Critics' Corner

Desson Howe - Weekend section, "Has everything in place, from eyeliner to one-liner."


Hal Hinson - Style section,
"One of the loopiest, most hysterical family-values movies ever made."


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'Birdcage' Takes Flight

Scene from this movie Armand (Robin Williams), proprietor of a flamboyant drag club called the Birdcage, is preparing a big surprise for his outrageously temperamental star chanteuse and life companion, Albert (Nathan Lane). The surprise is that Val , Armand's 20-year-old son, is coming home.

But soon after his son's arrival, Armand learns that the boy has a surprise of his own-Val, it seems, is getting married. To a woman, no less. Where did they go wrong?

What's more, Val's fiancee, Barbara, is the daughter of Sen. Keeley (Gene Hackman), co-founder of a group dedicated to upholding the country's traditional moral order. -- Hal Hinson Rated R


Director: Mike Nichols
Cast: Robin Williams; Nathan Lane; Gene Hackman; Dianne Wiest; Dan Futterman; Calista Flockhart
Running Time: 2 hours, 5 minutes
Filmographies: Robin Williams; Nathan Lane;
Gene Hackman; Dianne Wiest








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These 'Cage' Birds Sing

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 08, 1996

The idea seems so obvious, it's amazing it's taken this long to come to pass: Robin Williams in an American version of "La Cage Aux Folles." (Another casting idea that's taking strangely long: Williams and Jim Carrey in the same movie. Picture the feathers flying in that one.) The good news is, "The Birdcage," a spirited remake of the French drag farce, has everything in place, from eyeliner to one-liner.

Of course, the movie-adapted from the movie and play by Elaine May-ain't perfect, primarily because the 1978 original wasn't exactly "Citizen Kane." And you may be disappointed to learn that Williams plays the straighter, butchier of the two main characters. But if you want drag, conservative homophobe bashing and naughty laughs, girls, this is the place.

It's called the Birdcage, a vampy little nightclub in South Beach, Fla., where the girls are built like Adonises and speak in low voices. The owner, Armand Goldman (Williams), has been happily "married" for years to his longtime companion, Albert (Broadway star Nathan Lane).

For Albert, who performs nightly as Starina, every night is a crisis. A neurotic, fussy, martyr-like personality with no self-esteem, he has to be coaxed onto the stage. And for Armand, who has to do all the coaxing, the strain is taking its toll.

As if that's not enough, along comes Val (Dan Futterman), Armand's son from an unfortunate heterosexual incident 20 years ago, who announces his wedding plans with, well, a woman (Calista Flockhart). Armand and Albert, who raised sweet little Val, are beside themselves with grief: for the apple of their eye to be so young, so straight and so married!

There's worse: Val's soon-to-be in-laws are Republican Senator Keeley (Gene Hackman), who is co-founder of the Coalition for Moral Order, and his frosty, strait-laced wife, Louise (Dianne Wiest). Armand learns to his further horror that the aspiring newlyweds want their respective parents to meet.

Armand's seemingly impossible mission, if he chooses to accept it, is to transform his den of queens (naughty statues, limp-wristed decor and the fussiest, lispiest manservant ever born) into a palace of hetero-manliness.

Basically, the movie's an extended setup for a dinner-table comedy of errors, in which the mismatched relatives confront one another in a nerve-racking test of appearances. As can be expected, the comedy comes from Albert's exaggerated tics, and Armand and Val's despairing attempts to mask them. And as the increasingly suspicious couple, Hackman and Wiest are the perfect comic foils. The tension becomes so unbearable that, says Armand, hiding out in the kitchen, "it's like riding a psychotic horse towards a burning stable."

And so on. There's a ton of gags like these, directed with maximum audience-pleasing exuberance by Mike Nichols. Lane is tremendously over-the-top as Albert. Williams is perfectly understated but also comical.

But for my money, the best performance-or over-performance-comes from Hank Azaria as Agador, the Goldmans' muscular, Guatemalan and very, very fey house servant. At one point, when drag queen Albert threatens to leave the household forever (this when he's being asked to leave for a few days, rather than pretend to be straight), Agador begs him to stay.

"I'm leaving you my stereo," says Albert.

"No!" says the grief-stricken Agador, burying his face in Albert's chest.

"My red boots," continues Albert.

"I don't want them!" whimpers Agador.

"My wig," adds Albert. At this, Agador raises his head.

"Which one?" he asks.

THE BIRDCAGE (R) - Contains farcical, sexual situations, near male nudity and very naughty language.

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'The Birdcage': A Wingding of a Show

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 08, 1996

When Mike Nichols ("The Graduate" and "Heartburn") saw the original French film of Jean Poiret's popular play "La Cage aux Folles," he immediately wanted to direct an American version with a script by his former comedy partner, Elaine May. Two decades later, he's finally gotten his wish.

And if "The Birdcage" isn't exactly the Mike Nichols-Elaine May movie of our dreams, it does manage to transform what was formerly a campy bit of French fluff into one of the loopiest, most hysterical family-values movies ever made.

Set on Miami's sexually liberated South Beach, the movie announces its agenda right up front. With Sister Sledge's "We Are Family" pounding in the background, Armand (Robin Williams), proprietor of a flamboyant drag club called the Birdcage, is preparing a big surprise for his outrageously temperamental star chanteuse and life companion, Albert (Nathan Lane). The surprise is that Val (Dan Futterman), Armand's 20-year-old son, is coming home.

But soon after his son's arrival, Armand learns that the boy has a surprise of his own-Val, it seems, is getting married. To a woman, no less. Where did they go wrong?

What's more, Val's fiancee, Barbara (Calista Flockhart), is the daughter of Sen. Keeley (Gene Hackman), co-founder of a group dedicated to upholding the country's traditional moral order. The senator is mired in a scandal involving his partner in the moral crusade, another senator, who has been caught red-handed with an underage girl. Keeley and his wife, Louise (Dianne Wiest), decide to distract the media by staging a big old-fashioned white wedding. But wait until they meet the new in-laws.

It's "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" for the millennial age.

May has a great feel for life on the lower rungs of the show biz ladder; the most inspired scenes take place behind the curtains at the Birdcage. The club is Armand's domain, and, bustling between tables, he is like a swivel-hipped, hyperactive version of Bogart in "Casablanca." ("Leave room for coffee," he quips sarcastically as he speeds past one table.)

At first, Armand is distressed by Val's news. (He thinks the boy is too young for marriage.) But when Val informs him that the Keeleys are coming to South Beach to meet them, Dad is as rock-steady and practical-minded as any other father would be.

The main problem, they agree, is Albert. Dressed in a conventional business suit, Armand could "pass" for straight (if he keeps his hands in his pockets). Albert, on the other hand, is a diva, the grande dame of the Birdcage stage-and no amount of blue serge can disguise that. Still, for Val's sake, the peacock is willing to play the drab duckling. His body just won't cooperate, though, and watching Lane stretch and contort himself trying to "act like a man" is an unforgettable sight. (Imagine an octopus slipping into a pair of slacks.)

When this plan fails, father and son hatch another scheme to make Albert vanish for the night and substitute the boy's biological mother (Christine Baranski) in his place. But where Albert is concerned, events seldom go according to plan. After Mom gets stuck in traffic, Albert leaps impulsively into her role, outfitting himself in a style that is part Barbara Bush, part Margaret Thatcher.

The result, as one might expect, is one very peculiar dinner party. Before it's over, not only will Albert's true identity be revealed, but the senator will be forced to make his escape from the club dressed in full drag as well. (The sight of Hackman under a stiffly sprayed meringue of platinum hair will send you through the roof.)

What's interesting is that while Nichols and May portray the backstage universe of the Birdcage as a place of high-strung sensibilities and gargantuan egos, the senator's world of politics is made to look even nuttier. While politicians like Keeley talk a good game of family values, it's Armand and his nontraditional clan who have the stable home life. They are a family.

Granted, the depiction of homosexual life here is romanticized: There is no sex and no AIDS, and the characters are gay in that cuddly, non-threatening, all-American way that Liberace was gay. In this regard, the goodwill that Williams has built up with audiences over the years takes him farther than anything he actually does with the character. For once, Williams isn't the white-hot center of a picture. Armand is the subdued one of this couple, and, for the most part, Williams plays straight man (if that's the word) to Lane's inspired hormonal spritzing.

There are classic bits of business here (such as the scene in which Albert learns to "smear" butter onto his toast and tries to drink tea without his pinkie poking up into the air). As a writer, May is a sneaky minimalist with her own offbeat sense of timing. Her best jokes are slippery, elusive, half-buried in the margins.

However, there's nothing subtle about the movie's message of inclusiveness. There's a debate over fundamentals going on in America, including a discussion on what constitutes a family. With a flash of sequins and ostrich plumes, "The Birdcage" offers an alternative definition of the nuclear unit. In shaping a homosexuality acceptable for mass consumption, though, the filmmakers have come close to turning gays into colorful cartoon creatures. That's a costly stereotype, and, ultimately, too high a price to pay for a place at the table.

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