"Albert, these people are right wing conservatives, they don't care if you're a pig, they care if you're a fag."
As a comedy team in the late 50s and early 60s, Mike Nichols & Elaine May took New York City by storm. It ended up leading to a lucrative career as a director for Nichols, winning several Tonys for directing and an Oscar for just his second feature film, 1967's The Graduate. Elaine May achieved a modicum of success directing several comedies in the 70s, most notably the 1971 feature A New Leaf with Walter Matthau, but she is now best remembered as the director of the criminally and unfairly maligned Ishtar.
It took until 1996 for these two to team up again, this time with Nichols directing and May writing, for The Birdcage, one of the most successful comedies of the 90s. Loosely adapted from the French film La Cage Aux Folles & the Broadway musical of the same name, the film tells the story of a colossal culture clash when two young people Val & Barbara (Dan Futterman & Calista Flockheart) decide to get married. Her parents are Kevin & Louise Keeley (Gene Hackman & Dianne Wiest) an ultra-conservative Senator and his wife. His parents are Armand & Albert Goldman (Robin Williams & Nathan Lane) a nightclub owner & the star of a drag revue in South Beach, FL.
The kids hatch a plan to get the parents together for a formal introduction, and of course, all hell breaks loose. The main source of the comedy comes from the circumstances which force Armand & Albert to pretend to be people that they're not for the sake of duping Barbara's parents. I understand how ridiculous it is to psychoanalyze the motives of characters in a comedy, but I truly wondered what the end game was in getting Armand & Albert to be straight for a couple of hours. How long were they expecting them to keep up the charade?
But never mind all that, it's a wacky comedy of errors that you shouldn't be reading much into, right? Well, yes and no. First of all, it's a groundbreaking film in several regards. Even though Albert & their housekeeper Agador (Hank Azaria) are raging stereotypes, they're also phenomenally well drawn characters, full of tons of pathos. Albert in particular is extremely well-fleshed out as a character, and even though the comedy comes from putting him in various comedic situations, he is never the butt of the joke, which in and of itself was a groundbreaking notion for the mid-90s. Just a year later, In & Out would mine similar territory to a much more offensive effect, but that's a story for another review.
The Birdcage is more than just a comedy. It was the first time your parents went to the movies and saw a pretty genuine love story about two homosexuals. Granted it was wrapped in another film altogether that your parents could thoroughly enjoy, but it doesn't pull any punches with its characters. It doesn't give you time to ease into their relationship, it just drops you in the middle of a long-time homosexual relationship and expects you to be okay with it. That's a pretty revolutionary thing when you think about it in the context of when this film came out. Shit, 16 years after this film came out, we still live in some pretty intolerant times.
Enough about that, though. Why does The Birdcage stand the test of time? Because it's an hysterically funny character driven comedy. Yes, the situations are funny, but all of the laughs come from the characters. Robin Williams is revelatory as the relative straight man (no pun intended). He is an actor that can truly shine when he cedes the spotlight and volleys. He's an unbelievably effective actor when he doesn't try so god-damned hard and it just makes most of his other work so maddening as a result. Hackman is wonderful as well in the true straight man role & Wiest makes the most of a sadly underwritten part.
The stars of the show however are Lane & Azaria. Lane is fantastic, effusing his character with enough empathy to sink a ship, but making it so worthwhile. You genuinely feel for him when Val is trying to push him away & hide him, and it makes his efforts to help even more sad & funny at the same time. Azaria is also great in a small but memorable role. He just about steals every scene he's in, often without even trying. He's used perfectly in small doses, just the right amount.
Overall, The Birdcage works because it's lots of great people coming together and bringing their A game. It's full of talent in front of and behind the camera (it was shot by Emmanuel Lubezki, who has shot Terrence Malick's last three films). So often I get consumed with talented people coming together to produce a thorough mediocrity, so it's only fair that I sing the praises of talented people coming together to make something great. And The Birdcage is nothing short of a great film.