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By Jess Fenton
6th March 2016

Last year I sat my boyfriend down and introduced him to ‘The Birdcage’. Ever since then he keeps asking me to show him more movies like it. I have come up short on my mission. It’s impossible. They simply don’t exist. Watching the one-of-a-kind ‘The Birdcage’ today - an English remake of ‘La Cage aux Folles’ - you can’t help but be amazed that, back then, a studio was willing to put a loving, long-term gay couple as the focal point of a film. Even today this is a rarity, especially without the words "Based on a true story" preceding the movie, followed by a story of grave injustice and prejudice. Think about it: in 1996 director Mike Nichols showcased a gay couple - one a professional drag queen - who’ve raised a son together, and audiences ate it up. It didn’t feature gross bigotry (just conservative right-wing politics). The gay men featured in the story were not subject to ridicule by the filmmakers or made to become the butt of the joke; they were the guys you fell in love with and were rooting for. They didn’t shove their agenda down our throats or produce endless monologues about equal rights and justice for all - they simply let the characters speak for themselves, allowing the audience to fall in love with who they were and not what they were. Throwing aside stereotypes and celebrating differences, 20 years on ‘The Birdcage’ is still lightyears ahead of its time.

Despite its lack of social commentary, this 90s gem would still feel right at home in 2016. A politico in the middle of a sex scandal, peddling his daughter’s wedding as a distraction and reinforcement of his “family values”. A monogamous gay couple, with a child, who struggle to find equality in their relationship because without that piece of paper it’s all a legal grey area. And a couple of youngsters who just want to get married, whose parents belong to two very different worlds, and bringing those worlds together means the moving of mountains.


But enough about that, ‘The Birdcage’ is, after all, a comedy, and a damn good one at that. In 1996, Robin Williams was both Hollywood and comedic royalty. A TV star in the 70s and 80s, he’d forayed into the movies by the late 80s and arrived with a bang with the hugely successful ‘Good Morning, Vietnam’. By 1996 Williams had already given the world ‘The Dead Poets Society’, ‘Hook’, ‘Aladdin’ and ‘Mrs Doubtfire’. Robin was a star who gave studios a license to print money, yet little did he know he was only a year away from on Oscar win for ‘Good Will Hunting’. When ‘The Birdcage’ came into action Robin was originally cast as Albert, with Steve Martin as his onscreen partner, but due to scheduling conflicts Martin had to pullout. Having come off ‘Mrs Doubtfire’ just two years prior, Williams had a change or heart and requested a casting shake-up with him now playing the role of Armand. The director obliged, and the rest is history. While some say “scheduling conflict”, I say act of fate. Not that I don’t love Steve Martin, but looking back now it’s hard to picture a different cast than the perfect combination that eventuated. There was little Robin couldn’t say or do that didn’t have his audience in stitches and begging for more, yet for ‘The Birdcage’ his eccentric and flamboyant ways were put aside for someone even more so...

While Robin is considered Hollywood royalty, Nathan Lane is the Broadway equivalent. ‘The Birdcage’ being Lane’s breakthrough film role meant no one saw him coming when Aspirin-popping drag queen ‘Albert Goldman’ hit the screen. Not just anyone can steal the spotlight and the laughs from Robin Williams, but Nathan did it with such ease, grace, gusto and effortless comedic timing and skill I’m not even sure Robin himself expected it.

Director Mike Nichols (aka Mr Diane Sawyer) was a five-time Oscar nominee and winner for 1967’s ‘The Graduate’ by the time ‘The Birdcage’ came around. A brilliant, acclaimed and sought-after director known for ‘Working Girl’, ‘Silkwood’ and ‘Postcards From the Edge’, ‘The Birdcage’ was a rare comedy on Nichols’ résumé. Clearly the material and cast were just too good to pass up.

With such larger-than-life performers as Williams and Lane, it’s easy to forget there are many great and memorable supporting cast members to note. Gene Hackman, who played Senator Keeley, has sadly not graced the screen since 2004 after the now 86-year-old retired to focus on painting and writing.

Think about it: in 1996 director Mike Nichols showcased a gay couple - one a professional drag queen - who’ve raised a son together, and audiences ate it up.

31-year-old Calista Flockhart proved that age is just a number when she was cast as the 18-year-old Barbara. Later on in life she further cemented that idea when we shacked up with Han Solo himself, Harrison Ford, who is 22 years her senior. Professionally, Calista has enjoyed immense TV success starring as the title role in ‘Ally McBeal’ for five seasons, as well as ‘Brothers and Sisters’. She currently plays horrible boss Cat Grant in ‘Supergirl’.

Dianne Wiest; who doesn’t love Dianne Wiest? ‘The Lost Boys’, ‘Parenthood’ and ‘Edward Scissorhands’. The woman is so sweet, cute and innocent... right up until she looses her shit. Her natural-born dichotomy is outstanding. As quiet politician’s wife Louise Keeley she smiled and nodded with the best of them, and then she cracks, screeching “Someone has to like me best.” I like you Dianne! These days Miss Wiest still pops up as supporting roles in films here, there and everywhere as well as starring on TV in ‘Life in Pieces’.

The multi-faceted Dan Futterman played Val, the son caught between two worlds. The actor, most recognisable for ‘The Birdcage’ playing a straight character, has kept people guessing, taking on many roles as gay men since 1996, including ‘Will and Grace’, ‘Sex and the City’ and on stage in ‘Angels in America’. Most notably Dan was nominated for Oscars in screenwriting for 2005’s ‘Capote’ and 2015’s ‘Foxcatcher’. Alas, he is straight and married to fellow screenwriter Anya Epstein.

Last but certainly not least, we have Hank Azaria. The master of character and voice played the small but oh-so-memorable role of housekeeper slash confidant Agador. Whether he was rocking a pink g-string while cleaning the pool, having a nervous breakdown cooking shrimp or tripping on his own shoes in an attempt to answer the door, there wasn’t a scene he didn’t steal. One of today’s most prolific performers, if you’re not seeing him you’re most certainly hearing him, providing voices in almost every animation going around and, of course, returning for the 28th - yes 28th - season of ‘The Simpsons’.

Sadly, on this 20th anniversary of ‘The Birdcage’ - a long time in movie world, not long in life - we’ve had to say farewell to two of these legends. We bid adieu to Mike Nichols in November 2014 at the age of 83. One of only 12 infamous EGOT recipients, this filmmaking maestro’s last film was ‘Charlie Wilson’s War’ in 2007 before he suffered a heart attack. But it was Robin Williams’ suicide three months prior, at 63, that really rocked the industry and his fans. For my generation, this was its first major blow. There’s rarely a film of his we hadn’t watched, loved, seen 100 times over, and even used to define parts of our childhoods (Hello ‘Aladdin’!). A testament to his legacy and adoration came just this last weekend when San Francisco (his home city) renamed the rainbow-arched Waldo Tunnel the Robin Williams Tunnel. Once living legends, upon their deaths Nichols and Williams have garnered icon status in their fields thanks, in part, to ‘The Birdcage’. This film said so much while just being itself - a story about love, differences and celebrating both.

RELEASE DATE: 08/03/1996
RUN TIME: 1h 57m
CAST: Robin Williams
Nathan Lane
Gene Hackman
Dianne Wiest
Dan Futterman
Calista Flockhart
Hank Azaria
Christine Baranski
Tom McGowan
Grant Heslov
DIRECTOR: Mike Nichols
PRODUCER: Mike Nichols
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