"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: 81.254%
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

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