"Men Smear!": Revisiting Seminal LGBTQ Comedy The Birdcage

Critic Manuel Betancourt says his relationship with the hit American comedy has evolved, just as he has.

by | June 12, 2019 | Comments

This year, Rotten Tomatoes expanded our list of the best-reviewed LGBTQ movies of all time to 200 films. To celebrate those works and mark Pride month, we asked a number of Tomatometer-approved critics to reflect on the LGBTQ movies that influenced their lives and their work. 

As the kind of sissy boy whom my schoolmates scolded for my lack of soccer skills and my predilection for choir practice (I was a soprano, naturally), I spent much of my childhood wrestling with my own seemingly insufficient masculinity. Despite how obviously I failed at performing manliness, I was wracked with anxiety about how I knew I should act. This is not as uncommon an experience as I felt it was. Whether you grew up in Colombia, as I did, or in the South of France or in Miami, the pressures of acting like a man were as soul-crushing as they were laughable. This is what one of my favorite movies growing up taught me, though not until I revisited it decades later.

The Birdcage is, above all, a farce about masculinity. About its frailty and its attendant anxieties. Based on Édouard Molinaro’s La Cage aux Folles, Mike Nichols’s broad comedy stars Robin Williams (in khakis and a Selleck-ish mustache) and Nathan Lane (in linen pants and the occasional wig) as Armand and Albert Goldman. The couple run the The Birdcage, a drag club in South Beach where Albert (as “Starina”) is its greatest star. When Armand’s son Val (Dan Futterman) informs him that he’s going to  marry his girlfriend Barbara (Calista Flockhart) he caveats the good news with a request: might he go along with the white lie Barbara told her ultra-conservative parents, Senator Kevin Keeley (Gene Hackman) and his wife Louise (Dianne Wiest), that Armand is a straight cultural attaché?

The Birdcage (MGM Home Entertainment/Everett Collection)

(Photo by MGM Home Entertainment / Everett Collection)

The comedy stems from the failed attempts at keeping the charade of a heterosexual (and heteronormative) Goldman family. If Albert cannot present himself to the Keeleys as Armand’s partner, by god he’ll do it as Val’s definitely-not-gay uncle, a scenario that gives Lane every delicious comic beat he could ever hope to play. In one of the scenes that I could probably still perform from memory, Albert tries to butch himself up. He practices spreading some mustard on some toast only to be scolded by his frustrated lover: “Don’t use the spoon! And don’t dribble little dots of mustard: men smear! Smear!

The film was a staple of my teenage years. Whenever it was on cable we’d watch it as a family. We’d laugh in unison as we saw Lane’s flailing attempts to walk straight, only to end up deciding to pass himself off as Val’s mother in surprisingly convincing Old Lady drag. My laughter was, during those family viewings, comforting and discomfiting in equal measure. I laughed at Lane’s femininity in a way that I hoped inoculated my own. What a laughable stereotype, I thought. Thank god I’m not that gay, I reassured myself, still in the closet. I may be called a ‘marica’ in school, but surely I pass more easily than this out-of-drag drag queen. I loved the film precisely because it gave me room for such distance.

The Birdcage (MGM Home Entertainment/Getty Images)

(Photo by MGM Home Entertainment / Getty Collection)

By the time I got to college, that kind of thinking led me to a revisionist understanding of the film that felt all the more insidious: it’s films like these – big broad comedies trafficking in caricature – that fuel the homophobia around me. Couldn’t we do better? Couldn’t we be more than punchlines? Did we have to be effeminate gay men with high-pitched voices who couldn’t hold their pinkies in check when “smearing” our toast?

It’s only slowly dawned on me how much I came to project onto The Birdcage which, Hank Azaria’s lisping “Guatemalanness” aside, is a wholly assured satire about homophobia and masculinity. Nichols walks a fine line between finding Val’s request and the subsequent comedy of errors it precipitates as preposterous and hilarious, insulting and entertaining. And while Albert may look like a fey stooge, it is his sensibility which runs through the film; it’s his drag which saves the day and reveals the Keeleys’ (and Val’s) hang-ups as utterly laughable. In its campy theatrics, The Birdcage encourages us all to be more like Albert, to see in his gay femininity a kind of strength we all too often mock and disparage. Sometimes even within ourselves.

Manuel Betancourt is a culture writer and film critic interested in all things queer and Latinx.

Like this? Subscribe to our newsletter and get more features, news, and guides in your inbox every week.


The Birdcage (1996)

Adjusted Score: 82.428%
Critics Consensus: Mike Nichols wrangles agreeably amusing performances from Robin Williams and Nathan Lane in this fun, if not quite essential, remake of the French comedy La Cage aux Folles.
Synopsis: Armand Goldman owns a popular drag nightclub in South Miami Beach. His long-time lover, Albert, stars there as Starina. "Their"... [More]
Directed By: Mike Nichols

Tag Cloud

docudrama X-Men VH1 video on demand Adult Swim History TV Land cats foreign directors TBS Turner Classic Movies Lifetime IFC Films adaptation BET Awards fast and furious movies video medical drama spy thriller Song of Ice and Fire Amazon Prime Video Action cooking Comedy Central Hallmark comic based on movie Extras Captain marvel Turner Character Guide ABC Cannes venice emmy awards game show Fox News australia Oscars remakes Brie Larson psychological thriller dc Crunchyroll Peacock YouTube Premium Marvel Studios slashers aliens ABC Family toy story award winner unscripted Freeform stoner WarnerMedia 2020 cars Western richard e. Grant comiccon 2019 Film Emmy Nominations Musical asian-american Shudder stop motion Trailer TV Crackle Netflix Christmas movies PBS Epix classics jamie lee curtis natural history APB best VOD National Geographic politics ID universal monsters Fantasy The CW Comedy Paramount hollywood BET concert TCA Fox Searchlight Syfy Holiday talk show Family Horror American Society of Cinematographers Countdown Fall TV romantic comedy historical drama Esquire Red Carpet boxoffice Apple DirecTV Lionsgate tv talk 2015 dceu cancelled television Rocky Mary Poppins Returns Drama crossover Universal 2017 Martial Arts harry potter Masterpiece free movies animated CMT Nat Geo Schedule blaxploitation TruTV cinemax Netflix comics Endgame crime thriller Writers Guild of America RT21 YA obituary spanish language miniseries TCA Winter 2020 Film Festival Disney+ Disney Plus christmas movies critics SDCC 21st Century Fox archives 71st Emmy Awards A24 series ESPN 24 frames 4/20 Mary Tyler Moore Nominations Discovery Channel halloween tv reviews cartoon Cosplay halloween Holidays Superheroes transformers Mindy Kaling television Anna Paquin comedies scorecard E3 FOX Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Amazon Studios Summer GIFs composers NYCC Rom-Com Superheroe versus Dark Horse Comics Pride Month game of thrones Pixar Mystery die hard Comic Book CNN cancelled TV shows disaster YouTube Red south america mutant Shondaland italian indiana jones finale TLC Lucasfilm renewed TV shows New York Comic Con golden globes Kids & Family Apple TV Plus mockumentary Hallmark Christmas movies Biopics Reality Competition PaleyFest Heroines discovery 20th Century Fox scary movies Toys romance doctor who casting kids Food Network Black History Month films festival TCA 2017 BBC breaking bad See It Skip It First Reviews SundanceTV black Sundance TV GLAAD strong female leads OWN Rock dogs political drama streaming spinoff Tarantino japanese Set visit stand-up comedy 007 french canceled robots 2016 rotten sports Disney streaming service RT History Classic Film Vudu Marvel Television Marathons police drama dramedy USA Chilling Adventures of Sabrina a nightmare on elm street Black Mirror witnail Walt Disney Pictures singing competition Acorn TV Nickelodeon vampires cops anthology twilight crime drama Calendar Trivia Chernobyl Academy Awards The Academy Mary poppins First Look franchise Super Bowl Sony Pictures psycho Arrowverse Box Office anime canceled TV shows YouTube reboot blockbuster toronto Women's History Month Pirates Tumblr Country FX Winners SXSW Teen Apple TV+ laika Pet Sematary 72 Emmy Awards hist worst movies Binge Guide hispanic Opinion Amazon Prime Premiere Dates Hear Us Out binge Ghostbusters werewolf revenge worst El Rey satire Year in Review TIFF DC Universe TNT Ellie Kemper news supernatural Thanksgiving Baby Yoda nbcuniversal Lifetime Christmas movies all-time documentaries Britbox AMC MTV Trophy Talk sag awards thriller Columbia Pictures screenings Travel Channel sequels what to watch Amazon Valentine's Day Sundance OneApp Cartoon Network Tomatazos Tubi adventure Disney Plus child's play travel joker science fiction DC streaming service Infographic superhero latino Awards Certified Fresh USA Network Pop E! Pop TV chucky justice league Podcast NBC Awards Tour mission: impossible TV renewals Emmys space MCU LGBTQ Bravo Sneak Peek Creative Arts Emmys spain 2018 Elton John San Diego Comic-Con The Witch Photos MSNBC Video Games President Spring TV football biography Spike zombies HBO Best and Worst screen actors guild period drama Starz batman sequel Funimation BBC America nfl cancelled TV series Polls and Games social media Sundance Now quibi A&E Warner Bros. BAFTA Spectrum Originals independent dragons Ovation PlayStation elevated horror IFC Sci-Fi Grammys Television Academy name the review serial killer HBO Go Election diversity Disney Channel CBS Showtime Music green book WGN ratings Christmas Reality Television Critics Association Disney FXX Quiz TCA Awards Rocketman BBC One true crime spider-man FX on Hulu Logo Hulu teaser Paramount Network LGBT children's TV book comic books nature Animation theme song technology Watching Series The Walking Dead 45 sitcom Marvel cults CBS All Access DGA HBO Max Interview movie GoT CW Seed Stephen King documentary TCM The Arrangement war ITV crime rotten movies we love Avengers Star Wars criterion festivals Musicals Winter TV VICE zero dark thirty Comics on TV DC Comics dark ghosts Mudbound Star Trek cancelled facebook parents zombie The Purge indie spanish