20 Years to ‘Birdcage’

New York-based writer and photographer Elyssa Goodman celebrates Birdcage’s 20th year anniversary:  “In addition to looking at stereotypes of gay people, the film looks at stereotypes and issues about Jewish people.”

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I see my tiger robe on television,” my mother says to me on the phone. “What am I watching?” I pause for a split second to think. I’m about 1,300 miles away from her. But I know: “The Birdcage.”

My mother chuckles.

She’s talking about the scene in the now iconic 1996 comedy where Robin Williams’s character, Armand Goldman, is sitting and reading the newspaper in his kitchen one morning, a robe printed with a tiger’s face tied around his waist. My mother has been known to sit in her kitchen reading the newspaper in a caftan of the same print, and my father never fails to point it out when we watch the movie: “Hey, Rani, that’s your robe!” While my father tends to lean toward action movies to watch on a lazy Sunday afternoon and my mother prefers 1950s musicals, we all watch “The Birdcage” together because we know the laughs that await us.

“The Birdcage” follows the Goldman family: Armand, a gay nightclub owner; his partner Albert, who, played by Nathan Lane, stars as a drag queen at the club, and their son, Val (Dan Futterman). Val comes home to announce not only that he is getting married, but also that his fiancée, Barbara (Calista Flockhart), is the daughter of a right-wing conservative senator, Kevin Keeley (Gene Hackman), who is coming to visit the Goldmans in a few short days with his prim and proper wife, Louise (Dianne Wiest). In hopes of protecting Val’s relationship, the Goldmans do their best to disguise not only their lifestyle and orientation, but their religion, too, changing their name to Coleman for the evening. Hilarity ensues as they try to maintain the charade.

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In what is perhaps my favorite scene in the film, Armand does his best to teach the very flamboyant Albert how to act “manly” in front of the Keeleys while sitting in a cafe mere hours before their dinner that evening. They start with spreading mustard on toast. Albert picks up the toast, pinky waving high, and daintily dribbles the condiment across the bread with a spoon — and Armand interjects right away.

“You take your knife, and you smear,” he says, lowering the register of his voice. “Men smear.”

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