‘The Birdcage’ and drag culture complexity
Mike Nichols will forever be remembered by the film community for his directorial work on the one-two punch of the Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton-starring “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” and “The Graduate,” featuring a young Dustin Hoffman. Both films were each iconic in their own right. “Virginia Woolf” was a sharp blow to the production code staunchly enforced by Joseph Breen, and “The Graduate” solidified the character of Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) as a cultural metaphor for a sexually assertive older woman.
Somewhat less known is Nichols’ work on the 1996 film “The Birdcage,” a remake of the popular French comedy “La Cage Aux Folles.” The American adaptation stars the late Robin Williams as Armand Goldman, a drag club owner, and Nathan Lane as his partner Albert, who headlines the club as Starina. The narrative follows the two as they prepare to host the family of their son’s fiancée, headed by conservative Sen. Kevin Keeley (Gene Hackman, proving again that he objectively looks like a politician). Naturally, the premise in itself is humorous: two polar opposites on the political spectrum interacting over what turns out to be a disaster of a dinner.
The film does a rather decent job of presenting a diverse array of gay characters. Sure, there are somewhat over-the-top elements of flamboyance, especially in the form of Hank Azaria’s Agador Spartacus. Yet on the whole, the film largely succeeds in its portrayal of drag life.
One aspect that helps legitimize the story is the fact that actor Lane, playing a rather frivolous queen, is in fact homosexual. Bearing this in mind, it would seem that his work is an honest representation of his views of the culture. This was something missing from our last source of analysis, “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar.” While the efforts of the heterosexual leads of that film were admirable, it certainly helps to have a community represented by one of their own.
Many of the stereotypes utilized by the narrative can be forgiven in part because they function mainly as a source of benevolent humor. The aforementioned Spartacus works well because he is so over the top: he obsesses over cutoff shorts and Gloria Estefan, the latter of whom will be alien to many contemporary audiences. The script by Elaine May benefits from a glorious self-awareness that serves to present common tropes associated with gay life and eventually subvert them.
The film finds its greatness in the last act, after Albert has decided to adorn drag to play Mrs. Coleman, filling in as Armand’s wife at the dinner. When Armand’s former wife (Christine Branski) does in fact show up, the ruse collapses and Keeley, having flirted with Albert in drag, is in an utter state of shock.
The reveal is a tender moment, where conservative views are forced to confront the reality of homosexual existence. There are no Mike Pence-esque calls for conversion therapy, but rather an attempt at acceptance. It remains debatable if Keeley will amend his views in the long term, though it can be stated that he certainly developed a new understanding for gay life.
The film delivers laughs in spades, even while sensitive themes of self and identity arise. Acceptance plays a large role as well, especially when Armand and his son Val (Dan Futterman) realize it is abhorrent to attempt to change Albert.
Their efforts to “turn him masculine” for the dinner, while well-intentioned, are exposed as a failure to a loved one. The film is an overall joy, holding up remarkably well with age. Some of the references might appear slightly dated, but the comedy continues to endure. Stereotypes of gay life are explored and often disproved, leading to the film being a solid step in the right direction.