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The Birdcage

The Birdcage

By Patrick Samuel • March 27th, 2013
Static Mass Rating: 5/5
United Artists

Original release: March 8th, 1996
Running time: 118 minutes

Director: Mike Nichols
Writers: Elaine May, Jean Poiret, Francis Veber, Edouard Molinaro, Marcello Danon
Composer: Stephen Sondheim

Cast: Robin Williams, Nathan Lane, Gene Hackman, Dianne Wiest, Dan Futterman, Calista Flockhart, Hank Azaria

The Birdcage

It’s a sad sign of what our society’s like when we have to hide who we are and what makes us happy, in order to please others because they might not like it. How exactly does the happiness of a minority group in a diverse society threaten the moral and traditional values of the majority? It doesn’t, but that’s just one of the many struggles the gay community has been facing since forever. With The Birdcage, based on the French film La Cage aux Folles (1978), what we see is the struggle of a gay couple as they try to hide who they are to please a conservative family as they’re about to be united in the marriage of their children.

Armand (Robin Williams) run a drag club in South Beach where his partner, Albert (Nathan Lane) regularly performs as “Starina”, the show’s main attraction. Like any couple, they have their ups and downs and Albert suspects Armand is secretly seeing someone else. It turns out the “someone else” is Val (Dan Futterman), Armand’s son who’s come to break the news to them that he’s getting married to Barbara (Calista Flockhart). Far from being happy about it, Armand thinks Val is too young and while Albert tries to keep quiet about the situation, he can’t help himself. In his adorable and irrepressible way, he says to Val,

“Oh Vallie, this is such a shock. I’m not saying anything, I promised your father, Mmm-mmm. But you’re only twenty, and if you throw yourself away on some dormitory slut you’ll be sorry for the rest of your life. There, enough said, no more, subject closed.”

Val getting married isn’t the worst of the news though – it’s what he’s marrying into and the feeling would be mutual if Barbara had told her parents the truth… but she hasn’t.

The Birdcage

Her father, Senator Keeley (Gene Hackman), is up for re-election and as the founder of the Coalition for Moral Order; he’s the pinnacle for everything that comes with conservative values. His career is about to come crashing down though when his colleague and co-founder of the Coalition is found dead in bed with an underage black hooker. With the media storm that’s about to kick off, it might the perfect time to get out of town for a few days and meet Val’s folks.

Unfortunately, Barbara’s told him, and her mother, Louise (Dianne Wiest), that Val’s father is a cultural attaché to Greece and his mother is a housewife. With that, the boys have little time to prepare for the performance of their lives. As Armand tries to swing it as a straight man, Albert steps up to the role of doting housewife and mother – all in an attempt to fool the Keeleys. Louise and Senator Keeley think the visit will be a good PR story, especially with Barbara’s marriage into a white, traditional, Christian family – they have no idea what they’re about to walk into. Even Agador (Hank Azaria), the flamboyant houseman, is forced into straightening up as a butler and chef.

As they settle down to dinner and manoeuvre themselves through the many pitfalls of polite conversation; with topics ranging from politics, abortion and homosexuality, Albert manages to pull off a convincing performance as a right-wing conservative The Birdcagehousewife. It delights Senator Keeley no end but outside photographers and journalists are catching wind the senator is staying in a gay drag club owner’s house and they’re getting ready for a big story to break.

When Armand and Albert are finally revealed to be a gay Jewish couple, Senator Keeley is horrified but his attempt to leave is hampered by the vultures waiting outside to tear him to pieces. They only way to escape them is to blend in and become part of the show in Armand’s club – paving the way for a finale where we see the stuck-up Senator puckering up and stepping out in a full drag gear to Sister Sledge’s celebratory hit We Are Family.

The Birdcage brings together a hilarious story and a brilliant cast, and while it doesn’t necessarily aim to change the world, it reminds us that people are just people. Armand and Albert have created a life for themselves where they’re very happy and despite their troubles at the beginning, they remember what really matters – each other. Meanwhile, Senator Keeley is forced to confront his prejudices and see their way of life poses no threat to his. In the end, it just might make him a better person.

It does play on stereotypes, but so what. It’s through these exaggerations we recognise the struggle, but it also makes the comedy work really well. Williams and Lane don’t miss a beat and their tender moments together also make the film a joy to watch, time The Birdcageand time again. As we watch Hackman’s character squirm and gloat over the smallest things, it makes the finale even more suiting, especially when all Senator Keeley can worry about is looking fat in a white dress. He doesn’t look half bad though. None of us need to hide who are and what makes us happy, and yet the sad truth is – we do. We fear what others may think, do or say about us. Nothing’s worse than hearing whispered voices gossiping about you or feeling eyes watching you as you walk down the street. How far does it need to go? With teenagers committing suicide because their parents, family, friends and society won’t accept them?

If our society is to move on in a way that doesn’t leave its most vulnerable living their lives in fear, then more needs to be done. Films like The Birdcage give us a taste of these struggles, but in a very light and entertaining way. The reality is much hasher as we can see the struggles that many today – in the year 2013 – still face as we continue the debate on equality and assign who should have it, and who shouldn’t.

Patrick Samuel

Patrick Samuel

The founder of Static Mass Emporium and one of its Editors in Chief is an emerging artist with a philosophy degree, working primarily with pastels and graphite pencils, but he also enjoys experimenting with water colours, acrylics, glass and oil paints.

Being on the autistic spectrum with Asperger’s Syndrome, he is stimulated by bold, contrasting colours, intricate details, multiple textures, and varying shades of light and dark. Patrick's work extends to sound and video, and when not drawing or painting, he can be found working on projects he shares online with his followers.

Patrick returned to drawing and painting after a prolonged break in December 2016 as part of his daily art therapy, and is now making the transition to being a full-time artist. As a spokesperson for autism awareness, he also gives talks and presentations on the benefits of creative therapy.

Static Mass is where he lives his passion for film and writing about it. A fan of film classics, documentaries and science fiction, Patrick prefers films with an impeccable way of storytelling that reflect on the human condition.

Patrick Samuel ¦ Asperger Artist

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