“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.”
Released in 1996, Mike Nichols’ film The Birdcage turns 25 today and is still as entertaining as ever. If one has watched the original Franco-Italian film La Cage aux Folles or the Broadway adaptation, one might already be familiar with the story. Nichols’ version stays faithful to the original text yet appears exceptionally refreshing due to the incredible performances delivered by the cast, namely Robin Williams, Nathan Lane, Gene Hackman, Dianne Wiest and more.
The premise of the film is similar to its predecessor. Armand Goldman owns a drag club named The Birdcage and lives upstairs with his partner Albert, who is the showstopper in the club. Armand’s son Val, who was born out of a night of drunken stupor, arrives from college and takes them by surprise when he tells them he wants to get married to a girl he met named Barbara. However, he has outlandish demands. To appease Barbara’s parents, who are conservative Senator Kevin Keeley, the founder of Coalition for Moral Order, and his wife Louise, his father and ‘Uncle Albert’ must assume a heteronormative identity. At first, he wants Armand to send Albert away, which deeply hurts Albert, who loved his “piglet” more than anything. However, he agrees to pose as a straight uncle.
Although initially reluctant, Armand gradually comes round and gives in to Val’s request. He enlists the help of his dramatic houseboy Agador and other members of the drag club to make their house look like a traditional heteronormative household. Everything goes according to plan; however, Albert is visibly upset when he fails to be convincing as a straight man and locks himself up in his room. After the Keeleys arrive, however, he makes an appearance dressed as ‘Mrs Coleman’, the loving and vulnerable housewife to the very cultured Arman ‘Coleman’. The Keeleys, especially Kevin, is fooled by the ingenuity of her act and have an evening of lovely conversations. However, when Val’s biological mother arrives dressed as Mrs Coleman according to their original plan, Val reveals the identity of his true parentage.
The Keeleys are shocked to see their daughter get married to a boy whose parents are openly gay, own a drag club and, most shockingly, Jewish. Although they try to leave, they are hounded by the paparazzi, who want to follow up with Keeley after his partner’s recent scandal. Finally, dressed in drag clothes and makeup, they are able to leave the club, and the film ends with an inter-faith marriage.
The film is meant to be a pure comedy with no underlying message. However, one cannot help and read between the lines. The Birdcage as a drag club exists as a heterotopic space amidst the mundane city life. The people live extravagant lives with dazzling clothes, heavy makeup, alcohol fountains, peppy song and dance numbers galore. Robin Williams as Armand delivers an astonishingly toned down and rational performance. He struggles to cater to his son’s happiness while sacrificing on his own. He dresses in gaudy suits and maintains a level head to manage the club’s crazy operations. His partner Albert has been portrayed by the talented Nathan Lane, who has done a brilliant job as the character. His comic timing is impeccable, and he is almost as good as the original Albert. While his reactions are over the top, one can really see how much he loves Val. He is insecure about his growing age and is highly possessive of Armand. He is envious when he sees the glasses of white wine but immediately snubs himself when he sees Val. As he gathers Val’s clothes from the floor and subsequently makes a market run to get his “piglet” cake, the audience is probably left marvelling at his excellent parenting skills.
However, it remains a great shame that the film did not explore deeper into Val and Albert’s relationship. Although it is meant for light-hearted fun, Albert’s pensive dialogues while he tries to fit in as a straight man could have been modified into a powerful, emotionally stirring scene. Although the subject matter is familiar, the actors breathe in freshness in their characters, especially Gene Hackman and Dianne Wiest as the conservative Keeleys.
Hackman’s Kevin is oblivious to the act put up by Val and his family. Despite initial awkwardness, he is bowled over by Albert’s ‘Mrs Coleman’. His wife might seem a bit of a difficult person at first due to her exaggerated expressions, but she is a loving and doting wife who is incredibly supportive of her husband. She sees through it but probably goes with the flow to avoid confusion. It is an extremely comical scene yet has an underlying sadness. To see Armand and Albert, unable to embrace their true identity, is somewhat stifling.
Val and Barbara’s storyline remain somewhat underdeveloped. One wishes that “piglet” would deliver a heartwarming monologue to his ‘Auntie Albert’, but to no avail. Perhaps that is what retains the realistic nature of the film, one which would have otherwise been a mush of melodrama and sappy family reunions.
The ending scene is hilarious. As the Keeleys escape undercover, dressed in drag, ‘We Are Family’ plays in the background. The film is boisterous and colourful and sees a happy union take place with a drag club as its setting. As a part of the improvisational comedy genre, the film extracts amusing performances, most notably Williams’ who pulls off gag lines with a serious face in a rare avatar. Despite having a few stereotypes surrounding gay men and people from the LGBTQ+ community in accordance with the contemporary sensibility, the film challenges myopic conservatism while celebrating love and the spirit of a happy family as well as self-acceptance and homosexuality. A diverse range of families and a diverse number of people help make this film a delight which is complemented by uproariously funny performances.
“There’s only one place in the world I call home and it’s because you’re there. So take it. What difference does it make if I say you can stay or you say I can stay? It’s ours.”