The thing about "The Birdcage" is that you forget how funny it is – and not just sporadically either – but all of the time. Maybe "Airplane" or "Some Like It Hot" comes close to it – but Mike Nichols' 1996 United Artists remake is one of those great films – a pick-me-up that will have you howling with helpless and delicious laughter for its entire duration.
Principal in its success are two things - the spot-on casting - and Elaine May’s screenplay. The movie boasts a razor-sharp re-working of an already well-honed play called "La Cage Aux Folles" by Jean Poiret - first staged in 1973 - then made into a celebrated French/Italian film farce in 1978. Nichols simply updates the Euro references to American ones - and adds clever jabs at double standards to spice up the very funny set pieces.
Robin Williams and Nathan Lane play middle-aged gay lovers – the wildly camp Armand and Albert Goldman – flamboyant toasts of the Florida sun, sand and sex set. They wear garish shirts, gold jewellery and foundation trowelled onto their cheeks to look younger. Armand owns the Miami South Beach nightclub "The Birdcage" where Albert is "Starina" – their principal drag queen attraction who comes on after a transvestite troupe has done their best Sister Sledge "We Are Family" mime. Men are called Beatrice and Dante and their live-in South American maid is Agador – a man so camp Liberace would blush – boogieing in the kitchen area to Gloria Estefan’s Spanish rhythms with a sweeping brush, a wig, denim hot pants and a padded bra (a fabulous comedic turn by Hank Azaria). Apart from Starina’s odd hysterical outburst about being "fat and hideous" – most nights in the club are a form of bare-bottomed costume mayhem – where no one is afraid to be open - no matter what their preference may be - or what anyone else thinks.
But twenty years back – when Armand was finding his sexuality – he had an affair with a career-obsessed Katherine Archer (Christine Baranski) and their union produced a divorce and sole custody of their son Val. One evening the 20-year old Val (Dan Futterman) arrives at The Birdcage to inform Pop that he’s getting married to the woman of his dreams – a 19-year old Barbara Keeley (Calista Flockhart) – daughter of Senator Kevin Keeley. Dad is none too pleased because he thinks the lad is too young – but that’s the least of his problems.
Barbara’s father is a twat – a boorish right-wing politician who hates anything that isn’t homely and decent ("It's porno…not pronto…" he says into his Dictaphone). When his equally moralizing television sparring partner Senator Eli Jackson of the 'Committee For Moral Order' dies on him during election time – caught in bed with a minor who is both black and a prostitute – Keeley and his wife Louise (Dianne Wiest) spot that the wedding would be a great way to deflect the press army camped outside their home waiting on a comment from Mr. and Mrs. Family Values. "If necessary – we'll get the Pope's blessing – it's not that hard!" his wife offers helpfully as her husband munches down on chocolate – his chosen way of calming his nerves.
Unfortunately young Barbara has also been economical with the truth and told her Senator parents that her Val's Mum and Dad are 'in the arts'. She's even suggested that Armand is The Cultural Attaché To Greece and Albert his wife. So the Conservative Keeleys head down to Florida in a car (pursued by press hounds looking for a juicy story) – not knowing Armand and Albert’s sexual preferences let alone dress-sense. Armand and Albert have only hours to become fully-fledged straight men to ensure the young couple’s happiness. Cue the toning down of their rampantly gay mannerisms, removal of phallus-shaped furniture, Neptune statues (in fact anything with a willy on it) – and in comes a large crucifix and net curtains.
As you can imagine - the one-liners and double-entendres come fast and furious. When Barbara reveals she’s been sleeping with Val – Dad grimaces and says - "Has he been tested?" When Albert suspects that Armand is having an affair because there’s white wine in the fridge when they both only drink red – he hysterically demands - "I Want A Palimony Agreement! And I Want One Now!" Always suffering for his art – Albert sits at his dresser with a Philishave and a Powder Puff bemoaning his artistic fate "…If it wasn’t for the Pirin tablets – I don’t think I could go on!" Little does he know that they’re really Aspirins Agador has scraped the AS off.
You might think that all this hilarity is at the expense of homosexuality – long the target of many a Hollywood cheap shot. But like "Behind The Candelabra" – this is a film that laughs 'with' the camp – and not 'at' it. And while Robin Williams is his usual brave fabulous self – it’s Nathan Lane who steals every scene – comic and brilliant ever second he’s on camera. The scene in an outdoor Miami restaurant where Armand (Williams) tries to teach Albert (Lane) how to be a 'man' is just ball-breakingly funny – including great observations about sticking out his Pinkie Ring as he sips tea, macho talk about American football and even how John Wayne walks. Albert yelps and screams and constantly acts like a balding short fat woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown ("You look hagard Agador! Take these supplements. I bought them for Armand. But that’s all over now!”) And conveniently – his agony is always someone else's fault (dialogue above). Even when he does finally dress as a hetro for the sake of Val’s future happiness – he can’t help slipping in pink socks under the trousers of a butch suit.
Not to be outdone in the funny stakes – both Gene Hackman and Diane Wiest are fair game too. The dinner scene has Albert dressed up as Armand’s opinionated wife – all Jackie Kennedy couture jackets and handbags - waltzing with an admiring Gene Hackman to Frank Sinatra’s "I Could Have Danced All Night". In order to avoid detection - Hackman and Wiest later dress up as a woman and a butch dominatrix in the final nightclub scene (joining the enemy and all that). It’s so funny – you may find yourself reaching for the sedative cabinet.
The BLU RAY is defaulted to 1.85:1 Aspect Ratio so the picture fills the entire screen (no bars top or bottom) – and I’m thrilled to say that the print is a major improvement on the DVD. I always felt the DVD had a slight pallor – a hazy lack of definition. But right from the opening credits as the camera pushes in to the Miami coastline and then to The Birdcage club itself (with the Sister Sledge "We Are Family" song playing as it does) - it’s obvious that there’s real improvement in focus and clarity. And it pretty much stays that way for the duration. The scene where Val reveals to Armand that he’s getting married is staggeringly clear. The only slight softness I noticed was inside the club – but even then - that’s natural grain – and how it was filmed. The big let down however is the complete lack of Extras – only a crappy Theatrical Trailer – when this is a film that screamed out for retrospective features.
Audio is DTS-HD Master Audio: English 5.1, Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0, French Dolby Digital 5.1 and Italian DTS 5.1 - while Subtitles are in English For The Hard Of Hearing, Spanish and Italian (it doesn’t say much of this on the outer box - but they are on the menu).
"There’s 150 people out there and half of them are Kennedys…" Armand tells Albert as he tries to convince him to go on stage - one more time.
Convince yourself to own this fabulous and life-affirming comedic gem on BLU RAY.
You’ll be in the pink when you do…