Movie Rewatch Review – The Birdcage

the birdcage with gene hackman, robin williams and nathan lane.
I’m still giggling. Some of this movie is just not cool today, but the basic madcap humor and earnest message is a win.

When The Birdcage opened as a feature film in 1997, I don’t remember people being quite so terrified of gay men…so it surprised me, 21 years later, to see such fear in the hearts of the young straight couple to admit the groom-to-be had two fathers. Or, as this movie made clear, one male father, and one male mother.

I’m guessing the producers chose to make the young lady’s parents so super conservative to even be close to being okay with this premise — even to making Callista Flockhart’s character’s father an uber republican senator, basing his platform almost entirely on a Moral “Something-Or-Other” Coalition.

I can’t imagine this movie being produced today. The son made his doting, supportive parents pretend to be something society deemed acceptable, deceive his fiance’s parents, bring on a “fake” (sort of–it’s complicated) cis female mother, and REDECORATE THEIR ENTIRE HOUSE to appear heteronormative. It felt so completely unfair and inappropriate that I had to sit back, reminding myself the original version of the story came out even earlier, in a time when “the gays” was a legitimate source of humor. (Gene Hackman’s senator is an equal-opportunity xenophobe: he also says “a Black.”)

As per the Wikipedia, The Birdcage was previously known on Broadway as La Cage aux Folles (written in 1973): “The original 1983 Broadway production received nine nominations for Tony Awards and won six, including Best Musical, Best Score and Best Book. The success of the musical spawned a West End production and several international runs. The 2004 Broadway revival won the Tony Award for Best Revival, and the 2008 London revival garnered the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Musical Revival. The 2010 Broadway revival was nominated for eleven Tony Awards, winning the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical. La Cage aux Folles is the first musical which has won the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical twice and the show that has won a Best Production Tony Award (Best Musical or Best Revival of a Musical) for each of its Broadway productions. The show has had five nominations for Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical from the three Broadway productions, twice for Georges and three times for Albin, and won twice, both for Albin.”

Not too shabby. I’d love to see it on stage, myself.

Anyway. I’ve decided not to judge an old story on new norms. So be it: in this film’s universe, it’s a screaming hoot to present a wildly feminine fellow as a manly men’s man. Yes, I’m being sardonic, but if we go with the old and acceptable trope of mixed identities and madcap humor, this really is a super fun film. It made me a little sad to see Robin Williams here, knowing now how his genius stemmed from intense depression, but he was note-perfect as the long-suffering father who stands by his man when it counted. Nathan Lane, as William’s effeminate mate, was at turns amusing and heart-breaking, but always fantastic. And Hank Azaria (as their houseboy) was a non-stop delight, and not because he was gay, but from being such a wonderful weirdo in all incarnations. (I want an entire movie based on the life and times of Agador Spartacus. )

Hank Azaria in the birdcage
Oh Hank Spartacus, you rock my world!

Everyone committed to their parts with genuine glee and abandon. It was a real pleasure and treat to rewatch this film, so many years later, in spite of the genuine frustration of intransigent attitudes that hopefully don’t persist today.

I give this a super high grade only because the film made me laugh harder than I have in many (many!) years, from seeing everyone scrambling to hide phallic statues and bowls with Greek boys playing “leapfrog” around the rim, serving shrimp soup with no shrimp (and uncracked eggs floating around) as the only dish, and the joyous end with Hackman’s senator finally accepting the inevitable and the ridiculous. I’m still  smiling two days later.

I don’t want to write any more for this review, for two reasons: it’s immensely funny and shouldn’t be spoiled, and because I’m kind of uncomfortable making a lot of comments on using Gay Panic as a source of humor. If you have any suggestions how to handle both loving and being disturbed by the themes of a  movie, please leave them in the comments below. 

Movie Grade: A+ (For being legitimately enjoyable when taken on its intended merits: showcasing great acting, playful humor, and showing that society should never make one feel ashamed of themselves. )

Jill Florio

Co-Creator of RunPee, Chief of Operations, Content Director, and Managing Editor. RunPee Jilly likes galaxy-spanning sci fi, superhero sagas, fantasy films, YA dystopians, action thrillers, chick flicks, and zany comedies, in that order…and possesses an inspiringly small bladder. In fact, that little bladder sparked the creation of RunPee. (Good thing she’s learned to hold it.)

2 Replies to “Movie Rewatch Review – The Birdcage”

  1. So I was first drawn to this review in surprise – such an old film now! And then the phraseology of the post, “equal parts amused and mortified,” caught my interest – especially as a gay dude with some strong opinions on queer fiction. I really appreciated the sensitivity and concern this review was met with. I have to say, though, that it’s funny to hear someone say they don’t remember people being quite so terrified of gay men in 1997, because in my experience many are still that terrified of us in 2018. In fact, a lot of the themes here are still applicable to this day. Callista Flockhart’s parents are far from the most conservative, bigoted people I’ve ever seen, and someone being ashamed of their gay parents or family or siblings is absolutely still very common – hence Boy Erased.

    A lot of people (especially straight folk and the younger queer set) don’t really know or don’t remember what the world was like for LGBTQ+ people before Will & Grace. It’s easy to forget how that and the savage beating of Matthew Shepard came a full two-and-a-half years after The Birdcage came out. Heck, that was even a full year before Ellen came out on her show – a move that prompted the network to put a parental advisory before every episode going forward. The Birdcage seems so tame by today’s standards that, when searching for its MPAA rating, I found two parent blogs giving it a thumbs-up to show kids 14 and up. But the film is Rated R, and it’s hard to find a real reason listed anywhere other than “Adult Content.” The fact is, many films still find themselves with R-ratings simply for having gay themes (https://mic.com/articles/97198/the-mpaa-has-some-explaining-to-do-for-this-movie-s-r-rating).

    What’s worse is that, because of this lack of awareness, many have become complacent. I was ten when the film came out, just starting to realize that I was different, and I remember the uncomfortable *wink-nod* way the commercials for it were handled. Never outright saying what was going on here, like it was a secret you couldn’t speak, even with actors as famous as the Genie and Timon and Lex Luthor. Things are better now, yes, but you still have people who roll their eyes and ask why it matters if there’s visibly gay characters in the Harry Potter films. Well, the answer is, LGBTQ+ ten-year-olds need to see themselves in fiction. They need to be shown that it’s okay to be them. They shouldn’t have to feel like their identity is a secret that can’t be spoken, the way this film was dealt with despite its “live out loud” message, the way many queer stories are still dealt with.

    There’s a lot of good to be found from this film, and we’ve even come a long was since it was produced. Sadly, though, you could produce it today with VERY few changes and it would still be completely accurate and believable.

  2. Kevo! Thank you for your kind comments. I never really know what the ‘rules’ are for talking about people’s differences. I have an Asperger’s viewpoint on life, and have found that all I want is for people to ASK me how to be thoughtful and progressive about it. It’s not something I’m ashamed of, although I still see that conditions considered as mental illness make people mighty uncomfortable. So I’m not comparing my situation to yours: indeed, I find people on the Autism Spectrum in media to amuse and comfort me: characters like Rain Man, Sheldon Cooper, the Good Doctor, Newt Scamander, and Gary from Alphas make me smile and hope the ‘Stigma’ is lessened by public exposure.

    Of course, I have no idea how queer fiction is digested by people on the LGTBQ+ spectrum. I’d love to hear more from someone like you who appreciates compassionate yet fun entertainment.

    But back to the Birdcage. I’m saddened to hear that people like Hackman’s senator are still out there, judging, and that it actually gets worse than that.

    I’d love to post a article here if you wanted to write it about this: “it’s hard to find a real reason listed anywhere other than “Adult Content.” The fact is, many films still find themselves with R-ratings simply for having gay themes (https://mic.com/articles/97198/the-mpaa-has-some-explaining-to-do-for-this-movie-s-r-rating).”

    I actually think the TV show Glee did a lot to help people get over the hump of thinking gay people were abnormal. Tell me if this is offensive, as I only mean it with respect. But I loved that Rachel had two dads and it was a non-issue (plus Jeff Goldblum is always a hoot). Kurt Hummel and his dad Burt dealt with this through the show’s entire run, and I’d give Burt an award for best dad ever. Also, we had Santana and her coming out issues. IDK. I love to sing and act, and this show reminded me fondly of my own years with the high school drama club, where it was okay to be a weirdo (me) or queer (lots of the guys).

    On to Dumbledore: I think they are still skirting the issue that the love of Dumbledore’s life was Grindelwald. Sure, the fans know this, but the casual viewer probably won’t pick up on it. Albus looks into the Mirror of Erised, and sees not “warm socks” (as he said in the first book), but Grindelwald and he as beautiful young men. I think that was amazing and I should have seen it coming, but doubt it was clear what their relationship actually was. Do you think it was something the casual Harry Potter viewer would clue into?

    ( I also would have liked to know if the Blood Pact did in fact kill Ariana, but maybe the movies will get there later.)

    Did you like Boy Erased, or Love, Simon? Just curious. Also, that old lovely film Victor/Victoria: one of my favorite comedy films ever.

    I think that’s a good insight about Will and Grace. Jack was an awful lot like Hank Azaria’s Agador; people loved Jack and that the show went mainstream says some good things I think, about society.

    Although, tis true, on so many levels we humans have a lot of evolving to do.

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