• Nathan Lane and Robin Williams in 'The Birdcage'. (MGM/United Artists)Source: MGM/United Artists
This week marks the 20th anniversary of The Birdcage's cinematic release. Here's why the film still matters.
By
Drew Sheldrick

11 Mar 2016 - 12:38 PM  UPDATED 11 Mar 2016 - 12:38 PM

There have already been some thoughtful pieces on why Mike Nichol's The Birdcage remains a timeless piece of cinema, its emotional notes still resonating 20 years on. There is also plenty to be said about the film's political impact, bringing much-needed satire to a US culture war that saw a hamstrung President Bill Clinton up against Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich in Pat Buchanan's famously foretold clash of rights.

First and foremost its a small story, executed perfectly. Based on the 1978 French film La Cage aux Folles, it's a comedy of errors following the intersection of a same-sex couple and the conservative parents of their son's fiancée. It's a simple and effective attempt to turn the "Look Who's Coming To Dinner" trope on its head, with a "traditional family" the unwelcome and awkward guests in the midst of the most unconventional of parents.

As the film propels itself towards its hilarious climax, it's also able to deliver some satisfying vignettes on sexuality, race, women's rights, and the dire state of political debate in the media. (Dianne Wiest and Gene Hackman's dubbing of a TV panel of old white men screaming about abortion and same-sex marriage as "the most intelligent show on television" feels particularly poignant.) With the legalisation of same-sex marriage in the US, gay couples may no longer need palimony agreements to salvage some of the rights of their heterosexual counterparts, but many of the The Birdcage's political observations remain on-point.

The film came at the tail-end of Hollywood's fascination with drag, encouraged by The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert in 1994 and undeterred by the unsuccessful To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar the following year. The mid-90s saw an explosion of colour and hope in gay representation, where before there had been a dreary slew of AIDS dramas offering only unhappy endings and accolades of "courage" for their heterosexual leads (see: Philadelphia).

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While The Birdcage is, in large part, preoccupied with drag (and a broader muse on the everyday drag gay men don to fit in), it's just as comfortable in the "They're Just Like Us" gay wave that saw films like Frank Oz's In & Out follow its release.

I saw The Birdcage in 1996 at the long-departed (and dearly missed) Stanmore Cinema on Parramatta Road. Being only 11 and still coming to terms with my own sexuality, I went alone. The cinema was packed with middle-aged and elderly couples, many of whom I imagine had never seen a movie focused on a same-sex couple at their local cinema. Perhaps encouraged by a "palatable" lead like comedian Robin Williams (also dearly missed), they lapped it up.

It was their reaction as much as the film that felt like a formative experience for me; a crowd laughing at the stuffy co-founder of the "Coalition for Moral Order" while cheering on the flamboyant couple as they stumbled from one disaster to the next. Its three weeks at the top of the US box office suggests it resonated with audiences there as well.

Williams had only just broken new ground with Mrs Doubtfire's unapologetic portrayal of a separated couple with children in 1993 - unheard of in mainstream family comedies at the time. He had made similar headway here, but this time by showing that gay couples could form a conventional family, warts and all.

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Over the past few decades, queer scholarship has been preoccupied with debunking the myth that sexual justice can be, for the most part, achieved through marriage equality. Those arguing against the valorisation of nuclear families and their institutions have many valid points, but for an 11-year-old watching two gay men traverse the traditionally heterosexual struggles of parenting and partnership, it was life-affirming.

You could easily criticise The Birdcage's portrait of a same sex-parented family and its unapologetic use of camp as being knee-deep in stereotypes - it is. But for a flamboyant kid seeing his own family reflected on screen but for the replacement of a gay couple at its helm, it meant a lot. It still does.