Miami Memoirs: Revisiting The Birdcage

Still from The Birdcage (1996)EXPAND
Still from The Birdcage (1996)
Courtesy of MGM

“South Beach? Is that like Palm Beach?” -Dianne Wiest as Louise Keeley, in The Birdcage (1996)

If you’re from Miami, and you go to college out of state, there’s probably no question you dread more than, "Where are you from?" Florida doesn’t exactly have the best national reputation — especially among ivory-tower intellectuals — and Miami is chock-full of stereotypes each more off-putting than the last. 

Scarface, Fast and Furious, even scenes from the Godfather II, depict South Florida as a suburban morass, filled with louche men and women. Yet, the movie people most remember South Florida for is The Birdcage. This film has everything quintessentially Miami for anyone who’s never lived in Miami: drag queens, gay Guatemalan butlers, and neon thongs.

Ardent fans of the mid-90s comedy, starring Robin Williams and Nathan Lane, can recite lines from the film word-for-word like scripture. Directed by Mike Nichols, and written by Elaine May, the movie wasn't  just a collaboration between comedy team Nichols and May, but a remake of the French play La Cage aux Folles by Jean Poiret Francis Veber.

Set in an Ocean Drive drag club (let the Palace associations begin), the plot centers on Williams and Lane, lovers and club owners, with a son engaged to the daughter of an conservative Senator played by Gene Hackman. When the bride’s parents come to South Beach to meet them, hilarity ensues as Lane woos the moral majority Senator by dressing as a demure housewife.

The setting couldn't have been more perfect. In the early and mid-90s, South Beach was covered with gay clubs and gay men from all over the globe. At one point that tiny barrier island hosted over twenty different LGBT friendly establishments; that number has sadly whittled down to just three. Watching the long shots outside the club, and around the neighborhood, you can't help but feel that the city was more festive and thong-friendly than it is today. 

It’s not so much the story, but the dialogue that keeps attracting fans to the movie. In 2008, Director Paul Thomas Anderson said that The Birdcage is one of two movies he'd stop dead in his tracks and watch until the end. Here are some of the best scenes and one-liners from the movie that wraps up our town into a perfect little cliché.

You're Toast

Miami Memoirs: Revisiting The Birdcage
Courtesy of MGM

In this scene, Williams teaches Lane how to act straight, at dinner, for the in-laws. But Lane grows hysterical as he pierces the toast trying to smear instead of dabbing mustard on the slice. 

Sweetie

During rehearsals, Lane gets feisty on one of the young dancers when the dancer won’t stop chewing gum while Lane sings. The Birdcage didn't just have pop and disco hits, Stephen Sondheim did the music for the film, including several original and unreleased songs from his catalog. 

Shoes Make Me Fall Down

Agador Spartacus, the gay Guatemalan butler, is played to perfected by Hank Azaria. Not only does he dust while salsa-ing to Gloria Estefan, but he refuses to wear shoes because, “they make me fall down,” and he constantly pesters William’s character to put him in the show in a Lucy and Ricky homage.

The Birdcage might trade in stereotypes about South Beach, but in many respects, they're spot-on.  

New Times will be running "Miami Memoirs," a series about the Magic City's iconic cultural moments, over the next months. Have suggestions? Email cultist@miaminewtimes.com.


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