In December a lot of folks binge watch Christmas movies. I’m not into that. But I did watch one of my all-time favorite films, The Birdcage. This is a movie that keeps on giving. The ensemble cast works together like pot roast and potatoes. They play off each other with cat-like deftness, no one is left behind, each is a star in his or her own right.
In 1996, when this film debuted, I didn’t know Nathan Lane from Harmony Lane. Since seeing The Birdcage, I’ve followed his career and enjoyed every minute. Likewise, Hank Azaria, who portrayed the gay Guatemalan maid with searing humor and humility, has gone on to enjoy a rich career in film; I’m always thrilled to find his unexpected appearances. In 1996, I still associated Robin Williams with “Mork and Mindy,” which did nothing to solidify him as an artist in my narrow mind. Williams’ performance in The Birdcage catapulted me into a new awareness and, as far as I’m concerned, it catapulted Williams into the land of genius.
I realize that my LGBTQ friends and readers may find my infatuation with this film shallow and painfully limited. But when The Birdcage came out, I was under-exposed. For me this film showed two sides of a pair of highly stereotyped and stylized lifestyles. On the one hand, we had the over-the-top emotionally-charged gay life. The other side portrayed the overly stultified (at least I hope it was overly stultified) life of a shallow, über right-wing politician. Each polarized side is portrayed with equally tenderness. I am equally distressed by the Keeleys’ (Gene Hackman and Dianne Wiest) narrow-minded ignorance as I am by the painful attempts of Armand (Williams) and Albert (Lane) to go mainstream heterosexual.
The Birdcage is a love story at its finest. Director Mike Nichols gives us love in its many-splendored forms. We see love sparked by the momentary high of alcohol, drugs, and youth—and almost as quickly defeated by reality. We see a love child brought up by two loving parents. We see the estranged birth-mother who hasn’t contributed or even thought much about the result of those passionate moments twenty years earlier. And we see young love determined to break through the vast gulfs of cultural parentage, star-struck, hopeful, frightened and filled with love for their difficult parents.
The Birdcage also shows us vulnerability. We see the fragility of the identity, the tenuous threads of marital vows, the frightening chaos of cultural diversity. These vulnerabilities lead to incredible risks that people will endure in the name of love.
Every nuance of this film is explosive, over-the-top, and believable. The vulture press plays its role alongside the highly stylized versions of a political family and a gay performance family. They seem so opposite, but in the end, their needs are universal—not the “family, morality, and tradition” required of a political persona, but the love, success, and acceptance required of a committed family.
Perhaps most poignant at this point is Robin Williams’ performance. He looks so young, so much the master of his own destiny. There is no hint of the demons that came to haunt him and to rob us of him. And oh, the wonder of seeing a virile Gene Hackman playing a startled drag queen!