Great Movies: The Birdcage

By Christian DiMartino

Growing up, I watched some… let’s just say, questionable movies.

Sure, I had my fair share of movies that one would expect a child to watch. Spider-ManBatmanShrekThe Mask, Disney movies, things of nature. Yet for every obvious choice, there were plenty that probably raised eyebrows. Wedding CrashersA Nightmare on Elm StreetThere’s Something About MaryScream, yada yada.

The Birdcage was another such example, which probably makes sense considering how I turned out.

Tuesday would have been Robin Williams’ birthday. Six years after his passing, his death still stings. Here was a man who, quite frankly, could do anything. He was capable of being completely hilarious, and could even add a tenderness to it (see: Mrs. Doubtfire). Yet, he was also a talent that you could certainly take seriously as well. He did a lot of comedic work, but he certainly wasn’t afraid to add a darker edge to his work. Yet I choose to discuss The Birdcage because he is utterly hilarious in it. Originally, he wanted for the role of Albert, which of course went to Nathan Lane, but in this case, Williams said that he wanted to play a less flamboyant role this time. Thus, he was cast as Albert’s husband, Armand, the straight man in the gay relationship. Yet while this isn’t one of his showiest performances, it is one that works beautifully because of the way that he plays off of Lane. Lane is hysterical here- constantly screeching and freaking out- while also driving Armand absolutely nuts. Yet the deeper you get into the film, the more you realize that they do love each other, all jokes aside.

The film is directed by Mike Nichols, the late great master behind The GraduateWho’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and Silkwood, to name a few. I also admit that I have not seen the source material, La Cage Aux Folles, and to further that, I don’t think that would change my opinion in any way. The Birdcage was pretty popular during its theatrical run and I believe it to be a film that people look back on fondly. It’s even been said that one of my favorite directors, Paul Thomas Anderson (Magnolia, There Will Be Blood) will stop whatever he is doing and watch this film whenever it is on. A feeling all too familiar for yours truly.

Now, to the premise: picture Meet the Fockers, but with gay people. Williams’ Armand owns a drag club called “The Birdcage” in Palm Beach, and Lane’s Albert is the star of the club, who goes by the stage name of “Starina.” One night, Armand’s son (Dan Futterman, the screenwriter of Foxcatcher) makes a surprise visit to announce that he is engaged. Trouble is, he’s engaged to the daughter of conservative Senator Kevin Keeley (Gene Hackman, subtly hilarious). Trouble arises for Keeley too, as he and his family (Dianne Wiest and Calista Flockhart) are trying to escape the controversy surrounding a sex scandal involving one of Kevin’s colleagues. Eager to escape the controversy, they decide to plan a trip to Palm Beach to meet their new in-laws. Upon hearing of this though, Armand and Co. scramble to hatch a plan to disguise themselves as a happy, normal, heterosexual household.

I admit that Flockhart and Futterman are given kind of thankless roles and neither of them come across as particularly funny… literally everyone else though brings their A-game, and they act with a capital A. Williams is brilliant here, particularly in the final act, in which not only the chaos ensues but also Armand is under immense pressure while trying to act as if everything is okay. Hackman and Wiest are of course two timing Oscar winning class acts who, like Williams, are up to any challenge presented to them, and while they might not be the “stars,” they certainly get their moments. The same can be said about the always great Christine Baranski as Armand’s former flame and Val’s mother.

Yet you notice that, if you have seen the film, I have not dove into the performances from Hank Azaria and Lane. Williams I have dove into, but like Williams, these two must be mentioned separately. Azaria plays Armand and Albert’s quote-on-quote “faithful houseman” Agador Spartacus (one could argue that this is a name made up on the spot during the film, but just roll with it). Some may deem Azaria’s performance as over the top; I do not. To me, he is right at home. Considering everyone here is fighting for the best performance, you have to pay credit where it’s due when Azaria can keep up with Williams, Lane, and Co, and still hold his own.

However…

This film belongs to Nathan Lane.

A bold statement, I admit. Just about every performance here is a work of beauty. Yet there is something about what Lane achieves here that is beyond perfect. Here is a very flamboyantly gay man… and while considering the current climate of the world, that may not seem like a place to mine jokes from. Yet Nichols does it, and beautifully. Because it isn’t so much of the fact that it’s a very flamboyantly gay character as much as the situations that this character is thrown into. Not to mention, the character that Lane more than makes his own. From the second he enters the film, you know that Lane should be a star. It’s not that he isn’t a star, but from what I read recently, Lane himself has said that he should be bigger… and I agree, and he should’ve won an Oscar for this movie, in my personal opinion, for the way that, even up against this tremendous cast, he holds his own.

But I digress.

The beauty of The Birdcage is that it’s really, truly hilarious. Yet it’s also a film with much to say, and it says it well. You gotta hand it to Nichols, who took a chance on an Americanized version of a French story and brought it to beautiful life in 1990s America. Again, I cannot speak for the film’s source material, but the film at hand is a tremendous ensemble that is more than up to the challenge of breathing new life into the old. While this isn’t a “Robin Williams” movie, per se, it also happens to be his funniest, in my honest opinion, and considering the great company he was up against here, the man, like always (even in a garbage-level film) holds his own.

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