The Birdcage (1996) is a much-loved film about of a conservative political scandal that interrupts the lives of a Miami drag club owner and his campy, queeny husband. It remains the highest-grossing gay-themed film of all time. The Gay And Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) originally praised the film for: “…going beyond the stereotypes to see the character’s depth and humanity. The film celebrates differences and points out the outrageousness of hiding those differences.”
Despite its quartet of great actors in the main roles, The Birdcage is stolen out from under Robin Williams, Nathan Lane, Gene Hackman, and Dianne Wiest by co-star Hank Azaria, whose gift for voices is well-known from his prodigious talent for three decades on The Simpsons. Azaria plays Agador, the effeminate Guatemalan maid of club owner Armand Goldman (Williams) and his drag queen husband Albert (Lane). With an insanely thick accent and crazy hip-shaking mannerisms, he’s an outrageous sidekick and the most consistently funny character in a film filled with them.
Among Azaria’s most inspired moments are in a scene with Agador singing along to Gloria Estefan in super-short jean shorts, a bra, and one of Albert’s wigs, and another where the always barefoot Agador attempts to stay upright while wearing shoes, as part of an elaborate ruse to play straight for the conservative politician parents (Hackman and Wiest) of their son’s fiancée.
Mike Nichols directed this adaptation of the popular French comedy La Cage Aux Folles (1978). It has been more than 20 years since the release of The Birdcage, and Azaria has stated that he had worried he’d be offending gay people with his portrayal. When asked if Azaria felt any hesitation taking on such a flamboyantly gay role early in his career, he replied:
“Hesitant’ is too mild of a word… not only could I be offending all gay people… but is the character going to work? Is it funny?”
Azaria is most familiar as the voice of literally hundreds of characters on The Simpsons, including fan favorites like bar owner Moe, Chief Wiggum, and Professor Frink. Currently, Azaria is starring in Brockmire, playing a major-league baseball announcer whose career derails after he has an on-air meltdown. He then gets sent into exile as announcer for a small-town minor-league team, where he is at odds with the team owner, played by openly bisexual actor Amanda Peet.
Brockmire is very funny, smart and sassy. It is now running on IFC, and available On Demand and YouTube. Azaria uses his famed vocal talents as Jim Brockmire, whose career fell apart when he hijacked a national baseball telecast to describe, in graphic terms, the sex act he caught his wife performing with another man. What’s terrific about the first episode is simply hearing Azaria discuss sex, booze and drug abuse with the same cornpone voice Brockmire uses to announce his games. When a sexual partner’s thumb goes to that special place, he exclaims:
“And Jim Brockmire is into it! The old fastball makes for a real snug buttplug!”
Azaria continues to work on The Simpsons, now in its 28th season:
“I love doing those characters on The Simpsons. I do a lot of the weird, supporting, ancillary characters, then those characters will eventually come to the fore in their own episode. And that’s really fun, to sort of ride the waves of that. The show is such social commentary and satire that it always remains fairly relevant, because there’s always something to talk about. And we’re not predicting Donald Trump being president 16 years in advance.”
I caught The Birdcage recently on TCM. I was worried that we had evolved too far in to a PC world and that the film might not hold-up. But, Elaine May’s script remains amazingly sharp, full of clever one-liners and ever-more-awkward situations; Nichols directs with his usual un-showy sharpness. Ultimately, though, The Birdcage remains so funny and so relevant because of its cast, from the stuffy Hackman and Wiest, to the exasperated Williams and showy Lane, but especially because of colorful Azaria, playing a gay man whose absurd vivacity cannot be contained. I think it would be cool if a new television series was built around the character of Agador serving as the maid for a Yugoslavian-born American First Lady locked in a golden tower by her deranged husband.