14 Facts About The Birdcage

Robin Williams and Nathan Lane in The Birdcage (1996).
Robin Williams and Nathan Lane in The Birdcage (1996). / Warner Bros. Home Entertainment

A remake of La Cage aux Folles (1978), The Birdcage starred Robin Williams as a gay cabaret owner, and Nathan Lane as his drag queen partner. The two pretend to be something they are not when Williams's son (Dan Futterman), his fiancée (Calista Flockhart), and her parents (Dianne Wiest and Gene Hackman) come to visit. Here are some behind-the-scenes facts about the classic comedy on the 25th anniversary of its release.

1. The Birdcage was Elaine May and Mike Nichols's first—and long-awaited—movie collaboration.

Mike Nichols and Elaine May were an influential improv comedy duo in the 1950s and 1960s who both achieved fame individually in feature films. Nichols (director of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate) saw La Cage aux Folles and believed it could be remade as an American movie, and May (screenwriter of Heaven Can Wait and Ishtar) wrote the adaptation. "We've never done a movie from first to last together," Nichols said in the official production notes. "This is a project we've wanted to do for 15 years because we knew from the first that it was a timeless comedy with a terrific plot and a wonderful ending." Two years later they would collaborate again when May adapted Primary Colors (1998) for the screen, with Nichols directing.

2. Steve Martin was originally set to star in The Birdcage as Armand.

Steve Martin was set to play Armand, with Robin Williams playing his partner Albert, but there were scheduling conflicts on Martin's end. Williams said he didn't want to play Albert anyway, believing he had already dressed in drag enough with Mrs. Doubtfire (1993).

3. Mike Nichols cast Broadway actors in The Birdcage.

Nichols offered Nathan Lane the part of Albert while he was starring in Neil Simon's Laughter on the 23rd Floor on Broadway. Lane said it was a "dream come true." Nichols also cast a pre-Ally McBeal Calista Flockhart, despite her having minimal Hollywood experience, after seeing her in an Off-Broadway production of The Loop.

4. Hank Azaria was cast in The Birdcage because of his work on Quiz Show.

Hank Azaria, Dan Futterman, and Robin Williams in The Birdcage (1996).
Hank Azaria, Dan Futterman, and Robin Williams in The Birdcage (1996). / Warner Bros. Home Entertainment

Nichols liked what he saw in Hank Azaria, who played a TV producer in Quiz Show (1994). Azaria's role was expanded from initially playing Albert's dresser to Agador Spartacus, the couple's Guatemalan maid.

5. Hank Azaria was shooting Heat at the same time he was shooting The Birdcage.

On his 30th birthday, Azaria worked on Michael Mann's Heat (1995) until 6 a.m., then headed to The Birdcage set. When Nichols found out it was his birthday, and that he had been working for 18 hours straight, he sent Azaria home.

6. David Alan Grier was originally set to play the butler.

Azaria told The A.V. Club that expanding his role in The Birdcage was Robin Williams's idea. "That first scene where I’m dressing Nathan Lane, getting him all dressed up? The maid/houseman was supposed to be a whole other character, who was supposed to be a black character like it is in the French version, and … I think he was going to be played by David Alan Grier. And they thought David was brilliant, but they thought that in an American context, the idea of a black houseman would be somewhat distasteful and have racist overtones. So since it’s set in Miami, they decided to make it a Latin character. And I was already playing the other character. So I think it was Robin Williams’s idea: 'Why not just combine the two roles and just let Azaria do it?'"

7. Mike Nichols tried to keep Robin Williams and Nathan Lane's improvisations to a minimum.

Nathan Lane and Robin Williams in The Birdcage (1996).
Nathan Lane and Robin Williams in The Birdcage (1996). / Warner Bros. Home Entertainment

"We had a rule on the picture," Nichols said. "The actors would do the written script until I was satisfied and then we would do one take in which they could improvise. Given this cast, there were obviously some improvs that were insanely funny, but didn't fit the story. But there are moments all through the picture that are improvised and were perfect."

8. Agador was partly based on Judy Garland's dresser.

When Azaria couldn't figure out how to play a scene where Agador had to calm an anxious Albert down before a show, Nichols gave him some background to help. "Your character is partially based on Judy Garland’s dresser," Nichols said. "Judy would panic before every performance and her dresser would panic with her and he would panic more than her so that she’d have to be the one to tell him to calm down, and that was the ritual they had."

9. A few weeks into filming The Birdcage, Hank Azaria realized he was imitating his grandmother.

"I realized after about two to three weeks of working on it that it really kind of sounded exactly like my grandmother," Azaria told NPR. "Realizing it sounded like her also gave me a good piece of the character, because she was so maternal and mothering and loving, if I sort of had her mentality it was easy to be kind of feminine."

10. Robin Williams's slip on the kitchen floor while panicking over the shrimp wasn't intentional.

Williams's tumble was not on purpose. "And if you watch that little piece of film again, you’ll see me laughing and Robin laughing," Azaria said.

11. Mike Nichols had to move his chair into another room because he was laughing so hard.

The director would laugh so much that he had to move his chair into another room. Williams once said Nichols would laugh so hard "they would have to put a blanket over his head."

12. The Birdcage features original music by Stephen Sondheim.

Stephen Sondheim said it was fun to write "It Takes All Kinds." The song was meant to play over the opening titles, but when Nichols heard "We Are Family" by Sister Sledge, he changed his mind.

13. The Birdcage's success was a personal victory for Mike Nichols.

Director Mike Nichols and wife Diane Sawyer attend the New York City premiere of The Birdcage in 1996.
Director Mike Nichols and wife Diane Sawyer attend the New York City premiere of The Birdcage in 1996. / Evan Agostini/Liaison/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

After he showed the final cut of The Birdcage to his editing team in Martha's Vineyard, they all had a celebratory meal. “I was very emotional and very angry: I couldn’t speak all through lunch,” Nichols said of that day. “The film was so good, so strong. I realized I’d had no inkling of my anger at the people who had written me off. My reaction, instantaneously, was ‘F**k you, bastards. You thought I couldn’t do this anymore. Well, look at this.’ The Birdcage would go on to make over $185 million worldwide.

14. Paul Thomas Anderson loves The Birdcage.

Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia) wrote in 2009 that there are two films "that without fail or question will make me stop dead in my tracks and watch all the way to the very end, no matter what else is happening or needs to get done." One was The Shining (1980). The other was The Birdcage.

This story has been updated for 2021.