“This drag comedy is aimed squarely at middle America, where these cuddly queens should play very well,” said a writer for TV Guide about The Birdcage before adding the caveat: “just so long as nobody remembers that gay people don’t just sing show tunes and cook delightful meals; they also have sex.” This take on the Mike Nichols revamp of La Cage aux Folles is interesting in that it’s an oddly radical (and refreshing) criticism, particularly from TV Guide, of all places. The gist of this bit of social criticism is of course undeniably true.

Armand (Robin Williams) and Albert (Nathan Lane) are distractingly sexless, utterly unromantic toward each other. Their palatial oceanfront apartment in Miami Beach is filled with overtly homoerotic art (and, as we later learn, so is their dishware). And yet judging from their words and actions, they never seem the least bit attracted to the male form. For a movie so filled to the brim with cartoonish gay stereotypes, any semblance of same-sex flirtation – let alone interest – is noticeably absent.

But the above blurb is more notable for how misguided it reads in hindsight. Given our modern sensibilities, The Birdcage comes off as worse than neutered; it appears to exist in an alternate universe. The reason for this is in part thanks to Nichols and the softball he lobbed at “middle America.” I was a closeted gay teen when The Birdcage became a hit 20 years ago, and can still remember how remarkable its success was at the time. In a way, by heightening the flamboyance of its queer characters, particularly Albert’s, the film dared homophobes to reject its irresistible premise. We rightfully credit Ellen DeGeneres, Brokeback Mountain, and Will and Grace for the mainstreaming of gayness, if not gay culture (Madonna’s “Vogue” was also an early salvo in that regard). But The Birdcage, however clumsily, merged the two and presented queerness as safe and, yes, “cuddly.”

Having just revisited The Birdcage, I was surprised to discover the villain was never Gene Hackman’s archconservative Senator Keeley or his wife Louise (Dianne Wiest), for both of whom the film’s central charade is orchestrated. The antagonist is, in fact, Armand’s straight son Val (Dan Futterman), the mastermind behind it all. He is, throughout the movie, a massive dick. It’s Val and his unease with his same-sex parents and their queer lifestyle that feeds the film’s fundamental tension and conflict.

Val’s cowardice is what tips everything upside down. And it drives Armand and Albert, both proudly out, back into the closet. When the Keeleys – Val’s future in-laws, who’re embroiled in a national scandal – discover the truth, that his parents are two gay men, they respond with a shrug. The whole high-wire act, however hilarious, was for naught. The film ends with the Keeleys in drag, a couple of Republicans, wrapped in feather boas, dancing in their own version of the closet.

The Birdcage endures, much like those prehistoric relics with colossal phalluses that Armand hurries to hide with shame. Mike Nichols would go on to direct the HBO adaptation of Angels in America, a triumph of gay culture. But it was The Birdcage, a mere trinket with a huge, heterosexual dick at its center, that helped change American culture for the better.

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