“In & Out” and “The Birdcage” are two movies that are intertwined in my heart as the best gay comedies of the ’90s. While they have a few similarities — both feature protagonists on the run from the media; both dissect what it means to be a man; “Spartacus;” Jay Leno cameos as himself as host of the Tonight Show; and “In & Out” even directly references “The Birdcage” — they are really quite different. “The Birdcage” is more unabashedly gay, while “In & Out” is about a man coming to grips with his sexuality.
But of the two of them, “The Birdcage” has attained a sort of legendary cult status, while “In & Out” has faded into obscurity, and I’m here to make the case that the latter deserves as much love as the former. What sets “In & Out” apart from “The Birdcage” is that despite the latter being gayer in terms of tone and style, “In & Out” is much better in conveying queer acceptance and foreshadowing greater acceptance of gay life in America in the coming years.
Now, let’s be clear about one thing at the outset: “The Birdcage” is a much funnier movie. It is absolutely hysterical, filled with an astonishing number of laugh-out-loud moments, and my God, how can it not, with Robin Williams and Nathan Lane as the leads? They could read the phone book and make it funny. But there are sneaky, subtle ways “In & Out” has the upper hand, and I’m going to discuss them here.
Note there are spoilers ahead, but both movies are about 25 years old, so, y’know, deal with it.
First, a quick summary of both: “The Birdcage” features a gay couple who own a drag nightclub (Lane and Williams), whose son is marrying the daughter of a conservative senator (played by Gene Hackman). The son convinces his parents to play it straight; an attempt is made, and of course, ends up blowing up in their faces.
“In & Out” is about a high school teacher named Howard Brackett (played by Kevin Kline) who is set to marry his long-time sweetheart, played by Joan Cusack, when his former student, Cameron Drake (Matt Dillon), wins an Oscar. During the speech, he thanks his gay high school teacher, Mr. Brackett. This throws Howard’s life into confusion as he wonders if he really is gay after all (spoiler alert: he is). It also has a ridiculously stacked cast: Kevin Kline, Joan Cusack, Tom Selleck, Debbie Reynolds, Wilford Brimley, Bob Newhart, Matt Dillon, Shawn Hatosy, Lauren Ambrose, and a few other big cameos (Whoopi Goldberg, Glenn Close, Dan Hedaya, and as mentioned before, Jay Leno).
The inspiration for “In & Out” came from Tom Hanks’ acceptance speech when he won the Oscar for “Philadelphia” and thanked his gay high school teacher, and former classmate. It was directed by Frank Oz (yes, Yoda directed this movie), and is both a love story to Hollywood and small town life. It’s set in the quiet, leafy town of Greenleaf, Indiana (though I will note that most of the movie was actually filmed in New Jersey, so if you’re admiring the scenery, keep that in mind next time you’re ready to make a snarky Garden State joke), and in an inadvertent way, foreshadows the wider suburban acceptance of gay rights in America in the coming decades.
Remember, Ellen DeGeneres had her gay coming out episode on her show in 1997, the same year “In & Out” was released, and that was a Big Fucking Deal. Gay acceptance in most parts of America wasn’t remotely close to being a surefire thing, so the idea of small-town America accepting a gay man in their midst was a ludicrous concept at that time. Obviously, that is sadly still the case in too many areas, but you can’t tell me things haven’t gotten much, much better since then, and I’d like to think that movies like this helped to play a part.
While not as howlingly funny as “The Birdcage,” “In & Out” has a surprisingly solid range of jokes in there, starting with the Oscars ceremony at the beginning of the movie. We learn that Cameron Drake is up for Best Actor, going up against Paul Newman for “Coot,” Clint Eastwood for “Codger,” Michael Douglas for “Primary Urges,” and Steven Seagal for “Snowball in Hell.”
We’re treated to an entertaining clip from Cameron Drake’s movie, “To Serve and Protect,” a riff of a cliched “serious” movie, where he plays a soldier in a war drama. Cameron is carrying his war buddy on his back after he gets wounded; his buddy thinks he’s going to die and decides to confess his love to Cameron:
“Wait!” Cameron’s character says. “Do you love me as a friend, or in another way?”
“Another way, Billy!”
“You mean as a brother?”
“No, another way.”
“You mean, as a cousin?”
“No! Another way.”
“…You mean, as a penpal?”
“MY LEGS HURT!”
As he is in the process of being dishonorably discharged for being gay, we’re then treated to a hilarious courtroom drama scene where, among other things, an autographed copy of “Beaches” is used as evidence.
This was a real thing, by the way. Not the “Beaches” bit but being discharged for being gay. Matt Baume has a great video about an how episode of M*A*S*H tackled this issue.
Anyway, we learn that Cameron’s fellow soldier survived, and they are a happy couple. Even then, this reveal comes with a sharp critique of Hollywood’s treatment of gay characters, because Cameron Drake simply touches his beloved on the shoulder, chastely, when he tells him that he loves him.
For a long time, mainstream treatment of gay characters in Hollywood was laughably sexless — the closest we got to a kiss in “Philadelphia,” for example, was a dance scene between Tom Hanks and Antonio Banderas. And in “The Birdcage,” Robin Williams and Nathan Lane’s characters show no physical affection towards each other at all. Contrast that with a twelve second kiss between Kevin Kline and Tom Selleck in “In & Out” (if twelve seconds doesn’t sound all that long to you, go find the nearest person and stare at them in the eyes, without saying anything, for twelve seconds, and you’ll know that it’s practically an eternity).
Granted, that kiss wasn’t exactly sexy, but if it was a punchline, it was also not punching at the two men kissing. The kiss was a pivotal moment in Howard’s development and ultimate acceptance as a gay man. Without that kiss, he wouldn’t have admitted that he was truly gay, after all.
Obviously, gay affection in mainstream movies is old hat now. Hell, a teen romcom, “Love, Simon,” features a kiss between its leads. But back then? That was unheard of.
In many ways, “In & Out” is a far more progressive portrayal of small-town acceptance of gay people than any other mainstream Hollywood movie that had been made up until that time, with the possible exception of “To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything! Julie Newmar.” But unlike “Wong Foo,” “In & Out” didn’t feature a group of outside gays who entered a town and left as soon as was practicable. Howard Brackett lived in that town. He was one of them. He wasn’t some outsider who came in, and then disappeared like a fairy godmother. He was, and is, an essential part in the fabric of their lives.
When Cameron Drake announced that Howard was gay, the initial reaction of Howard’s students wasn’t to ostracize him, but to maybe point out that it was easy for some people to get the wrong impression about their teacher — when they look at him, they see a: “Smart, clean, totally decent human being? Gay!”
(We’ll skate over the part when they do show discomfort but in this moment, they meant well, and they do redeem themselves at the end, as we’ll see.)
Later, when Howard attends his bachelor party, desperate to prove his masculinity, he revs up his buddies by asking if they’re ready to get “disgustingly, pukingly drunk” and to “lay some adult video on me!” …only for them to excitedly tell him, “We got it…uncut…‘Funny Girl!'”
(Another New Jersey sidenote: When Barbra Streisand sings “Don’t Rain on My Parade” in that movie, that’s shot in the Hoboken train terminal. “Julie & Julia” also had a scene at that terminal. Hoboken is worth a trip if you’re ever visiting New York City, not just for that gorgeous train station and great food, but also for the magnificent views of the New York City skyline.)
Disappointed, he says, “I don’t believe it. Barbra Streisand?” And one of the guys says, “You had that little film festival last year.” Look, just watch the clip here, if only for the delivery of the line, “She was too old…for Yentl!”
The fact that a bunch of typically masculine heterosexual men were subjected to a Barbra Streisand film festival, first of all, is hilarious, but the fact that they went along with it, enjoyed it, and remembered it for his bachelor party speaks to how much they care about Howard and his friendship, and genuinely took an interest in the things he cared about.
When Tom Selleck’s character, a media reporter from Hollywood, visits Greenleaf to get the real scoop on Howard Brackett, he interviews a bunch of people from town, and they all unanimously talk about how much Howard means to them and to their community.
When Cameron Drake drops that bombshell at the Oscars, Howard’s parents, played by Debbie Reynolds and Wilford Brimley, makes it clear that they will love him no matter what (only that Debbie Reynolds’ character has one particular demand):
Mom: Howard, we want you to know: you’re our son, and we’ll always love you, gay, straight, red, green, if you rob a bank, if you kill someone.
Dad: If you get drunk, climb a clock tower, and take out the town.
Mom: As long as you get married. I need that wedding. I need some beauty and some music and some placecards before I die. It’s like heroin.
Even Joan Cusack’s character, Emily, who gets dumped at the altar when Howard reveals he’s gay, cares about him. Immediately after being embarrassed at the altar, Howard goes to apologize to Emily, and in a wonderful Joan Cusack performance to end all Joan Cusack performances, asks if he’s really gay. When he says yes, she says:
Was there, oh, ANY OTHER TIME YOU MIGHT HAVE TOLD ME THIS? I’m wearing a wedding dress, which you picked out! I highlighted my hair because you said I needed shimmer, I loved you and I believed you and pretended not to notice the Streisand thing.
Shortly after comes the lone f-bomb in the movie (seriously, just watch this clip, she is freaking spectacular here), and really, totally worth the price of admission for this movie alone. But notice that she’s not mad at him because he’s gay; she’s only mad him because he had exceptionally poor timing.
Contrast that with “The Birdcage,” where the son of Robin Williams and Nathan Lane is ashamed that his parents are gay and asks them to literally pretend to be straight, even going so far as to suggest that Nathan Lane not even be present when the future in-laws come to visit. For the characters of “In & Out,” by contrast, the fact that Howard is gay is only a problem to two people: the principal of the school where he works, and Howard himself.
We know there are signs that Howard’s in deep denial. For example, we learn after the Oscars scene that Emily doesn’t actually live with Howard. We also learn during a confessional that they haven’t slept together during their three years engaged. And after the twelve second kiss with Tom Selleck, Howard’s response is to go home, reach under his bed, and…pull out a tape called “How to Be a Man,” implying that this is something he had been struggling with internally long before Cameron Drake’s speech.
I can’t do justice to that sequence, so just watch it:
Among the essentials to being a manly man is not dancing — to “avoid rhythm, grace, and pleasure.” Because men do not dance. They “work, they drink, they have bad backs.” He is implored to “think about John Wayne! Arnold Schwarzenegger! Arnold doesn’t dance. He can barely walk.”
Similarly, in “The Birdcage,” Nathan Lane’s character is asked to walk like John Wayne, in a brilliant physical comedy bit, and the proper ways of dining (“keep that pinky down!”). He’s told that men don’t dribble the mustard on their toast (“Men smear! Smear!”). Both movies analyze masculinity and identity, but in “The Birdcage,” all the gay characters are asked to tone down their gayness or make it go away entirely, while “In & Out” embraces Howard’s authentic self — his love of Barbra Streisand, among other things.
And in the end, when Howard accepts who he is, the only other person who has a problem with it is the principal of the school (Bob Newhart, sublime as always). At the high school graduation ceremony, we learn that Howard is fired for being gay because it was a question of “influence” — that by teaching, Howard could influence students in being gay. One of Howard’s students rises up in solidarity and claims to be gay (it’s not entirely clear if he really is gay or if he’s just standing up for Howard; the film is murky on this point. I suspect there were more hints that the character is gay in the original script but was left on the cutting room floor). And then, one by one, in a “I am Spartacus!” riff, every student and member of the town stands on their feet and claims that they, too, are gay in support of Howard.
When it’s clear that Howard’s job is saved, the high school band plays a rousing take on “People,” that Barbra Streisand tune, and all’s well that ends well. It’s a joyous affirmation of Howard’s identity because the community as a whole stands behind him, literally. Contrast that with ending of “The Birdcage,” where the conservative Senator is ready to call off the entire wedding once he learns that his daughter-in-law’s family runs a gay nightclub. Sure, the wedding still happens, but it’s an uneasy truce between the drag side of the church and the staid, Republican side of the church.
That’s why I love “In & Out” so much. It’s a treatise on being true to yourself, being honest about who you are, and giving yourself the space and freedom to embrace that. If I’m going to watch a movie to laugh, I am going to watch “The Birdcage.” But if I’m going to watch a movie that’ll make me smile and feel good and optimistic about how everyday people can accept folks who are just living their authentic lives, I’ll put on “In & Out.”
One of the things I love about watching older movies is seeing who had minor bit roles in them, and came into more prominence later. Here are some that caught my eye:
– In “In & Out,” Selma Blair plays a cousin; she would go on to star in “Cruel Intentions” and play a major role in “Legally Blonde”
– Clare Kramer plays a student in Howard’s class. Both Clare and Selma co-starred with Sarah Michelle Gellar (“Cruel Intentions” for Selma, and “Buffy: The Vampire Slayer” for Clare)
– June Squibb has a minor role as one of Debbie Reynold’s friends, but a very memorable one. If you haven’t seen “Nebraska,” she is hilariously crude in that film
– “The Birdcage” was one of Calista Flockhart’s first major roles; she’d go on to be “Ally McBeal,” of course
– Hank Azaria, who plays the houseboy Agador Spartacus, voices a number of characters on “The Simpsons,” including Moe, Chief Wiggum, and Comic Book Guy
– Grant Heslov plays a photojournalist in this movie; you might also recognize him as the villain in “True Lies”
– One of the most memorable scenes of “The Birdcage” is the one where Robin Williams famously instructs a dancer to “do an eclectic celebration of the dance! You do Fosse, Fosse, Fosse! You do Martha Graham, Martha Graham, Martha Graham! Or Twyla, Twyla, Twyla! Or Michael Kidd, Michael Kidd, Michael Kidd, Michael Kidd! Or Madonna, Madonna, Madonna!… but you keep it all inside.” That dancer he’s talking to? He actually danced with Madonna on tour
– Finally, we know that “In & Out” was directed by Yoda; if you’re a film buff, you’ll know who Mike Nichols is. In addition to “The Birdcage,” he has an embarrassingly rich portfolio of movies under his belt, including “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “The Graduate,” among others. But did you know that the cinematographer for “The Birdcage” is Emmanuel Lubezki? He’s considered to be one of the best ever, having won the Oscar for best cinematographer in 3 consecutive years, for “Gravity,” “Birdman,” and “The Revenant.”