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John DoughertyJune 07, 2024
Robin Williams and Nathan Lane in The Birdcage (1996). Photo via IMDb.

Americans love to talk about “family values.” It’s what we want our politicians to promote, what (we say, anyway) we want to see encouraged in our media. That goes double for Catholics. The model we look to, in American and Catholic life, is usually the traditional, heterosexual nuclear family: father and mother, two to three kids, everyone loving and respectful and fulfilling different but complementary roles.

But reality tells us that families take many different shapes, and it complicates the idea that only one “ideal” type of family can embody family values. I know single-parent homes that are loving and stable; I also know nuclear families that are deeply dysfunctional. That’s especially worth considering during Pride Month, which often celebrates “non-traditional” family models. What makes a family a family: that they look like the model, or the way that they love each other?

That’s the question at the heart of this week’s Catholic Movie Club selection: “The Birdcage” (1996), directed by Mike Nichols with a screenplay by Elaine May, based on the 1938 farcical play “La Cage aux Folles” by Jean Poiret. Armand (Robin Williams) is the owner of the Birdcage, a popular drag nightclub in South Beach. His partner, Albert (Nathan Lane), is also the club’s star performer and a wildly dramatic diva. One night, Armand’s son, Val (Dan Futterman), returns home from college with the shocking announcement that he’s engaged. Armand is concerned that he’s too young, but Armand soon learns that there are bigger problems: Val’s fiancée, Barbara (Calista Flockhart), is the daughter of Senator Kevin Keeley (Gene Hackman), an arch-conservative and opponent of gay rights. With the Keeleys set to visit in a few days, Val begs his father to literally play it straight in order to impress his future in-laws and secure their blessing for the marriage. Though reluctant to hide who he is, Armand agrees out of love for his son.

“The Birdcage” plays with the contrast between image and reality within a family. The Keeleys, by all appearances, are the model of classic American family values: the patriotic and successful father, the bright and modest daughter, the mannered homemaker mother (Dianne Wiest). But in private, it’s more complicated: Senator Keeley’s political mentor and fellow moral crusader has just died in a scandalous way, and the trip to visit Val’s parents exposes other cracks in their perfect facade. You get the sense that they fit the mold so perfectly, they never had to consider whether their family values were only skin deep.

On the other hand, Armand and Albert’s family flies in the face of everything traditional: They’re both gay men, they’re not married, they live above a nightclub and have a flamboyant live-in housekeeper (Hank Azaria). But their relationship is loving and supportive (despite Albert’s propensity for drama); in a particularly sweet moment, Armand says that he would rather be buried in a low-rent cemetery with Albert than be separated from him in an upscale one. They’re also caring, self-sacrificing parents to Val, with Albert fulfilling the maternal role better than Val’s biological mother, Katherine (Christine Baranski), who isn’t involved in his life at all. They may not look like a traditional family, but they certainly love each other like one.

As Catholics, we have a beautiful model for family life, handed down through tradition and teaching. But just as we often fall short of other models of holiness, very few real families can match up to the ideal. That doesn’t mean that those families can’t be sources of great love and grace. “The Birdcage” challenges us to look past outward appearances to what’s going on beneath the surface. That’s where our true values are revealed.

“The Birdcage” is streaming on Amazon Prime, Peacock, Hoopla, and for free with ads on Tubi.

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