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Birdcage, The (1996)

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Score: 9/10

Genre: Comedy Running Time: 1 hr. 57 min.

Release Date: March 8th, 1996 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Mike Nichols Actors: Robin Williams, Nathan Lane, Gene Hackman, Dianne Wiest, Calista Flockhart, Dan Futterman, Hank Azaria, Christine Baranski

A

rmand Goldman (Robin Williams) runs a hot drag nightclub in Miami called “The Birdcage.” His lover is Albert (Nathan Lane), the main attraction as comedienne and singer “Starina.” Armand is the confident, levelheaded businessman and program director, while Albert is an overdramatic performer with a penchant for flamboyant whining, screaming, crying, and all manner of tantrum-throwing – or methods of demanding attention. They’re an exceptional onscreen duo. Their colorful lifestyle is on the complete opposite end of the spectrum in comparison to conservative Ohio senator Kevin Keeley (Gene Hackman), whose daughter Barbara (Calista Flockhart) wishes to marry Armand’s heterosexual son Val (Dan Futterman).

The situation becomes complicated when Keeley’s political partner and cofounder of the “Coalition for Moral Order” dies suddenly while in the company of an underage black prostitute – spelling disaster for Keeley’s reelection campaign. In an effort to change the public’s focus and disassociate their family from the scandal, the senator agrees to journey to Florida to meet Val’s parents and to announce and plan a grand wedding. Barbara, however, has concealed Armand and Albert’s relationship details with a wild tale of Grecian ambassadors and housewives. In a panic, Val insists that his parents pretend to be straight for the evening – leading to further hysterics by the very gay Albert, a makeover of their homosexually embellished property, and plenty of concealing of hair, clothing, and mannerisms. Essentially, they must camouflage their entire identities.

“The Birdcage” features an outstanding cast, with everyone performing roles that give them spectacular opportunities for memorable characters. Williams is hilarious as the more masculine partner, while Lane’s fussiness and prissiness create laugh-out-loud moments of contrariety. One of the funniest scenes arrives when Armand tries teaching Albert to act like a man and walk like John Wayne. The climactic dinner sequence tops them all in nerve-wracking awkwardness and stifled discomfort, with each participant struggling to make sense of the elaborate cover-ups and rapidly crumbling facade. Everything that can go wrong does, and the stumbles and frantic fixes never fail to evoke chuckles. Supporting performances by Hank Azaria as the thickly accented, goofily-named Guatemalan houseman Agador Spartacus, Christine Baranski as Val’s biological mother, and Dianne Wiest as Keeley’s bemused wife also greatly complement the ensemble.

“I’m sweating like some sort of farm animal!” The dialogue is sensational, the cast is perfect, the directing is sharp (by celebrated filmmaker Mike Nichols), the music is snazzy, and the film concludes quite cleverly – in one of those iconic, ironic exchanges akin to “Some Like It Hot.” Despite the over-the-top theatrics and broadly drawn stereotypes, “The Birdcage” is a rare accomplishment that stays mirthful (and quotable) through repeat viewings. And Gene Hackman in drag is something that simply must be seen to be believed; it’s one of two against-type comedic personas for the actor during the ‘90s, surrounded by a body of serious dramatic work (mostly legal thrillers), with a rich visual incongruity along the lines of Terence Stamp in “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.”

– Mike Massie

 



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