How Much Has Changed Since The Birdcage Came Out?

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When The Birdcage came out in 1996, Janet Maslin of The New York Times thought it was a little dated. “The material still shows its age,” she wrote in the opening of her review, noting that the movie takes place in “a tame, AIDS-free universe where homosexuality simply means wacky fashion sense.”

That’s somewhat funny because, looking back on The Birdcage 20 years later, it’s remarkable how watchable it still is. Despite all the progress that has been made in the fight for gay rights, the movie is still surprisingly relevant.

The Birdcage was not a new story by any means by the time Mike Nichols got his hands on it. It began as the 1973 play La Cage aux Folles by Jean Poiret, which was then adapted into a 1978 French film. In 1983, the story was turned into a musical. Finally, The Birdcage arrived, in which Nichols moves the action from France to Florida.

A quick recap of the plot: Armand (Robin Williams) runs a popular South Beach drag nightclub called The Birdcage. His lover, Albert (Nathan Lane), is the headlining act. Many years ago, long before Armand and Albert met and fell in love, Armand had a son, Val (Dan Futterman), the result of a one-night fling with a woman (Christine Baranski). Now an adult, Val comes home one day and announces that he’s getting married to the daughter (Calista Flockhart) of a conservative politician, Senator Keeley (Gene Hackman). In order to appease his new fiancée’s parents, Val asks Armand to hide the fact that he’s gay (and hide the impossible-to-hide Albert). Chaos ensues, secrets are revealed, tolerance is learned, Sister Sledge plays.

The movie features one of the best bits of Robin Williams improv ever (“Fosse, Fosse, Fosse”), a brilliant monologue from Gene Hackman about leaves, and a wonderfully broad performance from Nathan Lane. Can you argue that it's so broad, it's caricature? Perhaps, but you can’t deny how warmheartedly hilarious he is.

Of course, there are silly things that signal the movie's age. For one, the Keeleys could instantly Google to figure out that their daughter is lying to them about her fiancé's father being the cultural attaché to Greece (Armand's fake career to cover up the fact that he owns a nightclub). Also, some of the movie's mishaps would definitely have been avoided if everyone just had cell phones.

But here, we’re going to look at what would be different given how policy and culture has changed since 1996. On one hand, a lot! We’re living in a world where a TV show called Modern Family often seems old-fashioned. On the other, it’s easy to imagine a 2016 version of The Birdcage taking place, especially given the hate-filled rhetoric that still exists.
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The whole plot of The Birdcage revolves around the impending union between Val Goldman (Futterman) and Barbara Keeley (Flockhart). But marriage has changed a lot since 1996. In fact, that September, months after the movie came out, President Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as between a man and a woman. The act was struck down in 2013, and as far as the U.S. government is concerned, obviously that is now no longer the case.

When Val comes home and tells Armand that he’s going to be married, Armand reacts, well, rather poorly. Val is merely 20 years old, and Armand thinks he’s too young. But one also has to wonder whether perhaps Armand’s reaction has to do with the fact that Val is about to experience a right that is not available to Armand and Albert.

Clearly the elder couple craves that sort of commitment. In one of the film's key moments, Armand presents Albert with a palimony agreement. They sign. “There, we’re partners. You own half of my life and I own half of yours,” Armand says. You’d have to assume that if The Birdcage were remade for 2016, Armand and Albert would be married. Perhaps they would have headed to a state that legalized same-sex marriage long before their home state of Florida, which didn’t do so until early 2015. The Supreme Court made it a right nationwide in June of that year.
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Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell
While same-sex marriage is barely mentioned in the movie, the military policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell” gets a lot of screen time. It’s mentioned in passing when Armand tells Agador Spartacus (Hank Azaria) to dress in a suit for the Keeleys' arrival. Agador protests that he’ll look like a “fag.” (The casual use of that word also feels dated.) Armand replies, “But you’ll look like a fag in uniform.” Agador hits back, “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Later, when the Keeleys (Gene Hackman and Dianne Wiest) are over at the Goldmans', the discussion turns to gays in the military. Albert, dressed in drag as Val’s mother, says, “Now there’s an idiotic issue: gays in the military? I mean, those haircuts, those uniforms, who cares?” When the senator then declares that “homosexuality is one of the things that's weakening this country,” Albert savvily notes that Alexander the Great was rumored to be gay. “Talk about gays in the military,” he says.

In 1982, Ronald Reagan banned gays from serving in the military, but in 1993, just three years before The Birdcage came out, Clinton enacted the policy that would become known as “don’t ask, don’t tell.” DADT meant that gays could serve, but they just shouldn't be open about their sexuality. The Senate repealed DADT under Obama in 2010.

In some ways, the whole movie rests on this idea of DADT. Val assumes that if he can just hide the fact that he was raised by two gay men, he can have the Keeleys' blessing and be on his way. Meanwhile, the Keeleys are simply blind to all of the (very obvious) signs in front of them. (Ahem, those bowls do not feature Grecian men playing leapfrog!)

Ultimately, the movie is a striking indictment of DADT — which would not be formally destroyed for another 14 years.
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Agador Spartacus
The Goldmans' housekeeper, Agador Spartacus, is a problem. In some ways, this is painful to admit. I grew up loving Hank Azaria’s over-the-top character, and Azaria is a brilliant physical and vocal comedian. (The way he walks when forced to put on shoes! Genius!) But re-watching the movie, there’s also something undeniable sour about a white man playing a stereotype of a Guatemalan housekeeper.

Azaria has an amazing knack for voices and accents. But that means that some of his characters — like Agador — now seem like a relic from an earlier era when Hollywood could get away with blatantly racist portrayals. One of Azaria’s most famous creations is The Simpsons’ Indian convenience store clerk Apu, who has been called “the bane of young Indian Americans' existence.”

Agador did not have that extreme effect, but the character just doesn’t fly 20 years later.
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The Closet
Armand and Albert do not live their lives in the metaphorical closet, and yet it is a specter that hangs over the entire movie. Early on, Val even calls his father out for being hypocritical. “You said if Miss Donovan asks me what my father does for a living, I should say he’s a businessman,” Val says. “Well, you were a baby,” Armand responds. “And Miss Donovan was a small-minded idiot. I don’t want you to get hurt.” Val argues: “I can still get hurt.”

The world hasn't changed so much that a version of this conversation would never happen in 2016. Even if Val were born in 1996, Armand may have felt it necessary to shield his son from bigotry as a child. But, in this day and age, would Val really feel like he has to kowtow to conservative ideals? It seems unlikely. That's not to say that people — and especially politicians — like the Keeleys don't exist anymore. The Birdcage remains vital because they still do. Still, in 2016, Val probably wouldn't just smile and nod instead of speaking his mind.

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