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.