Robin Williams and Nathan Lane

The Birdcage: Yes, We Can Learn from Our Films

Many have mourned the loss of Robin Williams and his comic genius.[1] In revisiting The Birdcage (and his other films), we can consider aspects of his work that may have changed us all without realizing it.

What makes the film interesting is that (Robin Williams) must play against type, toning down his manic persona in the face of Lane’s hilarious over-the-top turn.
—Chuck Koplinski, The News-Gazette

You do an eclectic celebration of the dance! You do Fosse, Fosse, Fosse! You do Martha Graham, Martha Graham, Martha Graham! Or, Twyla, Twyla, Twyla! Or, Michael Kidd, Michael Kidd, Michael Kidd! Or, Madonna, Madonna, Madonna! . . . but, you keep it all inside.
—Armand, The Birdcage

Carol Burnett charicature
Carol Burnett caricature

A comedian has been described as a person who seeks to entertain audiences, primarily by making them laugh. Filmmakers employ comedy in the same way. How do they do this?

We learned from our series on comedy that they do this in a number of ways — using social satire, slapstick, etc. Might they do this also as a way to dispel prejudice against certain groups or against certain characteristics?

Alternatively, might screenwriters focus so totally on what to them seems funny that the result is irresponsibly mean?

Comedy Is Where Filmmaking Began

We have learned a little (and have seen a lot ourselves) over our lifetimes about how filmmaking has evolved since the beginning of the cinema. At the outset, comedy was central to explorations with the medium.

Think about putting comedy films in order of their release dates. What might we learn about our culture in stages of social adaptation and advancement?

Where would films about same-sex relationships come in? I think we could track and assess social attitudes about this topic using this method.

The Birdcage Is a Movie about Same-sex Relationships

The Birdcage (Nichols, 1996) is only one among many other movies that include a same-sex relationship as part of the story. The following are examples:

8: the Mormon Proposition (2010) And the Band Played on (1993) The Bird Cage (1996)
Boys Don’t Cry (1999) But I’m a Cheerleader (2000) The Celluloid Closet (1995)
The Children’s Hour  (1961) Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean (1982) Desert Hearts (1985)
Far from Heaven (2002) Go Fish (1994) How to Survive a Plague (2012)
The Imitation Game (2014) The Kids Are Alright (2010) Fire (1996)
The Laramie Project (2002) The Matthew Shepard Story (2002) Milk (2008)
Philadelphia (1993) Pride (2014) Kinky Boots (2005)
Queens (Reinas) (2005)  Maurice (1987) Times of Harvey Milk (1984)
To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Nemar (1995) Torch Song Trilogy (1988) Transamerica (2005)
Brokeback Mountain (2005) The Danish Girl (2015) Carol (2015)

Does The Birdcage show gay men in an unflattering light or not? — as “the other,” not fitting preconceived ideals or images of a “fully masculine” man?

Alternatively, are the depictions of relationships or cultural/societal settings so enjoyably funny as to diminish the focus on gay men, and thus are the characterizations harmless — or in fact, helpful? I would like to know how a gay man felt about this movie in 1996 when it was first released, or now for that matter.

Dirk Shafer, a “Closeted” Gay Man

Dirk Shafer, who died this year, posed nude as a “Playgirl” model in earlier decades and wrote about his experiences. In posing as a sex object for straight women, he had to portray himself as a straight man to keep his job (Stack, 2015).

Man of the Year (Shafer, 1995) is a fictionalized version of his life story, and explores tensions related to being a “closeted” gay man. The film was a public “coming-out” for Shafer, and, as one might imagine, his nude modeling career slowed down after the publication.

In a review in The New York Times, Holden (1996) wrote this about the film:

On a deeper level, Man of the Year treats Mr. Shafer’s modeling experience as a metaphor for the way society pressures gay people to act straight. After watching Mr. Shafer wriggle uncomfortably inside the role he has agreed to play, it comes as a relief when he finally abandons it.

We learned that during the days of the studio system, a number of film stars hid their sexual identity to keep their jobs, or simply their privacy: Rock Hudson, Montgomery Clift (Petersen, 2014) and others. Did anyone really think about this aspect of Liberace’s life when he was at the peak of his career?

The Birdcage Shows a Committed Relationship

Partners Nathan Lane and Robin Williams in The Birdcage
Partners played by Nathan Lane and Robin Williams

By watching The Birdcage, we can experience the lifestyle and social issues of gay men in a committed relationship, much as we can experience the life of a President and First Lady by watching Netflix’ House of Cards.

I thought of the term “virtual reality” to describe the immersive environment of a film that is so well-presented that one can be transported into the scene to act the role and feel the emotion personally.


[1] Robin Williams died on Aug 11, 2014 in Paradise Cay, California.



A comedian or comic is a person who seeks to entertain an audience primarily by making them laugh. This might be through jokes or amusing situations, or acting a fool, as in slapstick, or employing prop comedy. A comedian who addresses an audience directly is called a stand-up comic.

Comic climate

The comic climate, in contrast to verisimilitude, often requires of the audience to suspend their belief systems.


Drag is used for any clothing carrying symbolic significance, but usually referring to the clothing associated with one gender role when worn by a person of another gender.

Drag queen

A drag queen is a person, usually male, who dresses in drag and often acts with exaggerated femininity and in feminine gender roles. Often they will exaggerate certain characteristics such as make-up and eyelashes for comic, dramatic, or satirical effect.


Parody makes fun of or re-creates what people do. This form of comedy is a frequent ingredient in satire and is often used to make social and political points. Characters or settings belonging to one work are used in a humorous or ironic way in another.

Social satire

The use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule in a text to expose and criticize social groups, often in the context of contemporary politics, customs, and popular trends.

Virtual Reality

Virtual reality is an artificial, computer-generated environment that is aided by hardware devices such that the user suspends belief and experiences it as real.


Briggs, K. C. (2013). Trans, genderqueer, and queer terms glossary. The University of Wisconsin. Retrieved from

Ebert, R. (1996, Mar 8). The Birdcage, Movie review and film summary. Roger Ebert. Retrieved from

Koplinski, C. (2015, Mar 19). Film capsules, March 19, 2015. Champagne, Ill: The News-Gazette. Retrieved from

Nichols, M. (Director, Producer). (1996). The Birdcage [Motion picture]. USA: United Artists.

Petersen, A. H. (2014, Sep 23). Scandals of classic Hollywood: The long suicide of Montgomery Clift. Vanity Fair. Retrieved from

Scott, A. O. (2014, Aug 11). Robin Williams, an improvisational genius, forever present in the moment. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Shafer, D. (Director). (1995). Man of the year [Motion picture]. USA: 7th Art Releasing.

Stack, L. (2015, Mar 8). Dirk Shafer, Playgirl centerfold who revealed he was gay, dies at 52. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Zur, O., & Wolz, B. (2015). Therapeutic themes and relevant movies: Addendums to movie therapy, reel therapy, or cinema therapy. Retrieved from

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