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Wayback Wednesday: The Birdcage (1996)

This movie said, “GAY RIGHTS!”

To close off Pride Month, today’s Wayback is dedicated to one of the most acclaimed LGBT+ movies of all time. It also happens to be one of the most outrageously funny comedies ever made and a personal favourite of mine. You know how even though you’ve seen a movie multiple times it still manages to make you smile and chuckle? Well, I’ve seen The Birdcage (1996) four or five times now and with each viewing, I do more than just smile and chuckle. This uproarious comedy leaves me rolling on the floor, howling with laughter, and clutching my sides with tears in my eyes. A bit much?  Maybe. But if you’ve seen The Birdcage you know that being a little extra isn’t necessarily a bad thing. You guys, this movie is comedy GOLD.

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Credit: / United Artists

A remake of the Franco-Italian movie La Cage aux Folles (1978), The Birdcage follows Armand and Albert, an openly gay couple who run the titular drag bar with Albert as the star performer. When Armand’s son Val announces his engagement to Barbara Keeley, Armand and Albert are forced to have the girl’s parents over for dinner. The problem? They’re an ultraconservative Republican senator and his wife who believe they’re meeting Val’s mother and father. To ensure the evening runs smoothly, Armand and Albert jump through hoops to keep the Keeleys from guessing just how liberal their life really is.

This movie is fucking phenomenal. If you have any doubt, just take a look at the stellar cast. Comprising of Robin Williams, Nathan Lane, Gene Hackman, Dianne Wiest, Hank Azaria and Christine Baranski, ensemble casts simply don’t get much better than this.  Obviously all are talented actors, but what makes this cast so enjoyable to watch is that each one plays a character tailor-made for them. Wiest is playing the pleasantly naive homemaker? Perfect, I could watch her react in disgust for hours. Baranski is playing the powerful and fiery businesswoman? Wonderful, she’s a fabulous high-kicking bitch. Lane is playing the flamboyant and melodramatic diva? Stunning, the man is a theatrical treasure.

Whether it’s through timeless physical comedy, brilliantly delivered comebacks, or simply a hilarious expression of panic spread across their face, each character is given their chance to shine. As houseboy / aspiring drag queen Agador Spartacus, Azaria is a particular scene-stealer. Which is a major accomplishment in a movie that already features Hackman and Lane dancing to “My Fair Lady,” Baranski popping a bottle of champagne between her legs and Williams screaming “fuck the shrimp!” How one man can manage to make everything from mopping to literally just WALKING IN SHOES laugh out loud hilarious, is a comedic feat that I have yet to see replicated to this day. Present-day comedies need to step their game up.

From start to finish, The Birdcage is a colourful mid 90s delight that is camp entertainment at its finest. The cast totally understands the tone of the movie they’re in and it makes each of their performances all the more pleasing to watch. Special shout-out to Hackman and Wiest who are able to make stuffy Republicans not only two of the best straight men in a comedy, but also hold their own against major comedy heavyweights like Lane and Williams. Williams always has been and always will be one of my favourite actors and The Birdcage is a piece of his work that is truly exceptional. As Armand, Williams crackles with his trademark manic energy and sarcastic wit. He walks a tightrope, masterfully understanding when to be his wonderfully over-the-top self, and when to be more subdued in the movie’s more touching and emotional moments. Whether it’s calmly handling Albert’s hysteria, subtly throwing shade, or setting the bar for a dance scene in any movie ever (fight me), Williams’ portrayal of Armand is some of his best comedic work. Seriously, just do yourself a favour and watch this iconic scene. The skill level of that improv? Unmatched. Check it out.

Surprisingly though, it’s also some of Williams’ best dramatic work as well. His scenes with Val, played by Dan Futterman are incredibly moving as they show the incredible lengths a father will go to out of love for his son. Which is saying something because if there’s one thing fans of The Birdcage are in agreement on, it’s that Val is an ungrateful little shit. He never truly grasps how much he’s asking of his parents. To pretend to be someone you’re not after years of doing so in misery…as tone-deaf as Val is, he’s the catalyst for many of Williams’ moving scenes, so I can’t be too angry with him. It’s those scenes that paint Armand as one of the most well-portrayed movie fathers and what make this comedy a heartwarming story of love and family as well.

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Credit: / United Artists

As Albert, Lane is nothing short of a revelation. A major source of some of the movie’s most memorable scenes and lines, Lane turns in a performance that few others could pull off. From hysterical to heartbroken he not only runs the gamut of emotions, but does so both in and out of drag. It’s a campy sensation that you’ll want to watch over and over again. If watching Lane imitate John Wayne’s walk or giddily ask “how bout those Dolphins?” doesn’t get you cackling, I can’t help but feel sorry for you and you’re lack of a funny bone. One of the many amazing things about the cast of The Birdcage is that they’re able to get these enormous laughs out of their audience from the simplest of scenarios or lines. It bears repeating: the casting for this movie is ON POINT. By the way, I’m realizing that most of this review is just me recounting all of the movie’s best parts, but I can’t help it. The Birdcage is THAT good. Promise me you’ll check it out okay?

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Credit: / United Artists

Director Mike Nichols, who has also directed acclaimed comedies such as Working Girl (1988) and Postcards from the Edge (1990), creates a vibrant and joyful world that you’ll want to live in and never leave. From the eclectic cast of characters that perform in the club to the wonderful visual tackiness that could only exist in 90s era Florida, it’s impossible not to get swept away in the fun and charm of The Birdcage. As the movie’humor and energy only escalates, you’ll find yourself hoping it ever ends. About an hour in I was already relishing how much wonderfulness I’d already sat through, and then I realized, “wait, there’s still another hour left? Oh my God, there are still so many more amazing scenes to come!” Even at it’s halfway point, The Birdcage is still funnier and more entertaining than half of the comedies released today. The jokes come flying at you a mile a minute so much so, that even on my fourth or fifth viewing, I’m still picking up on clever lines and sight gags. This is a movie that really rewards its viewers.

A laugh-riot from beginning to end, bursting with emotion, and containing subject matter that is still relevant to this day, The Birdcage is one of those movies that feels like it’s giving you a giant hug. It’s joy. It’s laughter. It’s love. It’s family. It’s The Birdcage. I don’t think there’s a comedy I can recommend more strongly. If for no other reason, watch it simply for this piece of eternal wisdom from Albert: “You look tired” means “you look old,” and “you look rested” means “you’ve had collagen.”

Have you seen The Birdcage? Do you love it as much as I do?

Let me know in the comments or on social media!


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