Nathan Lane Wishes He’d Been ‘Brave’ Enough to Come Out to Oprah After ‘The Birdcage’
Now 25 years later, “The Birdcage” star opens up about the thrill of making that film and the complicated experience of promoting it before he was ready to come out publicly.
When I ask Nathan Lane if he can believe it’s been 25 years since he made The Birdcage, he quickly replies, “Yes, I can.”
“I just turned 65, I can't really believe that,” the actor adds on the 100th episode of The Last Laugh podcast. “But I certainly believe it’s 25 years since we made The Birdcage.”
He wasn’t supposed to star in the film that changed his life. As the story goes, director Mike Nichols originally wanted to cast Steve Martin and Robin Williams as the gay couple at the center of his 1996 remake of La Cages Aux Folles. Martin would play Armand, the owner of the titular South Beach drag club and Williams would take on the more outwardly comedic role of Albert, his partner—also known as the club’s headliner “Starina.”
But when Martin had to drop out of the project due to a scheduling conflict, Williams, who had just donned a dress in Mrs. Doubtfire a few years earlier, decided he would rather play the “straight man,” so to speak. Nichols needed a new “Starina” and he decided to take a chance on a Broadway actor whose biggest film credit up to that point was voicing the meerkat Timon in The Lion King.
“He said it’s Robin Williams, Gene Hackman, and Elaine May is writing, how does that sound?” Lane recalls. “And I said, ‘That sounds like heaven.’”
Then, for a while, it looked like Williams was going to have to take a pass as well and Nichols would run ideas for his replacement by Lane. “What do you think of Billy Crystal as your husband?” Nichols asked Lane one night. And then, even more enticingly: “Robert Redford as your husband.”
“Well, if you can make that happen, all my dreams will come true,” Lane replied.
Of course, Williams did end up starring as Armand alongside Lane’s Albert and The Birdcage went on to gross nearly $200 million worldwide, making it the most financially successful film of Nichols’ long and storied career.
And it should have been the beginning of an illustrious movie star run for Lane, but as he reveals in this conversation, he only got two offers after it came out. One was for Mouse Hunt, a “sort of subversive Coen brothers movie for kids,” in his words, which he ended up making reluctantly. The other was a live-action remake of the cartoon Mr. Magoo, a flop that he smartly turned down and ended up starring Leslie Nielsen.
Lane says he’ll “never know” how much homophobia ended up playing into his limited opportunities in the film world. Broadway, where he went on to win three Tony Awards, including one for Mel Brooks’ smash hit The Producers, never presented the same problems.
But those fears about what it would mean to be an openly gay man in Hollywood 25 years ago undoubtedly played a part in his reluctance to come out publicly during the promotional tour for The Birdcage, which included a supremely uncomfortable moment on The Oprah Winfrey Show when the host tried to nudge him in that direction and he wasn’t “ready” to go there.
Below is an edited excerpt from our conversation and you can listen to the whole thing—including hilarious stories about improvising with Robin Williams and his hopes for a possible Birdcage sequel—right now by subscribing to The Last Laugh on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts.
At the time the film came out and you were promoting it, you had not come out in a big public way. And I’m wondering, did that complicate for you the experience of promoting it?
It was something I hadn’t really thought about until Robin and I were going to do The Oprah Winfrey Show and I realized it was going to come up. And at the same time, I got a publicist, the same publicist that I have today, who said, “What do you want to do?” He too is a gay man. And I said, well, to be honest with you, I don't know. I am out. I’m not in the closet to family and friends, but I have not “come out.” There’s been no need to come out publicly or make a statement. And I said, to tell you the truth, I’m not terribly comfortable walking into a room and going from table to table and discussing my personal life when this is the first time I’m getting a role of this size. And I would like it to be about the work, as opposed to my sexuality. Which, for right or wrong, that’s what I was feeling.
Now today, people don’t feel a need to come out and make a big statement. People mention it in an acceptance speech: “And my husband Phil, I couldn't have done this without him.” But at the time, it was very much a time of people being outed. And obviously, yes, I agree with Harvey Milk, the most political thing you could do is to come out. But he was talking about to family and friends, not necessarily coming out in a public forum and telling the world that you’re gay. And I wasn’t ready or emotionally mature enough to deal with it. Just dealing with suddenly everybody knowing who you are was a shock.
Yeah, it’s interesting, around that time was Ellen DeGeneres' “Yep. I'm Gay” cover of Time magazine. But she was already quite famous. For you, you were becoming a star. Did you not want that to be part of your story?
I didn’t feel like I was becoming a star. I just felt I wanted it to be about the performance and not my sexuality. And so I just decided to say, “I’d rather not discuss that,” which, ultimately you might as well have said, “Oh yes, I like sleeping with men.” I wish I had been brave enough to just—when Oprah said, “Gee, you’re awfully good at those girly things.” Thanks, Oprah. “Why is that?” she said. And I should have said, “Well, I’d like to think it’s because I’m a really good actor, but if you’re asking me if I’m gay, the answer to that question is yes.” But I didn’t say that. I was very nervous just talking to Oprah and Robin was very protective of me and saw where that conversation was headed and he sort of quickly detoured her in another direction. But I realized this was something I was going to have to deal with.
You know, for some reason, it’s in the original play and film, the use of the word “fag” as sort of a punchline. And there was a scene coming up and I went to Mike and I said, “Listen, I’m a little uncomfortable with this character using the word ‘fag.’” I said, “Can't we use something else?” And there was a long discussion and as I said, I always felt like I’m just lucky to be invited to the party. And he went on about it. And finally, I said, “Well, listen, as the only fag in the room, it makes me uncomfortable.” And he said, “I understand.” He said, “Just do one as written.” The oldest trick in the book. And because of my need to please, I said, “Yes, of course.” And that’s what's in the movie.
And that’s when you’re saying it in character as the conservative mother, right? Was that part of it for you, that it was coming out of her mouth?
Yes. Is he pretending to be a Republican just to win them over? I don’t think so. Elaine was saying he’s on the same wavelength as Gene Hackman and Dianne Weist, which I also had issues with. But you know, the great thing about the original French film was how subversive it was in that, even though it was in the guise of a French farce, the heterosexuals were the villains and the gay people were the heroes. But you know, with the word “fag,” it's interesting. Two of the most sophisticated and groundbreaking comedians in the world, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, they certainly came up in a world where that word, “fag,” was used as a punchline. And wouldn't let go of it.
And I’ll tell you, after the film had come out and was a big success, I was sitting in a cab in midtown Manhattan in traffic, and there was a guy in a truck next to me. He looked down and I looked up and he seemed to recognize me and smiled, and I sort of waved. And he started yelling, “Hey, faggot! Faggot!” And this went on and on and on. I sort of sunk back in the cabin. Finally, traffic moved. And I wanted to say, I wish Mike was here, so he could hear this use of the word. Not to take away at all from the success of the film and what it means to people and how it still makes people happy. But now of course, when they show it on network television, they bleep that word.
Well, I would say any piece of art that’s 25 years old is not going to have aged perfectly in every way.
Well, no. You can chalk it up to the character maybe trying to ingratiate himself with them and saying it that cavalierly, but it was a weird moment in what was an otherwise perfect situation, just a great thing to be a part of.
Do you feel like coming out affected your career in a negative way, after you did finally come out publicly [in 1999] on the cover of Advocate? Do you feel like that hurt your ability to play any role that you might have wanted to play?
Well, not in the theater. But look, I don’t know. We’ll never know what is said behind closed doors. I don’t want to sound like Trump, but I’ve heard some things. But I’m sure that it did. I’m sure it did. But also, my career was about the theater. I always felt that the place to really learn how to be an actor is in the theater. And as Terrence McNally taught me, it is a goal unto itself.
After The Birdcage, I was offered two roles. I thought, for sure, wow, maybe some really good things might come from this. And then I was offered a film of Mr. Magoo. And there was a lot of money. I mean, a lot of money that I turned down. And then the other job was Mouse Hunt, which ended up being sort of this subversive Coen brothers movie for kids. And that was it. It wasn’t like there were a whole bunch of offers, not even offers to play other flamboyant gay men.
I was with an agent at the time, a man named Jeff Hunter, a famous agent and had a lot of famous clients, Kevin Kline, Morgan Freeman. And I had a lunch with him where I said, “Gee, I thought more might come my way after The Birdcage.” And he said, “Well, maybe if you weren’t so open about your sexuality, it would.” So he apparently thought I was pretty open.
Meanwhile, you’re like, but I’m not telling anyone!
You know, initially, at that time I did make a joke to some magazine where they asked if I was gay and I said, “I’m 40, single and I work a lot in the musical theater, you do the math. What do you need, flashcards?” I thought that it answered the question, but unfortunately not enough. So yeah, that’s what he said to me. And I was like, maybe it’s time for a new agent. And look, you know what? I’ve had a wonderful, enviable career. And I just don’t know how much homophobia has played a part in it.