News

"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 | March 8, 2021 | Comments

Recently, Rotten Tomatoes expanded our list of the best-reviewed LGBTQ movies of all time to 200 films. We dive deeper into one of the best movies on that list, The Birdcage, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary.

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. www.mbetancourt.com

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

#1

The Birdcage (1996)
81%

#1
Adjusted Score: 83.509%
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

Alien Chilling Adventures of Sabrina scorecard ABC Red Carpet Kids & Family kong Turner Classic Movies Broadway Apple Netflix mission: impossible discovery Drama scary movies batman Summer 71st Emmy Awards FXX screenings Western Pet Sematary stop motion MTV ViacomCBS documentaries blockbuster Amazon Prime thriller theme song Spring TV Winter TV OWN social media comic romance docuseries HBO Go Toys game of thrones Chernobyl worst movies serial killer Holidays Polls and Games Certified Fresh Paramount Peacock war Disney jurassic park Teen ITV women deadpool obituary documentary psycho cinemax SDCC spain Year in Review Election VOD Esquire Paramount Plus Calendar Infographic cartoon Trophy Talk cats Awards Tour PaleyFest Star Wars Nominations Action Tubi Photos video doctor who Mary Poppins Returns boxing singing competition Anna Paquin Cannes Song of Ice and Fire revenge Comedy Central Hallmark Christmas movies Women's History Month popular comic books mutant YouTube criterion french 2019 series Lifetime Christmas movies Fall TV Syfy Animation godzilla Box Office venice reviews blaxploitation emmy awards italian A&E ghosts natural history San Diego Comic-Con crime Mystery AMC CMT satire Mary Tyler Moore cancelled TV shows 007 spanish language what to watch HBO Max 2018 Discovery Channel child's play Epix CW Seed RT History dramedy RT21 hist concert children's TV zombies films GLAAD all-time critics ESPN elevated horror Interview sequel BAFTA vampires harry potter Sony Pictures spanish remakes Masterpiece a nightmare on elm street politics adventure Amazon boxoffice National Geographic Watching Series Vudu christmas movies Holiday dark Crunchyroll Country green book science fiction Opinion TV Land Disney+ Disney Plus President rom-coms Sci-Fi Disney Channel Nickelodeon Amazon Prime Video Pop Super Bowl comics Reality Apple TV+ Turner BET E3 99% DirecTV stand-up comedy FX nfl indiana jones tv talk VICE Britbox Avengers Television Critics Association CBS All Access Pop TV Tarantino American Society of Cinematographers parents Black History Month laika anthology quibi Superheroes rt archives talk show universal monsters Lucasfilm biography VH1 australia TIFF free movies hollywood book zero dark thirty Fantasy MSNBC superman festivals Set visit BET Awards Extras El Rey strong female leads Premiere Dates Pride Month Oscars FOX IFC Films Countdown renewed TV shows archives Lionsgate fast and furious golden globes Marathons animated Cartoon Network facebook comiccon The Walt Disney Company Film Starz TCM The Arrangement Baby Yoda Family Musicals Quiz telelvision kaiju Lifetime CBS joker king kong ABC Signature toronto sports travel Horror HBO DGA Hear Us Out Sundance Now Tumblr festival LGBT hispanic LGBTQ independent south america Classic Film foreign Best and Worst Nat Geo hidden camera Trivia true crime Rocketman Emmy Nominations Amazon Studios Trailer Music Spike Heroines cancelled TV series Character Guide psychological thriller Fox Searchlight Television Academy Superheroe cooking Ovation Podcast 24 frames miniseries Star Trek Mary poppins Rom-Com See It Skip It breaking bad Adult Swim worst Legendary Shudder streaming 2015 APB television Valentine's Day justice league MCU Biopics DC Comics First Reviews game show Hallmark ID Creative Arts Emmys Disney streaming service finale sitcom jamie lee curtis Comic Book black TNT TBS GoT TLC Comics on TV 2016 WGN Stephen King Marvel Television twilight Grammys cops History name the review sequels cancelled television space spider-man spy thriller period drama werewolf The Witch prank superhero canceled witnail casting TruTV 20th Century Fox ABC Family Crackle NBC Winners richard e. Grant 45 CNN Martial Arts Columbia Pictures 4/20 police drama TCA 2017 rotten Emmys Warner Bros. TV Marvel Studios Video Games Netflix Christmas movies YouTube Red nature unscripted Elton John franchise Marvel Sneak Peek docudrama classics Arrowverse Pixar WarnerMedia best Hulu halloween tv trailers Funimation dragons The CW transformers asian-american football 21st Century Fox Film Festival TV renewals Dark Horse Comics binge Thanksgiving The Academy crime thriller Rocky Captain marvel Awards political drama blockbusters teaser versus ratings fresh Logo Ellie Kemper OneApp cults E! crime drama Rock halloween historical drama GIFs X-Men die hard TCA composers Black Mirror dceu A24 Freeform Acorn TV DC streaming service Shondaland kids Comedy Reality Competition monster movies robots TCA Winter 2020 sag awards slashers dogs nbcuniversal supernatural NYCC PBS pirates of the caribbean The Purge stoner Fox News mockumentary PlayStation Mindy Kaling indie BBC America Endgame based on movie SXSW Bravo Disney Plus award winner Christmas Spectrum Originals BBC Writers Guild of America New York Comic Con reboot USA disaster video on demand Tomatazos Walt Disney Pictures BBC One medical drama directors cancelled Binge Guide Sundance razzies Cosplay cars rotten movies we love news james bond Mudbound anime First Look romantic comedy YA latino aliens Showtime Universal crossover 72 Emmy Awards Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Sundance TV Exclusive Video Paramount Network 2020 SundanceTV IFC Ghostbusters movies YouTube Premium Apple TV Plus TV One Brie Larson Pirates 2017 movie diversity japanese 2021 adaptation Food Network Musical Academy Awards Travel Channel dc toy story TCA Awards screen actors guild The Walking Dead USA Network comedies 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards chucky canceled TV shows Schedule DC Universe FX on Hulu technology golden globe awards zombie spinoff