Steph Green revisits this caper-filled comedy, which thrives in its own takedown of heteronormativity
Dianne Wiest gazes at her bowl, unaware that it depicts men having sex with each other—albeit in the style of a Grecian ceramic. “What interesting china!” she exclaims. “It looks like young men playing leapfrog!” She isn’t yet aware that the woman sat next to her is actually a man in drag. “AND GIRLS, DON’T YOU HAVE ANY GIRLS?” the woman yelps in panic. It’s just one moment in an evening full of madness in which a couple try to hide their homosexuality from a pair of bigots: one element of a prolonged farce that ends in a group drag performance to Sister Sledge, as all farces should.
Armand (Robin Williams) is a middle-aged gay man who owns The Birdcage, a Florida drag club in which his partner Albert (Nathan Lane) is the star performer. Armand’s son Val arrives one day and announces that he has proposed to Barbara Keeley, a girl he met at college. There’s one problem: her parents are ultra-conservative, and Barbara has told them that Val’s father is the cultural attaché to Greece, in fear of them forbidding the union. Her dad, a Republican Senator and co-founder of a conservative group named the Coalition for Moral Order, is thrown into a political and public relations crisis when his colleague is found dead in bed with an underage Black sex worker. His wife and Barbara persuade him to allow the wedding, to stave off the bad press and improve his image; thus, they head off to Florida, unaware of the truth about their future son-in-law’s parents. As expected, a farcical comedy-of-errors ensues.
Although it’s generally well-liked, it’s understandable why some wouldn’t turn to The Birdcage as their Pride month pick. Despite being released in 1996, it completely ignores the AIDS crisis and suggests that one gay bar and some Sister Sledge is enough to bring everyone together, Republicans and all. Albert fulfils many stereotypes of gay men—effeminate, limp-wristed and hysterical, shrieking “OH GOD, I PIERCED THE TOAST” and dissolving into tears at the slightest problem. Agador, their ‘Guatemalan’ housekeeper (played by the very American Hank Azaria) is a lisping, booty short-wearing cliché. By and large, the film isn’t made by or acted by LGBT people.
But why do these camp, non-serious films not deserve the same level of critical interest, particularly in Pride month conversations, as their more serious counterparts? Why are comedies side-lined in favour of dramas in Pride film lists and articles; why will many lists include Call Me By Your Name, a very apolitical film, over something like The Birdcage?
Elaine May’s zany script undermines and mocks conservative groupthink and right-wing hysteria throughout The Birdcage, with Gene Hackman’s ingenious performance as the screwy Senator Keeley adding to the madness. His flustered peace sign when accosted by the press; sincere approval of murdering abortion doctors; earnest “it’s the most intelligent show on television!” quip as the camera shows four old men shouting at each other unintelligibly; everything about his performance is ridiculous and highly mockable. The script also puts two fingers up to the traditional nuclear family—Val loves his father and Albert, saying “I’m the only guy in my fraternity not from a broken home.” Armand refuses to feel shame for his sexuality, even if this means facing the wrath of the bigoted senator: “I don’t care who he is, I don’t wanna be someone else.” He only caves to the ruse of being straight as a favour to his son Val, saying proudly: “Yes, I’m a middle-aged fag. But I know who I am.” The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) commended the film, praising how “we go beyond the stereotypes to see the characters’ depth and humanity.”
There’s also something radical in this wonky and imperfect campness, a refreshing change from serious dramas, laden with tragedy and depicting gay life as traumatic and miserable. From Showgirls to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, campy cult classics are flawed, yes—but they contain iconic lines you can recite, lurid aesthetics and laughs-a-plenty. In Susan Sontag’s seminal essay ‘Notes on Camp’, she describes the essence of camp as “its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.” Here, that’s rendered through the flamingo pink, garish aesthetics of Florida’s South Beath: rollerskating, bikini-clad girls, muscled twinks in neon mini-shorts, palm trees, neon streets lined with rhinestoned gay bars. We’re treated to camp double-entendres (a traffic sign stating “Cruising prohibited when light is flashing”) and a plethora of slapstick comedy. Christine Baranski, in her role as Val’s wayward mother, may as well be wearing a t-shirt emblazoned in the sequinned message “GAY RIGHTS!”. Anthems from Gloria Estefan and Donna Summer waltz in and out of the narrative, and at the film’s raucous close, we have Sister Sledge singing the soulful and serotonin-boosting anthem “We are family / I got all my sisters with me.”
It is important, though, to watch this type of palatable slapstick alongside more hard-hitting films from a variety of filmmakers across the LGBTQ+ spectrum, from an intersectional standpoint. We shouldn’t just watch comedies appetizing for the straight masses or three-hour-long depressing arthouse films. The LGBTQ+ community is not a homogenous mass, and neither is the culture about it or made by its people; as the adage goes, variety is the spice of life.
Watch The Birdcage on Amazon
Words by Steph Green