Mike Nichols and Elaine May, whose partnership in the 50s and 60s helped define American comedy, collaborate on a film for the first time in 1996, as director and screenwriter respectively, giving us a comedy so sharp and outrageous that José’s laughter made Mike miss half the dialogue. An adaptation of the French farce, La Cage aux Folles, The Birdcage sees Robin Williams’ South Beach drag club owner, Armand, attempt to force his life into the closet for one night, for the sake of his son, Val, whose deeply conservative in-laws are set to visit for dinner. But Nathan Lane’s flamboyant Albert, Armand’s longtime partner, is unable, and at first unwilling, to participate in the subterfuge as requested, and chaos ensues.
The Birdcage relies heavily on stereotypes – it’s not only theatrical but a farce, in which everything is heightened – and though they’re enjoyably insane in themselves, the film’s brilliance is in how it reveals the real people within them, people whose love and pain are rendered sensitively and richly, through the truly genius performances from Williams and Lane, which work together beautifully while in two different registers, the former internal, the latter external. José suggests that the film’s outlook, despite embodying so vividly a pro-gay message, is nonetheless normative of a certain kind of structure of love, the only difference between the film’s two families being that the mother in one is male – and even then, Albert is occasionally referred to as Armand’s wife and Val’s mother. He even, at one particularly stressful moment early on, claims that he is a woman. (“You’re not a woman”, replies Armand, to which Albert cries, “You bastard!”) But although this could be suggestive of a trans identity, and the drag club certainly houses trans people, 1996 is a little early for such complexity – publicly coming out as gay, never mind trans, was still rare, shocking, and even dangerous.
There’s a lot more to discuss, including the portrayals of Gene Hackman’s conservative, scandal-embroiled senator, Hank Azaria’s Guatemalan houseboy, and Val, who Mike thinks is a bit mean and smug, and Mike Nichols’ overall filmography, which José has been considering of late, having been reading his recently released biography by Mark Harris. The Birdcage sits high among his oeuvre, for José, and it’s not hard to see why – he’s literally never laughed as much in his life.