Twenty years ago today, The Birdcage was released. Based on the 1978 French film La Cage aux Folles, it involves, among many things, Nathan Lane throwing pitch-perfect hysterical fits, Hank Azaria dancing in cutoffs, and Robin Williams playing the straight man (no pun intended). It might also be one of the funniest movies ever made.
The Birdcage is the story of nightclub owner Armand Goldman (Williams) and his partner and star performer, Albert (Lane). The couple's lives are upended when their son, Val (Dan Futterman), comes home to tell them he's getting married. The catch: Val's bride-to-be, Barbara (Callista Flockhart), is the daughter of ultra-conservative Republican Sen. Kevin Keeley (Gene Hackman), and Val wants Armand and Albert to pretend to be straight to gain the acceptance of Kevin and his wife, Louise (Dianne Wiest).
With the help of their eccentric Guatemalan housekeeper Agador (the screamingly funny Hank Azaria), Armand and Albert agree to the plan; chaos — involving Albert in drag as "Mother Coleman" ("the D is silent"), shrimp-and-egg soup, and some, er, questionable china — ensues.
Though the movie is full of painfully hilarious sequences (the Pirin tablet scene is a personal favorite), the clip that perhaps best sums it up is also the emotional crux of the story. After a disastrous dinner party with the Keeleys in which Armand and Albert's best efforts continue to go south in domino-like fashion, Val's birth mother Katherine (Christine Baranski), whom Val has never met, mistakenly shows up to play the part of Armand's wife, and the whole scheme crumbles into dust.
What makes this scene so emblematic of the whole movie — and so elegant a climax — is the number of spinning plates come crashing down all at once, in a way that feels true and touching for the characters while also being very, very funny. Finally the Keeleys (Louise more than Kevin) are caught up to what the audience — and the rest of the characters — have known all along, and Val's explanation of the scheme underscores how ridiculous the whole plan was.
But it also reveals just how far all of these people will go for each other: Val and Barbara to be together, Armand and Albert for the son they raised to be a man, and even Katherine for the child she bore but hadn't previously met. And in owning up to all their lies without a trace of embarrassment, Val reveals how proud and grateful he is to be part of his family, "unconventional" though it may be. Lovely too is how Katherine, who's just cottoned on to what's going on, immediately recognizes the beauty of the gesture and the kindness and integrity with which Armand and Albert raised Val.
It's a fitting message for a film that is, at heart, about the millions of wonderful, infuriating, utterly unique moments that make a family, nuclear or otherwise. Val may not have the heteronormative WASP family the Keeleys expected for their daughter, but he was raised by good men who turned him into a good man himself.
Meanwhile, Kevin and his myopic conservatism become the butt of the joke — he's so set in his views that he literally can't understand anything that doesn't fit into them. ("You can't be Jewish!" he says, not even grasping the gay part of the equation.)
In addition to offering a reminder of what a fantastic performer Robin Williams was, The Birdcage boasts a message that remains surprisingly progressive for a movie made 20 years ago. It may reflect a mid-'90s sensibility in some of its stereotypes of gay men, but it also drives home a call for equality that resonates even — and maybe especially — today, considering America's increasingly entrenched and polarized views with regard to LGBTQ people.
As Albert tells Kevin once his wig comes of: "I'm still me. Nothing's changed." It's a concept that many people in 2016, like Kevin Keeley two decades ago, still seem to have trouble grasping.