Directors working with Robin Williams have often expressed the same concern: How do you get the naturally manic comedian to tone it down, just a little?
But it was a non-issue for Mike Nichols (“The Graduate”) once he cast Williams in “The Birdcage” opposite someone even more flamboyant (Nathan Lane) and surrounded him with a cast of equally over-the-top characters. In effect, it made Williams the straight man—if that’s possible in a film about two gays who try to put on a “hetero” act when their son brings his fiancée and her conservative parents for a visit.
Williams turns in a terrific performance in this 1996 comedy, proving that his improvisational skills extend to reactions of a more subtle nature than the crazy riffs he displayed in films like “Aladdin,” “Good Morning Vietnam,” and “Mrs. Doubtfire.” This film that could have pushed Williams over the edge, but instead he anchors it and keeps everyone else from taking a tumble.
“The Birdcage” is a remake of the 1978 farce “La Cage aux Folles,” which itself was based on a 1973 French play by the same name. Nichols and his writing partner Elaine May altered the premise so that Armand (Williams) is the owner-operator of a South Beach drag club called The Birdcage, and his flamboyant partner Albert (Lane) is the club’s temperamental headliner—a drag queen who goes by the stage name of Starina. Their houseboy is none other than Hank Azaria, who whips up a hilarious limp-wristed Spanish accent and mannerisms.
The major plot complication is that their son, Val (Dan Futterman), is marrying a college-age girl (Calista Flockhart, of “Ally McBeal” fame) whose father (Gene Hackman) happens to be a right-wing conservative senator and co-founder of the Coalition for Moral Order. The Senator thinks his daughter is too young to get married, but when his co-founding cohort makes headlines by dying in the arms of a teenage black prostitute, the Senator’s wife (Dianne Wiest) convinces him that maybe the best thing for his reputation would be to announce the wedding so that his name might be linked with a traditional value rather than a partner who turned out to be a deviant.
That’s all you need to know, really, because “The Birdcage” is mostly a comedy of character married to traditional farce, and in true farcical fashion things just get crazier and crazier—starting the moment that Armand decides to play it “straight” for his son’s potential in-laws and masquerade as a “couple” with the boy’s natural mother (Christine Baranski).
Like most farces, “The Birdcage” is fast-paced, with characters that are exaggerated and roller-coaster quick plot twists. It’s the acting, though, and the snappy writing that make this comedy a winner. All seven main “players” are wonderful, but so are the obscure talents who perform at The Birdcage. Fans of Robin Williams especially will want to add this title to their collections.
“The Birdcage” runs 119 minutes and is rated R for language.
“The Birdcage” is presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio and comes to Blu-ray via an AVC/MPEG-4 encode that captures the excitement of Miami colors and visual sensations but in some scenes falls a little short in sharpening detail—unless (and I’m trusting a memory here that’s been proven faulty) the film was originally shot to look just a little soft in spots. That’s my only observation, though. Otherwise it’s a nice transfer, with just a slight hint of grain and no haloing or other compression issues.
From the title sequence and the racy South Beach beats you know you’re in for a fun ride, at least in terms of the audio. Fox went with an English DTS-HD MA 5.1 as the featured soundtrack and it really infuses the film with life. The bass gets to thumping when the music plays, but otherwise it retracts like a ballpoint pen.
There are no bonus features other than the trailer, and that hardly counts. You can see that on YouTube.
Robin Williams plays off of a flaming Nathan Lane with delicious understatement and anchors a farce that moves along at a brisk pace—with or without heels. It’s a fun gay-themed comedy that still rings true, socio-politically speaking, close to 20 years later.