The Fabulous Mike

11.20.14 6:30 PM ET

Out of the Birdcage: How Mike Nichols Made Gay Culture Mainstream

From The Birdcage to Angels in America and all of his fabulous divas in between, Mike Nichols played an unparalleled role in the mainstream acceptance of gay culture.

Mike Nichols was never overtly political. But boy did he send a message.

Try not reading something into the inherent sexism encountered by Melanie Griffith’s character in Working Girl. Good luck watching Silkwood, in which Meryl Streep plays a strong-willed workplace whistleblower, without rising up to its rousing call to arms. And how can we even talk about Mike Nichols and these films without remarking on his sly message to Hollywood: look at the brilliance that can arise when you put strong women in strong roles in your films.

On the event of the legendary director’s passing, it’s ever-apparent his expansive legacy is inextricable from its social commentary—subtle, or otherwise. To that regard, in 2014, it would be a crime to remember his career without acknowledging the crucial role he played as an ambassador for marginalized communities, and as perhaps one of Hollywood’s most successful shepherds of gay culture to the mainstream.

Mike Nichols didn’t write The Birdcage. He wasn’t even the first to put its source material, the drag farce La Cage aux Folles, to film. But he breathed vibrant, hilarious, oh-so-fabulous life into the classic 1996 remake.

Robin Williams and Nathan Lane play lovers—life partners, really. When Williams’s son gets engaged, they “straighten up” their lives so as not to embarrass him in front of his fiancé’s conservative parents, a pearl-clutching political power couple played by Gene Hackman and Dianne Wiest.

The film’s comedy comes from Williams and Lane’s flitting about with stereotypical flamboyance as their attempts to hide their true gayer-than-a-basket-of-tiaras-in-Elton-John’s-sewing-room selves—particularly when Lane goes rogue, dresses in drag, and pretends to be the boy’s mother. The Birdcage had its detractors in the gay community, sure. Nearly two decades later, it’s hard not to cringe at the idea that the foolproof identifier of a gay person is a wacky wardrobe, or that men-in-heels are society’s equivalent of a sideshow.

But, then, there’s the Nichols-branded message underneath it all. How powerful, and subversive, that it’s Williams and Lane who play the committed, loving couple—capable of providing a lifetime of stability for Williams’s son—and the heteronormative, holier-than-though moral crusaders played by Hackman and Wiest who are the monsters that deserve to be judged. And though presented with an amount of saccharine schmaltz and cheese that veers on nauseating, it’s still impossible not to digest the film’s message that there’s no shame in being gay and everyone should be proud to be who they are.

More, at a time when many people didn’t really know what to make of gay culture in the mainstream, the success and embracing of The Birdcage made the important point that the community has a sense of humor about itself. Even when you’re on the outside, and even if you’re often misunderstood, you don’t lose the ability—or the desire—to laugh at yourself.

But if The Birdcage dressed up (in feather boas and bedazzled gowns, no less) the cultural imperative of gay inclusiveness, HBO’s Angels in America miniseries was the alternately epic and gritty screed on the pain, scars, and ghosts of marginalization.

Nichols’s six-hour, star-studded HBO adaptation of Tony Kushner’s two-part Pulitzer Prize-winning play, both a fantastical and unflinchingly real depiction of the ravages of the AIDS epidemic on the gay community, is considered—through an admittedly informal poll of “people I speak to and respect”—to be among the most important televised events of the last 20 years.

It seemed nearly impossible to derive any more breadth, guttural emotion, or cultural importance from Kushner’s staged productions in the early ‘90s, which had already been genuflected to, canonized, and heralded to the heavens and back. But there’s a monumental power that one has in translating this work to screen, and putting it on a platform as respected and popular as HBO, and Nichols wielded it with deft genius and great responsibility.

If The Birdcage said about the gay community that it’s time to get over it and bring them into the fold, Angels in America, with its grand-scale intimacy, is a searing reminder of why we can never forget its history of despair, suffered so lonely on the outside. That a television series about such things can be called important, win 11 Emmys, and carry its own cultural legacy is one of Mike Nichols’s greatest achievements.

It would be foolish to celebrate Nichols’s impact on gay society by reducing it to the mere fact that he made two big movies—well, one film and one miniseries—about gay people. As a leader, though perhaps an unknowing one, in a Hollywood revolution with a penchant for empowering the outsiders and a keen eye for taste, fabulousness, and strong women, he imbued the community with so much more.

He gave us a little orphan girl in a red wig belting “Tomorrow.” He gave us Anne Bancroft in fur, Liz Taylor on a boozy tear, Shirley MacLaine doing her best Debbie Reynolds, Sigourney Weaver in shoulder pads, and Julia Roberts screaming about how Jude Law’s cum tastes. He gave us camp. He gave us divas. He gave us icons. He gave us gay culture.

Who’s to say where Nichols found his kindred spirit with those who were marginalized. There’s a famous, cutesy story of when Nichols, then Michael Igor Peschkowsky, arrived in New York after escaping Berlin. Then just 8-years-old he saw writing on a deli Billboard that was in Hebrew. He asked his father, “Is that allowed?”

Perhaps, then, his legacy’s subtle socio-political message: yes, we’re allowed. We are.