The Birdcage (1996)


Well, when throwing a “Birdcage” themed dinner party, it is crucial that you start with Greek dinnerware that involves some boys playing “leap frog” in the bowls. Next, you promise a “Guatemalan peasant soup” which is questionable from the start. Then, you provide a mixture of eggs and shrimps and spice and call it a day! You may end up having a reaction somewhat similar to Bridget Jones’ blue soup.

Or you can go ahead and try this actual recipe, from The Latin Kitchen, called Traditional PepĂ­an:

This film isn’t one of the biggest foodie films, but there is another notable scene involving a simple breakfast.

“I pierced the toast!”

LGTBQ Film Series :#13

“Birdcage” (1996) directed by Mike Nichols is a fun comedy that uses its humor to depict the absurdity of some of the strong-held prejudices against the gay community. It is unfortunately rare for a film in the 1990’s about homosexual men to contain a story-line that does not monopolize their sexuality for cheap comedic value or center the events around traumatizing misfortune for the homosexual characters. This film refreshingly manages to do neither. The characters are nuanced, the jokes are born from well-developed characters and the performances are superb.

The primary plot is centered on a gay couple Armand and Albert Goldman (Robin Williams & Nathan Lane) trying to impress the conservative, right wing parents (Gene Hackman & Dianne Wiest) of their soon to be daughter in law (Calista Kay Flockhart), when their son (Dan Futterman, also ironically the pastry chef that Charlotte thinks is gay and then tries to date when she realizes he is not on “Sex and the City”) frantically pressures them.

One of the most surprising aspects of this 1990’s film is that Emmanuel Lubezski is the cinematographer. Lubezski, the man who was nominated for eight Academy Award nominations for Best Cinematography, and won this category for three consecutive years, for “Gravity” (2013), “Birdman” (2014), and “The Revenant” (2015). In “Birdcage,” he approaches much more lighthearted subject matter, but his touch is still present in every scene, where simple shots feel electric and he is able to create drama with the spaces. This is especially present when shooting inside the mansion where Williams and Lane’s character abide, which is decadent with art and decor. The elevated nature of the shots are sometimes even used to add comedy to various scenes.

Talented costume designer, Ann Roth, lends her hands to this film with elegant, beachy pieces and classic conservative designs for the cast. Her role is most important in creating Albert Goldman whose glamorous fashion sense and affinity for a statement piece is a key pillar of his personality. Not to mention the brief sequences of drag where the glitzy extravagance of each look is crucial.

Director, Elaine May, has created something special with this film. Coming from the 1950’s improv comedy scene with Mike Nichols, she subsequenty dove into her career as a director and screenwriter, where her screenwriting gifts were recognized twice with nominations at the Academy Awards for “Heaven Can Wait” in 1978 and “Primary Colors” in 1998. This film comes in between those two elected hits, but is directed by her previous “partner in show,” Nichols, and showcases their paired comedy chops effortlessly. It is a Shakespearean comedy of errors where a group of people must wobble between erasure and acceptance when it comes to their beliefs. It is sharply, but subtly confrontational.

Armand Goldman (Williams) is a subdued but swanky businessman, who runs a south beach drag club called The Birdcage, and lives above it in an apartment with his partner, who is also the leading queen, Albert (Lane). Notably, Williams opted to take the softer role in this film in order to allow Nathan Lane to shine, and shine he does. Lane is hysterical, whimsical, theatrical and sincere as Albert, and his alter-ego Starina. They live with a Guatemalan housekeeper and aspiring performer, Agador (Hank Azaria), and though there are some timeless laughs – like when he tries to walk in a pair of business casual loafers instead of his heels and looks like a humiliated ostrich – the problematic choice to cast a non-person of color in this role does not age well.

However, the rest of the film lands. Futterman plays Val Goldman, biological son of Armand and raised by him and Albert, and he is convincing as a well-meaning, but insecure man marrying into a family much different from his own. His fiance’s father is Senator Kevin Keeley (Hackman), who positions himself politically on the far right and is the co-founder of a conservative group called the Coalition for Moral Order. After facing the heat of a political scandal, he is hesitant to make any moves that will put him on thinner ice, leading Val to feel its necessary to disguise his gay fathers and the dynamic of their household as something more traditional.

The plot comes from Jean Poiret’s 1973 play La Cage aux Folles, which was adapted into a Franco-Italian comedy film in 1978. “The Birdcage” gives it an updated retelling. It is a clever, classic comedy that just works. And if it weren’t already a treat for the gays, we have Christine Baranski as Katharine Archer, Val’s mother, to complete an already stacked cast.

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