Birdcage, The (United States, 1996)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Mike Nichols, the director of such well-received films as The Graduate and Working Girl, has taken the outrageous 1978 French farce, La Cage aux Folles, and, by tweaking, updating, and Americanizing it, come up with a huge winner. The Birdcage, as it's called, is one of those rare motion pictures with side-splitting laughs where the humor never stays dormant for long. Using the talents of choreographers and set designers who don't know the meaning of "moderation", this movie is a triumph of the stylistically absurd.

This is the third "big" cross-dressing movie to reach American screens in as many years (the other two being The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar), and the first to have a short title. But, as flashy and splashy as the man-dressed-as-a-woman scenario can be, The Birdcage (like Priscilla) is as much about being gay as it is about transvestitism, and it advances a message of equality, love, and acceptance. "We Are Family" isn't just the film's opening number; it's the theme song.

For some twenty years, Armand (Robin Williams) and Albert (Nathan Lane) have lived together as husband and wife (so to speak). Both are openly gay, and comfortable with their sexuality. They are partners in business as well as out of it -- Armand operates a drag nightclub where Albert is the star performer. They have a son, Val (Dan Futterman), the product of Armand's one-night tryst twenty-one years ago with big-time executive Katherine Archer (Christine Baranski). As far as his upbringing is concerned, Val is as much Albert's son as Armand's, and he's not ashamed of his unusual family situation -- at least not in the normal course of things.

But things are no longer normal. Val is engaged to the 18-year old daughter of Senator Keeley (Gene Hackman), the co-founder of the Coalition for Moral Order who believes that Billy Graham is too liberal. Since there's no way that Keeley would sanction a marriage between his daughter and the son of a gay couple, Val pleads with his father to pretend to be straight, if only for one night. The result of this, as might be expected, is a hilarious disaster.

Although most of the jokes come from Elaine May's screenplay, it's the performances that make them funny. Robin Williams, despite his reputation for unfettered mania, is surprisingly restrained throughout most of The Birdcage, doing a little serious acting along the way. Nathan Lane, playing the effeminate Albert, is the real star, whether he's trying to swagger like John Wayne (to act manly) or costumed like a housewife. Williams and Lane work well as a couple, feeding off one another in the fashion of all great comedy twosomes.

Gene Hackman has the straight man's role, and he fits into it wonderfully. His antics to escape reporters and his reaction to Val's parents are two of the film's comic highlights. Dianne Wiest, Dan Fullerman, Calista Flockhart (as Val's fiancee, Barbara), and Christine Baranski all turn in solid supporting performances. The only one who's too over-the-top is Hank Azania as Armand and Albert's houseboy, Aggedor. His exaggerated mannerisms are frequently as irritating as they are amusing.

The Birdcage rivals A Midwinter's Tale for the funniest movie released thus far in 1996. In fact, the film is so boisterously entertaining that it's easy for the unsuspecting viewer not to realize that there's a message here. The structure of The Birdcage is designed to show us that there isn't much difference between conservatives and liberals or straight and gay people. Nichols' picture preaches tolerance and understanding, but neatly camouflages such themes beneath gaudy sets, colorful costumes, and unrestrained humor. The script has a few lulls, and there are times when it doesn't make a lot of sense, but there are few better ways to spend a chilly winter evening than peering through the bars of The Birdcage.

Birdcage, The (United States, 1996)

Run Time: 1:57
U.S. Release Date: 1996-03-08
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Content)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1