The Birdcage - 1996
Director(s): Mike Nichols
Writer(s): Elaine May (screenplay) / Jean Poiret (play)
Cinematography by: Emmanuel Lubezki
Editor(s): Arthur Schmidt
Cast: Robin Williams, Gene Hackman, Nathan Lane, Dianne Wiest, Calisya Flockhaty, Hank Azaria, Dan Futterman, Christine Baranski, Tom McGowan and Grant Heslov
I recently compared movies to food, and while I focused on the fine dining experience versus the fast food experience in my Bill and Ted Excellent Adventure review, another aspect they share is comfort. There are some foods that you have to eat when you are in a certain mood, as they help you either get over a certain feeling or place you in a desired frame of mind. Movies, at least for me, have that same effect. And one film that always makes me feel good and lifts my spirits, no matter how awful a day I’m having, is Mike Nichols’ The Birdcage. The amount of joy, love, and acceptance that pulsates off each scene is so infectious that you cannot help but smile all the way through. Let’s talk about it.
The story takes place in South Beach, Florida and it follows Armand Goldman (Williams) an owner of a drag club called The Birdcage, and his partner Albert (Lane) the star attraction of the club. Armand gets a visit from his son, Val (Futterman), and learns that he is engaged to be married to the daughter of an ultra conservative Republican Senator, Keeley (Hackman). Val asks two simple favors from his loving dad; 1. Host a dinner party for his fiancés’ parents and 2. Pretend to be straight. After resentment and a long battle with his colorful and overly emotional partner, Armand puts his love for his son over his pride and hosts the Keeleys – leading to one hilarious night.
Elaine May screenplay, based on a play by Jean Poiret, while hilarious and at times over the top, truly shines thanks to the love and care shown to the relationships Armand has with his partner and son. Up to that point, I had only seen them treated as the gay-BFF that helps in a rom-com. Sure, Armand is wonderfully sarcastic and overbearing, but he is always striving to do right by Albert going as far as to make him the sole benefactor to his club. Yes, many of the jokes are based on overused stereotypes of gay men, but this is the first film I saw that showed me a mature and loving relationship between two men and one that showcased them raising a loving son. The way Armand swallows his pride and panders to the ultra-conservative father-in-law of his son is heartbreaking. As he said, it took him years to accept and be proud of who he is, yet to be recognized he cannot be who he is, a sad reality and one that many still live today.
Quick note: the best jokes, in my eyes, are the ones made at the expense of the ultra-conservative; with the co-founder of “Coalition for Moral Order” found dead in the bed of an underage black prostitute, showcasing the hypocrisy of the leaders that claim the high ground on morality.
The stellar writing and the top-notch directing from the late great Mike Nichols (The Graduate) are elevated by the incredible all-star cast that plays to their parts perfectly. Gene Hackman is hilarious as the uptight, rightwing, self-righteous politician – that falls in love with Armand’s “wife.” I love his reaction when he finds out that it was a man in drag all along. Nathan Lane is a national treasure, as he makes this cartoon of a character feel grounded and real. Making you feel for his plight despite the outrages and over the top reactions from him; he wants to feel loved and needed. Hank Azaria as the dipsy maid, displays a comedic timing needed to keep up with the two juggernauts that are Lane and Williams. And finally, Robin Williams as the lead Arman, the man trying to juggle twenty plates in the air, while still producing the best drag show in town. From time to time you see people discuss whether you like the comedic films or the dramatic films of Williams, and this performance is a perfect example of both sides of his career. Williams can go from a dramatic speech of self-worth, pride and indent, to showcasing the moves and attitudes needed for the new song number (“…Martha Graham, Martha Graham! Or Twyla, Twyla, Twyla!”) – both delivered with the same sincerity and passion that grabs you and forces you to love him, and I did (and still do).
Quick note: I haven’t touched to fantastic cinematography by a young Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity, Children of Men, The Revenant and Birdman) – the use of lighting and vibrant colors throughout the film, create a color palette pleasing to the eye and worthy of the story.
The Birdcage is one of the best comedies to have ever come out. It never forgets it’s a comedy while striving to tackle deep and meaningful themes of love, family and self-worth. Boosted by three stellar performances, from three legends in Hollywood (Williams, Lane, Hackman) and the steady hand of Nichols behind the camera, you can easily see why this film is one of my “go to” movies for when I want to have a good time. It’s on Netflix right now, watch it.
The Birdcage is Why I Love Movie.
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