The Birdcage Starring Robin Williams and Nathan Lane
"The Birdcage” was released March 8, 1996. The film’s domestic box office gross was $124,060,553.
The opening shot from the move, “The Birdcage” is a classic.
Films centered in great cities make use of big opening shoots that typify that city. Las Vegas based films open with shoots of the glittering Vegas Strip; New York, the skyline; Paris, the Eiffel tower.
For those who have not watched “The Birdcage”, the film opens with a shoot of South Beach that has never been before seen. The sky is dark and camera flies in low across Atlantic Ocean, sweeping over the surf and sand to the night time neon glow of Art Deco that is South Beach.
“The Birdcage” released March 1996, a remake of the 1978 French film “La Cage aux Folles”. The film directed by Mike Nichols circles around the engagement of Val Goldman (Dan Futterman) and Barbara Keeley (Calista Flockhart) as the two decide to introduce their oh-so opposite families for the first time.
Armand Goldman (Robin Williams), Val’s father, is the owner of the Birdcage an illustrious South Beach nightclub that features a nightly drag show staring “Starina” (Nathan Lane) Armand’s partner and their housekeeper Agador (Hank Azaria).
Enter Barbara’s family the ultraconservative Senator Kevin Keeley (Gene Hackman) reeling from a moral scandal, and his wife Louise Keeley (Dianne Wiest).
The film dances around the words “quintessential” and “stereotypical”. The movie originally opened to criticism and praise, accused of pandering to stereotypes of both the gay characters and the ultraconservative characters. The film did however find praise and a movie award nomination from The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), Academy Awards and won for best cast from the Screen Actors Guild Awards.
With 12 years past, one can reflect on the film and now it is easy to understand the use of overly stereotypical characters. That is because over the top stereotypical characters are a key ingredient in such comedies, they are easy to identify so we don’t have to think about them complexly to enjoy the laughs.
From there we find ourselves at the word quintessential as “The Birdcage” was a quintessential gay film and at they same time the quintessential view many had and have of South Beach.
This hilarious film begins with that beautiful sweep over the beach and Lummus Park to world famous Ocean Drive.
The film is mostly set in the house of Armand and Albert which sits over their night club the Birdcage which is actually the Carlyle Hotel at 1250 Ocean Dr. Many films may claim to be Miami and be shot on a lot elsewhere, this film is the real deal with many outside shots filmed here.
The beginning of the film introduces us to Armand, Albert, the cage, their over the top help Agador. The first scenes set the tone that include Albert’s first of many comical tantrums. Miami references are tucked in the scene where Armand finds Agador dancing in a red wig listening to Miami local Gloria Estefan. Agador describes himself as a “combination of Lucy and Ricky” a reference to the show “I Love Lucy”, which starred and was produced by Cuba/Miami native Desi Arnaz who was known for throwing parties on Espanola Way in the heart of South Beach.
In the build of describing Val’s family to her own conservative family Barbra takes a few liberties in describing them as stable, cultured family with Armand being the cultural attaché to Greece. Discussing where they live, “They’re at their vacation house in south beach”.
The mom asks, “Is that like Palm Beach?”
“It’s close. It’s about 2 minutes from Fisher Island where Jeb Bush [the former Republican Governor of Florida] lives.”
The next morning we see Albert, in his vibrant Elton Johnesque way strolling along a beautiful market that appears to be Lincoln Road. The closest thing that resembles a market there now is the Sunday farmers market. Back at home Val asks his father to do the unthinkable, that is for the father and mother figure Albert to pretend to not be gay.
Robin Williams and Nathan Lane lounging at the beach.
Pan to one great shot of the actual beach, Armand and Albert are sitting beneath the shaded umbrellas and surrounded by half naked bodies that are the typical scene of the beach. As Armand tries to send Albert on vacation, for duration of the Keeley’s visit, they sit in front of one of the iconic life guard stands of Bill Lane’s classic design. This is actually one of the last of these old iconic guards of the beach, the rest have been replaced by box look-a-likes just painted differently. This pink old guard now sits at 10th just out from the Deco Museum and Ocean Rescue building.
After the shock of returning home to see their home being homogenized into average conservative America, thus removing all of the phallic like art work and such, the two return to stroll on Ocean Dr.
The Ocean Drive of 1996 is plastered in half naked humans in thongs that burn the eyes with their day-glo neon colors. The day-glo thong image is repeated several times throughout the film. Fast-forward to today and the thongs are not so prevalent if not almost nonexistent. Today’s crowd is a mix of upscale smartly dressed, tee shirted tourists and locals on their way to or coming from the beach or working out. Few dine in the bikini or thong on the drive anymore, yes as Vegas lost its formality to kitschy tourists so did South Beach loss its over abundance of day-glo and thongs.
As Albert begins to faint from his latest hysteria, the two men turn into a restaurant that is the Leslie Hotel. The hotel also looks different now, the front is boarded up as it to changes with the times. In the back, on a film lot somewhere, is one of the great comedy scenes of the movie where while learning to be more macho straight.
The last distinctly Miami scene portrays Albert and Armand at a bus stop with the Biscayne Bay and the Miami skyline behind them. The bench and stand are in gorgeous Art Deco design with a large ship sailing through the background.
Hot visions of South Beach and tantrums of Albert tell the southern end of the tale. Amidst the blustery chill of winter is the setting where were we establish the hot water of the scandal of the Ohio based conservative Senator Keeley. The Keeleys make a long drive to South Beach where they are tailed by reporters. One of the reporters asks, “I wonder what’s in South Beach?” Next shot Albert and Armand in Lummus Park still working on being macho, in self-reflection of his inability to be Macho, “screaming queens?” he questions.
Rollerblading flesh, covered minimally by thongs, glide past as the Keeleys arrive on Ocean Drive in front of the Birdcage. Two worlds collide in a hilarious and uncomfortable dinner where Val and his father attempt to hide who they really are to the point of using a different last name to sound not Jewish. The uncomfortable interaction and hilarious humor explodes as does their oddly concocted scheme.
In search of the Birdcage Hotel
With 12 years passing since the film was made quite a lot has changed. In search for more information about the area, I found myself in the Palace Bar (1200 Ocean Drive) that sits on the same block as the Carlyle. The Palace Bar has been a fixture here for over 20 years and is often thought of by people as the Birdcage. I spoke with Alexis du Bois, the manager of the Bar, and with a few other long time South Beach residents. They all told me Palace Bar has sat as a keystone for the gay community of South Beach. Its strong presence is what helped move the gay beach area that proudly flies the rainbow flag from 23rd St. down to the present location just off 13th St.
The Bar also hosts drag shows every Friday at 9pm, Saturday around 5pm and sometimes midweek during holidays. So, if you’re looking for drag queens or a possible drag show then this is the authentic ticket on Ocean Drive.
One of the reasons some believe this became a comfortable and open gay community was the acceptance by the older Jewish community that was here. The unscientific thought is that people whom have faced prejudice themselves are less likely to be bigoted. The area was then more “loud and proud” so to say. Not that the area has any less of gay population nor is there pressure on the gay community, Miami Beach is one of those progressive havens where people have integrated.
The word is not tolerance, but acceptance and appreciation of each other’s differences that gives the area its flavor. In recent voting issues on supporting gay civil rights the city commission has voted 7-0, unanimously in favor of each issue that has come up for vote.
The final nail in the coffin may be the steep rents for business as well. As more business come and go in the cutthroat economy several gay bars have gone. Many of them have resettled in Fort Lauderdale, more people from the gay scene are too for the more affordable cost of living.
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