February 17, 2023 | ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT | By Sophia Lisco

Ah, queer cinema. Hardly a genre on its own, the arena of LGBTQ+ media produces the most poignantly hilarious, tragic, and awe-inspiring pictures of the year. In the wake of a quietly devastating episode of HBO’s “The Last of Us”, I decided to revisit a more lighthearted familiar favorite. “The Birdcage,” directed by Mike Nichols, tells a story of tolerance and self-expression, featuring an astounding cast of gender-nonconforming characters. A perfect way to highlight queer film in this week’s edition (get used to it, readers of The Catalyst).  

Nichols’ film is an honest remake of the 1978 French film, “La Cage aux Folles,” an adaptation of a 1973 musical of the same name. Maintaining the satirical nature of the original, “The Birdcage” is a successful screwball comedy. Walking the line between sardonic social commentary and slapstick humor, the film delivers a sense of escapism, which is exactly what screwball movies have always set out to do.

This time around, instead of offering refuge from the Great Depression, “The Birdcage” offers a sense of comfort to the queer community who, in 1996, was grappling with the aftermath of the devastating AIDS epidemic. It’s certainly not “Philadelphia”, but the film still deserves its own space in the queer cinematic canon.

Notably starring Robin Williams alongside Broadway’s beloved Nathan Lane as the film’s leading couple, “The Birdcage” owes its success to the artfully constructed character dynamics that drive its narrative. As the owners of The Birdcage, a Florida nightclub and drag bar, Armand (Williams) manages the business end while Albert (Lane) headlines as Starina, the club’s show-stopping prima donna. When their 20-year-old son, Val (Dan Futterman), informs them of his engagement to a classmate, the couple is flooded with emotions – mostly devastation.

Even better, Val’s fiancé is the daughter of conservative senator Kevin Keeley (Gene Hackman). As the founder of the Coalition for Moral Order, Senator Keeley’s family already faces controversy after his friend and fellow senator was found dead with an underage prostitute. Despite Keeley’s comedic character (“He died in bed? Whose bed?”), he appears steadfast in his beliefs and is relieved when he is told that Val comes from a family of wealthy, heterosexual, cultural attachés. 

I suppose you can guess where the story goes from here. As Armand readies the apartment to host the Keeleys for dinner, he must rapidly remove any indicators of their “lifestyle,” including any and all phallic statues (and there are a lot). Also to be handled is the maid, Agador (Hank Azaria), who now must wear shoes around the house and something other than booty shorts. This leaves “Auntie Albert” to be dealt with, which proves to be a much harder feat.

Armand must teach Albert to act “like a man,” instructing him to walk like John Wayne and showing him how to properly hold a glass (“get your pinky down, it’s up again!”). Though laughable, these efforts are reminiscent of the masking and performing that queer people have been forced to conform to. Ultimately, in a heart-wrenching sequence, Albert decides that he simply cannot hide his true self and steps away from the dinner party.

As the Keeleys arrive for dinner, they set the stage for the comedic climax of the film. Just as Armand, Val, and the Keeleys lean into Mr. Keeley’s riveting story about the beautiful foliage of Vermont, Val’s “mother” arrives at the party in true “Mrs. Doubtfire” fashion. It seems that everyone is able to see through this façade except for Senator Keeley, who engages with Albert’s female-presenting persona.

Just as the senator shares his abhorrent opinions about killing abortion doctors and moves to describe the way that homosexuality weakens the nation, he is interrupted by the arrival of the first course, which is served on an ornate piece of sensual Greek china (“It looks like these two men are playing leapfrog,” he obliviously remarks). As the dinner party concludes and tensions rise, the young couple and their families are confronted with an issue and forced to reconcile their differences, even if just for the night. The film concludes with my favorite scene featuring all the major players, set to Sister Sledge’s “We are Family.”

Watching the clash between conservativism and queer expression can be touchy, but “The Birdcage” approaches it with humor, without undermining the seriousness of the situation. Some elements are over-satirized and the film, like all media, is a product of its time. It can be argued that Agador’s stereotypical dress and speech pattern combined with the acceptance of Albert as Val’s “mother” serves to reinforce gender roles and backwards ideas about homosexuality.

“The Birdcage”, to many, escapes this critique thanks to the satirical elements that underscore the whole film. Albert is entirely aware of “how ridiculous he is,” and this never flattens the character but rather enriches the story. Watching Armand and Albert declare their dedication to each other, vowing to be buried in adjacent plots so as to “never miss a laugh,” provides a glimpse into the heart of the film.

Yes, it is funny and ridiculous, but it is also endearing and truthful. The film laughs in the face of homophobia and reminds us to never take ourselves too seriously. “The Birdcage” is flamboyant, tender, hilarious and heartbreaking. It is a queer cinema staple, and just an all-around fun time.

“The Birdcage” is available for streaming now.

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