Screen Gems

Celebrating 25 years: ‘The Birdcage’ is still queer comedy at its best

The Birdcage

Welcome to Screen Gems, our weekend dive into queer and queer-adjacent titles of the past that deserve a watch or a re-watch.

The Anniversary: The Birdcage

Can it really be 25 years since The Birdcage became an unexpected box office smash? It’s true: 1996 saw the Robin Williams-Gene Hackman-led comedy bring gay life and relationships into the American zeitgeist…not to mention some of the best one-line zingers ever committed to film.

The plot, in case you’ve forgotten: The Birdcage resets the classic French comedy La Cage aux Folles to South Beach. Armond (Williams) and his longtime boyfriend Albert (Nathan Lane) own a drag club together, where Albert performs as the show’s leading lady. When their son Val (Dan Futterman) gets engaged to Barbra (Callista Flockhart), all Hell breaks loose: Barbra is the daughter of the conservative Senator Kevin Keeley (Gene Hackman), one very much opposed to gay rights (or, for that matter, gay people even existing). When Val, Barbra the Senator and his thoughtful wife Louise (Dianne Weist) turn up in South Beach to meet the family, Albert enlists Val’s biological mother Katherine (Christine Baranski) and his housekeeper Agador (Hank Azaria) to keep Albert a secret.

Got all that? The cast list of The Birdcage reads like a whose-who of the Greatest Actors Alive: rarely does a cast like this get put to good use, let alone have so much obvious fun. We chalk that up to the direction by Mike Nichols and the screenplay by Elaine May. The pair had a longtime comic partnership. In the hands of Nichols–possibly the greatest director of actors in movie history–May’s searing jokes play with an almost musical rhythm. Watching the actors banter is like watching an Olympic tennis match.

The Birdcage also deserves credit for its groundbreaking (by Hollywood standards, anyway) depiction of a queer family. The film touches on a number of major issues–marriage equality, gay parenting, surrogacy, Right-wing nincompoopery–that wouldn’t become major issues for another decade. Then, of course, there are the performances–each a gem in its own right. Robin Williams gives one of his best-ever performances (and that says something), while Nathan Lane should have had an Oscar nomination for his brilliant, over-the-top characterization of Albert. Azaria gives an equally outrageous performance, and while some modern critics have attacked him for playing a whitewashed Latino man, we always just assumed Agador was trying to pass himself off as Latin to add to his mystique. It seems like something his character would do.

Ahead of its time, howlingly-funny and with an all-star cast to boot, we suggest celebrating this pride month by revisiting The Birdcage. Try to watch it without wanting to quote the dialogue later.

Streams on Amazon, Peacock, Paramount+, Hulu, YouTube & VUDU.

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