Movie Reviews

Movie Review: The Birdcage – Who Defines “Family Values?”

Written by Jean Poiret, Francis Veber, Edouard Molinaro, Marcello Danon, and Elaine May
Directed by Mike Nichols

I always wonder when people talk about things as an idea or in the abstract if those on a certain side of an argument have any idea of how it plays out in reality. Same-sex marriage is one of those, as well as the adoption of children by gays, whether one of them is the child’s parent or not. I have friends I always tease that I am going to leave my kids to them in our will. Although one assures me he is “not a kid person”, I could easily see him and his partner (of more than fifteen years) raising my kids should anything ever happen to me.

The Birdcage is a humorous look at the humanity on that side of the coin. There are some it will never reach: those who are somehow just so threatened by the idea that two people of the same sex can marry and/or raise a child that there is no room for it in their narrow minds or militant gays and lesbians who have to figure out that yes, there are gays out there such as Albert Goldman and Jack McFarland.

Robin Williams is Armand, the owner of a cabaret club in South Beach which features drag-queen performers. His partner of quite some time is Albert (portrayed by Nathan Lane), a performer who headlines the club as “Starina”. Together, the two of them (along with a crazy houseboy, Agador, portrayed by Hank Azaria) have raised Armand’s son after a one-night stand with Katherine Archer (portrayed Christine Baranski).

I’m the only guy in my fraternity who doesn’t come from a broken home…

Val (portrayed by Dan Futterman) arrives home from college with the news that he’s getting married. His bride-to-be, Barbara (portrayed by Calista Flockhart), is the daughter of a Conservative Senator Kevin Keeley (Gene Hackman) and his dippy wife Louise (portrayed by Dianne Wiest).

Senator Keeley is in the middle of an election run. When his partner in his “moral family values” organization is found dead in the bed of an underage African-American prostitute, Louise comes up with the idea of having Barbara’s perfect family-values wedding as a showcase for morality. Barbara doesn’t only keep the fact that Val’s parents are gay from her parents, but also changes their last name from “Goldman” to “Coleman”.

When a dinner between the two families is scheduled, Armand tries to transform their life at Val’s urging. Their first idea to send Albert away doesn’t go over well. Armand then tries to transform him into “a man” with not-so-successful results. They then call up Val’s mother who hasn’t seen him in twenty years.

Don’t worry about that… I’m very maternal… And Albert’s practically a breast…

The Birdcage is an illustration of what happens when Val’s life collides with the real world. Val loves Armand and Albert. However, he is having a hard time dealing with the perceptions outside of the insulated world of South Beach which the three of them have lived for so long. He asks the people he loves and who love him to change who they are so people outside of their world will accept them.

So this is hell… and there’s a crucifix in it…

When Kate is running late getting to Armand’s place the night of the dinner, Albert steps in and uses his drag-queen know-how to portray the “wife”. However, the movie raises the question through the comedy of what is worse, being the so-called “immoral people” who have managed to raise an intelligent and honorable young man in Val, or trying to be something they aren’t?

The moment of truth comes when the press learns of the Senator’s presence in the apartments above the drag club. Will Armand and Albert leave the narrow-minded Senator to suffer the same judgments they endure day after day? `

Mike Nichols directed The Birdcage and did a fantastic job. He’s created a funny world that I wish I was a part of. The message of the film was not overt but cloaked in humor as the subtle reality dawned on Val throughout that the two people who love him most in the world would do anything for him – even pretend to be something they aren’t. However, he realizes that not only is this hurting them, he’s denying the whole unconventional upbringing which made him the person he has become. That person is a damn fine one – someone anyone would be proud to have joined their family – which begs the question: what is so terrible about being raised by a gay couple? Especially if the person they’ve raised turns out better than many raised in dysfunctional straight families?

Nichols evokes a warm, if slightly zany, family from the performances. Built on what almost seemed like chemistry between Robin Williams and Nathan Lane, he’s brought in a cast of characters from both families none of which are inherently bad. The Senator and his wife aren’t portrayed as evil, although his partner in his “moral family values” organization might be considered a hypocrite. Keeley just doesn’t have a high level of understanding of anything outside of his narrow world. For that matter, neither do Armand and Albert after spending years in their insular existence in South Beach.

Robin Williams plays more of the straight man. It’s a different role for him – although he manages to give it a comic edge. His timing is fantastic, sometimes just the way he comes in on a line gives it a funny edge without it being the usual Robin Williams performance. Any time he’s in the role of director, whether it’s trying to show Albert how to “smear” the toast like a man or a dancer how to dance

Fosse, Fosse, Fosse.. Martha Graham… Martha Graham… Madonna! Madonna!

Nathan Lane is wonderful. He may have played the role a bit over the top, but I just can‘t imagine anyone else in this role. No actor I can think of could have possibly pulled this off. He is convincingly indignant in moments such as when Robin Williams tells him he isn’t a woman and he goes “You bastard!” I wanted to roll off the couch laughing. He’s a wife in every sense of the word – who cares if he’s a man. He may be a bit of a stereotype, but he’s depicted with such affection by those around him that I couldn’t help but adore him. He is such a great physical comedic actor that he gets the right nuances, such as when he’s trying to learn to be “a man” from Armand. His mannerisms are that of someone who can’t help who he is but is trying to be someone else.

Hank Azaria is hysterical. When he’s in his “normal state” as the houseboy who’s a wannabe performer in the club or trying to play it “straight” (pun intended) as their butler during the dinner with the Keeley’s. Azaria shows a physical comedy I never knew he was capable of before. One of the funniest scenes is where he’s cleaning the pool in a thong while singing Lady Marmalade.

Gene Hackman shows off his comedic side as well. As a straight-laced Conservative, you wouldn’t think it’s possible, but he pulls it off. I couldn’t hate the man simply because Hackman infused him with enough humanity that he didn’t seem like a fake hypocrite. He’s savvy enough about what goes on in the real world to ask his sexually active daughter if her new lover has been tested without getting preachy or it seems like something you wouldn’t expect to come from his mouth. He looks damn fine in a dress and wig too.

Dianne Wiest really felt like the female counterpart to Lane’s character. She seemed so naive about much of what is going on around her, whether it was in South Beach or the rest of the world. She’s the one who can’t seem to handle that her daughter is having sex, rather than her husband the Senator. I would have liked to have heard a bit more from her as her role seemed a bit underwritten, but overall she’s terrific.

I loved the cinematography of The Birdcage. The lighting and shadows were captured beautifully. Whether it’s in the nightclub or on the beach, the right contrast between the characters. The lighting also sets the star tone during the dinner with its subdued level at times and bursting out at others.

In the real world, there might not really be an Armand and Albert Goldman raising a perfect son together, but they are probably about as real as Ozzie and Harriet were. It’s nice to see a film that illustrates that this life can be as normal as any other and that a “mother’s love” for her son transcends gender.

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