"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: 82.304%
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

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