Gay Gold: When the Oscars Ignored Nathan Lane in ‘The Birdcage’

At least The Birdcage had one gay man playing a gay role—the original La Cage Aux Folles film had none.

Nathan Lane in The Birdcage

Welcome to Gay Gold, our regular look at gay characters, storylines, and performers that were (or weren’t) embraced at major award ceremonies.

In some ways, La Cage aux Folles is a landmark of queer cinema. Based on the play by Jean Poiret, the 1978 film is a zany but gentle comedy about gay men, and unlike so many other movies of the time, it doesn’t treat homosexuality with disgust or pity. Instead, lead characters Renato and Albin are the heroes as they deal with Renato’s son, the son’s fianceé, and (most uproariously) the fiancee’s conservative parents. We’re on the side of the gay couple from the beginning, and we stay there.

Plus, La Cage was a blockbuster. At the time, it was the most successful foreign language film in American history (it’s performed in French and Italian), and it’s still 11th on that particular list. So this was not only a movie that liked gay people, but also a movie that everybody liked. No wonder it nabbed two big-ticket Oscar nominations: Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Director.

But at the same time, everyone in that movie was straight. Poiret. Director Édouard Molinaro. The two lead actors, who were apparently embarrassed to play gay characters. I realize you can’t have it all, and god knows it was gay men — namely Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein — who adapted La Cage into a successful Broadway musical. But still, it would’ve been nice if at least somebody in this homosexual breakthrough had actually been, you know, homosexual.

What’s even crazier (to me, at least), is that when La Cage was adapted into The Birdcage in 1996, it featured almost nothing but straight people yet again. Mike Nichols directed. Elaine May wrote the updated script. Robin Williams starred as Armand (which is what they called Renato this time).

But at least there was Nathan Lane as Albert, the new version of Albin. Lane was in the closet at the time, but only to the public. Everyone in his life knew he was gay, and while he has spoken about the awkwardness of being the only gay man on the set of a movie about gay men, at least he was there, leading the parade all by himself.

For a while, it seemed like he might get some Oscar attention for all his trouble. The Birdcage was a huge hit, and Lane’s performance made him a star. It also earned him Golden Globe and SAG nominations, which award-watchers will tell you are solid predictors of what’s going to happen with the Academy.

But when that year’s nominees were announced, The Birdcage only got recognized for its costumes. Lane, who had been campaigning as a supporting actor, was overlooked in favor of Edward Norton in Primal Fear, Armin Mueller-Stahl in Shine, James Woods in Ghosts of Mississippi, William H. Macy in Fargo, and eventual winner Cuba Gooding, Jr. in Jerry Maguire.

Looking at the list, I’d certainly nominate Lane over Woods, who played racist murderer Byron de la Beckwith under 500 pounds of old age makeup, and probably over Mueller-Stahl, who didn’t do much as the lead character’s father in Shine. It would’ve been nice to have one gay man acknowledged for his contribution for this endlessly popular gay story.

I guess we’ll have to wait for a film version of the musical and hope that a queen or two actually makes it into the cast.

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