The Birdcage is the 1996 remake of the French comedy La Cage aux Folles, from 1978, given 1990s Hollywood comedy treatment, and directed by Mike Nichols with middling results. The film is about two gay men named Armand and Albert (Robin Williams and Nathane Lane) who run a popular night club in South Beach, and their son, Val (Dan Futterman), the product of Williams’s singular attempt at heterosexuality. His real mom (Christine Baranski) has kept her distance from him, so the flamboyant Albert (whose popular drag persona “Starina” is a regular feature of the night club) is more like a mother to him. The film is about the mad comic hi-jinks that ensue when a gay couple tries to act straight for their son’s future in-laws, a Conservative senator (played by Gene Hackman) and his wife (Dianne Wiest).
Mike Nichols often botched comedy. Working Girl, which is touted as a classic of the 80s, never really catches fire. The Birdcage gets quite funny late in the game, but not before a series of drawn-out scenes of Armand and Albert essentially breaking up and getting back together repeatedly. (Albert becomes such a cliché that he’s totally irritating until the final act, when he steals the show.) Nichols has done good work, but his comedies have never really worked. Nichols, perhaps because he began his career with “important” films like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, never found that lightness of touch that seemed a second language to the great comedy directors like Preston Sturges. Nichols’s conception of comedy is to go grandiose: Working Girl is a yuppie Cinderella. Postcards from the Edge comes closest to this lightness of touch, but it never stops straining for prestige long enough to be fun and relaxed. Even Nichols’s greatest film, The Graduate, never worked as a comedy for me: it always felt too wistful and tinged with longing and regret to be taken as a joke, no matter how hip it might have been in 1967.
The Birdcage isn’t wistful or tinged with longing, nor is it particularly hip: It’s desperately trying to be, but its conception of gay people is narrow and dated now: They’re all flamboyant emotional time bombs. Robin Williams’ character is the most reserved of the bunch (he has surprisingly few Robin Williams-y moments, and they’re short enough that they amuse rather than pander to us), and it’s strange to see him underplaying here, although it’s admittedly refreshing.
Where The Birdcage both falters and succeeds is in its casting. The cast is so good—not just Williams and Lane but Gene Hackman, Dianne Wiest, Hank Azzaria as the sassy, aged-out but still tight Guatemalan houseboy, and Christine Baranski—that Nichols basically coasts on their talent. He doesn’t bother to shape the scenes, and thus the movie lies there like a wilted mint leaf under the draining Florida sun.
Some of the film’s brightest moments involve senator Hackman’s attempts to cover up his colleague’s scandalous death: The two of them served on some high-minded morality committee, but his colleague has just dropped dead in a hotel room where he was spending the night with an under-age black prostitute. The film is perceptive about hypocritical moral values and how they prevent people from really seeing each other with compassion and humanity.
Finally, in the last act, The Birdcage picks up steam. Albert, who’s been asked not to attend the dinner of the two families because of his gayness, emerges in full drag pretending to be Armand’s wife, and fools everyone. It’s a tour de force performance and this extended scene almost achieves the comic lunacy of the great screwball comedies The Birdcage partly imitates.