The Birdcage (1996)

98

Confession time – The Birdcage is my favorite film. I know for a cinephile, it is preferable to say something like The Godfather, Citizen Kane or Star Wars is your favorite film, yet The Birdcage is tied with The Blues Brothers as my ultimate favorite film – and not even as a guilty pleasure, a film I genuinely adore and watch on a monthly basis. Here’s another even bigger confession – I really don’t care. I absolutely adore The Birdcage and while I wouldn’t dare call it one of the greatest films of all time, it is a film I just love unconditionally.

For those who are not aware of this glorious film’s existence, it is set in Miami, Florida. It is centered on the titular nightclub which is run by Armand Goldman (Robin Williams), where his partner Albert (Nathan Lane) works as the club’s star attraction, Starina. When Armand’s son, Val (Dan Futterman, who was still trying to be an actor at this point) returns and announces that he is to marry, Armand is shocked to discover that Val’s intended, Barbara (Calista Flockhart) is the daughter of conservative politician Kevin Keeley (Gene Hackman), who is arriving in Florida very soon with his wife, Louise (Dianne Wiest) to meet the parents of his soon-to-be son-in-law. The only problem is that Armand is supposed to be a straight diplomat, not an openly gay nightclub owner. As in many farces, chaos ensues and mistaken identities and hilarious situations run rampant.

I don’t like the belief that we need to be able to justify why we like the things that we like. However, it makes it a lot easier when your favorite film is directed by Mike Nichols, who can only be described as an absolute visionary and legendary filmmaker who made films that were incredible, diverse and beautifully composed. Perhaps he is most remembered and respected for films such as The Gradutate, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Silkwood, amongst others, ranging from the 1960s to the mid-2000s. The Birdcage may not be his crowning achievement, but it certainly proved that Nichols was a genius, because he was able to take a premise from an acclaimed French film (and play, and later musical) and turned it into an utterly riveting American film that wasn’t a remake, but something that was able to stand on its own (although I do fully expect to watch and review La Cage aux Folles very soon, because I have wanted to do so for a very long time). Nichols was a visionary, and while he may not have reached many highs in his career, he was a solid and consistent director throughout his lifetime and someone I consider a personal hero.

You know what else helps in justifying why a certain film is your favorite? The fact that it stars the greatest comedic actor in history (well, other than Charlie Chaplin, that is). Robin Williams was (and I can’t believe I have to write about him in the past tense – it has been over two and a half years since his death and I still struggle to think about the fact that he is no longer with us) one of the greatest talents the world has ever seen – and while I can easily wax nostalgic about how talented he was and and sorely missed he will be, that will take far too long, and we are focusing on The Birdcage here. Williams is utterly magnetic as Armand, and strangely he is playing the more down-to-earth, normal character of the film, but that doesn’t preclude him from taking part in his fair share of craziness, and we still see the zany and energetic Williams we adore throughout the film. Williams is astonishing in this film – yet, he was astonishing in absolutely everything he did, which only speaks to the talent that Williams actually was, and how his legacy will remain in his beautiful and hilarious work in films like The Birdcage, where he was simply wonderful.

The Birdcage gave one of the most beloved actors working today his breakthrough role – and while Nathan Lane is now synonymous with Broadway and theatre, it was The Birdcage that brought him into the bigger spotlight – and boy, did he do an amazing job. I am a fan of Lane only because of The Birdcage. I absolutely adored the film version of The Producers, but it was The Birdcage that converted me to a huge fan of Lane. Albert is a goldmine of a character – hilarious, endearing, touching and emotionally complex. It is such a pity that Lane wasn’t really ever able to play such a wonderful role again, settling for smaller roles in other films, doomed to a life of character actor performances. Lane gives one of my favorite performances of all time as Albert, and anyone who doubts just how funny an actor can be needs to check out Lane’s performance here. It is a masterclass in comedic acting, and the chemistry between Williams and Lane is simply the work of a divine creator.

Remember Gene Hackman? The man who retired from Hollywood about a decade ago? Not only that, he is one of the greatest actors of all time, and The Birdcage brought him what I would arguably say is one of his final great screen performance. He displays such a brutish and fragile sense of humour in this film, and showed off impressive comedic timing. Gene Hackman is not always the first name that comes to mind when I think of the term “funny actor” or “sense of humour”, yet he shows it in abundance here. I am glad he made The Royal Tenenbaums, because it would have been a shame if his last great performance was The Birdcage, which would’ve been a worthy swan-song, just a very early one. It would’ve still been a helluva lot better than Welcome to Mooseport, a film I refuse to watch out of respect for Gene Hackman and my own intelligence. Hackman is supported by the ever-so-lovely Dianne Wiest, one of the true greats of American cinema. I adore Wiest, and I know that her involvement will make any project just a little bit better.

The Birdcage is one of the funniest films ever made, and that’s very strange, because all the ingredients were there that would classify The Birdcage to be an utter failure. Somehow, it managed to exceed all expectations and become an absolutely hilarious film – and despite the involvement of a brilliant director and a solid cast, it seemed to be something that had all the makings of a disaster. Luckily it went the complete opposite direction and became a comedic masterpiece. The film is tightly composed and filmed beautifully (by Emmanuel Lubezki, arguably the best living cinematographer, or at least one of them). Most importantly, The Birdcage knows what it wants to be, and it goes ahead and becomes the film it wants to be. If that isn’t indicative of a great film, then I’m not sure what is.

The Birdcage isn’t my favorite film because it is directed by a director I love, or stars actors who I adore – its my favorite film because it makes me laugh hard every single time. I have watched The Birdcage at least three dozen times (probably even more than that) and each and every time, I find myself doubled over in laughter, relishing every single moment of this film. A great film is one that seems new every time you watch it – and everytime I insert the well-worn disc of The Birdcage into my DVD player, I am transported to a world that I feel like I am seeing for the very first time. Most importantly, The Birdcage has helped me through some tough situations. We all have tragedies and bad days, and we all deal with them differently. The Birdcage is a film that cheers me up on the saddest and most bleak days and lifts my spirits, regardless of what has happened that caused me to seek out the solace of the comforting film. I have a very special bond with The Birdcage, and I don’t only adore it – I credit it as being something that keeps me sane and constantly brings me joy.

In conclusion, The Birdcage is such a wonderful film. I have watched it so many times, and I have no intention of stopping any time soon. I will probably watch it again soon – it actually scares me how often I watch this film, and when it is a film as wonderful and entertaining as The Birdcage, can you really blame me? If you haven’t seen The Birdcage, do it now. It is such an extraordinary film, and I love it so much.

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