a lane all his own

Beyond ‘The Birdcage’: Looking back at Nathan Lane’s greatest, gayest moments

A triptych of Nathan Lane featuring 'The Birdcage' and 'Angels In America'
Image Credits: ‘The Birdcage,’ MGM (left) | Getty Images (center) | “Angels In America,’ The National Theatre (right)

Nathan Lane is having one heck of a year.

On Broadway, he just closed his 25th(!) show, Pictures From Home. On television, he’s been stealing scenes on Only Murders In The Building, which recently earned him his first primetime Emmy. And, in film, he just appeared in A24’s dark odyssey Beau Is Afraid, with a raunchy gay comedy (F***ing Identical Twins) and an animated Disney musical (Spellbound) on the way—talk about range!

To top it all off, GALECA, the Society of LGBTQ+ Entertainment Critics, just honored him with the Timeless Star Award, honoring his over 40-year career. If we didn’t know any better, we’d say we were experiencing something of a Lane-aissance…

But we do know better: To have a “Renaissance,” you typically have to be away for a little bit, to bounce back from a lull. Lane, simply, has always been here, dazzling us with his versatile talents across mediums and genres.

It still feels rare to see an out, gay veteran performer with the level of fame, acclaim, and career longevity as Lane. Most of us grew up with him in our lives, and even before he was publicly out, he was delivering work that connected with LGBTQ+ audiences, bringing some welcome queerness to the stage and screen.

With that in mind, let’s take a trip down memory “Lane” and look back at the moments, big and small, where Nathan Lane has shown us why he is—and will always be—a gay icon.

Frankie And Johnny (1991)

One of Lane’s earliest film roles was in the romantic adaptation of his pal Terrence McNally’s play, about the relationship between a waitress (Michelle Pfeiffer) and an ex-con (Al Pacino). It’s a small part, but Lane’s character—Frankie’s friend and neighbor—is an openly gay man, whose life is shown to be fully dimensional. That’s pretty major for the early ’90s, especially considering the actor wasn’t publicly out himself yet.

Love! Valour! Compassion! (1994)

Speaking of McNally, the duo reunited for his fantastic play about a group of gay friends who get together at a lake house over three holiday weekends. A frank dramedy set during the AIDS epidemic, Lane’s Broadway aficionado Buzz Hauser delivered plenty of laughs, tears, and a great drag performance of Swan Lake. When it was adapted to film three years later, Lane was unavailable, but he certainly left his legacy on the part.

The Lion King (1994)

And speaking of drag… Remember when the meerkat Timon donned a lei and grass skirt to dance the hula? As Lane told Queerty earlier this year, that moment was something he had ad-libbed while recording dialogue for the movie, adding just a dash of camp and queerness to The Lion King. For the record, Lane confirms Timon and Pumbaa aren’t gay—but he used to say they were, simply so he could upset Disney. An icon!

Jeffrey (1995)

A year prior to his signature role, Lane appeared in another landmark gay film that often gets lost in the conversation: Jeffrey is one of the first gay rom-coms ever! Based off a play by the talented Paul Rudnick, it’s the story of a gay man who meets the perfect guy—just as he’s sworn off sex for good. Lane’s role is little more than a (memorable) cameo, but it’s amazing to see him in another important piece of queer cinematic history.

The Birdcage (1996)

You know it, you love it—a hilarious and touching comedy that still holds up today, one that’s more than worthy of its legendary status (it’s still considered the second highest grossing LGBTQ+ film of all time!). Lane is a riot opposite Robin Williams, playing a loving gay couple who has to “act straight” when their son’s conservative in-laws come to town. It, deservingly, made Lane a household name and earned him his first Golden Globe nod.

Nicholas Nickleby (2002)

There have long been queer readings of timeless author Charles Dickens’ The Life And Adventures Of Nicholas Nickleby, and while this film adaptation doesn’t exactly flesh out that subtext, it does offer a plumb supporting role to Lane as effete theater troupe leader whose “wife” happens to be played by actor Barry Humphries in drag. It’s not remarked upon in the film, but we’re always happy to see Lane queering up the classics.

Austin Powers In Goldmember (2002)

Nathan Lane as a flamboyant ’70s club-goer lip-syncing to Beyoncé as Foxxy Cleopatra? That’s gay rights! Say what you will about this silly and schlocky comedy sequel, but we have to stan a movie that brings these two icons together—literally back-to-back. It’s nothing more than a cameo, and Lane doesn’t even technically say a word, but we’ll never forget the dramatics he brings to this go-for-broke, 90-second performance.

The Producers (2001 – 2005)

Another of the actor’s most recognized roles, The Producers is Mel Brooks’ musical adaptation of his ’67 film of the same name, which opened on Broadway in ’01, earning Lane his second Tony for Best Actor In A Musical (and so much more). On stage and in the ’05 film, Lane brings old-school charm and sleaze to the role of Leo Bloom, who may be straight, but thankfully the entire show adheres to Roger De Bris’ words and keeps it gay!

TV’s Most Awarded Guest Actor (1995 – 2022)

Here’s a fun stat for awards nerds out there: Lane has received more Emmy nominations for Outstanding Guest Actor than any performer in history, with seven total. It’s a run that started in ’95 with Frasier, continuing through this past fall when he finally won for Only Murders In The Building. He’s also been recognized for Mad About You, The Good Wife, and our favorite, Modern Family, where he played gay man-about-town Pepper Saltzman.

Angels In America (2017 – 2018)

And last but certainly not least is what may go down in history as Lane’s finest work ever, Angels In America. The man is a powerhouse in Tony Kushner’s acclaimed two-act play, starring as the loathsome, heartbreaking, closeted lawyer Roy Cohn opposite Andrew Garfield’s Prior Walter. Lucky for us, The National Theatre recorded the production, so this masterpiece—and the acting titan’s work—can be revisited again and again.

Pride50Welcome to Queerty’s Pride50. We’re celebrating the members from our community who are responsible for some of the most inspiring and extraordinary moments for LGBTQ people over the last year. See all the honorees