Culture Trips

The Birdcage at 25: A pioneering moment in mainstream cinema

That’s not to say, of course, that those years of turmoil can be erased, even within such a carefree film. Because of the historical context, there is one moment in The Birdcage that really hits home in a different way to the French original. In both cinematic versions, a pause from the laughter comes in a crucial scene of recalibration just before the in-laws arrive, in the middle of the film, when Albert and Armand’s bickering escalates and Albert dramatically walks out – before the gay couple reunite, and poignantly agree to be buried beside each-other so as to “never miss a laugh”.

While this scene is an almost perfect mirror of its predecessor, there is an added layer of emotional weight here. Watching the remake, you feel this dark but wholly romantic gesture now underscored by the heart-wrenching, implied context that this couple, off-screen, have survived the Aids crisis together. Given the LGBTQ+ community’s collective reckoning with death at the time, the promise to be buried side-by-side is a vow of unity that seems even more meaningful than marriage – an option that, anyway, the pair couldn’t even legally consider in 1996.

Why it’s still remarkable

What’s impressive is how relatively progressive The Birdcage still feels, within the context of mainstream cinema, in its treatment of queerness. Of the other Hollywood attempts at a ‘gay comedy’ in the 1990s, and since, from The Object of My Affection (1998) to Love, Simon (2018), few have reached the bar that Nichols set. The following year, for example, saw the release of Frank Oz’s straight-laced gay comedy In & Out. Inspired by Hanks’ impassioned Academy Award best-actor speech for Philadelphia, in which he thanked his gay high-school teacher, the film focused on Howard (Kevin Kline), a closeted Midwest teacher who is outed by an Oscar-winning pupil and tries to convince the world around him, and himself, that he’s not gay. While Howard denies his queerness, the very idea of a homosexual presence in the small town throws its inhabitants into turmoil.

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