“The Birdcage” (1996) – Mike Nichols’ remake of “La Cage aux Folles” (1978) is a landmark LGBTQ film in American cinema, although looking back, this hit comedy – which raked in 185 million dollars worldwide – does have a troubling premise. The mid-90s and 1978 were different times, so the story of a 20-year-old son asking his gay fathers, Armand (Robin Williams) and Albert (Nathan Lane), to act straight for one night to fool his fiancée’s conservative parents – perhaps – seemed like a semi-reasonable request to the American public in 1996. Actually, Val (Dan Futterman) wants Albert to disappear and that his biological mother (Christine Baranski) swoop in and pretend that she and Armand are still married. No. What?
No doubt, these are unthinkable thoughts in 2021, but “The Birdcage” remains a more than worthy rewatch. Lane plays Albert way over-the-top, which creates major anxieties for Armand, Val and the audience, but Hank Azaria steals every scene with his hilarious portrayal of Agador, the free-spirited hired help.
Agador – who is later referred to as Agador Spartacus – can’t cook at all but attempts it anyway. Still, he’ll sing “She Works Hard for the Money” or “Lady Marmalade” while cleaning, which is almost worth the price of admission for those moments alone. In a 2013 interview with the late Larry King, Azaria – who is straight – talks about his hesitancy about his breakout, big-screen role.
Azaria said, “Hesitant is too mild a word. I would sit up in bed in the middle of the night terrified. What am I doing? I really hope this works. This is way out there on several levels. Not only could I be offending all gay people, but is the character going to work? Is it funny?”
I can’t speak to Agador being offensive, but he’s a riot in every on-screen frame, and the dinner between the four future in-laws – which the entire narrative circles around – is one of the most nerve-racking meals in movie history.
Gene Hackman and Dianne Wiest are perfectly cast as U.S. Senator Kevin Keeley and his wife Louise, and Williams is purposely subdued throughout the picture, except for when he instructs a young actor to feel “Madonna, Madonna, Madonna” for the show. Armand owns a drag-queen nightclub, and the film does gravitate towards serious LGBTQ issues, like the legal rights around domestic partnerships. At one point, Armand explains how far he’s come to be his true self, and this particular scene resonates in 1996, 1896, and 2021.
⭐⭐⭐ out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Image credits: MGM; Clip credits: Movieclips