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Alternative families got a boost in 1996 when MGM/United Artists threw its considerable production expertise behind The Birdcage, a rousing farce about a two-father family taking on a conservative senator and triumphing in the name of love. Although some social critics carped that the film's focus on a drag entertainer, his only slightly more masculine partner and the other performers at their club perpetuated negative stereotypes, the film's surprising box office success made it clear that film audiences were more open to diversity than conventional wisdom might suggest. The picture even made inroads with the Motion Picture Academy®, winning an Oscar® nomination for its glittering creation of a swank South Beach drag club. In an era when Oscar® seemed to think the only good homosexual was a dead homosexual (the only winners for such roles to that time were William Hurt in Kiss of the Spider Woman  and Tom Hanks in Philadelphia ), The Birdcage proved that on screen gay life could be upbeat, not to mention hilarious.
Of course, The Birdcage was hardly the riskiest proposition for a gay comedy. The story of gay partners whose son marries the daughter of an arch-conservative politician had already proven an international hit as a stage play in Paris and the French film La Cage Aux Folles (1978). The original movie had inspired two sequels reuniting Michel Serrault as the drag star Zaza and Ugo Tognazzi as his partner Renato. From there, it had inspired a hit Broadway musical of the same name. Originally, Hollywood's studios considered filming the musical, which already had produced such hit songs as "I Am What I Am" and "These Are the Best of Times," with casting rumors suggesting everybody from Frank Sinatra to Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau for the leading roles.
Eventually, Robin Williams was cast as the drag star, with Mike Nichols directing. Having just played a divorced man who dresses as a woman to be close to his children in Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), however, Williams decided he needed a new challenge and requested the role of Armand, the club's manager. As he told one interviewer, "The challenge for me was to play the more subtle Armand and see if I could still get my share of laughs." He would also give this as his reason for turning down the lead in To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar (1995) and resisting offers to film a Mrs. Doubtfire sequel.
With Williams as box-office insurance, however, Nichols could take a chance on a major stage star with limited film credits, Nathan Lane, as the drag star. Lane had been drawing strong reviews for work in such serious plays as The Lisbon Traviata and Love! Valour! Compassion!, both written by his friend Terrence McNally, and the hit revival of Guys and Dolls. On screen, however, he was best known as the voice of Timon the Meerkat in Disney's The Lion King (1994). The Birdcage would be his first leading role in a major film but, fortuitously, reached screens as he was scoring more raves -- and a Tony Award -- for his performance in the Broadway revival of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
There was no rivalry between the two comic actors. In fact, they would later describe their first meeting as "love at first laugh." The two delighted in breaking up each other and director Nichols on set. Williams could even give Lane tips on playing a woman, though it was Lane who decided that when his character tried to pass himself off as his son's biological mother he would play the woman as First Lady Barbara Bush.
Nichols surrounded his stars with an ace supporting cast, including two-time Oscar®-winners Gene Hackman and Dianne Wiest as the senator and his wife. Calista Flockhart, soon to become television's Ally McBeal, and Dan Futterman, who would turn to screenwriting with 2005's acclaimed Capote, played the young lovers who try to build a bridge between their incompatible families. Hank Azaria stole scenes effortlessly as Williams and Lane's housemaid/cook, a performance he modeled on his grandmother. And Emmy-winner (for Cybill) Christine Baranski played "the other woman," whose one-night fling with Williams years earlier had given the couple their son.
One of the most notable talents Nichols brought to the film was screenwriter Elaine May. She and Nichols had created an acclaimed comedy team in the late '50s and early '60s, winning raves for their sophisticated, improvisational bits. That success had launched both their careers, but The Birdcage marked their first joint project on film. In their time apart, May had built a reputation as one of Hollywood's best writers, often working without credit to save the scripts of such classics as Tootsie (1982).
With such an impressive pedigree, The Birdcage scored heavily with critics and audiences, quickly passing the $100 million mark to end up with approximately $175 million in international grosses. Some critics suggested that Lane had actually stolen the film from Williams, and the performance helped establish the Broadway star as one of America's funniest performers. For the most part, however, the film was hailed as a true comic ensemble, even capturing the Screen Actors Guild award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast. And despite some complaints about the film's perpetuating the stereotype of gay men as effeminate, it proved the box office viability of films about gay life, paving the way for such latter hits as In and Out (1997) and Brokeback Mountain (2005).
Producer-Director: Mike Nichols
Screenplay: Elaine May
Based on the play La Cage aux Folles by Jean Poiret and the screenplay by Poiret, Francis Veber, Edouard Molinaro and Marcello Danon
Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki
Art Direction: Thomas A. Duffield, Bo Welch, Cheryl Carasik
Music: Mark Mothersbaugh & Jonathan Tunick
Principal Cast: Robin Williams (Armand Goldman), Gene Hackman (Senator Keeley), Nathan Lane (Albert Goldman/Starina), Dianne Wiest (Louise Keeley), Hank Azaria (Agador), Dan Futterman (Val Goldman), Calista Flockhart (Barbara Keeley), Christine Baranski (Katharine).
by Frank Miller