Though you wouldn’t guess it from much of the current political rhetoric, mainstream America is in the midst of a long-running love affair with grown men in dresses.
While “Mrs. Doubtfire” continued the “Some Like It Hot” and “Tootsie” tradition of having straight men camp it up, “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” and “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar” showed that drag comedies with gay characters could become an unlikely staple of Hollywood entertainment.
That particular trend was jump-started by the 1978 French import “La Cage aux Folles.” Nominated for two Academy Awards and for many years this country’s highest-grossing foreign film, “La Cage” demonstrated that homosexuals, otherwise practically taboo on domestic screens at the time, were acceptable to audiences if they were made up to look like the opposite sex.
According to the press notes for “The Birdcage,” the Robin Williams/Nathan Lane remake of “La Cage,” director Mike Nichols and writer Elaine May have been talking about this project for 15 years. Heartening as it is to see that kind of persistence, the truth is they may have waited too long. Not without its funny moments, much of “Birdcage” seems pro forma and predictable. What felt original in 1978 is no longer half so inspired.
It’s a measure of how artificial and formulaic the drag comedy aspects of “Birdcage” are that many of the film’s sharpest and funniest moments are provided by the nominal second bananas: Gene Hackman as arch-conservative Ohio Sen. Kevin Keeley, co-founder of the Coalition for Moral Order, and Dianne Wiest as his ever-hopeful wife, Louise. The liveliness of the script’s satirical jibes at political conservatives indicate it’s the part of the project that excited May the most.
But before we can get to the Keeleys, we are introduced to Armand Goldman (Williams), proprietor of the South Beach, Fla., club that gives the film its name. The Birdcage’s leading attraction, the glamorous drag queen Starina, is in fact Armand’s longtime companion Albert (Lane).
The film opens with the first of the numerous contrived crises “Birdcage” specializes in, as Albert/Starina throws a fit, demanding palimony and refusing to go on stage for reasons that prove paper-thin. Armand, after restoring a semblance of calm, greets his son Val (Dan Futterman), the product of a brief youthful fling, whom he and Albert have raised together.
Sweet-natured and polite, Val shocks the old man by announcing he’s getting married. Though both Armand and Albert (who calls the lad “piglet”) feel he’s too young, they’re soon won over and wishing their boy all the best.
Val’s intended, Barbara Keeley (Calista Flockhart), is having less luck talking to her parents, the blustery senator and his wife. But then fate, in the form of a fatal heart attack for the Coalition for Moral Order’s other co-founder in the arms of an under-age black prostitute, leaves the senator desperate for an old-fashioned wedding to restore his family values image.
All that remains to impede total happiness for the young people is the meeting of the two sets of parents. Suddenly seeing things through the senator’s eyes and horrified at Albert’s swishy nature, Val embarks on a campaign to turn the men who raised him into Ozzie and Harriet. Or maybe just Ozzie.
Considerably more contrivance is involved in this than might be imagined, including the inexplicable involvement of Val’s mother, Katharine (Christine Baranski), who apparently has been totally absent from her son’s life for decades.
This silliness wouldn’t be so objectionable if “Birdcage” didn’t pride itself on being what United Artists, its distributor, has taken to calling an “insightful comedy.” In practice this means that the farce regularly stops for insistent from-the-heart speeches, like Armand’s “I’m a middle-aged fag but I know who I am” manifesto, that come off as sincere and convincing as a military campaign.
Though Lane and Williams almost can’t help being funny (witness a scene where Albert attempts to walk like John Wayne), there is a been-there-done-that quality about the semi-hysterical behavior they indulge in that makes it both wearying and over the top. Hackman and Wiest, both expert farceurs, come off much better, as does Hank Azaria as the exotic houseman Agador.
“Birdcage” does end better than it began, with an antic dinner party and interplay between Albert and the senator that recalls the Dustin Hoffman/Charles Durning relationship in “Tootsie.” Professional commercial fluff though it is, “Birdcage” is finally too old to fly.
* MPAA rating: R, for language. Times guidelines: The tone of the language is not harsh.
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Robin Williams: Armand Goldman
Gene Hackman: Senator Keeley
Nathan Lane: Albert
Dianne Wiest: Louise Keeley
Hank Azaria: Agador
Christine Baranski: Katharine
Dan Futterman: Val Goldman
Calista Flockhart: Barbara Keeley
Released by United Artists Pictures. Director Mike Nichols. Producer Mike Nichols. Executive producers Neil Machlis, Marcello Danon. Screenplay Elaine May, based on the stage play “La Cage aux Folles” by Jean Poiret. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Editor Arthur Schmidt. Costumes Ann Roth. Music Jonathan Tunick, Steven Goldstein. Production design Bo Welch. Art director Tom Duffield. Set decorator Cheryl Carasik. Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.