Entertainment LGBTQ

The Birdcage: Some Thoughts 25 Years Later

I have been thinking about the Birdcage, the 1996 film starring Robin Williams1 and Nathan Lane, since someone mentioned it at work a few days ago. I hadn’t reflected on the film since it came out 25 years ago, and I was surprised to realize how much I resent it now.

Why am I surprised? Because I loved it when I saw it! I remember roaring with laughter in the movie theater. Some scenes — like the one where Robin Williams choreographs a dance number — are comedy classics. (Fosse! Fosse! Fosse!) And even though I haven’t seen this film in decades, I vividly remember the opening credits, with a seamless shot that started in the Atlantic and ended up inside an Ocean Drive nightclub. How’d they do that?

But here’s what really made the film special: In 1996, I was in the process of coming out. I think I was still talking to a psychologist about it, and I hadn’t said anything to friends, family, and work colleagues. It was validating to see gay people on the big screen, especially a gay couple that wasn’t beset by tragedy.2 There was a real sense of joy and celebration. It was exactly what I needed at the time.

But, in 2021, all I can do is cringe when I remember the Birdcage. Much of the humor comes from stereotypes — especially those about effeminate gay men. I have no issue with effeminacy3, and I don’t like how the Birdcage treats it as a joke instead of validating it. At least Nathan Lane’s purse-carrying character has a tiny bit of depth. Hank Azaria’s character, Agador Spartacus, is nothing more than a mincing punchline.4

Am I being too harsh about the Birdcage? Yes, I probably am. It’s a comedy, and comedy sometimes works best when it’s painted with broad strokes. But the Birdcage doesn’t challenge us to think about stereotypes. It just plays them for laughs. That was OK in 1996, when I was craving any kind of representation in popular culture. Today, it just makes me uncomfortable. 

Now that I’m thinking about it, I suppose my disappointment today over the Birdcage is that it was one of the few films from my coming-out years that celebrated LGBTQ characters at the time. Compare it with Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, which got cheap laughs by ridiculing a trans woman (who, surprise surprise, also turns out to be the villain).

Certainly, many films haven’t held up over time. The Birdcage is one of them. I’ll always be grateful for what it meant to me 25 years ago. I’m uncomfortable with it today, but perhaps that’s a good thing. It’s a reminder that culture has evolved beyond one-dimensional depictions of LGBTQ people. 

1 Rest in peace
2 Happy endings in gay films were practically unheard of at the time. Google “Bury Your Gays.”
3 In fact, I salute effeminate gay men. They’re braver than those who hide behind toxic masculine façades.5
4 This is yet another example of a gay character played by a straight actor. That means the role was stolen from a gay actor, and Azaria had no personal frame of reference for his portrayal.
5 I’m not sure where I fit on this spectrum. I sometimes wear my rainbow unicorn T-shirt while watching hockey.