What I Watched Last Night: The Birdcage

I decided to pay tribute to Robin Williams by watching one of his classics (that happened to be available on Netflix).

Honestly, I wasn’t sure how this film would hold up. I remembered it being hilarious, but things different now from when it was released in 1996 and what is acceptable as far as the caricatures and stereotypes regarding gay characters have (thankfully) changed. Some of the gags on Will & Grace reruns that used to crack me up now make me cringe, and I was wondering if that would happen here.

(Warning: here be spoilers)

The poster for "The Birdcage."

For those who are unfamiliar with the plot, it is based on the stage show La Cage Aux Folles, and tells the story of gay drag club owner Armand Goldman (Robin WIlliam), who lives with his partner and star performer Albert (Nathan Lane) in South Beach. Armand has a 20-year-old son, Val (Dan Futterman), from a one-night dalliance with a woman named Katherine (Christine Baranski), who hasn’t really been a part of her son’s life. Val comes home to tell his dad that he wants to get married, and his fiancee, Barbara (Calista Flockhart), is coming to visit with her parents. Barbara’s father is Kevin Keeley (Gene Hackman), a conservative senator in the midst of a scandal. Val asks his father to “play it straight” for the evening, redecorating their home, attempting to tone down the maid Agador (Hank Azaria), and going as far as to ask if Albert can go out of town and Katherine can come over and pretend to be an involved mother.

The scenes with the Keeley family are a skewering of right-wing politicians and their faux-moral stances which, unfortunately, are still relevant today. Mrs. Keeley (Dianne Wiest) is the passive housewife type and Senator Keeley the typical white Republican who wants to distance himself from his colleague, a fellow member of the “Coalition for Moral Order,” who was found dead in the bed of an underage prostitute. There’s also a small showing of racism on the part of the senator, since he’s as scandalized that the woman was black as he is that she was underage. As much as I wish these things weren’t still applicable to today’s politicians, it’s hilarious and a fairly ruthless mockery of right-wing hypocrites.

Val is about as obnoxious as it gets, and I spent a lot of the film angry at him. He makes his father hide everything crucial about his identity, including his actual partner, to win the approval of his future in-laws. Armand is extremely patient with him, and the role is ultimately about how far a father’s love for his son can extend. Lane’s portrayal of Albert plays into some effeminate stereotypes a bit, but the exaggerations are necessary for the plot to work. He is rightly offended when asked to leave for the evening, and insistent that Armand grant him a palimony agreement (something that feels slightly outdated, though that’s a good thing, since it’s advancements in rights for LGBT couples that make it feel that way), and again comes through by agreeing to pretend to be Val’s uncle, then later actually pretending to be his mother by emerging in drag and charming the Senator.

Ultimately, of course, the disastrous family meet-and-greet ends with Val explaining his real situation to the Keeleys, saying Albert is his real mother, while Katherine is introduced as “the woman who had Val.” In another skewering of the Senator, he is just as appalled that they’re Jewish as he is that they’re gay. Of course, the following scene of the Keeleys slipping out of the club in drag is pretty great. As the credits roll over Val and Barbara’s wedding, we see the groom’s side full of celebratory drag queens while the bride’s is full of drab, conservative WASPs.

Overall, the film is quite funny and enjoyable. It’s a farce, so yes, there are some over-the-top moments that could be read as stereotypes, but they don’t feel mean-spirited. If anything, the hyperbolic moments are largely presented as these characters celebrating and accepting who they are — even when they have to hide it. The gay characters aren’t the ones being mocked, if anything they’re the ones doing the mocking. Armand and Albert, and to an extent Agador, are shown as simply doing everything they can for Val, out of concern and love. The ones who look bad are Val and the older Keeleys, and really, there’s nothing wrong with skewering Republicans and smarmy white boys.

By [E] Liza

PhD student. Knitter. Brooklynite. Long-distance dog mom. Reluctant cat lady. Majestic unicorn whose hair changes color with the wind.

One reply on “What I Watched Last Night: The Birdcage”

My roommate and I have each watched this movie at least twice in the last two weeks.

I can’t help but love it, because it’s less about drag queens and more about parents trying to do the right thing for their (ungrateful, selfish) son. It’s infuriating to watch Val shit on Armand and Albert because his fiancee’s parents are conservative, because that conveys a definite attitude of self-centered assholery.

And, of course, Hank Azaria is a riot.

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