I re-watched The Birdcage the other night. I do love that movie, but it has aged very badly. On the other hand, it’s kind of nice how badly it has aged.
I wrote a few years ago about Victor/Victoria (among other things) and it’s kind of interesting to place those two films on a timeline—they are both intended to be gay-positive, they both celebrate drag and playing with gender presentation, neither seem to have any clear concept of gender identity as a thing, and they are both quite painful to watch from this point, but they are still inhabiting very different film contexts.
But the main thing is that in The Birdcage, made and set in 1996, the closet is still the norm. And that’s hugely important—the plot revolves around the son acting like an asshole, but the son’s assholishness is intended to be recognizable and understandable. When the son insists on his father pretending to be straight for an evening, it makes some sort of assholish sense, and the kid is still redeemable after he recognizes what an asshole he has been being. The plot was originally written in the early 1970s, and twenty-odd years later, it still worked, because we still expected gay people to pretend to be straight. In 2019… well, I just saw a bunch of articles about how The Birdcage was still hilarious and moving after 20 years, so maybe? But mostly: that boy is an asshole.
Perhaps a Digression: I think that there is a specific reference to Armand being 50; his son Val is 20. So Armand’s fling with Val’s mother was in 1975 or 76, when Armand was 30 and dancing in a touring company of alternate-universe A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (trivia I didn’t know—the song they sing in her office was one of the ones cut from that show before it opened) at the time. If he was a musical-theater dancer in his twenties, in the late sixties and early seventies, he is essentially one of the guys from A Chorus Line, right? I think it helps to think of him as having had the closet experience, having been a touring dancer when gay dancers were sort-of-out-but-sort-of-not, and then settling in Florida and buying the drag club when the boy comes along. That the little queer-friendly world he inhabits is still young, is at least partly of his own creation, and is far from secure.
Thinking about it now, it’s much much worse. Someone who is Val’s age now—someone born in 1999 or so, let’s say—who asks his openly-gay father to pretend to be straight for a night… well, I don’t think that’s as forgivable. [Also, he doesn’t sing “Anne on my Arm”, which makes the character less forgivable in the first place.] Not that someone who is fifty right now would not have known the closeted world—for crying out loud Nathan Lane wasn’t out when The Birdcage was released!—but the twenty-year-old would not, really, and would not think of the pretense, for one night even, as a small thing. Or if he did… then he’s not just panicking in arrogant self-centered youthful selfishness, he’s a total asshole.
Another Digression: the thing that wore even more badly in the movie was Hank Azaria’s portrayal of the Guatemalan houseboy. It’s a wonderful performance, but so incredibly and unashamedly racist that I can’t enjoy it. I was reminded of Peter Sellers in his early career, playing comic Europeans, comic Americans, comic Asians, making use of a remarkable facility for comically exaggerated accents. Hank Azaria does that! And… it’s less funny than it used to be. Or, more accurately, less funny to me than it used to be. I imagine the people who were being made fun of with their comical ethnic stereotypes never actually found that stuff all that funny. Maybe it’s even less funny for them now. Anyway, it’s harder to explain that bit away with context—look, I suspect that when they made the movie, various people talked to drag queens who were probably for the most part enthusiastic about the movie, but somehow I don’t think they talked to any Latinos at all about whether it was a problem to hire a white comedian to play a Guatemalan houseboy. End Digression.
The thing is—it’s terrific that the movie aged so badly over twenty years. So much about LGBT+ life in this country has changed, and so much about the place of LGBT+ people in the country’s culture has changed. There’s also a terrible anti-LGBT+ movement in this country, of course, which is powerful and perhaps growing, and there’s no great reason to hope that the positive changes will be secure over the next few years or decades. Unless you’re an optimist, of course. Still, having a movie not be funny any more because the main plot point relies on the assumption that LGBT+ people mostly pretend not to be who they are… well, that’s pretty good, I think.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,