“The Birdcage” catapulted Nathan Lane from a New York stage performer to a movie sensation. The film’s greatest effect, according to the Emmy and Tony award-winning actor, is more personal.
Lane discussed the smash comedy, in which he and Robin Williams played a Miami gay couple caught off guard when their son reveals his plans to marry the daughter of a highly conservative politician, on “Sunday Today.”
Lane, who is homosexual, said he’d been open about his sexuality to friends and family long before the 1996 release of “The Birdcage.” Still, he was afraid of being shunned by Hollywood if he spoke too openly about his personal life. During his “Sunday Today” appearance, he told host Willie Geist that Williams stepped in to avoid an awkward discussion while the two were promoting the film on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”
“I finally got a big part in a movie, and I didn’t want to make it about my sexuality, although it was sort of unavoidable because of the nature of the film and the character,” he recalled. “I don’t think Oprah was trying to out me, but I said to Robin beforehand: ‘I’m not prepared. I’m so scared of going out there and talking to Oprah. I’m not prepared to discuss that I’m gay on national television. I’m not ready.’ He said: ‘Oh, it’s alright, don’t worry about — we don’t have to talk about it. We won’t talk about it.’”
In the end, Lane said Winfrey asked him questions about his sexuality, such as whether he worried about being “typecast” after his “Birdcage” part, but Williams ensured the conversation didn’t veer too far into that territory.
“Robin sort of swoops in and diverts Oprah goes off on a tangent, and protects me,” Lane explained. “I was frightened… It’s wonderful that everyone is now at ease, but homophobia remains alive, and many homosexual people remain hidden.”
“Robin was just the greatest person,” he said of Williams, who passed in 2014, “he was such a beautiful, sensitive soul and so kind and generous to me.”
“The Birdcage,” directed by Mike Nichols, is a modernized version of the 1978 Franco-Italian drama “La Cage aux Folles.” The film, which also featured Gene Hackman and Calista Flockhart, earned a reported $185 million at the global box office, and Lane was nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance.
Twenty-seven years later, “The Birdcage” is still regarded as a groundbreaking picture depicting a same-sex couple who are also parents. Lane finds solace when viewers tell him that the film helped them realize they were LGBTQ or inspired them to accept a loved one who was afraid of being rejected because of their queer identity.
“I think people like the movie because it’s funny,” he explained. “It’s disarming; that’s how you entice people.”
Lane is currently riding a career-high. He received an Emmy for his guest appearance on Hulu’s “Only Murders in the Building” last year. This spring, he co-stars with Danny Burstein and Zo Wanamaker in the Broadway drama “Pictures from Home.”
Below is a clip from Nathan Lane’s “Sunday Today” conversation.