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Tuesday, June 26, 2012

LGBTQI Week: The Birdcage: Where You Can Come As You Are

There’s a particularly memorable scene in director Mike Nichols’ big screen adaptation of the 1978 French comedy La Cage Aux Folles that few people talk about. Probably because, like much of 1996’s The Birdcage, the comedy is colorfully nuanced when you least expect it.

The setup: Robin Williams plays gay cabaret owner Armand Goldman, whose life partner is Albert (Nathan Lane), one of the must-see acts down at their drag queen hot spot in Miami, The Birdcage. Armand’s 20-year-old son Val (Dan Futterman) has announced that he’s engaged to be married to his teenage sweetheart, Barbara (Calista Flockhart), and must introduce his dad to her conservative parents, right-wing Senator Kevin Keeley (Gene Hackman) and his wife, Louise (Dianne Wiest). The politician and his wife would be in for an unwelcomed shock, if Armand and Albert hadn’t finally come up with the fool-proof plan to have Albert pose as Armand’s wife (in drag).

The scene: Val is with his dad Armand, fretting over having Albert involved in the farce at all as Albert is apparently far too flamboyant to pull off anything other than the performance du jour over at The Birdcage. As Val continues to fret over it, and exchange a few worries with his father, his insecurities begin to show and some of his comments come off unintentionally insensitive. And Albert just so happens to come in on the tail end of Val’s tantrum:

Oh yes, another jibe, another joke at my expense. You were probably laughing at me with Katherine, too. Well, why not? I'm not young, I'm not new, and everyone laughs at me. I'm quite aware of how ridiculous I am. I've been thinking that the only solution is to go where no one is ridiculous and everyone is equal. Goodbye, Armand.

That’s the thing with The Birdcage. It’s more absurd to disguise yourself as someone else rather than to unveil your true self—gay, straight, or otherwise. In other words, Armand and Albert are quite “normal,” despite other people’s projections of them. They are well-off business owners of the hottest spot around, and virtual celebrities in their glamorous hometown. Their swanky penthouse apartment would be the envy of anyone who was lucky enough to visit. They have lover’s quarrels just like anyone in any normal relationship have.

Their abnormality, so to speak, lies in the fact that they are two of the more modern gay male characters, whose sole purpose isn’t simply to enter the scene as the punch line in a mostly straight guy-focused film. Sure, they’re hilarious, their dance moves are enough to make both Beyoncé and Britney Spears blush, and you need a scalpel to remove the amount of makeup Armand has on his face (as Val points out in the movie). But, most importantly, you know their stories. They’re not just the gag.

You do an eclectic celebration of the dance! You do Fosse, Fosse, Fosse! You do Martha Graham, Martha Graham, Martha Graham! Or Twyla, Twyla, Twyla! Or Michael Kidd, Michael Kidd, Michael Kidd, Michael Kidd! Or Madonna, Madonna, Madonna!... but you keep it all inside.

Interestingly enough, the ‘90s offered a hodgepodge of films like this that showed a fully realized story of gay men. In 1993 we saw Tom Hanks as a gay man suffering from AIDS in Philadelphia. And who could forget 1995’s To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, where Patrick Swayze, Wesley Snipes and John Leguizamo play three drag queens on a road trip to nowhere town USA, where they discover a certain sense of self? Even on the small screen on Will & Grace (which debuted in 1998), we got to watch a gay male lawyer living large in New York City going through the same ridiculous scenarios we all have to endure.

They are a few exceptions, though we still have far to go, where the bridge between gay, straight or otherwise is just a wee bit narrower. And they serve as launching pads to some of the more impressive gay-themed films we see today.

It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to learn that The Birdcage held the highest weekend opening gross with an openly gay male lead for thirteen years until 2009’s Brüno. It’s entertaining, tongue-and-cheek, smart, and fully aware of itself. 

Williams fits very snugly into the role of Armand, who’s the atypical gay male character we tend to see on the big screen. As indicated in the quote earlier, he keeps his sexuality a little closer to the heart, unlike Albert. Armand shows an interesting blend of church and state, and Williams balances those traits quite well, without robbing the character. But once he’s challenged, you really get to see his heart become more profound:
Yes, I wear foundation. Yes, I live with a man. Yes, I'm a middle- aged f*g. But I know who I am, Val. It took me twenty years to get here, and I'm not gonna let some idiot senator destroy that. F&*k the senator, I don't give a damn what he thinks.
It’s simple, and straight to the point. Broadway veteran Lane and Williams have fantastic chemistry. You can tell that many of the most amusing lines from the movie may have showed their keen sense of improv, which makes these actors even more astounding. Not only are the two leads exceptional, Futterman’s fervent portrayal of a guy desperately trying to do the right thing, for everyone, and Flockhart’s wide-eyed sweet girl act are also captivating to watch. Moreover, Hackman and Wiest are a barrel of laughs as the pretentious senator and his gloriously oblivious wife, who both represent the people on the other side of The Birdcage.

The Birdcage is a little film with knee-slapping scenes coupled with thoughtfully acute moments as well. It doesn’t aim to change the perception of gay culture, but it offers a look into one gay family by putting them into an extraordinarily futile situation indicative of exactly what the characters fight against. You see why they’ve created The Birdcage, where everyone can come as really they are and fit right in.

 This post was previously published by Bitch Flicks.


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