Smart, Clean, Totally Decent Human Being… Gay! (When We Were Young, Episode 26)

“Now, repeat after me: ‘Yo!'”

“Yo!”

“Hot damn!”

“Hot damn!”

“What a fabulous window treatment!”

“What a fabulou—”

“That was a trick!”

Come one, come all, and come out already for When We Were Young’s most same-sex-loving episode yet! In honor of Coming Out Day on October 11, Episode 26 takes a furtive glance back at the gay 90s, which marked a sea change in pop culture’s depictions of people who are — yep! — gay.

First, our hosts coop up in The Birdcage, Mike Nichols’ 1996 comedy that pushes Robin Williams and Nathan Lane back in the closet to appease Ally McBeal’s right-wing parents. Next, we touch on Ellen DeGeneres’ game-changing “Puppy Episode,” the coming out party heard ’round the world. And finally, we celebrate the 20th out-iversary of In & Out, starring Kevin Kline as a small-town teacher outed at the Oscars, and Joan Cusack as his increasingly desperate bride-to-be.

Plenty of social progress has been made in the days since Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and DOMA, so how do these mid-90s gay characters hold up in 2017? Practice your John Wayne walk, book some therapy with Oprah, and stop dancing to “I Will Survive,” because our hosts’ opinions of these films are definitely not homogeneous.

THE BIRDCAGE
March 8, 1996

Budget: $31 million
Opening Weekend: $18.3 million
Domestic Total Gross: $124.1 million
Worldwide Total Gross: $185.3 million
Metacritic Score: 72

Prior to The Birdcage, the biggest gay-centric films of the 90s included 1993’s Philadelphia, 1994’s The Adventures Of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert, and 1995’s Too Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar. Angels In America debuted in the early 90s, too.

That was essentially what gay life was to most moviegoers — either a fabulous, feminine party, filled with bright colors and outrageous costumes and plenty of cross-dressing, or bleak and tragic, haunted by the spectre of certain death.

Obviously, AIDS was on a lot of people’s minds at this time, a fresh wound and a looming threat. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the Defense Of Marriage Act were the government’s response to gay efforts for equal rights. Gay people were to be pitied or ridiculed — maybe not cruelly, but the joke always seemed to be at how silly it was to see men dressed as women. This was just about the only way audiences could see gay people in mainstream entertainment — dressed as women, or dying. There wasn’t much nuance.

The Birdcage was a massive hit and signaled that there was an appetite for stories that fell somewhere in between — even if it still has one foot in the drag queen’s closet. Director Mike Nichols does make room for tender scenes between Robin Williams and Nathan Lane, as well as plenty of lively banter. The dialogue is sharp and the performances are incredibly fun, and it all works pretty well if you don’t think too hard about it.This time around, though, The Birdcage rubbed me the wrong way in a few critical areas. My main concern is that the plot doesn’t make a bit of sense. Gene Hackman’s conservative senator gets caught up in a scandal involving an underage black prostitute, but it’s not his scandal. It’s his newly deceased colleague’s. It’s easy enough to imagine how that might put Senator Keeley in some hot water; it’s a bit of a stretch to imagine that the media would be sated by Keeley’s 19-year-old daughter getting married, no matter who it’s with. It’s just plain ridiculous that the media follows Keeley to Miami… for what reason, exactly? As far as they know, there isn’t even a story. (They also zoom in on a videotape to hear it better. Um, that’s not how anything works.)

The media subplot is dumb. Fine. Whatever. That would be fine as long as the principle characters’ actions made some sense… but do they? Val and Barbara lie to the Keeleys, both about Val’s Jewishness and his parents’ queerness. They even lie about his last name. Is Barbara keeping her maiden name? Are we supposed to believe that the Keeleys will never stumble upon this information? None of these questions are even asked.

Val wants Armand to pretend to be straight, and Albert to disappear while they meet the parents. That’s great… but there is going to be a wedding, right? Armand and Albert are entrenched in Miami’s decadent gay drag scene, so none of their friends will be at the wedding. Armand might pull off his straight man act, and fool the Keeleys into thinking he’s still with Katherine. And then what? They’re just never going to get together again, for the rest of their lives? What if they have kids?

Val and Barbara’s foresight is lacking, and their plan is stupid. They’re not the main characters, though. It would be nice if Armand was smart enough to bring up some of these points, and maybe find clever solutions to them. Instead, the screenplay just sweeps them under the rug. Even that might be forgivable if what actually happened followed any sense of logic. But what the hell is Albert doing in this movie? He’s hurt that Armand and Val are ashamed of him… so he dresses as a woman and poses as Val’s biological mother. What is he trying to accomplish? It’s unclear how Albert thinks this will solve any of these problems. Clearly, it’s just adding to the mess.

If you can buy that Albert would be so selfish and reckless to potentially ruin Val’s engagement with his theatrics, then the point where Armand calls the ruse off comes out of nowhere, and we see very little of the Keeleys’ reaction. Instead, the bad media plot resurfaces, forcing the Keeleys to dress in drag and sneak their way out of the club. Why? Because if the media sees them associating with gay people, it will make them look bad. Next scene? A huge wedding, with lots of flamboyant gay attendees. The secret’s out. Yes, the secret that the entire plot of the movie bent over backward to contain is apparently just… not important anymore? What the fuck, Mike Nichols?

The Birdcage lacks a resolution of any of the conflicts it has addressed. We have no reason to believe that Keeley would suddenly accept Armand and Albert’s “lifestyle,” let alone embrace it. We’ve been told that Keeley being seen with Albert and Armand will ruin his political career… so, uhh, does it? The Birdcage has asked me to follow a handful of characters who do everything in their power not to let Keeley be associated with the outrageous gays from Miami, and then in its final scene, asks me to just… not care anymore, I guess? From a story perspective, that’s pretty wretched screenwriting.

I don’t begrudge anyone who enjoys The Birdcage. I enjoy it too, to an extent. The actors have incredible comic timing, and they’re given fun, snappy dialogue. But the only characters who make any sense are the Keeleys, and even that’s a stretch. Armand should think ahead about his son’s lame plan and come up with something better. Albert should have a reason why he thinks dressing in drag for the Keeleys is the best solution to Val’s problem. Val and Barbara should probably just not get married. No one here is acting with any remotely plausible intentions.

Comedy has to be grounded in some reality to be really funny. Nonsense wackiness doesn’t cut it. To an extent, this is a matter of taste — but The Birdcage wouldn’t have had to do that much work to come up with a coherent twist on this story. It’s just too lazy.

The Birdcage is practically a shot-for-shot remake of La Cage Aux Folles, a French farce from 1979, complete with the same plot beats and punchlines and everything. The Birdcage made zero attempt to update its views of gay life for 1996, and I find that sad. Albert behaves like a child throughout the entire film, throwing tantrums and overreacting. This might be interesting, if the film had something to say about why some gay men infantilize themselves this way, why they disappear into a diva persona as an escape from reality. (To be clear, I’m not suggesting that cross-dressing or doing drag is inherently infantilizing. But that seems to be the case with Albert.) And it all ends with the concerns of these gay characters unresolved, but all’s well that ends with a heterosexual union.

I can’t connect to The Birdcage, as no one in it acts like a sensible human being whose actions are actually going to take them where they want to go. (That’s probably its French roots, in large part.) It feels a bit too much like a minstrel show — straight (or, in 1996, presumably straight) men dressed up in “silly” costumes, acting ridiculous for a mostly straight audience. The Birdcage could be a lot worse, in this way — its depiction of gay men doesn’t bother me, I just wish there were a little more to it. I knew I was in trouble when the film began on the most obvious choice for an opening musical number — “We Are Family.”

The Birdcage is the reason a movie like My Best Friend’s Wedding was retroactively important to me. Rupert Everett’s George was a joyful scene-stealer, like Nathan Lane’s Albert — but no one needed to teach him how to walk, or dress, or put butter on toast. He’s a grownup.

There’s nothing wrong with gay men (or straight men, for that matter) dressing as women, but by 1996, I was pretty sick of that… without even knowing it. Get AIDS or dress as a woman… these were essentially the two options mainstream pop culture was offering gay people. George in My Best Friend’s Wedding was a supporting character, but he was something different, someone who said that gay men can be suave, confident, hilarious, the life of the party… even when dressed as men! The movie was a hit, and George was what everyone was talking about, even though he’s not one of the three primary characters.

A few months earlier, Ellen DeGeneres did this in an event more visible way — her “Yep, I’m Gay!” Time magazine cover wasn’t exactly subtle. But most gay people don’t actually want their coming out to be headline-worthy. It was everybody else who thought it was their business… and in 2017, still does, too often.

Of being gay, Ellen said in her infamous interview: “I ignored it because I didn’t really know what it was until I was 18 years old. I dated guys. I liked guys. But I knew that I liked girls too. I just didn’t know what to do with that. I thought, “If I were a guy I’d go out with her.” And then I thought, ‘Well, I don’t want to be a guy, really.’ So I went, ‘Oh, well,’ and just went on with my life.”

I’m pretty sure I didn’t read that at the time, but if I had, it might have sounded familiar. I didn’t want to dress like a woman, and I didn’t want AIDS, and I liked girls well enough, and that was enough evidence for me to believe that I was straight. Pop culture didn’t give me anything to aspire to — at least, not anywhere I looked. That started to shift in 1997, first with Ellen’s “The Puppy Episode,” which aired on April 30. I was still several years away from realizing it had anything to do with me, but I appreciated it as a momentous media event, and it’s a great episode. The public and the media was clamoring for that “one moment” when Ellen finally tells us she’s gay, as if we have a right to that information. There is such a moment — accidentally blurted into an intercom at the airport. (That’s exactly how coming out feels, by the way. Like you have literally announced something private and uncomfortable to the whole world… which DeGeneres really did.)

But “The Puppy Episode” is also peppered with slow and steady revelations. Ellen first realizes she’s gay when she most staunchly denies it, upon her attraction to Laura Dern’s wonderful Susan. Here, she won’t even come out to herself. Then she allows herself that realization, and tells one trusted confidante — who just happens to be Oprah. (Life would be a lot easier if every gay man and woman could test it out with Oprah first.) Then Ellen tells Susan, and her friends, and her parents, and her boss… it’s a long process that takes us to the end of the season.

IN & OUT
September 19, 1997

Budget: $35 million
Opening Weekend: $15 million
Domestic Total Gross: $63.9 million
Worldwide Total Gross: $63.9. million
Metacritic Score: 70

Like both The Birdcage and Ellen‘s “Puppy Episode,” I saw Frank Oz’s In & Out just once, in the comfort of my own home, and I don’t remember finding it applicable to my own life in any way. (If anything, the scenes about the Academy Awards resonated most.) What I appreciate about the film now is that it also deals with coming out in steps, a series of revelations. It should go without saying, not all gay people have the same coming out experience. Some know that they’re gay early on, almost before they know everything else. For them, coming out is more about “when” and “how,” and less about “if.” (Albert was almost certainly one such case.) Then, there are characters like Ellen Morgan and Howard Brackett, involved in heterosexual romances that are adequate enough. It hasn’t really hit them yet. And then… bam. Everything changes.

That’s a lot more similar to my personal experience, and maybe why I find “The Puppy Episode” and In & Out so satisfying now. The very notion of “coming out” was new to most audiences in 1997, and it was new to these characters. We got to go on that journey with them. Now, these long, deliberate coming out stories are mostly besides the point — we’ve seen so many, let’s see something else. Still, it was refreshing to rewatch two stories that dwelled on a difficult, confusing, and often very painful process, without skipping through it. Coming out in 2017 is easier than it was in 1997, for some, but not for everyone. It still takes the kind of courage Ellen DeGeneres displayed in 1997, to risk flipping your whole world upside down. It’s a bigger shakeup for some than others.

Aside from its witty dialogue and great comedic performances, I was happy to leave characters like Nathan Lane’s Albert in the dust for a while, and examine characters who didn’t have to become brassy women just to be palatable to the mainstream. But my cohosts found plenty to love in Albert, and that’s the point. We now have enough gay characters that most people can find the one that speaks to them. It might be a drag queen, but it might not be. We have that choice.

Oh, and another thing about In & Out — it’s fucking funny. Paul Rudnick’s script is full of great gay one-liners, but the story examines the perspectives of many characters. Howard’s parents are thrown for a loop, but soon his mother (the divine Debbie Reynolds) uses his big revelation as a springboard for her own confessions, and her old lady gal pals follow suit. Howard’s students have to take a decisive stand on how they feel about an issue most of them had never confronted before. Howard’s straight buddies at his bachelor party show that they accept him by breaking out some Barba Streisand movies — womp womp! That’s an easy joke, except In & Out twists it by having these dudes legitimately argue about which films holds up best. (Sound familiar?) Turns out, they love Babs as much as the gay guy. And of course, there’s Joan Cusack’s Oscar-nominated turn as his would-be wife, who also has to confront some sad truths about herself. She “comes out” as desperate, forced to admit that she’s settling for Howard because she never believed anyone could really love her. What’s nifty about In & Out is that Howard’s coming out is just the catalyst for everyone in this town to come out of their shell, one way or another.

In & Out has more going for it than its satiric look at coming out in a small town. It also lampoons Hollywood, and it’s dead on in that respect. (I will happily watch the entire four hour fictional telecast, if it it’s available.) As with The Birdcage, In & Out plays it pretty safe in terms of what is shown, and how much gay sexuality is expressed (almost zero). But we’ve had two decades to make for that. Almost exactly twenty years after Ellen came out, an intimate and briefly erotic film about a closeted gay man won Best Picture. (And thank God it was better than the fake gay movie that wins an Oscar in In & Out.)

It’s hard to know what kind of influence these coming out stories (or, in The Birdcage’s case, “going back in” story) had on what came after. It’s hard to deny that Ellen’s outing was probably the most significant pop culture event in terms of making gays mainstream. In 1998, Will & Grace premiered and dealt much more explicitly (though still quite cartoonishly) with gay life. And then we were just kind of on a roll.

That isn’t to say we don’t have a ways to go. We’re just now getting around to female and black superheroes, after all — it’ll be a spell before Disney grows enough balls for, say, The Beast And The Other Beast. If ever. But change has come pretty quickly, overall, and it’s been fascinating to witness it. We have it pretty good these days, even if we still have to promise that “it gets better.” Thank you to all those who fought to get their stories told when it wasn’t so easy.

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