Monday, November 27, 2023

Robin Williams & Nathan Lane: Lovebirds in ‘The Birdcage’ 1996


Nathan Lane & Robin Williams make a fine pair in 1996's "The Birdcage."

Though The Birdcage is a film from 1996, it’s as timely as ever. Interesting that nearly three decades later, we're fighting again about “real” American values, gays, and drag queens. La Cage aux Folles has been continually reinvented: First as a 1973 French comedy; the farce became a smash 1983 musical; and finally came this Americanized comedy, directed by Mike Nichols.

Guess who's coming to dinner? The conservative family on the left is invited to meet
 the "de-gayed" groom's folks in 1996's farce, "The Birdcage."

Mike Nichols is a great actors' director and he gives everyone in this movie moments to shine. The movie snaps along at a great pace, the verbal and physical comedy is inspired, and the laughs at the characters’ foibles are even-handed. Much of this is the fine hand of one of movies’ smartest directors, Mike Nichols. This movie is within Nichols’ best skill set: mainstream but smart movie comedy.

Robin Williams is the gay father of Dan Futterman's Val in 1996's "The Birdcage."

Robin Williams and Nathan Lane are the gay couple, Armand and Albert Goldman, who own the title drag nightclub. Their straight son, Val, played by Dan Futterman, wants to bring home his fiancee to meet them—Calista Flockhart in an early role. Unfortunately, she brings along some baggage.

How do you handle a problem like Val's "mother?" Nathan Lane steals the show
as Albert, dramatic drag queen and doting parent, in 1996's "The Birdcage."

On Barbara’s side of the family is Republican Sen. Kevin Keeley, played by Gene Hackman, who makes hay of all the religious right rhetoric. The seemingly compliant, upbeat Republican wife, Louise, is perfectly cast with Dianne Wiest. 

Calista Flockhart in an early role as daughter Barbara to Gene Hackman's
 conservative senator in 1996's comedy, "The Birdcage."

Nathan Lane was the real scene stealer here as Albert and should have been Oscar nominated for his memorable turn. But The Birdcage was basically shut out by the Academy, but was a home run at the box office.

Like Dustin Hoffman's "Tootsie," you miss Nathan Lane's "Mother" Goldman when
 her character is unmasked--er, un-wigged--in 1996's comedy, "The Birdcage."

And Robin Williams, often cast in the comedic clown role, is the straight man—pun intended!—in The Birdcage. He has his share of funny moments for sure, but he’s the voice of reason here and just as adept in serious moments as in the comedic ones.

Robin Williams & Christine Baranski as Val's biological parents, recalling a soft shoe
 number from their college days, in 1996's charming comedy, "The Birdcage."

Hank Azaria is unlikely but hilariously cast as Agador Spartacus. He’s both physically and verbally funny, trying to walk in shoes, and sounding masculine. The scene where he joins in the family’s joyous sing-along of “I Could Have Danced All Night” is both hilarious and sweet.

Hank Azaria, a riot as Agador, the Goldmans' irrepressible servant, in "The Birdcage."

Gene Hackman, who Nichols had to sack many years ago from The Graduate—as Dustin Hoffman’s father!—is rewarded with a great comedic villain role here, and his drag scene where he looks like a latter day Dorothy Malone!

Let's face it, Gene Hackman in drag can only be used for comedic effect! Gene appears
 to be wearing Dorothy Malone's old "Peyton Place" wig in 1966's "The Birdcage."

Dianne Wiest has always reminded me of Rene Zellweger. In her comic moments as the “pleaser” wife scrunching up her face adorably, well, someone needs to cast them as mother and daughter. Yet, Wiest gets tough moments, too, when everyone around her panics. Dianne is great in both modes!

Dianne Wiest is at her best as the "good" political wife/mother in "The Birdcage."

Renee Zellweger would have been perfect as Dianne Wiest's daughter,
but Renee was busy filming a star-making "Jerry Maguire" the same year!

Dan Futterman is well-cast as Williams’ son. There’s a resemblance, the twinkle in the eye, very sly. Futterman holds his own playing a normal young guy whose plan to de-gay his parents goes off the rails.  Calista Flockhart, as shown later on Ally McBeal, has a flair for farce, as well.

Dan Futterman's a charmer as Val in 1996's "The Birdcage." Today, Dan is on
the other side of the camera, writing, and producing.

The 24 hour news cycle, tabloid journalism, political piety, and dramatic gays and drag queens all get good-naturedly spoofed. There are so many memorable scenes, the best of which is Williams trying to teach Lane how to be more masculine, by walking like John Wayne. Through all this, an old woman in a jogging suit silently observes them, priceless. The soft shoe number between Williams and ex and also Val’s mother, Christine Baranski, who recalls their theater days, is a little gem. The scene at dinner where everyone’s scrutinizing the erotic china pattern is a hoot. Perhaps my favorite part is Nathan Lane’s Barbara Bush-inspired drag as “Mother” Goldman to Val for their family dinner.

Nathan Lane wigs out as "mother's little helper"--white wine-- makes his masquerade go awry in 1996's comedy, "The Birdcage."

The Birdcage is great fun, smart mainstream entertainment that moves at a beautiful clip, with director Mike Nichols at his comedic best.

The Birdcage pairs well with 1982’s Tootsie! My review of that classic here:

Nathan Lane's Albert as drag diva, in 1996's "The Birdcage."

Who wore it best? Joan Collins' Alexis in "Dynasty" drag!


  1. loulou de la falaiseNovember 30, 2023 at 3:23 PM

    When I first saw this, I thought it was a really unfunny remake of a really funny French film. Now I appreciate it as everything you said it is and watch it practically every time it's on. Nice write up, Rick.

    1. Thank you, LouLou! Mike Nichols' sharp humor comes thru, and the cast is stellar. So bizarre that these issues are so timely again, 3 decades later! Cheers, Rick