Sunday, June 12, 2016

Classics: A Review of The Birdcage By Lauren Ennis

This week, I was planning on writing a Father’s Day themed review highlighting inspiring father figures in cinema. In light of the terrorist attack on Pulse nightclub in Orlando, FL, however, I have decided to alter this review to show support for the LGBT community, while still paying tribute to a pair of dads we could all learn something from. This week’s film, the 1996 comedy classic The Birdcage is at once a celebration of diversity, political satire, and an exploration of the modern American family.
There's no place like home

The story begins with nightclub owner Armand (Robin Williams) maneuvering yet another domestic spat with his temperamental partner, Albert (Nathan Lane) who is also the club’s star drag queen. In the midst of balancing Albert’s latest bout of hysterics and the club’s many demands, Armand is faced with a family crisis when his son from a previous relationship, Val (Dan Futterman), arrives and announces his impending marriage. Already uneasy with his son’s choice to marry before finishing college, Armand is mortified to learn that the bride-to-be’s parents are an ultra-conservative politician and his equally tradition-minded wife. While Armand initially balks when Val pleads with him to play it straight for one night to impress Val’s prospective in-law’s, he eventually relents. In preparation for the big event, Armand and Albert attempt to reinvent themselves as a traditional family with predictably hilarious results. By the film’s finish, both families learn the true meaning of family and the importance of being true to yourself.

Although marketed as a racy comedy, The Birdcage is at its heart a family film. At first, the central question seems to be can Armand and Albert trick Val’s future in-law’s into believing that they’re a traditional family, but as the plot progresses another, much more complicated, question comes to the fore; are they really so different from what is considered a traditional American family after all. Although both of Val’s parents are men it becomes clear that he has grown up with two parents who understand the meaning of parental guidance and sacrifice as they throw themselves into one uncomfortable situation after another, all to ensure his happiness. Similarly, both men also show an understanding of the fine line that a parent must walk as they advise Val that it would be more prudent to wait before getting married, but ultimately support his decision. The functionality of Val’s unconventional family is further highlighted by the dysfunction of his fiancée’s conformist parents. While Val immediately tells his parents about his fiancée and her family, even though his parents may disapprove, Barbara (Calista Flockhart) feels unable to openly communicate with her parents and concocts a series of elaborate lies for fear that they will try to interfere with her marriage. Although utilized as a springboard for much of the plot, Barbara’s lies also reveal the lack of trust and understanding in her relationship with her parents. The damaged dynamics of her family are further highlighted when Barbara’s parents (Dianne Weist and Gene Hackman) pressure her to move up the marriage as soon as possible to distract from a political scandal, after previously advising her to wait and reconsider. As a result, the film implies that Barbara’s parents are more concerned with their own public image than with their daughter’s future happiness. This juxtaposition of the two very different families in turn reveals that while they may defy popular convention, Armand and Albert understand the true meaning of family, perhaps better than their more conventional counterparts.
And which one if the fifth wheel?
Although the film follows the long tradition of Hollywood screwball comedies, its message of embracing your individuality in the face of public pressure to conform is a crucial one that continues to resonate. Throughout the film, Armand and Albert face pressure to conform to traditional gender norms, with their continued failure to do so played for slapstick laughs. It is only when the couple are open and honest with themselves and those around them, however, that they are able to set things right. In the film, the pair face adversity in the form of Val’s comically ultra-conservative in-law’s, in an apt satire on 1990’s American politics. While the film’s sharp humor may be viewed in a softer light in the wake of recent developments in gay and transgender rights, Armand and Albert’s struggle for acceptance continues to resonate in the face of an all too real foe; radical Islamic terrorism. As ISIS and other radical Islamic terrorist groups have continued to gain notoriety, the western world has witnessed the ways in which radical Islam regards homosexuals, bisexuals, and transgenders not only as second class citizens, but as living affronts to their warped belief system who must ultimately be eliminated. In the counties in which terror groups dominate, members of the LGBT community are routinely prosecuted, tortured, and executed, merely for being themselves. In articles chronicling last night’s attack the notion of clubs as a ‘safe place’ for members of the LGBT community has been continually discussed. Following the attack, however, we have all been reminded once again that the world has become an increasingly dangerous place. Still, we cannot let this attack and all of the many that have preceded it alter our allegiance to our own way of life, lest we let the terrorists succeed in making our lives ruled by fear. By the same token, however, while it is crucial that we hold fast to our beliefs and way of living, it is just as, if not even more, imperative that we acknowledge the fact that terrorism is a problem facing all people who value freedom regardless of race, religion, sex, nationality, ethnicity, gender identification, political affiliation, or sexual orientation.

The Birdcage is a film that reminds us of just how fundamental the freedom to live and love as you choose truly is. It is a film that celebrates families from all walks of life and encourages us to live life to the fullest regardless of any adversity we may face as a result. At the film’s finish there is a scene that is at once comical and heartfelt as both families come together during the club’s rendition of ‘We Are Family’. As we continue to cope with the devastating effects of this latest attack we should take an example from the film’s characters and come together as individuals, families, communities, and a society and stand against the ideology of hate, intolerance, and violence that continues to threaten all that we hold dear.
A truly happy couple

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