The Birdcage at 25: a gay comedy that broke boundaries

    bbc– IIt’s hard to resist the flamboyant opening of The Birdcage. As the camera swoops into a gaudy Miami nightclub and focuses on a collection of drag queens performing to the iconic Sister Sledge song We Are Family, it becomes clear that Mike Nichols’ 1996 film is both a queer sanctuary and a comedic haven.

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    Released 25 years ago this week, Nichols’ film, a remake of the 1978 French film La Cage aux Folles, about a gay couple hosting an ill-fated dinner party, remains remarkably relevant in its comedic sensibilities. On one level, The Birdcage was a universal, very mainstream comedy, that earned close to $200 million at the international box office. But within the context of mid-1990s Hollywood, the film was also a radical outlier that held particular significance for the LGBTQ+ community. As Dr Matthew Jones, Reader in Cinema Audiences and Reception at De Montfort University, puts it: “It helped an audience traumatised by a decade of living day-to-day with the threat of disease and death to laugh again.”

    Nichols’ brazen film, one of the director’s last before his career slowed in the 2000s, is in many ways a classic farce. The film revolves around Armand (Robin Williams) and Albert Goldman (Nathan Lane), the owners of a vibrant Florida drag nightclub, whose son, Val (Dan Futterman), is on a mission to get married. The catch: he wishes to marry the daughter of Ohio Senator Kevin Keeley (Gene Hackman), a prominent right-wing politician who certainly won’t approve of the Goldmans’ queer vocation or Albert’s glamorous drag persona, Starina. Armand and Albert decide the solution is to surreptitiously act straight – with Albert in full drag to pass as Val’s mother, ‘Mother Coleman’ – as they welcome the unknowing conservative family into their South Beach home for an evening of innuendo, irony and hilarity.

    How it took on the culture war

    What is particularly astute about the film’s comedy is the way in which it mixes its farcical hijinks with a satirical intent, taking aim at both homophobia and the crisis of masculinity, as it navigates the infiltration of conservatism into a liberal space. The film makes Senator Keeley’s political perspectives the butt of the joke, such as his vexation at Clinton’s (qualified, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”) acceptance of “gays in the military” and belief that homosexuality is “weakening” the US. Acknowledging the particular ‘culture war’ climate of the US in the 1990s, when right-wing populist Pat Buchanan fomented opposition to the perceived social liberalism of the Clinton administration, The Birdcage ridicules the concern surrounding the depletion of so-called ‘traditional values’. By the same token, it empowers its gay characters: they are in control of the reality into which the in-laws enter, and Armand and Albert are never characters that are laughed at, only with.

    In one particularly memorable scene, after Albert initially decides to disguise himself as Val’s uncle, Armand attempts to teach Albert the ‘ways’ of the straight man. It’s a lesson that pokes fun at an act that both characters know to be inherently ridiculous – for Albert, the performance of masculinity becomes just another facet of drag. “The Birdcage encourages us all to be more like Albert, to see in his gay femininity a kind of strength we all too often mock and disparage. Sometimes even within ourselves,” reflected writer Manuel Betancourt in a 2019 essay revisiting his relationship to the film.

    What’s more, The Birdcage presents Albert’s acts of performativity and transformation as empowering rather than scandalous. Rather it is Keeley’s dysfunctional attempt to maintain a rigid public image that is laughable. What is so striking, however, is the film’s ability to navigate such topics with comedic ease and radiant humour.

    With the remake’s switch from 1970s Saint Tropez to 1990s Miami, it’s interesting to reflect on The Birdcage’s relationship with the original La Cage aux Folles. Elaine May’s screenplay replicates almost every single comic beat of the French film, from using John Wayne as a case study for how to walk like a man to Armand and Albert serving the in-laws their meal in sexually explicit patterned bowls.

    However, the contexts in which these films were released gave them very different resonances: itself adapted from a 1973 play, Edouard Molinaro’s original film came to the screen in the pre-Aids, gay liberation era of the 1970s, though it was also widely regarded as ahead of its time. As Laurence Senelick, a Professor of Drama and Oratory at Tufts University, explained in an interview for the film’s Criterion Collection DVD release, La Cage aux Folles was a glimpse into “a world [audiences] had no concept of whatsoever”. Liberated in its attitudes towards both gender and sexuality, La Cage Aux Folles was unique at the time in portraying a man who could enjoy dressing as a woman and be in a loving, committed relationship.

    By contrast, when The Birdcage was released, in the mid-1990s, the LGBTQ+ community was rebuilding itself following the peak of the Aids crisis. Within this context, The Birdcage’s light-hearted, playful portrait of queerness, exempt from suffering, threat, or death, was radical too. Within the film, there is only one single mention of the Aids pandemic which comes about when, at the dinner table, Albert – as ‘Mother Coleman’ – and the Senator are discussing the traditionalism of their upbringing. “It was a wonderful world then, no drugs and no Aids”, Albert remarks knowingly, keeping up the conservative act.

    Two contrasting breakthroughs

    The Birdcage was a circuit breaker for narratives of queer tragedy which had been the norm over the previous decade. Including Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia, the other hit studio film of the era to be pioneering in its centring of a gay man. Released in the same year as Aids diagnoses peaked, it was the first time a major studio explicitly tackled the Aids crisis on-screen: Tom Hanks played a Philadelphia lawyer suing his previous firm for HIV-related discrimination after he was fired once a visible lesion appeared on his forehead.

    In its attempt to reach mainstream audiences, Philadelphia offered a consciously sympathetic gay character who could help correct the public’s ignorance on homosexuality and Aids. However, Philadelphia’s navigation of homosexuality was done with little celebration, as it sombrely plotted the gradual and distressing decline of a gay man, a paradigm that had become familiar in the 1990s mainstream conception of queerness. In contrast, The Birdcage revels in flouncing flamboyance. In fact, both films were recognisable breakthroughs for the portrayal of queer characters on-screen, while being opposite in tone: Philadelphia centred on combating discrimination and homophobia, and The Birdcage simply focused on the liberating joy of being one’s self.

    While not explicitly discussing the Aids crisis, however, The Birdcage nevertheless honoured it, in its own way, by offering the collective healing power of laughter to a community that had been through years of turmoil. “With the Aids epidemic in the US finally starting to plateau, the mid-1990s was a moment when the LGBTQ+ community began, at last, to be able to believe in the possibility of a post-crisis existence,” says Jones, “The Birdcage showed that queer identities could exist independently of, and without reference to, the epidemic. In short, it and similar productions from that period finally made it possible to start rebuilding positive queer identities through laughter and joy.”

    That’s not to say, of course, that those years of turmoil can be erased, even within such a carefree film. Because of the historical context, there is one moment in The Birdcage that really hits home in a different way to the French original. In both cinematic versions, a pause from the laughter comes in a crucial scene of recalibration just before the in-laws arrive, in the middle of the film, when Albert and Armand’s bickering escalates and Albert dramatically walks out – before the gay couple reunite, and poignantly agree to be buried beside each-other so as to “never miss a laugh”.

    While this scene is an almost perfect mirror of its predecessor, there is an added layer of emotional weight here. Watching the remake, you feel this dark but wholly romantic gesture now underscored by the heart-wrenching, implied context that this couple, off-screen, have survived the Aids crisis together. Given the LGBTQ+ community’s collective reckoning with death at the time, the promise to be buried side-by-side is a vow of unity that seems even more meaningful than marriage – an option that, anyway, the pair couldn’t even legally consider in 1996.

    Why it’s still remarkable

    What’s impressive is how relatively progressive The Birdcage still feels, within the context of mainstream cinema, in its treatment of queerness. Of the other Hollywood attempts at a ‘gay comedy’ in the 1990s, and since, from The Object of My Affection (1998) to Love, Simon (2018), few have reached the bar that Nichols set. The following year, for example, saw the release of Frank Oz’s straight-laced gay comedy In & Out. Inspired by Hanks’ impassioned Academy Award best-actor speech for Philadelphia, in which he thanked his gay high-school teacher, the film focused on Howard (Kevin Kline), a closeted Midwest teacher who is outed by an Oscar-winning pupil and tries to convince the world around him, and himself, that he’s not gay. While Howard denies his queerness, the very idea of a homosexual presence in the small town throws its inhabitants into turmoil.

    In one scene, Howard is terminated on the basis that the school principal fears his queerness will “spread” to the students. The loaded phrase was not a coincidence, in the context of the moral panic around Aids at the time, it underlined the position of many mainstream gay films: that queer characters could not be acquitted in the eyes of the rest of the world from their association with the deadly virus. The Birdcage rebuffed this notion, never even considering the idea of queer abandonment. Instead, the film celebrates two gay men being romantic partners, business owners and loving parents without invoking shame, fear or denial.

    Around the time of The Birdcage’s release, just as mainstream Hollywood was taking small steps in depicting queer folk, independent cinema had seen the emergence of what the critic B Ruby Rich called ‘New Queer Cinema’ – a movement in which queer-identifying filmmakers were venturing into pioneering new territory: “renegotiating subjectivities, annexing whole genres, revising histories in their image,” as Ruby Rich put it. Unified by self-representing queer narratives, the likes of Paris is Burning (1990), The Watermelon Woman (1996), Tongues Untied (1989) and Edward II (1991) constitute just some of the queer films made outside of the mainstream in the early and mid-1990s. The Birdcage was a very different proposition from these productions – but with its foregrounded, unapologetic queerness, it sat in an unallocated space between the New Queer Cinema and Hollywood.

    Indeed, even if it was made by a straight director and a big studio, The Birdcage remains a pillar in the landscape of queer cinema. As the film draws to a close and the lively tune of We Are Family fills the dance floor once again, the credits roll and all the film’s gay characters are still breathing. Not only that: they’re laughing. Twenty-five years later, the characters’ laughter, and the laughter they inspire, is a sound of joy and relief that remains a force of healing for LGBTQ+ viewers.

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