Spoiler warning for minor plot details
If there’s one thing The Birdcage (1996) remains after 25 years, it is irresistible. This it makes clear from its lively and impressive opening sequence, in which the camera descends upon the shores of Miami Beach and makes its way to the titular drag club, where we are introduced to the most exuberant of drag performances set to the Sister Sledge classic, “We Are Family.” From there, we come to meet the club’s owner, Armand Goldman (played by Robin Williams), and his partner, Albert (Nathan Lane), who performs nightly as the club’s headliner, “Starina.” Right away, it is clear that this is a place that safeguards the LGBTQ+ community and doesn’t fail to make us laugh.
And that The Birdcage does in full, especially after Armand’s son, Val (Dan Futterman), announces that he is getting married to the daughter of right-wing, ultra-conservative Senator Kevin Keeley (Gene Hackman) and his wife, Louise (Dianne Wiest). To make matters worse, the Keeleys are on their way to Florida to meet them. The most logical solution: play it straight, of course! A remake of the French farce La Cage aux Folles (1978), this Mike Nichols-directed interpretation was, in many ways, bolstered by the sociopolitical context in which it entered the public consciousness. Though the original film was equally ahead of its time in the way it captured how men could enjoy subverting masculine expectations and still be in a happy relationship, it did not have much of a barrier to overcome.
The remake, on the other hand, was released at a time when LGBTQ+ culture was becoming more prominent in America, and for all the wrong reasons. The paranoia and turmoil of the AIDS crisis paralleled an increasingly cautious public perception of the gay community, a perception that was only exacerbated by the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policies of the Clinton administration. With these factors in mind, perhaps the most amazing and, dare I say, groundbreaking quality about The Birdcage is how removed it is from both illness and insensitivity. Whereas films preceding it were often somber stories about the tribulations of being gay in a conservatively straight world, Nichols and screenwriter Elaine May expose the fallacies of conservatism as traditional values are thrown into a more open-minded space. They don’t care how far the community has fallen so much as how high they can rebuild themselves.
The light-hearted narrative makes Keeley’s concern about the lack of tradition and “moral order” in America a primary source of humor while giving all the agency to its gay characters. May’s brilliantly warm screenplay takes aim at the very concept of masculinity, and the homophobia that allows for narrow-minded assumptions about such a concept. With the indelible chemistry between Williams and Lane doing her nothing but favors, the film achieves some of its most well-earned moments of humor when poking fun at the deep-seated American notions of what it means to be a “real man” and the firm exterior certain individuals struggle to maintain for fear of their identities being discovered by others.