I remember when The Birdcage came out 20 years ago that its arrival on the scene seemed a little off, a bit out of synch with the tenor of the times. It somehow seemed a surprisingly anachronistic project for one of our most consistently brilliant, clever, directors—Mike Nichols—unrivalled in his expertly perfectionist judgment and taste and his unerring eye and ear for the zeitgeist of every passing decade. In 1996 America was in the throes of the extreme right’s cultural war on President Clinton, and the most concrete advance in gay civil rights that could be snatched from begrudged compromise was the fairly ludicrous “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy for servicemen in the U.S. military. Coretta Scott King drew criticism for comparing and connecting the struggle for gay rights to that of the broader civil rights movement; we were two years away from 21-year-old Matthew Shepard being beaten, tortured, and left for dead—for being gay—by a desert roadside in Wyoming; and we were four years away from the first state (Vermont) making even civil unions legal.
In this climate, for some filmgoers at least, a remake of the great 1978 French farce by Jean Poiret and Eduardo Molinaro—La Cage aux Folles, starring Ugo Tognazzi and Michel Serrault—may have seemed a bit trivial, irrelevant, or retrograde. Clever and likable as it was in all its incarnations—Poiret’s stage success in Paris in 1973, the ’78 film, and the Jerry Herman multi-Tony Award winning musical that opened on Broadway in 1983—it always seemed not unlike a kind of gay minstrel show, a “safe” drag-queen burlesque that could be a commercial draw while breaking no actual new ground theatrically or cinematically. But in hindsight we see that Mike Nichols was (as was relentlessly the case) right, and those of us who harbored timorous doubts were wrong. We must’ve forgotten for a moment that life is short and art, indeed, is long. And that in every age human frontiers have always been most effectively reached not only through protest, polemic, politics, and persistence, but also quite necessarily through art, satire, comedy. Nichols’ film is so extravagantly entertaining that it’s very easy for the unsuspecting viewer not to realize that it is also packing a message.
Enlisting Elaine May to write the screenplay adaptation and assembling a dream cast almost beyond imagining, Nichols creates of The Birdcage a boisterously funny, intelligent, witty, at times movingly humane comedy. It’s that rare event of a remake of a film transcending the original and its immediate successors: it improves on its source. May’s variations on the script are judicious, her additions superb. To her script and the stunningly splendid actors—including Robin Williams, Nathan Lane, Gene Hackman, Dianne Wiest, Hank Azaria, and Christine Baranski—Nichols brings all his incisive intelligence, humor, and a sense of visual narrative and pace that is at once gleeful and elegant.
The Birdcage is the very successful drag club in Miami’s South Beach co-owned by life-partners Albert Goldman (Lane) who is also Starina, headliner of the show, and Armand Goldman (Williams) who directs the stage productions and manages the club. Val (Dan Futterman) is Armand’s son from a long-ago heterosexual experiment. Raised in the Goldman household, he suddenly announces that he plans to marry Barbara (Calista Flockhart), who happens to be the daughter of extreme right-wing U.S. Senator Kevin Keeley, co-founder of the Coalition for Moral Order (Hackman) and his ambitious but long-suffering wife (Wiest). Barbara wants to bring her parents to visit Val and meet his family (her parents thinking that Armand is a Greek diplomat). In actuality, the Keeleys are desperate to host “a big white wedding” to shield themselves from controversy surrounding the death of the senator’s close political ally who was found in flagrante delicto with an underage prostitute. As the visit to South Beach impends and then takes place the question of how Armand and Albert will transform themselves into paragons of “family values” builds to a brilliantly hilarious climax.
Comedy of this caliber requires superb acting, and the performances here are treasures. In recent years Nathan Lane has increasingly proven himself capable of some beautifully modulated work but in Albert/Starina he meets a role capacious enough to indulge his most delectable excesses. Albert is a canny and exacting professional onstage—it’s in day-to-day living that he is, more often than not, a drama queen of outlandish proportions. And since it’s the life he’s built over decades with Armand and the years and love he’s invested in his stepson Val that go on the line here, Albert leaves no histrionic unbestowed. He is an opera unto himself and he plays all the parts. In his more flamboyant moments Lane can bring tears to the eye; his manic scenes are expertly calibrated, his serious scenes moving. He is partnered with great style by Williams who—though he has what amounts to the straight-man role here (as it were)—gets his share of outright funny scenes and, as a whole, gives one of the most delicately calculated and subtly amusing performances of his career. We never for a moment question either Armand’s bemused exasperation with Albert or his enduring love for him.
Were their performances not so perfectly synched with their fellow cast-members and the fabric of the film as a whole, Gene Hackman and Dianne Wiest could be an entire movie in themselves. Senator Keeley is one of the most insightful and carefully tailored portraits of Hackman’s long and impressive career, and without doubt the funniest. With a deft, light touch and lithe finesse, he nails the hypocrisy and moral bankruptcy of those politicians who have debased conservatism into a toxic travesty. His Keeley is a self-absorbed, six-foot-three baby who frets or whines when he doesn’t get his way. He can sometimes be an inept doofus, he is frequently delusional—Hackman gives him glints of wonderfully fey madness—and always a colossal bore. (To see the senator fill a conversational lull with a disquisition on the variety of autumnal leaves seen on their long drive down to Florida is to watch a man slowly drowning in his own banality while those around him look on in stricken mortification.) Hackman never resorts to caricature, walking a very fine line between Keeley’s laughable foibles and his appalling earnestness, and he evinces so many fine shadings in the man we might think he was playing Hamlet. It’s a shrewd, masterful, gloriously entertaining performance. Wiest, whose remarkable range of roles from raw drama to eccentric comedy is always informed by intelligence and specificity, is an ideal match. We sense that Louise Keeley has probably been several beats ahead of her husband for many, many years, but she keeps that fact to herself behind the insistent smile, tailored suits, and pearls. Her adroit discretion in managing him and cleaning up after his misspeaks and missteps is, however, tested as breathtaking pretense collides with surreal reality in South Beach. Wiest’s performance is rich and nimble, and she makes the most of every syllable and nuance of some of Elaine May’s drollest, most ironic lines. With her spunk Louise earns our begrudging admiration even as we cringe at her authoritative amorality.
Though their characters set events in motion, Futterman and Flockhart as the affianced young lovers actually have little to do except watch, often in mute astonishment, the proceedings unfurl. They afford a suitable ballast of callowness amid the crazed antics that swirl around them like a cross between some screwball movie plot of the early ‘40s and a particularly arch Restoration comedy. Christine Baranski gets a few choice scenes near the end of the film as Val’s birth mother whom he has never known and who is now a successful Miami businesswoman. One of the most highly regarded all-round professionals in theatre, musicals, film, and television, Baranski never wastes a moment. With little screen time here, she lends rich subtext and creates a sympathetic character—a woman who is glossy, sophisticated, intelligent, and fair-minded—credibly evoking the two-decades-old one-night-stand backstory with Armand, her desire for a career, and her astute resolve to be of help in the looming debacle between the Goldmans and the Keeleys. Hank Azaria, as Albert and Armand’s languorous houseboy Agador Spartacus, who doubles as Starina’s dresser and personal assistant, seems to be at his most languorous when dusting. Shirtless and in barely-there cut-offs he wafts his tanned and lanky body like a gym-ripped Modigliani from room to room, flicking randomly at surfaces with occasional emphases as, oblivious, he murmurs along to classic disco through his ear-pods. “She works hard for the money…enh, enh, enh, (DAB)….so hard for the money…enh, enh, enh, (SWIPE)”. As Armand repeatedly deflects his pleas for an audition, Agador pouts, “Why don’t you let me be in the show? You’re afraid I’m too primitive to be on the stage with those little estrogen rockettes because you’re afraid of my heat…my Guatemalan-ness, my natural heat!” Azaria’s performance is fearless, even audacious, but it is judiciously scaled, keyed to the pace and tone set by Nichols and the powerhouse leads, and it’s a joy throughout.
The central inspiration of the film, which Nichols and the extraordinary cast bring so vividly to life, is that the more Albert and Armand try to pretend to be something they’re not, the more obvious it is who they really are. They can’t change, and only a fool would want them to. If in retrospect the film was hipper, more in tune with the times 20 years ago than many of us realized, amazingly it grows with every viewing even fresher, richer, more appreciable. The brilliance of The Birdcage is that its jokes and its message are one and the same. It not only delights us, its creative alchemy reminds us that—when all elements are expert, precise, and lovingly fused—farce can detonate onscreen as very high art indeed.
– Hadley Hury