Queen alert! Seemingly respectable filmmakers are eagerly repackaging homosexuals as whining, pathetic drag queens for a culture disturbed by sex plagues and nose-ringed militants. If last year’s To Wong Foo led the charge, The Birdcage delivers the body blow. This is understandable in a sense. Society longs for the pre-AIDS homosexual, and even more for the comic-pathetic caricatured Drag Queen. And there are plenty of “artists” all too happy to deliver this image.
The Birdcage comes with a pedigree: a big budget; a proven history in film and on Broadway; a well-established liberal director (Mike Nichols) and writer (Elaine May); respected, simpatico actors like Robin Williams, Gene Hackman, and the ubiquitous Nathan Lane; and a script that pointedly pleas for tolerance in our increasingly right-wing, homophobic society, even as it recycles hoary stereotypes of self-pitying, self-sacrificing queens.
Like its forerunner La Cage, The Birdcage concerns drag club owner Armand (Robin Williams) and his lover Albert, an artiste who entertains at the club. Val (Dan Futterman), Armand’s son from a drunken tryst with a woman, asks his father and Albert to heterosexualize themselves for one night in order to impress his potential father-in-law, right-wing Senator Creeley (Gene Hackman). They initially refuse this incredible request but eventually comply, stripping their Florida apartment of its paintings, statues, kitsch, and other signs of an imaginative life and converting it into a stark monastic space with little more than a huge crucifix and a few chairs. Compounding the problem is Senator Creeley’s scandal: his partner in a right-wing “family values” group died in the bed of an underage black prostitute. Suddenly Armand and Albert become doubly useful in their new role as a wealthy but old-fashioned heterosexual couple: Val will be approved as a son-in-law and the senator will turn attention from his scandal with an elaborate wedding. And all Armand and Albert will lose is — their identities.
Nichols and May have made a few changes from the original. The setting is no longer France, but South Beach, Florida, giving an “exotic,” travelogue feel to the outdoor scenes. La Cage’s black “maid” becomes a more trendy Guatemalan who says things like (heavy accent), “You are afraid of my Latin heat.” The one element the film should have added that we didn’t see in the original was some sort of physical connection between Armand and Albert. Is a homosexual kiss still too much to ask in 1996? Yes, if the film is directed, as this one is, to the Dinner Theatre crowd. On the other hand, these characters, as played by Williams and Lane, don’t even seem to like — much less love — each other.
In La Cage, the disturbing undertones of co-optation never quite came to the surface because of the expert performances of Ugo Tognazzi as Armand and Michel Serrault as Albin. What might have been the queer community’s Birth of a Nation worked in spite of the shrill mechanics of the farce and the cartoonishness of the characters. The actors were attractive and commanding — especially Serrault’s enthralling mix of operatic abandon and self-consumed bitchiness. (Imagine the number of mini-arias Serrault inspired in stressed-out queens of the time!) While most of La Cage‘s plot details and some of its dialogue are recycled in The Birdcage, the pivotal character of Albin is lethally changed. Nathan Lane’s Albert is so relentlessly “humanized” that his mere presence drains the drama of any tension. Nichols commented on Lane’s strategy: “He made everything about Albert very real, and still very funny. Nathan throws the drag aspect of the character away for the most part; it was more about creating a whole person.” But this “whole person” is actually woefully incomplete — in “throwing away the drag part” he kills one of the story’s major motifs: the sheer power of the character’s hysterical personality. In La Cage, it was always clear that Albin was contemptuous of the right-wing minister; in The Birdcage, Albert is so sympathetic to the confused Senator Creeley that he practically drools. His grim self-descriptions — “freak … monster” — are supposed to be amusing but come off as merely grim.
The central dramatic problem of the original — why two fabulous faggots would agree to pass as straights for a pushy hetero son and a right-wing politician — is much more problematic in the remake, with the passing of almost 20 years and without the distractions provided by strong actors. When La Cage‘s drag queens banded together to save the right-wing minister from scandal by disguising him in women’s clothes, it seemed a logical end to the farce — retribution for all the nasty things he said and thought about their lifestyle. In The Birdcage, Gene Hackman is not a convincing villain. We never believe in his nastiness, and his appearance in drag seems more a temporary physical discomfort than a life-changing experience. But above all, with Nathan Lane’s defanged drag, the crucial idea of queenly revenge simply evaporates. The gay characters, led by Armand and Albert, enthusiastically save their oppressors, a depressing act that no amount of spirit gum and wigs can disguise.