Going in to The Graduate-director Mike Nichols’ 1996 film, The Birdcage, you might expect that it’ll present you with some kind of broadly offensive, garish homosexual stereotype as star Robin Williams prances around as he does in the trailer comically shouting “Fosse, Fosse… Madonna, Madonna.” And then there’s Nathan Lane in the trailras a squealing, temperamental drag queen. What’s more, it’s a comedy, and a comedy reliant on these same characters’ superficial eccentricities at that. So those of us who care about responsible queer representations in cinema do have to worry going into such a picture with advertisements like those of The Birdcage in mind that what we’re getting may be in fact be harmful representations.
When you finally see The Birdcage, you do indeed find Nathan Lane playing a temperamental drag queen, and Robin Williams does deliver that one flamboyant prance. But the characters are also refreshingly human and complex. They aren’t homosexual characters of the guilt-ridden, self-loathing variety. They aren’t forced to commit suicide or even to “reform” as characters so often were in cinema of the pre-1980s. In fact, the film is a veritable celebration of the characters’ life choices, as Williams’ Armand and Lane’s Albert do so clearly love each other. And only their love and camaraderie allows them to persevere through the crises they face throughout. Sure, they fight. They’ve just hit a bit of a bump in the proverbial road as they attempt to cope with the fact that their son, Val, has gotten himself engaged to the daughter (Calista Flockheart) of an extremely conservative Republican senator (played by Gene Hackman, who is joined by Dianne Wiest, as senator’s wife).
Although I was admittedly when I first saw The Birdcage, perhaps that just singles me out as a pessimist (which I swear I’m not!). And perhaps the overall respectful treatment of the characters and the emotional effectiveness of The Birdcage should come as no surprise. After all, it was adapted from La Cage aux Folles, a 1973 play by Jean Poriet (who played Claude Chabrol’s Inspector Lavardin) that was adapted to the screen in 1978 and remains a staple of queer cinema, even earning a release on the Criterion Collection. Still, when you’ve seen as many disgusting depictions of homosexuality in cinema as I have, you can’t help but worry, even when Mike Nichols and long-time collaborator Elaine May are responsible for the film in question. After all, William Friedkin, who made the wonderful if somewhat problematic The Boys in the Band (1970), was also responsible for the absolutely appalling Cruising (1980). In the case of The Birdcage, however, Nichols and May succeeded in creating a comedy that has just as much heart and humanity as it does laughs.
With The Birdcage now available on Blu-ray from Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, now’s the time to check it out if you have yet to, or even to revisit it if you’ve not seen it in a spell. Because the HD transfer here is solid. It may not be the sharpest video I’ve seen on Blu-ray, but the colors really pop, which is essential to the film’s inherent 90’s feel, and I saw no damage or debris present in the source material. The unfortunate thing about this release is that it contains only the theatrical trailer by way of special features, and doesn’t allow your player to recall your spot if you should stop it at any point. I learned that the hard way!