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Film / The Birdcage

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Albert: Don't use that tone to me.
Armand: What tone?
Albert: That sarcastic, contemptuous tone that means "you know everything because you're a man and I know nothing because I'm a woman."
Armand: You're not a woman.
Albert: Oh, you bastard!

The Birdcage is a 1996 American remake of 1978 French film adaptation of La Cage aux folles. It was directed by Mike Nichols and stars Robin Williams, Nathan Lane, Gene Hackman, Dianne Wiest, Dan Futterman, Calista Flockhart, Hank Azaria, and Christine Baranski. Elaine May adapted Jean Poiret and Francis Veber's original screenplay. It was the highest-grossing American film to star an openly gay character until Brüno (2009).

Val Goldman (Futterman) and Barbara Keeley (Flockhart) are engaged to be married, and have decided that their families should meet. Barbara comes from a conservative Christian family; its patriarch, Senator Kevin Keeley (Hackman), is a Moral Guardian politician running for re-election. When one of Keeley's close political friends dies in the bed of an underage, black prostitute, Mrs. Keeley (Wiest) suggests they visit the fiancé's family to discuss wedding plans and escape the scandal and the press; a "traditional, wholesome" all-American marriage could be just what the Senator needs to save his career.

Unbeknownst to Barbara's parents, however, is that Val's family consists of a Jewish gay couple who own a South Beach drag club called the Birdcage. Not only does Val's father Armand Goldman (Williams) live above and run the club, but his partner Albert (Lane) is the show's star drag queen "Starina". With the Keeleys already driving down from Ohio, the Goldmans have to quickly pile together a story and drastically redecorate, recreating themselves as the "Coleman" family and Camp Gay Albert as an Uncle in the hope they can get past Heteronormative Crusader Keeley.

There's no way this could possibly go wrong...

The Birdcage provides examples of the following tropes:

  • Accidental Innuendo/Freudian Slip: Invoked when trying to explain Agador's Guatemalan soup with eggs in it, Armand notes they value poultry like currency:
    Armand: A woman is said to be worth her weight in hens, and a man's wealth is measured by the size of his cock. [realization]
  • Adaptation Relationship Overhaul: Senator Keeley develops a crush on Albert while he's posing as "Mrs. Coleman," which does not occur in the original French film.
  • Adaptational Heroism:
    • Senator Keeley, while still a bigoted hyper-conservative, is much more mellow and gentle than his counterpart in the French film, who is prone to violent fits of anger and is implied to be physically abusing his daughter.
    • Similarly, the scene of Albert daring Armand to punch him here results in a bit of harmless slapstick as Armand comically pushes Albert off of him during their confrontation. In the 1978 film, Renato (Armand's counterpart) actually punches Albin (Albert).
    • Katherine now plays an active role in helping the Keeleys escape by being their getaway driver.
  • Adaptation Name Change: In keeping with the location change from Saint-Tropez to Miami Beach:
    • Renato Baldi → Armand Goldmannote 
    • Albin Mougeotte/'Zaza Napoli' → Albert/'Starina'
    • Simon Charrier → Kevin Keeleynote 
    • Laurent → Valnote 
    • Andrea → Barbaranote 
    • Jacob → Agador
    • The only character with the same name is Simon/Kevin's wife, who's called Louise in both versions.note 
  • Adaptational Personality Change: Barbara is a lot more outspoken and assertive than her French counterpart, who was portrayed as a quiet and meek wallflower. This makes her and Val’s entire conspiracy a bit of an Adaptation-Induced Plot Hole.
  • Alliterative Name: Senator Kevin Keeley.
  • Amazingly Embarrassing Parents:
    • Subverted by Armand and Albert. Val isn't embarrassed by either of his fathers, and even brags that he's the only person in his fraternity who "doesn't come from a broken home," but is wary that his girlfriend's hyper-conservative parents won't approve of their daughter marrying the son of a gay couple. The only reason he tries to "hide" Albert is because any attempt for him to pass as straight would be in vain.
    • Enforced with the Keeleys. Father Kevin, a United States Senator, has a scandal hanging over his head as one of the founders of "The Coalition for Moral Order," a conservative think-tank. When Senator Keeley's partner dies in the bed of an underage black prostitute, Kevin thinks that the "Colemans" know all about the scandal, and is walking on eggshells all night, even before the reveal.
  • Amicable Exes: Though they only ever really got together for a one-night stand, Armand and Kathrine are shown as having a perfectly sociable friendship even decades after she gave birth to Val. In addition, she's highly supportive of Albert as taking on the role of being Val's "real" mother.
  • Aw, Look! They Really Do Love Each Other: The palimony scene. Armand and Albert have bickered throughout the entire movie, but this shows that they really are in a loving (albeit not legally recognized) marriage.
  • Bait-and-Switch: When Val first appears, he and Armand exchange compliments, Armand offers him a drink and mentions that he's given Agador the night off, "so we're all alone, as requested", giving the impression that Val is Armand's handsome younger lover who Armand has to keep secret from Albert. Val then announces that he's getting married and asks if Armand's upset, further reinforcing the idea that the story is going to be some kind of tragic love triangle. Then he addresses Armand as "Pop," and that theory goes out the window.
  • Be Yourself: The whole reason Albert disguises himself as Val's mother is that he can't help but be this trope. His efforts to come across as Val's straight, conservative uncle are spoiled by things like his inability to not wear pink socks. He's at his most relaxed when he's in drag, which is why he makes for a more convincing mother than an uncle.
  • Blind Without 'Em: The excuse for Barbara's parents not being able to see through Albert's Paper-Thin Disguise is that they're both far-sighted and arrived at dinner without their reading glasses.
  • Book Ends: "The Goldman Girls" performing Sister Sledge's "We Are Family."
  • Bread, Eggs, Breaded Eggs: When trying to remember all of their lies:
    Armand: Agador?
    Val: Sparticus!
    Armand: ... Agador Sparticus? [Beat] He insists on being called by his full name.
  • But Not Too Gay: Even in a movie filled with more limp-wristed queens, beefcakes in thongs and transvestites than one can shake a phallus at, the most romantic thing our two male leads ever do is share a small peck kiss during breakfast. Though to be fair, the only other kiss ever seen in the movie as a whole is Val and Barbara's Almost Kiss during their wedding.
  • Caged Bird Metaphor: Inverted: The eponymous Birdcage is a gay nightclub where individuals are free to celebrate their true selves and passions.
  • Camp Gay: Every gay person who isn't Armand. Some of the non-performing crew of the club can be safely presumed to be gay, and are even less camp than Armand. Agador provides the current page image.
  • Character Name Alias: Agador the housekeeper introduces himself as Spartacus. After some confusion, Armand settles on "Agador Spartacus," saying he likes being referred to on a Full-Name Basis.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The Birdcage itself since the Keeley family needed a way to sneak past reporters.
  • Chekhov's Skill: Albert's experience as a drag queen.
  • Comically Missing the Point/I Take Offense to That Last One: Upon learning the truth about Val's family, Senator Keeley's response? "You can't be. You can't be Jewish!"
  • Dating What Daddy Hates: What kicks off the plot. Val is scared that his girlfriend's hyper-conservative parents wouldn't allow her to marry the son of a gay couple.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Most of the main characters make snarky comments here and there.
  • Delayed Reaction: Armand informs Albert that Val is getting married. It takes Albert eight seconds to realize what Armand said.
    Albert: Don't be silly. I got a pork roast for dinner. I wanted to get filet mignons, but they're so expensive. (finally registers what Armand has said) Married? What do you mean, married?
  • Different for Girls: Inverted; Albert can't pass for a straight man to save his life, but makes a much more convincing housewife using his extensive experience in drag.
  • Digital Bikini: One television edit put shorts on Hank Azaria's character, in a scene where he is otherwise wearing a thong.
  • Disguised in Drag: The Keeleys escape the paparazzi by dressing in drag and leaving through the front door of The Birdcage.
  • Drag Queen:
    • Albert a.k.a. "Starina", The Goldman Girls as well as many other employees and patrons of the club.
    • Plus the whole Keeley family at the end. (Yes, the wife, daughter, and Senator!)
  • Drama Queen: Albert makes mountains out of molehills, hyperventilating and crying when he finds out Val's getting married, and throws a fit when Armand tries to correct his movements. Bonus points since Albert's a literal queen!
  • Enhance Button: Double Subverted. When examining the recordings outside Keeley's house, the news team first has to examine the very pixel-y background to identify what's going on ... only to then zoom in and get perfectly captured audio from several feet away and under a reporters voice.
  • Epic Tracking Shot: The opening shot, through the magic of dissolves, combines a helicopter, crane and steady-cam shot into one continuous take which begins out over the ocean, goes through the streets of Miami, through the door of the nightclub and ends on Armand running about trying to keep everything under control.
  • Evil vs. Evil: Despite his Pet the Dog moments, Senator Keeley is a racist, anti-semitic, homophobic Moral Guardian. The tabloid reporters hounding him are amoral bottom-feeders who couldn't care less about his politics, they just want to embarrass him because that's what they do.
  • Failed a Spot Check: Senator Keeley attempts to avoid the press by climbing out a window by ladder; halfway down, he turns and finally notices the dozen reporters waiting for him.
  • Fanservice Extra: Scantily-clad and attractive men and women decorate basically every shot that takes place outside.
  • "Fawlty Towers" Plot: All it takes is Barbara lying about her new in-laws' last name to get the ball rolling. And even though they can't keep up a consistent lie, with contradictions popping up at every possible moment, they manage to keep going on and on right up until Katherine shows up at their door, at which point the truth finally comes out about Armand, Albert, and the Goldmans.
  • Fictional Political Party: The "Coalition for Moral Order" which is a radical conservative party primarily focused on traditional families.
  • Flying Under the Gaydar: Albert and Armand try to do this to fool their son's future-in-laws. It might have worked, if Albert's performance as Val's mother hadn't been interrupted by Val's birth mother Katherine walking into the room and introducing herself as such.
  • Foreign Remake: An American remake of the Franco-Italian film adaptation of La Cage aux Folles.
  • Gag Penis: Invoked by Albert disguised as "Mrs. Coleman" after he's been revealed to be a man.
    Albert: [to Keeley] Kevin, nothing has changed. It's still me. With one tiny difference. Well, not tiny.
  • Gay Conservative: Albert, of all people, turns out to be one. At first it seems he is only putting on a show for the Keeleys while posing as "Mrs. Coleman," but even after his true identity is revealed, he confirms he stands by his right leaning views.
  • Going for the Big Scoop: A villainous version. Two tabloid reporters hoping for an exclusive story on the death of Senator Keeley's partner in the "Coalition for Moral Order" spend the entire film chasing down the Keeleys and committing various crimes, including trespassing and parking illegally, to try to get photos. They're presented as even bigger antagonists than Senator Keeley himself.
  • Good Ol' Boy: Senator Keeley is a very conservative Senator who paints himself this way to the press
  • Happily Married: Albert and Armand essentially, since at the time the film was made, gay people couldn't be legally married.
    Val: You know, I'm the only guy in my fraternity who doesn't come from a broken home!
    • Downplayed trope, however, as the fact that they aren't (and cannot be) legally married seems to contribute to Albert's assuming that Armand is having affairs, or doesn't love him anymore. Eventually played completely straight once Armand actually gives Albert a palimony agreement to sign, with this being the closest thing to a legal marriage available to them at the time.
  • Hidden in Plain Sight: The paparazzi don't recognize the Keeleys when they walk right past them in full drag with only minor facial make-up on. One cameraman suspects, but quickly shakes his head in a clear "No way!"
  • Hypocritical Humor:
    • Agador, while dressed in cut-off shorts and a lacy, see-through, midriff-baring shirt, complains that a butler's uniform would make him "look like a fag." Armand deconstructs it by pointing out that at least he'll look like a fag in a uniform.
    • One of the reporters talks about the media blitz around the senator's home in a condemning tone ... while he is, of course, taking part in it.
    • The senator, not paying attention, executes a sudden exit on the interstate after realizing he's about to miss his turn. The tabloid reporter trailing him, thinking the senator is trying to evade any followers, immediately executes an even more dangerous sudden exit so he doesn't lose him, before announcing "This guy is a fucking maniac!"
      • Senator Keeley actually was paying attention, deliberately driving in the left lane (you even see him look up at the exit sign) and quickly exiting, as he was trying to lose anyone that may be tailing him. He was, obviously, unsuccessful. Also, this was one of the several times that the press demonstrated their hypocrisy in doing illegal things in order to get the scoop. To name a couple more, they trespassed on the Keeley's property to catch him on the ladder, and the illegal parking outside the club, complete with the, "Who cares? We're the press" justification.
    • The reporter from the National Enquirer condemns the TV crews that show up at the nightclub as 'vultures'.
    • The Senator leading the "Coalition for Moral Order" is discovered dead in the bed of a prostitute. Who is underage.
  • I Need a Freaking Drink:
    • After Armand learns Val is getting married, he downs an entire glass of white wine, then goes to get even more.
    • And Senator Keeley needs his freaking candy after learning "my co-founder [of the Coalition for Moral Order] has just died in the bed of an underage black whore!"
    • As the dinner progresses, Armand (and later Val) sneaks into the kitchen to start drinking Scotch directly from the bottle.
  • Innocent Bigot: Part of Albert's disguise as Val's mother. Senator Keeley totally falls for it.
    Senator Keeley: Of course, it's wrong to kill an abortion doctor. I don't agree with them, but many sincerely feel, stop the doctors, you stop the abortions.
    Drag!Albert: That's ridiculous! The doctors are only doing their jobs. Kill the mothers, that'll stop them.
    Armand: May I see you a moment, dear?
    Drag!Albert: I know, I know. If you kill the mother, the fetus dies too. But the fetus is going to be aborted, so let it go down with the ship.
  • I Take Offense to That Last One: When Albert is having his breakdown in the intro:
    Albert: Whatever I am, [Armand] made me! I was adorable once, young and full of hope. Now, look at me. [upset] I'm this short, fat, insecure, middle aged thing!
    Armand: I made you short?
    Albert: [shrieks]
  • Jewish Mother: Albert, to his stepson Val.
  • Karma Houdini: In Rantasmo's review, he acknowledges that we never really see whether or not the Keeleys learn any sort of lesson about acceptance. They show up at Val and Barbra's wedding, but is it sincerely or begrudgingly? Val, meanwhile, puts his fathers through hell by appealing to homophobic conservatives for the sake of his own happiness, but he at least owns up to his mistake and has an unspoken epiphany when he pulls off Albert's wig and saying "This is my mother."
    • On a smaller note, other than being (unintentionally) left behind, we never get to see any comeuppance for they Keeleys driver, who repeatedly took bribes from news reporters looking to capitalize on the recent controversies using the Keeleys.
  • Lady Looks Like a Dude: Barbara and her mother disguised as drag queens. Mrs. Keeley can't quite pull it off, but Barbara is skinny enough to appear androgynous.
  • Large Ham/Ham-to-Ham Combat: Nathan Lane and Robin Williams compete to see who can eat more scenery.
  • Last Het Romance: Back in the day, a young Armand decided to "try it once with a woman" and sleep with Katherine, resulting in Val.
  • Leno Device: Leno makes a quick joke about Senator Jackson in a monologue on the Keeleys' television.
  • Lethal Chef:
    • Agador is not a chef but must pretend to be one. His concoction of tomatoes, shrimps and eggs could be only called "Sweet and Sour Peasant Soup" if you define "soup" as "some barely edible liquid you eat in a bowl". No-one was interested in seconds. A deleted scene shows that Katherine actually loved the stuff, instantly making her Agador's favorite person in the world.
    • Agador's soup isn't all that different from Arabic shakshouka, a spicy stew of tomatoes and peppers with eggs broken into it (in Turkey the same dish is called menemen) and also has a family resemblance to Spanish pisto, which is a bit like a ratatouille served with a fried egg. Neither of these include seafood, but the basic principle is sound.
  • Married Too Young: Armand (and later Albert and the Keeley's) are quick to express disapproval of the 20-year-old Val getting married to his 18-year-old girlfriend in the beginning of the movie, though the more level-headed Armand adopts the "it's happening whatever we think, so we just have to accept it" position fairly quickly.
  • Masculine–Feminine Gay Couple: The manly-ish Armand to the near-comically effeminate drag diva Albert. He even reintroduces Albert as his wife to the Keeleys once the jig is up. We say manly-ish because Armand does have some femme nuances like applying cosmetic foundation and claims he was "very maternal" raising Val.
  • Missing Mom: Katherine gave birth to Val and then left Armand to raise him. While not quite as emotionally involved in Val, she's certainly happy to know he's doing well (and proud he sticks up for his "real mom," Albert, in front of the Keeleys).
  • Mistaken for Cheating: The film opens with Albert (and Agador) convinced that Armand is having an affair. His insisting on having the apartment to himself while Albert's on stage doesn't help matters. After a brief mislead it turns out Val just wanted to tell his dad about his engagement in private.
  • Moral Guardians: Senator Keeley co-created the "Coalition for Moral Order". The group is the reason they suddenly visit Val's family, as his co-founder dies in the bed of an underage, black prostituteinvoked.
  • The Mountains of Illinois: There are mountains visible outside Katherine's office window. Her office is in Florida.
  • Mr. Fanservice: Agador is in good shape, attractive, and almost always scantily-clad.
  • No, You: Albert, posing as Val's mother, makes a very subtle quip to Senator Keeley's views on homosexuals.
    Senator Keeley: You know, I think homosexuality is one of the things that's weakening this country.
    Albert: Really? Well that's what I thought until I found out that Alexander the Great was a fag; talk about gays in the military.
  • One Dialogue, Two Conversations: Senator Keeley in drag and his driver.
    Senator Keeley: Meet me in 20 minutes at the corner of El Dorado and Palm.
    Driver: Lady, not for a million dollars.
  • The Oner: The movie opens with an Epic Tracking Shot lasting several minutes. Long takes continue to be used throughout the movie, which had an unusually long rehearsal period to ensure they'd go smoothly.
  • One-Night-Stand Pregnancy: Val was conceived this way.
  • Open-Minded Parent: Armand and Albert obviously, but Val's birth-mother, Kathrine, also counts (as one would expect from a person living in the extremely LGBT city of South Beach).
  • Out with a Bang: Senator Jackson died while having sex with a prostitute. Who was underage. And black.
  • Paper-Thin Disguise: Albert appears as Mrs. Coleman in drag, leaving Armand, Val and Barbara in shock; Senator Keeley and his wife, however, completely fail to see it.
  • Placebo Effect: Albert's powerful, anti-anxiety medication he gets from Agador:
    Armand: What are you giving him? Drugs? What the hell are "Pirin" tablets?!
    Agador: It's aspirin with the "a" and the "s" scraped off.
    Armand: [Beat] My God, what a brilliant idea.
    Agador: I know.
  • Prayer Is a Last Resort: After everything else is set up and just before the Keeleys arrive, Armand looks up at the crucifix hanging in his home and asks for the night to go well. Before this, Armand didn't show any religious attitudes and is in fact Jewish.
    Armand: I'm not religious and I'm Jewish, but if things go well tonight, I'd really appreciate it.
  • Precision F-Strike: When Armand initially refuses to hide his sexuality from the Keeleys.
    Armand: Fuck the senator. I don't give a damn what he thinks.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Armand delivers one to Val when his son insists they not only hide who they are, but pretend to be a "normal" family:
    Armand: Yes, I wear foundation. Yes, I live with a man. Yes, I'm a middle-aged fag. But I know who I am, Val. It took me twenty years to get here. I won't let some idiot senator destroy that. Fuck the senator. I don't give a damn what he thinks.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: Val's parents are a liberal, gay, Jewish couple that run a drag club in South Beach, Florida, whereas Barbara's parents are a traditional, Conservative, Christian couple and part of a "traditional" political party. Naturally, Hilarity Ensues.
  • The Reveal: The film's first scene plays up the handsome young man as Armand's secret lover when he's actually his son.
  • Screams Like a Little Girl: Albert does this throughout the film.
  • Scream Discretion Shot: Played for Laughs when Albert returns home and sees the hasty redecoration.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Armand and Katherine sing a bit of "Love is in the Air," the original opening song from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum before Zero Mostel's dissatisfaction with it caused it to be changed to "Comedy Tonight."
    • Armand says of Drag!Albert-as-Val's-Mom that "She's travelled around the world but deep down she's still a girl from Grover's Corners," a reference to the titular town of Thornton Wilder's 1938 play Our Town, which Senator Keeley clearly regards as a beloved classic.note 
  • Stealth Pun: Robin Williams is playing the "straight man" against Nathan Lane's comic persona.
  • Straight Gay: Armand somewhat. He can play straight at the very least. Albert, however, is so camp that he can't even do that. He makes a much more convincing housewife.
  • Strawman Political:
    • It's both subtly and not-so-subtly implied that the conservative Keeleys are disgusted not only by gays, but by Jews (making them and black people. Oh, and Guatemalans. For what it's worth, though, all three are at least presented as fundamentally good and even kind people, even when they're saying terribly racist things. That said, the Keeleys have obviously accepted Armand and Albert because Val and Barbara get married with both their families present and happy, so they are at least somewhat able to put aside prejudices and get over it when confronted.
    • Exaggerated when Albert, disguised as Armand's wife and wanting to fit in as much as possible, spouts extremely over-the-top stereotypes of right-wing talking points, like killing women who want abortions as the fetus will die anyway. Keeley not only doesn't catch on, but wholeheartedly agrees and joins in. Keeley later gets into an ugly fight with his wife over whether Armand is "manipulating" Mrs. Coleman, that subtly implies he might feel more attracted to Albert's disguise than to his own wife.
  • Stupid Sexy Flanders: Senator Keeley actually made a pretty good-looking woman!
  • Twofer Token Minority: Armand and Albert are gay and Jewish!
  • Villainous BSoD: Keeley is so stunned by the revelation that nice, sensible Mrs Coleman is a drag queen that he spends several minutes in a daze.
  • Visual Innuendo: Right as Katherine apologizes for "not [being] exactly maternal", she pops a bottle of champagne that she's holding between her upper thighs.
  • Where Everybody Knows Your Flame: The Birdcage, the club Armand and Albert own.