Director Mike Nichols’ The Birdcage (1996) holds up extraordinarily well 25 years later, even as so much of how queer people are portrayed in the media has shifted drastically. Elaine May’s screenplay is hilarious and filled with genuine moments of heart, and Robin Williams and Nathan Lane are pitch perfect in their roles. The movie itself is a warm hug of queer comedy, diving unabashedly into South Beach culture and the flashy lives of ‘90s Floridian gay showbiz. But one aspect that makes the film such an interesting time capsule of the era is its depiction of family.
For those who haven’t seen it, The Birdcage tells the story of nightclub owner Armand Goldman (Robin Williams) and his partner Albert (Nathan Lane). When Armand’s son Val (Dan Futterman) comes back from college announcing that he’s going to get married to Barbara Keeley (Calista Flockhart), the daughter of the ultra-conservative Senator and Mrs. Keeley (Gene Hackman and Dianne Wiest), the Goldmans must turn their lives upside-down to make dinner with the future in-laws into a smashing success.
Cue the laughs as the Goldman house is transformed from gay art paradise to Catholic severity. A bevy of gay men stream through the door, whisking away nude art and replacing it with crucifixes and stacks of aged Nancy Drew books. While the house is easy to “straighten up,” Armand’s partner Albert is…less so.
The first solution proposed by Val is just to get rid of Albert for the evening. But after Albert’s feelings are understandably hurt, Armand attempts to coach him into straightness—urging him to butter toast “like a man” and to walk like John Wayne—but none of it really works. During the film’s most heartbreaking scene, Albert, who normally dresses in pastel shirts and silk scarves, presents himself to Val and Armand wearing a plain black suit and dress shoes. He walks into the room slowly and unsteadily, trying his best to project a certain form of acceptable manliness: “I took off all my rings. I’m not wearing any makeup. I’m just…a guy.” In response to this, he’s chided for wearing pink socks (as if pink socks are some sort of glaring signifier for queerness). It’s devastating because, while part of this farce is about the Keeleys, the people who are actually doing this to him are his loved ones.
Hijinks are always fun, but the fact that these hijinks happen just so Albert can “earn” the common courtesy of eating dinner with Val’s future in-laws casts a bit of a dark cloud. Throughout The Birdcage, Albert is constantly being treated as an outsider in his own family, both by his partner and by the boy he helped raise. Of course, Armand pushes back against Val’s attempt to banish all queerness from the house, but never in front of Albert. Plans are made behind his back, and Armand and Val function as a team working to fix the “problem” of Albert’s visible queerness.
For anyone who’s ever heard “We thought it’d be better if you weren’t here” or “It’s just for tonight,” the things that Armand and Val say to Albert are shattering. And they do seem to crush Albert, as he responds, “I understand. It’s just when people are here.” The film sets up the ultra-conservative Keeleys as the antagonists, but doesn’t quite acknowledge exactly what Val’s (and later, Armand’s) callousness could mean to Albert, who—after being told again and again that he shouldn’t be around for the dinner—declares “I don’t want to stay where I’m not wanted, where I can be thrown out on a whim without legal rights” and leaves. This statement also brings up the issue that Albert doesn’t really have a defined role in this family dynamic. Armand is Val’s father. Albert and Armand aren’t (couldn’t have been) legally married.
It’s a moment that specifically speaks to queer life at a time when same-sex marriage (as well as same-sex activity in Florida) was illegal. It speaks to the reality of lifelong partners not being able to visit each other in the emergency room and not having legal rights to shared property.
In another movie, one could imagine the scene as the plot’s push for an engagement or a reason to have children and settle down—to get to that next step in the relationship, whatever it may be. But the relationship between Armand and Albert in The Birdcage is already fully mature. They’re not young men trying to define themselves. They’ve been together for years. So when Armand hands Albert palimony papers to sign, it doesn’t feel like a movement forward as much as an acknowledgment of what’s already there. A naming. The scene, played quietly at a bus stop as a large ship passes behind them, reminds us that love isn’t just romantic declarations. It’s also sharing a life day to day and facing the insecurities that come up when a wrench gets thrown in the works. The scene reminds us what it means to be told that we’re loved, especially when circumstances are trying to obscure that love—if only for one night.
The dinner with the Keeleys comes quicker than anyone would like. Val’s mom is late, so Albert saves the day by appearing in drag as “Mrs. Coleman” (to hide the Jewishness of Goldman, which is a whole other issue). Luckily, Mrs. Coleman is a hit, though Val does not seem to appreciate any of it. After a particularly frightful comment from Albert about abortion, Val hisses, “Mom, you shouldn’t be talking about things you don’t know about,” to which Senator Keeley pushes back, telling Val not to patronize his mother. Of course, Albert is playing a part here and most likely doesn’t think that in order to end abortion one should kill pregnant mothers, but he hasn’t really been defended at all during the movie, and it really only becomes obvious in this moment.
In fact, once the Keeleys are left alone, Senator Keeley tells Mrs. Keeley “I know just what’s going on. It’s the oldest story in the world. She’s a small-town girl, and he’s a pretentious European, the worst kind…” Yes, this is all meant as a humorous moment, a gross misunderstanding of what’s really happening, but Keeley does notice that something is wrong in the dynamic at the table. When Keeley says, “It makes me furious. The contempt he has for her,” he’s picking up on a very real controlling attitude that’s being directed at Albert, though perhaps not for the reasons that he suspects.
Albert was supposed to be the one hidden away, and yet it’s Albert who is most able to connect to the Keeleys as Armand and Val put them off with their erratic behavior. While they try furiously to control “Mrs. Coleman,” she is the one who fully succeeds in charming the Keeleys—though, of course, everything crashes down when Val’s birth mother appears. Val finally must make a stand, and he does so by introducing Albert as his real mother.
On one hand, Val’s grand statement could read as too little too late, especially considering that he doesn’t really acknowledge what he just put Albert and Armand through. On the other hand, the movie seems to argue that Val’s statement is a moment of grace and growth. In reality and hindsight, the scene probably falls closer to the middle of the spectrum, with the understanding that maybe Val is doing too little too late, but also that it’s an act of courage to tell the truth when the truth has a cost.
In the conclusion of the film, both Jewishness and queerness are reintroduced into the story as a central part of the finally fulfilled romance. Val and Barbara are married in an interfaith ceremony, and Albert is able to sit and weep next to Armand at the ceremony while other guests look on confused. It’s a nice quasi-ending, tacked on during the credits, but it does leave one thinking about how the Keeleys and the Goldmans would actually function as in-laws.
And yet, there is hope for them and for the idea of family. At least, the movie seems to be making this argument. Of course, throughout the movie, there is no question about whether or not the Goldmans are a family. It isn’t just Armand and his son and then Armand and his partner. They’re a unit. Yes, they have problems, and they miscommunicate and make bad decisions, but that’s something that families do. Mistakes come with life and living with people. It’s the choice to work through it, and for the people in the wrong to change their behavior, that makes a family something that can matter. This is why there’s hope for the Keeleys and the Goldmans, no matter how disparate they may seem.
The Keeleys may have some of the funniest lines in the movie, but it’s hard to overlook the fact that they speak about Rush Limbaugh in glowing terms and think that homosexuality is responsible for the decline of the country. But despite all that, the movie seems to be making space for their future with the Goldmans. They’re shown at the wedding, so we know that the wedding is taking place with them and not despite them. But more importantly, they’re shown as human and vulnerable and silly and malleable. They—like anyone else—are capable of change, which their attendance at the wedding shows.
Of course, none of this is to say that lines shouldn’t get drawn and connections cut when necessary. But families, queer or otherwise, don’t fit into neat little boxes. They’re messy and complicated. And sometimes they take time to grow. When The Birdcage came out 25 years ago, there weren’t many queer families on the big screen, let alone queer couples that had been together for years and raised a kid. Now, same-sex marriage has been legal in the United States for almost six years, and queer families are much more of a social norm (on and off-screen) than anyone could have imagined in the ‘90s.
In many ways, The Birdcage’s depiction of family can feel a little constrained and old-fashioned, trying to fit into a “straight” paradigm. Even the poster features two couples, side-by-side in an almost mirror-like image. But when Val’s new relationship and potential marriage comes into the picture, we’re reminded of the choices that happen when making a family. And families that are built, families that are chosen and families that are found have always been at the center of queer lives. Families are groups of people who care about each other, who choose to make space for each other and who choose to live their lives and grow together. And anyone can do that, if they’re willing to try.
Tiffany Babb is an essayist, cultural critic, and comics obsessive. She’s a regular contributor to The AV Club’s Comic Panel and the Eisner Award winning PanelxPanel Magazine. You can follow her on Twitter @explodingarrow and sign up for her monthly newsletter about art here.