The Birdcage

I want to spend some time or at least a post or two this month exploring Hollywood’s version of gay stories. Before I get into Mike Nichol’s The Birdcage, I want to remind you to check out Vito Russo’s seminal work, The Celluloid Closet. Published in 1981, Russo’s incredibly well-researched book explores Hollywood’s deplorable depictions of LGBT characters over the course of the 20th Century. It is a must-read. A new edition of the book was published in 1987, three years before Vito died from AIDS. There has been a documentary based on the book by the same name as well as a documentary from HBO titled Vito on Russo’s life. Both films are must-see events.

birdcageIn 1973, Jean Poiret created the play, La Cage aux Folles (Birds of a Feather) about the son of a nightclub owner and his gay partner who falls in love with a young girl from an ultraconservative family. The farce was a huge hit sparking three French films (1978, 1980, 1985), and eventually a musical adaptation for Broadway (1983) written by Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein. In 1996, Elaine May adapted La Cage for the screen which Mike Nichols directed. The Birdcage stars Robin Williams and Nathan Lane as the gay couple with Gene Hackman and Dianne Wiest as the conservative couple and Dan Futterman and Calista Flockhart as their children. Hank Azaria plays the maid. Hollywood does French farce. And I have to say May and Nichols do it well. There are enormous stereotypes in The Birdcage, but truth be told we’ve all met people like this. It finally felt like we were beginning to laugh with each other rather than at each other. The fact that the parents would go along with their children’s’ request for the farcical evening was more ridiculous than any stereotypes in my opinion. And perhaps the most absurd stereotype was the queeny Latin male maid. Hank Azaria lived that role as offensive as it probably continues to be for many people. The Birdcage is over the top high camp family fun. Everyone does an excellent job. It’s good silly fun. Not particularly the type of film I need to own, but it’s sweet and does drive home the message that the gay couple is full of compassion and acceptance – yes another stereotype. Not all of us bend over backwards for the tea party. But politics is really not the point to The Birdcage. It’s hilarious camp mischief. And it’s nice to finally live in a time period 20 years later where this type of reaction would no longer need to happen. Although I suppose some people continue to hide their wilder sides from their more conservative surroundings no matter what their sexuality. Back in ’96, Mike Nichols orchestrated it so well with the help of a great cast of actors. 3.5 out of 5.

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