I remember being ten years old as my parents dropped my siblings and I off with an aunt while they went to see The Birdcage. As a young and curious movie addict, I asked what kind of movie it was. My parents gave me some vague description along the lines of, “Oh, a funny movie with Robin Williams.” I knew that name, in fact, I had been to see many of his movies already; Aladdin, Mrs. Doubtfire, Jumanji, and Hook was my favorite! Immediately, I wanted to come too, but of course my parents said no. I guess ten is a bit young for an R rated movie about a gay couple who run a cabaret/drag show and decorate their home with hilariously phallic artwork.
Robin Williams portrays the owner of The Birdcage, Armand Goldman. He’s a man full of confidence and swagger, working with the performers as well as the crew. His partner, Albert (Nathan Lane) is the star of the show and has plenty of diva to fit the part. He dresses in drag and charismatically serenades the guests into the finale on stage and stews in his own drama off stage. Nonetheless, he and Armand are a sweet couple and great team.
When their son, Val (Dan Futterman) announces that he wants to get married, it isn’t a simply joyous situation. His fiancee, Barbara (Calista Flockhart) is the daughter of a right-winged senator. Senator Kevin Keeley (Gene Hackman) is Vice President of the Coalition for Moral Order , up for reelection and just as his daughter shares new of her engagement, one of his colleagues is found dead with a prostitute. Wanting to get away from the media storm, Senator Keeley decides to visit Val’s family before he approves of his daughter marrying. Of course, Barbara hasn’t told her parents that Val was raised by two men who run a drag show nightclub.
At first, Armand doesn’t want to hide who he is. He makes a point about how long it took him to become proud of himself, his lifestyle and his sexuality. But after some convincing, he agrees to help Val lie to gain favor with his future in-laws.
To cover up anything the Keeleys would look down upon, Val and some family friends redecorate the lively home until it looks like a drab monastery. Armand invites Val’s birth mother, Katherine (Christine Baranski), to stand in as a matriarch and tries to gently push Albert out of the picture for the evening. But when Albert becomes aware of what is happening, and hurt that he, who raised Val, would be an embarrassment, he refuses to leave. Perhaps things would have been smoother if he had just stayed in his room to pout, but instead he puts on a costume and poses as Val’s mother.
From start to finish, The Birdcage is a fun and sweet riot. Williams and Lane have perfect chemistry, fighting and fussing with rising friction only to always be each other’s best advocate. When Lane shows up masquerading as Mrs. Coldberg (Goldberg?) and winning over the future in-laws, it’s a scream that the film builds up to wonderfully. Even the minor characters, especially Hank Azaria’s Agador Spartacus steals his scenes effortlessly. And Hackman is hilarious as he falls for the act and starts to sense something amiss.
The Birdcage was nominated for one Academy Award, best set design. From the bright colors and lights on the Miami streets to the transformation of Goldman’s home above The Birdcage, you can see why it was rightly nominated. In the beginning, the happy home is an oasis, complete with hand painted murals of tropical jungles, party lights by the hot tub and bits of artwork that seem to celebrate the male form. It’s almost miraculous how Val tones it down enough to compliment the Keeley’s boring home.
Sure, I wasn’t ready for The Birdcage when I first wanted to see it. The culture clash would barely be present in my mind, I doubt I would have noticed a change in scenery and innocently wondered what was wrong with the soup bowls. I wouldn’t have seen it as much more than some funny guys putting on an act to help their son. I know now my parents didn’t want to expose me to, or have to explain homosexuality to me at the time. Funny, considering that’s exactly what everyone is trying to hide from Senator Keeley and his wife. Ironic, considering the film is a charismatic, beautiful and loving plea for acceptance.
“Actually, it’s perfect. I just never realized John Wayne walked like that.”