Remembering Robin Williams in The Birdcage

Robin Williams, one of Hollywood's most beloved comedic actors, was reported dead Monday in an apparent suicide. He was 63.

Williams was found at his home in California on Monday afternoon. Coroners said the cause of death appeared to be "suicide due to asphyxia," but an investigation is underway in order to make a final determination.

Williams rose to prominence as the title alien in the TV series Mork & Mindy, later earning Academy Award nominations for his film roles in Good Morning Vietnam and Dead Poets Society, and a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Good Will Hunting. His most lasting impression in Miami, however, was in 1996's The Birdcage.

Williams, who was known for his fast-talking, manic performances, played Armand Goldman, the calm, collected owner of a South Beach drag club and partner to drag queen Albert Goldman, played by a very dramatic Nathan Lane. The two pretend to be a straight couple to impress the conservative parents of their son's intended wife.

The story, an Americanized take on the French film La Cage au Follies, was one of few representations of gay people on the big screen back then, and Williams and Lane won over even conservative audiences with the heart and humanity in their performances. The Washington Post said it transformed "what was formerly a campy bit of French fluff into one of the loopiest, most hysterical family-values movies ever made."

Another review said, "At its core, it is about human relationships. They're extreme relationships, and they're cross-wired to get an electric reaction, but they're real characters nonetheless."

The Birdcage was also filmed in Miami, with Miami Beach's Carlyle Hotel filling in for The Birdcage Club. The Miami of the 1990s wasn't yet struggling to overcome the erroneous stereotypes assigned to it by the rest of the world; it was just happy to finally get some attention. Williams' film helped out with that, showing off the MacArthur Causeway and scenes around South Beach. It even poked fun at stereotypical South Beach characters, such as Agador, the Goldmans' gay Latino housekeeper, played by Hank Azaria, clad in crop tops and cutoff jean shorts.

In 2014, there's plenty of fault to find in The Birdcage. Its gay characters are stereotypically flamboyant, even the relatively buttoned-down Armand. (His name is Armand, for crissakes.) Its insistence that gay people are just like straight people, all the way down to the gender roles they assume in relationships, is well-intentioned but misguided. Its premise -- that a son might reasonably expect his gay parents to pass as straight so he can impress his future in-laws -- is offensive in itself.

But this is a film that portrayed a gay family two years before the murder of Matthew Shepard in 1998. The Birdcage came out nearly two decades before the likes of Cam and Mitchell on Modern Family. In convincing straight America that gay people can have family values too, The Birdcage helped normalize gay culture across the country.

As with Miami, if Hollywood couldn't represent gay men honestly, at least it was representing them positively.

Many obituaries today note Williams' other great works: his Academy Award recognitions, his philanthropy, the way he inspired the comedians who came after him. But he also deserves praise for his bravery in assuming a role like The Birdcage's Armand, and for making audiences fall in love with a character they might otherwise have avoided or flat-out feared.

His Birdcage co-star Lane summed up that sentiment last night, saying in a statement, "What I will always remember about Robin, perhaps even more than his comic genius, extraordinary talent and astounding intellect, was his huge heart -- his tremendous kindness, generosity, and compassion as an acting partner, colleague and fellow traveler in a difficult world."

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Ciara LaVelle is New Times' former arts and culture editor. She earned her BS in journalism at Boston University and moved to Florida in 2004. She joined New Times' staff in 2011.
Contact: Ciara LaVelle