25 Years Ago, ‘The Birdcage’ was a Watershed Moment in Queer Cinema
The Birdcage, a comedic farce involving a gay couple, their right-wing in-law, and comical dinner of deception, wouldn’t be all that shocking if it came out now. But 25 years ago, it was a truly watershed thing to be the subject of a highly popular studio comedy.
The film, a later-career triumph from director Mike Nichols — written by his longtime partner Elaine May — was a remake of La Cage Aux Folles, which was a play in 1973, a movie in 1978, and an acclaimed Broadway musical in 1983. Combining a talented cast, a witty script, and a third act that keeps topping itself, The Birdcage is one of the most enduring comedies of the 1990s, even if many aspects of it are very specific to that time.
A remake of La Cage Aux Folles, which was a play in 1973, a movie in 1978, and an acclaimed Broadway musical in 1983
The film stars Robin Williams and Nathan Lane as long-term gay couple Armand and Albert Goldman. Armand owns a South Beach drag club, where Albert (as “Starina”) is the star attraction. The two have raised a son named Val (Dan Futterman), the product of a years-ago one-night stand Armand had with a woman.
The plot gets set in motion when Val informs them he intends to marry a woman (future Ally McBeal — Calista Flockhart), and that her father (Gene Hackman) is a socially conservative senator.
Because it’s set in 1996 — the year President Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act — and not today, the Goldmans decide to hide both their gayness and Jewishness from their soon-to-be in-laws, with Val’s mother (Christine Baranski) stepping in and Albert posing as a straight uncle. But when the mother gets caught in traffic, Albert decides to dress as a woman for the duration of the dinner.
That leads into the movie’s centerpiece, that wild dinner party scene, which is some of the best door-slamming farce ever presented in American movies. The film ends — much like the new Coming 2 America, with a cast-wide dance-off to Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family.”
The highlights of the film include Williams’ dance instructions:
And the famous scene in which Williams tries to teach Lane to walk like John Wayne:
And when Hackman finds out about the fate of his fellow Senator :
And, of course, the dinner scene:
Clearly, if The Birdcage, or another type of remake of La Cage were made today, it would probably be a bit different in a few ways. The film was directed by a straight man, written by a straight woman, and starred straight actors Robin Williams and Hank Azaria in two of the three main gay roles (Nathan Lane, best known at that point as a theater actor, is gay, but not quite out in 1996). Those aren’t the sort of things that would likely fly today.
Also, it’s likely that a movie of this type made now wouldn’t entail the gay couple pretending to be something they’re not, just to curry favor with their conservative in-laws, but more likely asserting themselves. After all, how exactly will they expect to keep the ruse up indefinitely, once the couple has gotten married?
Even so, The Birdcage, which made over $200 million at the box office in 1996, was an important film when it comes to gay representation in mainstream Hollywood cinema. It’s also been credited with bringing about real-world equality,.
“People still talk to me about it, every day someone says how much they love that film,” Nathan Lane said in an interview in 2017. “What I remember in seeing it as a young man was not only how funny it was but also how subversive it was in its way… It’s subversive in the fact that the gay people are the heroes and the straight people are the villains.”