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“The Birdcage” and its continued relevance

The other night, my wife and I watched an episode of Be My Guest with Ina Garten. She makes a fabulous lunch with her guest Nathan Lane where she interviews him throughout their visit. In this episode, Ina delves into his storied career and highlights The Birdcage. His onscreen moments inspired us to rewatch the film.

Produced in 1996, The Birdcage stars Robin Williams, Gene Hackman, Nathan Lane, and Dianne Wiest. Dan Futterman, Calista Flockhart, Hank Azaria, and Christine Baranski played smaller but poignant rolls, nonetheless.

Characters

At the heart of The Birdcage is Armond Goldman, played by Williams, who’s a flamboyant nightclub owner in South Beach, Florida. His son, Val, who’s the 20-year-old product of a one-night stand, returns from college and reveals his engagement. Armond controls everything, even his long-time partner.

Meanwhile, Armond’s partner, and Val’s other father/mother figure, Albert, is the star of the nightclub’s (The Birdcage) drag queen show. Albert is a high-strung, aging drag queen who, during the day, takes pleasure in his community and homelife. He has spent the past twenty years making Armond’s business and his son a success.

Val and fiancé Barbara are in love. But Barbara comes from a conservative household whose patriarch is the co-founder of the conservative group Coalition of Moral Order. That’s a far cry from where Val comes from. He’s a naïve college student, who only wants to marry Barbara. And Barbara, who turns out to be quite cunning, wants to keep the peace at home.

The Gist

After scandal breaks involving the other co-founder of the CMO, Barbara’s parents decide to flee Ohio for South Beach. The beach is sizzling and brimming with half-naked beach-going tourists. Val tells his father he’d have to tone down his appearance and his home décor or else the wedding’s off. Everyone, including the goofy house boy, played by Hank Azaria, scrambles to get the apartment presentable. By the way, the apartment is above The Birdcage. But what to do with Albert? While they redecorate, Armond attempts to distract Albert. What happens next is a perfect comedy of errors all the way to the finish line.

Today’s relevance

Nathan Lane, an out actor, made a huge impact with this film. Although The Birdcage is 27 years old, we continue to feel its social ripples today. At the time, few comedies were shedding light on LGBTQ issues, least of all, a positive one on LGBTQ families. In fact, it tackles several facets of gay life, including business, relationships, family, and drag queens, lots of them. 

Its relevance transcends time, especially since conservative lawmakers today have declared war on the LGBTQ community, singling out drag queens. The Birdcage portrays the family unit, although a bit unorthodox, positively. The film also hits home the importance of self-acceptance and self respect, whatever the external circumstances. But it also highlights the length any parent would go to protect their children. Even if that means retreating to the closet for a night. This is the crux, or should be anyway, of family dynamics.

However, scattered throughout the film are a few cringe-worthy moments. For instance, in the film version of South Beach, tourists are always wearing brightly colored bikinis or thongs and walk around Ocean Drive. The characters, Armond and Albert, could have been written with more finesse and less outrageousness. And finally, their apartment could be less of a cliché, filled with over-the-top phallic symbols. But, then again, written differently, would have made it less successful.

Outside of those moments of gaudy grandeur, the film was heartwarming, smart, and hysterical. It does an excellent job at pointing out how complicated families are.

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