises there are in his decor choices? Good stuff. Armand having to prove his humanity to his enemies, who only begrudgingly accept him because he saves them from, shudder, journalists? Not as fun!
Of course, movies age. Social conventions change, and so do what we tolerate, what we expect, and we desire from our pop culture. To apply a present-day lens to The Birdcage—which itself is an adaptation of a decades-older play, 1973’s La Cage aux Folles by Jean Poires, and its 1978 film version from director Édouard Molinaro—is not to diminish what the Hollywood version does well. Which is a lot! The film was a box office success, bringing in nearly six times its budget of $31 million, with much of that $185-million take coming from older audiences. As John Calley, president of United Artists, told the New York Times after the film’s opening weekend atop the box office chart, The Birdcage is “curiously about family values,” with “a sense of decency and honor” that appealed to baby boomer moviegoers. On the critical acclaim side of things, the work of Bo Welch and Cheryl Caraski was rightfully nominated for an Academy Award for Best Production Design (that banana leaf wallpaper, all those phallic sculptures, the gigantic cross!); the film won the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture; and various critics’ groups and guilds nominated or awarded the performances of Williams, Lane, Hank Azaria, Gene Hackman, and Dianne Wiest.
In years since, The Birdcage has remained adored by those who saw it contemporaneously and by new viewers who discovered it on various streaming platforms, especially after Williams’s death in 2014. In a statement to Time magazine after Williams’s suicide, Lane wrote, “One day in 1995 while riffing in the character of a snobby French toy store owner, Robin made me laugh so hard and so long that I cried. It seemed to please him to no end.” Their old-married-couple dynamic remains the most gregarious, most engrossing element of The Birdcage, and the film remains as deliriously enjoyable as it does because of the work Williams and Lane do together.
The Birdcage, shot by Emmanuel Lubezki (one year after working with close friend and collaborator Alfonso Cuarón on his adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess, and two years before they would work together again to update Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations), begins by swooping us into the colorful, vivacious world of South Beach. Lubezki flies us over the Atlantic Ocean toward a coastline that looks like a candy store, with art deco buildings painted in and illuminated by shades of aqua, citron, fuchsia, sunshine, and coral. Outside The Birdcage nightclub, a line waits to get inside to cheer on drag performers singing classics like Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family”; inside, club owner Armand (Williams) butts heads with Albert (Lane), his longtime partner in business and love. Albert—or, Miss Albert, as he’s called by the Goldmans’ devoted Guatemalan houseboy Agador (an impressively fit Hank Azaria)—doesn’t want to go onstage as Starina. Yes, Starina is the star of The Birdcage, a triple threat comedienne, singer, and dancer who brings in worshipful audiences, even American royalty like the Kennedys. But Albert thinks Armand is hiding something from him, and he’s tired of Armand dragging his heels on pulling together palimony paperwork, and he hasn’t even shaved his chest yet. Won’t everyone just leave him alone?
Albert is prone to histrionics, Armand is always ready with a sarcastic rejoinder, and sometimes they can’t stand each other. Their first scene together is all Cat on a Hot Tin Roof lust and bemusement, with Albert’s accusatory “That sarcastic, contemptuous tone that means you know everything because you’re a man and I know nothing because I’m a woman,” and Armand’s deadpan, “You’re not a woman.” (Reviews weren’t sure what to make of Armand’s sexual preference, gender identity, and profession as a drag performer; the New York Times referring to the character as a “transvestite” in their piece is a bit of a yikes.) But Armand and Albert’s bickering doesn’t diminish the deep love they have for each other, or the life they’ve built together over 20 years. They’re both proudly out and well-known figures in South Beach, with The Birdcage serving as a local landmark.
So when Val arrives home from college, telling Armand that he’s going to marry his girlfriend of a year, Barbara Keeley (Calista Flockhart), and that her father is the Republican Ohio Sen. Kevin Keeley (Hackman), that sort of goes against everything Armand and Albert stand for. As parents, they think the couple, at Val’s 20 and Barbara’s 18, are too young. And as gay men, they’re conflicted about what Val is asking them to do, which is pretend to be entirely different people to entertain Barbara’s father and mother Louise (Wiest). Armand can’t be a drag club owner; Barbara told her parents that he’s a cultural attaché to Greece. He’s not with Albert, but is married to Val’s mother, who is a housewife. They only live in South Beach part time. Oh, and they’re not Jewish—Barbara and Val decided that “Goldman” should be changed to “Coleman.” Armand and Albert are cool with all that, right?
As the farce plays out, The Birdcage hops between the two families. The Keeleys are the kind of thoroughly vapid Republicans who yell loudly about abortion, gay rights, and God, and who think that Billy Graham is less controversial than the Pope, and who really want power and respect more than anything else. They accompany Barbara to South Beach after one of their Republican colleagues dies while in bed with an underage prostitute played by pre-Boy Meets World’s Trina McGee (her “sassy” characterization is one of the film’s worst elements, playing into all kinds of problematic tropes about pop culture’s sexualization of Black girls), and the Keeleys hope to manipulate Barbara’s wedding to Val as rehabilitation for their own public image and fodder for Sen. Keeley’s upcoming re-election bid. In South Beach, Armand struggles with Val’s insistence that Albert have nothing to do with this charade they’re putting on for the Keeleys, thinking that perhaps he could teach Albert to act straight and pass him off as an uncle. When that doesn’t work, Armand wonders whether he can enlist Val’s birth mother Katharine (Christine Baranski), who might still hold some lingering feelings for her onetime theatrical co-star and two-time lover. And while everyone keeps shoving Albert aside, he comes up with his own solution to the Keeley problem, ultimately performing a version of the mother and wife Barbara’s parents expect to meet—and that Albert wished he could have been.
The best scenes in The Birdcage—well, the ones that aren’t a surprisingly leggy Azaria dancing in denim cutoffs to Gloria Estefan or providing Albert with Pirin tablets—allow Williams and Lane to play off each other while playing with gender roles and heteronormativity, too. Armand’s explosiveness onstage when he coaches one of the club performers through an “eclectic celebration of dance,” cycling rapidly and exuberantly through the compressed choreography of Bob Fosse, Martha Graham, Twyla Tharp, Michael Kidd, and Madonna. Albert’s dead-on impersonation of John Wayne’s asymmetrical gait, and Armand’s shock at how Albert captured something of the Western star that he never noticed. May’s script is full of cutting asides that Williams and Lane handle with ease. And although the climactic dinner scene goes on a smidge too long, all of its emotional weight is provided by Lane’s smooth drag performance as Mrs. Coleman and by Williams’s mugging reactions to his partner’s antics. They are lovely together, and contrast Hackman’s clownish energy and Wiest’s increasing suspicion quite well.
But, for all the joys The Birdcage provides, it also abides by a central idea that was always wrong, and has only become increasingly displeasing as years have gone by: that it is the responsibility of the “other” to put the minds of “normal” people at ease. May’s script never explicitly suggests that Val requires the Keeleys’s approval to marry Barbara, but the film just assumes that the future in-laws should get along. And it also assumes that it should be the Goldmans, minding their own business in South Beach in a community where they are respected and beloved, who hide or change how they live, rather than the Keeleys, the patriarch of whom is a prominent politician actively pursuing policies that hurt countless people, including those who could soon be his family.
In a March 10, 1996, column titled “Why Can’t Hollywood Get Gay Life Right?”, Bruce Bawer wrote for the New York Times, “Mr. Nichols and Ms. May don’t understand that Armand and Albert’s charade is not admirable, that what they offer up for Val is nothing less than the integrity of their openness.” Would The Birdcage be as funny of a movie if the Keeleys, rather than the Goldmans, were required to question themselves? If the “traditional” couple were forced to reassess how they act, speak, dress, or decorate makes other people feel? Nichols’s and May’s intent is clearly to normalize the Goldmans’ family structure, and to emphasize that a family led by two men in a loving relationship is not inherently lesser than a husband and wife. Think of Val telling Armand that he’s the “only guy in my fraternity who doesn’t come from a broken home,” or Katharine being “between marriages” while Armand and Albert are still together, or Albert’s reassurance to Keeley that he too cares about family values.
But wouldn’t it have been nice if The Birdcage let any of Armand’s statements in defense of himself stand? Like “I don’t want to be somebody else. Do you want me to be somebody else?” Or “I know who I am, Val. It took me 20 years to get here, and I’m not going to let some idiot senator destroy that.” Or, most satisfyingly: “Fuck the senator. I don’t give a damn what he thinks.” Williams infuses those lines with anger, disappointment, and weariness, and it bears repeating: Val is the absolute worst. Perhaps another line from The Birdcage is worth remembering, though: Albert’s desire for “a big, loving family gathered around the table.” That desire is valid, too, and The Birdcage honors it by arguing that no force is more hopeful than love. Admittedly, the “cynicism and sex” that so terrified Louise early in the film sounds more exciting! But The Birdcage ends with the kind of tasteful and classy white wedding that makes both the Goldmans and the Keeleys proud, and that was simultaneously conservative and crowd-pleasing enough to immortalize the film as a broadly appealing, resiliently optimistic hit.