The Birdcage – Farce and family values
November 5, 2013
Mike Nichols’ The Birdcage (1996) isn’t an original story, it is the American adaptation of La cage Aux Folles, first a Paris play, then a French film, and later a Broadway musical set in France. The film version stars Robin Williams and Nathan Lane as lovers, Armand and Albert Goldman, who live above a drag club, “The Birdcage,” which Armand manages; Albert is the drag star. Armand’s son (Dan Futterman), raised by the couple, is engaged to marry the young daughter (Calista Flockhart) of a conservative Senator (Gene Hackman) and his wife (Dianne Wiest) who are coming to dinner to meet the family. The catch? The family has decided to conceal their homosexuality for their son, and the senator’s, benefit.
A late-in-the-career of Mike Nichols film, The Birdcage doesn’t showcase the assured, controlled style or hypernaturalistic acting of the director’s earlier works, like The Graduate or Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Like many of Nichols later films it offers a more relaxed approach and style. Where his early films were about the big ideas, politics, war, sex, and death, The Birdcage steps back and revels in character, with big ideas, like family values and 90s gay culture, in the background.
The film is a farcical comedy that draws on screwball tropes, mining class and social differences for comedic value. The script, by Elaine May, a writing partner of Nichols from their early days together in the young actors group, The Compass, is filled with classic one-liners (“Don’t worry about that. I’m very maternal. And Albert’s practically a breast”) and witty repartee. Though Nichols brings a straight-forward direction to the film there is still some noticeable camerawork, like the opening composite shot that zooms across the ocean, over the beaches of Miami, onto the street and right up to the front door of The Birdcage club. However, the real standout of this familiar story is the cast and their performances, among them Williams and Lane, but also Hackman, Wiest, and Hank Azaria.
Despite the drag and flamboyance with some of the performances, the acting is rather subtle, pared down, and focused. While there are a few over the top moments, albeit outrageously funny ones, like Nathan Lane in drag pretending to be their son’s biological mother, or everything about Hank Azaria’s Agador Spartacus (the name alone, even), it’s the restrained performances that keep the film in check. Robin Williams manages a very endearing performance because he doesn’t take the opportunities to play his normally flamboyant, unrestrained, hyperactive tics. Reportedly, Williams was originally cast in Nathan Lane’s role but asked Nichols to make the switch so he could move away from his more common type of performances. Meanwhile, Wiest and Hackman, as the aloof and oblivious conservative political couple, are great at playing it straight (no pun intended) against the rest of the cast. But the simple dynamic of opposing class and social values gives the actors plenty to work with, even with what could otherwise be the more rigid definitions of their characters, making for some really exceptional performances.
While the film is star and performance driven that doesn’t mean it lacks value beyond that. The Birdcage isn’t a social message film by any means, but, even in the background, the notion of family values, the representation of gay relationships and identity, and the impact of social values in the political sphere are monumentally important, and not just to the comic structure of the film. Many of the same social dynamics that drive the film are still at play today, part of what will likely continue to be The Birdcage’s lasting appeal. Remarkably, in casting Williams, known more for his flamboyance, broad appeal, and as a star of family fare, as a non-stereotypical gay character, The Birdcage avoids becoming a film that perpetuates stereotypes (drag culture) and offers one-dimensional portrayals of gay characters for the sake of a few jokes.
The Birdcage is a smart and colorful film. Though it can be campy in some ways and features some broad performances, the film still offers a depth and subtlety that only a cast of this caliber could maintain.
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