We continue our tribute to actor Robin Williams with this review
published in VP in 1996.
Rated R Running time: 1 hour 52 min.
Our content ratings (0-10): Violence 1; Language 4; Sex 5/Nudity 1.
Our star rating (o-5): 4
Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
Director Mike Nichols and scriptwriter Elaine May update the popular 1979 French farce ”La Cage aux Foiles” and, for some viewers, manage to challenge or enlarge our conception of family. Armand (Robin Williams) and Albert (Nathan Lane) are not the kind of parents leaders of the Christian Right envision. They are gay, and yet they have lived together faithfully for twenty years and lovingly nurtured Armand’s son Val. Their work is as unorthodox as their sexual preference, Armand managing and directing the acts of their gay review club “The Birdcage,” and Albert appearing in drag as the star attraction.
All this changes the night that Val comes home to tell his father that he is in love and wants to marry. There is a slight problem–the girl is the daughter of a U.S. Senator, a conservative one at that, to the right of Pat Buchanan. And Val wants to bring his love and her parents over for dinner, so would Dad mind re-arranging the apartment a little – such as putting away all the erotic art and trading furniture and Albert – and pretend to be a heterosexual.
The farcical elements of the original were a bit easier to take, and yet at times the pain of being gay in a culture dominated by homophobia is well depicted in this updated version. Albert at first is delighted that “their” son is bringing his fiancée and her family to dinner – and when Armand tries to be gentle in telling him that Val does not want him present, you can see the pain spreading across his features as he cries out, “Albert, the Monster, the Freak!” Armand, too, has felt the pain of his insensitive son, responding to his request that he pretend to be a straight father during the Senator’s visit, ‘Do you want me to be someone else? At least I know who I am, Val. It took me twenty years to get here!” And yet, out of his great love for Val, Armand agrees to the pretense, even suggesting that they contact the mother who has not seen Val for twenty years and have her rejoin them for the night. Even Albert, once he licks his wounds, wants to help (and to be in on an important moment in his son’s life), suggesting that he pretend to be an uncle.
Both this and the original film are dangerously close to making us laugh at, rather than with Albert. Hollywood has replaced blacks with gays as a favorite target of ridicule, as witness the stereotypical
wedding consultant in Father of the Bride – indeed, it could be stated that much of our misinformation is due to the terrible ways in which gays have been portrayed in most films. Robin Williams’ unusual restraint in his portrayal of Armand helps us see the humanity in his character and counterbalances those moments when Nathan Lane overplays a bit his feminine-oriented Albert. Despite the farce of the dinner party, we see that this is a family that really cares about each other, headed by a couple who will go to great lengths to help their hurtful son. I really believe that the itinerant Rabbi from Galilee would feel far more at home with them than in the home of the so-called “Christian” Senator.