Art ages. The second a book hits the shelf, a movie hits the cinema, a painting hits the exhibit or a song hits the radio, that art is in some ways locked into that time period forever. Maybe as time passes that art ages poorly and is sentenced to oblivion — like, say, a racist Donald Duck cartoon or two — regardless of whether it was deemed appropriate or entertaining at the time of publication. Maybe as time passes that art does the opposite, somehow seems more fitting for the current time rather than the time in which it was published, which can often be a hallmark of good sci-fi art (like the original Westworld movie) or good political art (like the V for Vendetta comic) or both (like 1984). But sometimes it’s not so simple. Some art — like The Birdcage — remains both a product of its time and perfectly fit for the future.
This is not an automatic compliment, even in the case of a film as funny and as culturally significant as this one. It’s impossible to rewatch Birdcage — pitched as a somewhat innocent laugh-a-minute comedy and little else — and not think about how the same movie would be made today, what might be changed, what might be emphasized or removed entirely. Today, discussion of the movie must start and end with the way gay or bisexual characters are represented in the film.
You’d think the same would be true of 1996. But first and foremost on the minds of many was Robin Williams, red-hot off both Mrs. Doubtfire and Jumanji. His starpower overshadowed most thematic conversation about LGBTQ representation, which, okay, sure, is a reliable way to market a movie. Williams was also billed above co-star Nathan Lane, who arguably has a bigger role, which, okay, sure, is still “fair” based on Williams’ hot streak. And critical response to the movie mostly centered around Williams and even Gene Hackman, playing a right-wing conservative senator, with only a handful of reviews lauding the fact that The Birdcage is a rare comedy that succeeds in making gay characters into something more than a punchline.
Today, while gay dramas like Moonlight and Brokeback Mountain achieve a well-deserved amount of critical and commercial success, the gay comedy is still elusive. Here’s a question: comedy or otherwise, what’s the most financially successful gay film (meaning a movie that deals primarily with homosexual themes or where the main characters are gay) of all time? Not sure? Until about a month ago, it was The Birdcage. Box Office Mojo now puts the Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody in the top spot, knocking Birdcage to #2, and you could definitely make an argument that the gay themes of Rhapsody aren’t as central to the film as those of Birdcage. Then again, this is a list that also includes Bruno as one of the only other comedic entries; if ever the life of a gay man was depicted as little else but a punchline, it’s in movies like Bruno. The fact, then, remains: The Birdcage is the most successful gay comedy of all time.
So why don’t we watch it as such today? The untimely death of Williams is certainly one factor. The death of a pop culture icon will invariably cause the works associated with that icon to be reconsidered, re-evaluated or simply rewatched through a slightly different lens. We lost Stan Lee last week, and when the super-sized universe-culminating mega-sequel to Avengers: Infinity War comes out next year, the experience — despite it being the umpteenth installment of this franchise — might be just a little bit different now that Lee has left us. The Birdcage has a bit of that sad sheen to it at times, like we’re witnessing the waning wake of a ship that we wish would turn around and sail back.
And like it or not, the political dialogue of today’s America seems to pull the focus of Birdcage in all the wrong directions. Hackman’s conservative senator is every bit as ludicrous as the dime-a-dozen GOP senators in power today, thinking the pope too controversial, thinking Billy Graham too liberal, and then parading around with the gall to create something called “The Coalition for Moral Order”. It’s spot-on for a 2018 skit on SNL, and it’s certainly funny in the context of the 1996 film. It’s aged well, you might think, probably because many of the same senators sitting in 1996 are still sitting today, 20 years older, despite being pretty damn old in the first place. Hackman’s character is the ultimate foil for Lane’s flamboyant Albert, but while the political angle on sexuality is undoubtedly important, the 2018 climate makes a few of the “jokes” a little too real.
This kind of thing begs the question at the heart of The Birdcage, a movie predicated on the premise that it’s funny to watch two gay men forced into total renovation of their lives and home in order to placate strangers who think themselves above the gay community. The ultimate message is counter to that, of course, placing worth squarely in life lived to the fullest in an uncompromising manner. Yet characters like Val, the son-to-be-married who comes up with this scheme in the first place, don’t exactly engender a ton of sympathy in demanding that change of identity. Maybe it wasn’t so glaring in 1996, or maybe it was. Either way, by 2018 standards, he’s more of an asshole than Hackman’s staunch politician.
To complicate matters even further, The Birdcage sort of prevented Nathan Lane from coming out around the time of the movie’s release. As Lane recounted in a 1999 issue of The Advocate:
I thought, ‘Gee, am I getting to the level where the world at large really does care?’ And just about then, I was given this great opportunity in The Birdcage. And I honestly felt it was not the time to suddenly also come out to America because I felt like I was playing this flamboyant gay character and to loudly come out would somehow overshadow that. Like they would say, ‘Oh, he’s not an actor. He’s just letting his hair down. He’s just playing himself. He brought his own clothes!’ I wanted the work to stand for itself, and I thought that at some later point there would be a time to do it.
Lane’s probably right. In a vacuum, his performance is integral to The Birdcage and far and away the most dynamic aspect of the film. Nothing about Lane’s personal life should impact that negatively. In fairness, though, one could say this line of thinking is akin to placating strangers in much the same way we see the characters attempt in The Birdcage, action the film itself finally condemns. Lane can’t be faulted for this, of course. It’s the strangers at fault, those who would’ve ascribed anything but brilliant acting to this particular instance of a gay man playing another gay man.
As this art ages it’s worth championing those parts of The Birdcage that have not and will not age, those indelible things that make the movie work so well in any year. The Most Successful Gay Comedy of All Time should be remembered as such. Lane’s powerhouse performance should be remembered as such. The fact that the hilarity of the film is drawn from “the burden of performing normativity” (to nick a phrase from this great article about the film’s impact on the gay community) means that The Birdcage will always mean something new as the film grows into the future, changing as the world changes. Like Albert, though, at the end of the day we’ll love it for what it’s always been.