To offer a brief timeline:
Jean Poiret’s original French play La Cage aux Folles – about a young man who must introduce his ultra-conservative potential in-laws to his two gay fathers – premiered in Paris in 1973. It ran for 1,800 performances. The first film adaptation of La Cage aux Folles, written and directed by Édouard Molinaro, was released in France in 1978, where it won the César for Best Actor.
La Cage aux Folles opened in the United States in 1979 where it was nominated for three Academy Awards (for its directing, its screenplay, and its costumes). In December of 1980, La Cage aux Folles II was released in France to a vaguely positive response. In 1983, Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein would produce a celebrated American Broadway stage adaptation of La Cage aux Folles, in English and with all new songs, but a true-to-the-source story. The Broadway musical won six Tonys. It’s been revived pretty regularly ever since, most recently in 2010. In 1985, La Cage aux Folles 3: The Wedding was made, although I have met no one who is fond of it. Then, finally, in 1996, Mike Nichols and Elaine May would remake the original film under the title The Birdcage.
That makes four films, one play, and a repeatedly revived musical. That’s just as many iterations as Carrie.
Is it heretical of me to say that The Birdcage is the best version of the La Cage aux Folles story?
The Birdcage, more than any of the previous versions of La Cage aux Folles, is hotly political. Each iteration was political, of course, but The Birdcage came at a time when the conversation about the civil rights of gay people was being more openly discussed and the subject matter felt more relevant. Gay characters were appearing in media more and more often, and America was experiencing a boom in indie queer cinema. Rob Epstein’s and Jeffrey Friedman’s seminal queer film documentary The Celluloid Closet was released in 1995, and many sitcom characters were granted gay best friends. Gay visibility had reached a level of ubiquity that was becoming more and more comfortable for everyone. Into this environment, The Birdcage was released. And it was a hit.
The Birdcage is about a gay Miami nightclub owner named Armand (Robin Williams, playing it straight) and his drag queen husband Albert (Nathan Lane, exploding onto the movie scene) whose 20-year-old son Val (Armand’s biological son, the result of a drunken affair with a woman) has proposed to his 18-year-old college girlfriend Barbara (Callista Flockhart). Barbara is the daughter of an ultra-conservative senator Kevin Keeley (a sublime Gene Hackman) who has recently become embroiled – perhaps naturally – in a widely publicized sex scandal. Val (Dan Futterman) wants the families to meet, but he also, in a deeply hurtful request, asks that Armand hide his gayness for the benefit of his bigoted potential in-laws. Armand, wanting to be a good father, reluctantly agrees. This will all culminate in a sublime screwball climax wherein Albert finds himself in drag, posing as Val’s “mother,” and Armand having a serious of miniature nervous breakdowns in front of the senator and his wife (Dianne Wiest).
Armand and Albert have a contentious, bickersome relationship, and Armand is often grumpy, misanthropic, and put-upon. He’s been beaten down by life, and has finally reached a point where he can be fleetingly happy. In a telling speech, Armand explains to his son what his life actually is. “Yes, I wear foundation,” he says. “Yes, I live with a man. Yes, I’m a middle-aged fag. But I know who I am, Val. It took me twenty years to get here, and I’m not gonna let some idiot senator destroy that. Fuck the senator, I don’t give a damn what he thinks.” How many 50-year-old gay men in 1996, do you suppose, wanted to say this?
Albert, meanwhile, is full of life, and stars as the headliner in Armand’s drag show. Some people have taken issue with the depiction of Albert as something of a stereotype. He’s a mincing, soft-speaking, cross-dressing homosexual male who calls people “sweetie” and who is given to flights of hysteria. I would argue, however, that, while he does fulfill many of the “gay” tropes, that Albert is a more nuanced, subtle character than he might be given credit for. He seems restless and unhappy a lot of the time, and is deathly afraid of aging. “I’m not young, I’m not new, and everyone laughs at me. I’m quite aware of how ridiculous I am,” he says. He laments the glory days of being young and adorable. In the old days, gay people would be shunned, forced to live out of the public eye, and the AIDS crisis would not be addressed. Here in 1996, Albert has survived, and now has to face something he probably never thought about before: Middle age.
So Albert and Armand, with their constant fighting, are surprisingly complete characters, and Nichols & May depict them with a humaneness that wasn’t often granted to gay characters in mainstream feature films. And while their bickering is often played for laughs, each word feels surprisingly sensitive. I learned recently that Steve Martin was originally in talks to play Armand, while Williams was to play Albert. This would have been so wrong. Williams’ manic comedy styling would have reduced Albert to a joke. No, better to have him as the “straight man,” as it were, and to have a gay man actually play Albert.
This stands apart from the previous iterations, which all played more broadly with the characters. Indeed, The original La Cage aux Folles seems bitter at times, and even mean. The Armand character seems to abuse Albert more in that version, and Albert is meant – at times – to be more laughed at than laughed with. The Birdcage wisely updates those attitudes, largely strengthening the material.
Apart from its place in the political landscape, the central relationship between Armand and Albert is why The Birdcage works as well as it does. Luckily, it’s surrounded by a manic farce of the classical variety, and possesses some of the bigger laughs of, honestly, any comedy of the 1990s. It’s damn funny, and has more laughs per capita than even other comedy hits of the time like, say, There’s Something About Mary.
Gene Hackman is excellent as a clueless senator who is desperately clinging onto the meaningless politico language of the extreme right (which was experiencing a surge in the mid-1990s thanks to pundits like Rush Limbaugh, et al), and whose self-righteousness falls on its face when an ally dies in the bed of an underage prostitute. A black prostitute. Horrors. Dianne Wiest can barely keep her plastered-on smile plastered throughout the proceedings. It helps that their arc is not that their bigotry is maintained, but that it must be overcome.
And, of course, everyone loves Hank Azaria as Agador, the none-too-bright, none-too-talented Guatemalan butler. He has the best lines in the film, and seems happily oblivious of the major personal drama unfolding before him. Agador describes himself as “a combination of Lucy and Ricky,” which is wholly accurate; he has the glorious comic energy of a classic sitcom character. Azaria also provides one of the great pratfalls in cinema when he goes to answer the door wearing shoes (which make him fall down). The slip, the fall, and the timing are honestly equal to anything Buster Keaton could have done. In a few more years, Azaria may play a wonderful Keaton in a high-profile Hollywood biography.
Personally speaking, The Birdcage was one I kind of adored in 1996 (I did watch it multiple times theatrically, although my position as a theater usher allowed me to do that for free), and have found that it ages rather well. Putting it in the context of the history of La Cage aux Folles proves it to be the crown jewel of the lot, and it also stands as a step – maybe not hugely important, but a notable step – in progressive politics.