By Owen Gleiberman
Updated March 15, 1996 at 05:00 AM EST
  • Movie

Albert (Nathan Lane), the mincing drag queen at the center of The Birdcage, begs the indulgence of everyone who lays eyes on him. A flamboyantly effeminate homosexual who headlines at the South Beach, Miami, nightclub owned by his longtime lover, Armand (Robin Williams), Albert lives for the moments when he goes on stage. As soon as his act is over, though, he turns into a big pile of jelly: needy, whining, hysterical — the diva as cowardly lion.

Swanning about in his layered silk outfits (everything he wears looks like some fancy form of pajamas), flaunting his pinky rings, his fussily coiffed bangs, and his theatrical woe-is-me pouts, Albert the powder puff couldn’t be less intimidating. Yet in his ridiculous way, he forces you to accept him on his own Nellie terms. He does it with Armand, who spends most of his waking hours smoothing Albert’s feathers. He does it with prudes and homophobes — anyone easily shocked by the sight of a middle-aged man who carries himself like a cross between Elton John and a Miami Beach yenta. He does it, as well, with those in the movie audience who’d be tempted to write him off as a gay Stepin Fetchit. Albert may be no one’s idea of a liberated role model, but his glory as a character is that he refuses to be anyone’s symbol. He is simply — and hilariously — himself.

Written by Elaine May and directed by Mike Nichols, The Birdcage is an enchantingly witty and humane entertainment, a remake of the 1978 French farce La Cage aux Folles that actually improves upon its source. Here, as in the original, the characters are thrown into a tizzy when Armand’s son, Val (Dan Futterman), the product of a one-time-only liaison, announces his engagement to the daughter of a rabid right-wing politician (Gene Hackman). After clearing the outrageous knickknacks (i.e., everything they own) out of their apartment, Albert and Armand host a dinner party for their future in-laws in which they attempt to pass themselves off as ”normal” heterosexuals. But how could Albert, of all people, appear normal? Simple: He does himself up in pearls, pumps, and a Barbara Bush wig and presents himself as Val’s prim dowager mother.

La Cage aux Folles, clever and likable as it was, always seemed a bit of a gay minstrel show, the kind of ”safe” drag-queen burlesque that could become an art-house crowd pleaser in an era when true gay cinema remained locked in the closet. Amazingly, The Birdcage manages to be hipper, more in tune with the times, than La Cage was in the late ’70s. One reason, I think, is that the image of the gay man as limp-wristed, lavender-souled swish looks different to us now. Yes, that image is still nonthreatening, but in the last decade it has also been reclaimed by ”queer” culture as a stance against bland American normality. Real gay liberation, it appears, isn’t about rejecting ”sissies” — it’s about insisting that they have the right to be included in the great American collage. Then, too, what The Birdcage revives isn’t simply the camp appeal of kitsch-happy queens. It’s the lost art of farce, the kind of lovingly structured gags that build, merge, and detonate on screen.

In their frumpy domestic way, Albert and Armand offer a resonant and touching vision of modern monogamous gay life. Albert, of course, is the ”wife” in the arrangement, and the New York stage actor Nathan Lane plays him as an endearingly neurotic teddy bear, the kind of unconscious egomaniac who keeps himself on the verge of a nervous breakdown to make sure he’s got everyone’s attention. Williams has the trickier role (he has to play it ”straight” and flamboyant at the same time), and his performance, while often very funny, is also surprisingly forceful, with a core of exasperated defiance. The film’s inspired mechanism is that the more these two try to pretend they’re something they’re not, the more obvious it is who they really are. Their delirious overrefinement keeps bursting out, whether it’s Armand’s casual remark about just having had his wall sponge-painted or the uproarious episode in which Albert gets a hopeless lesson in how to walk, talk, and smear mustard on toast like a real man. This is a movie in which the punchlines come to seem as deliciously irrepressible as the characters.

By the time Gene Hackman shows up as Senator Keeley (an ally, the movie keep naughtily reminding us, of Bob Dole’s), with Dianne Wiest in tow as his beaming wife, we’re primed for a nerve-tickling showdown between the squares and the queers, and the movie more than lives up to its promise. Nichols, working from May’s delicately acerbic screenplay, doesn’t escalate the pace the way he might have, but he squeezes maximum comic mileage out of running gags about obscenely patterned dinnerware, an oversize crucifix, and a Guatemalan butler (the wonderful Hank Azaria) so limpidly feminine he can barely walk in hard shoes. The beauty of The Birdcage is that its jokes and its message are one and the same. These characters couldn’t change themselves if they tried. And only a fool would want them to. A-

The Birdcage

  • Movie
  • R
  • 117 minutes
  • Mike Nichols