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BIRDCAGE, THE (director: Mike Nichols; screenwriters: based on the stage play “La Cage aux Folles” by Jean Poiret/Francis Veber/Edouard Molinaro/Marcello Danon/Mr. Poiret/Elaine May; cinematographer: Emmanuel Lubezki; editor: Arthur Schmidt; music: Jonathan Tunick; cast: Robin Williams (Armand), Gene Hackman (Senator Keeley), Nathan Lane (Albert), Dianne Wiest (Louise Keeley), Christine Baranski (Katharine), Dan Futterman (Val), Calista Flockhart (Barbara), Hank Azaria (Agador); Runtime: 117; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Mike Nichols; MGM Home Entertainment; 1996)
“Shows no reason why it had to be made again.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The Hollywood remake of the 1978 gay French farce La Cage aux Folles (for many years this country’s highest-grossing foreign film) is for the birds, though it has a few laffs it’s filmed in a time warp not recognizing that things have changed over the last twenty years and as a result it comes off feeling stale and artificial. It retains the original’s patronizing stereotypes as well as its inspirational message: Be who you are and don’t feel ashamed. But it fails to achieve neither the laughs nor the passion of the original. It’s one of those useless remakes that shows no reason why it had to be made.

Mike Nichols (“Primary Colors”/”Carnal Knowledge”/”Silkwood”) directs in an efficient way, but adds little to the original that matters. The dick jokes, the mud slung at hypercritical moralistic right-wingers and all the effeminate yuks soon become grating. It’s based on the stage play “La Cage aux Folles” by Jean Poiret. Elaine May teams again after many years apart to work with her old improv comedy partner Nichols to write the screenplay.

The homely middle-aged Armand Goldman (Robin Williams) is proprietor of the South Beach, Fla., drag queen club named the Birdcage. The leading attraction is the glamorous brassy drag queen Starina, who happens to be Armand’s longtime companion Albert (Nathan Lane). The gay entertainers life is upset with the arrival of Armand’s 20-year-old son Val (Futterman), someone raised together by he and Albert after his romantic partner (Christine Baransk) of a one night stand when drunk splits. Val brings along his 18-year-old fiancée Barbara (Calista Flockhart) and her parents, the bigoted blustery ultra-conservative Republican Ohio Senator Keeley (Gene Hackman), the founder of the Coalition for Moral Order, and his well-meaning ever optimistic wife Louise (Dianne Wiest). The senator opposes the marriage until the other co-founder of the Coalition for Moral Order has a fatal heart attack while in the arms of an under-age black prostitute and the senator now believes a good old-fashioned wedding will save the day with his constituents. Hackman plays his character as if he were Pat Buchanan, and shows a good ear for comedy.

From this contrived set-up a variety of funny situations are stretched out into mostly silly routines that include Lane’s character in drag trying to pass himself off as Val’s biological mother, and he loudly plays it like he’s First Lady Barbara Bush (except it wasn’t all that funny).

The Birdcage got mostly good reviews and did well at the box-office, despite being passe, only moderately amusing and hardly insightful. The funniest characters were in supporting roles. Hank Azaria as the granny-like exotic lisping Hispanic houseman for Williams and Lane and Hackman as the buffoonish politico, who gets cheap laughs when fretting over such things as finding the right parson to marry off his daughter and fretting over the right family to marry into.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”