Armand Goldman is the openly gay owner of a drag club in South Beach called The Birdcage; his partner Albert, an extremely effeminate and flamboyant man, plays "Starina", the star attraction of the club. They live together in an apartment above The Birdcage with Agador, their flamboyant Guatemalan housekeeper who dreams of being in Albert's drag show as well.
One day, Armand's son Val (born after Armand had a one-night stand with a woman named Katherine) comes home from college to visit and announces that he has secretly been seeing a young woman named Barbara, whom he intends to marry. Although initially unhappy with news, Armand agrees to support Val's decision. Albert, who has raised Val with Armand, also initially objects to the union but relents, wanting only for Val to be happy. What the couple is unaware of, though, is that Barbara's parents are the ultraconservative Republican Senator Kevin Keeley and his wife Louise.
As Val meets with his parents, Barbara breaks the news of her wedding to her parents at their home in Maine. To cover the Goldmans' alternate lifestyle, she has tells her parents that Armand is a straight man and cultural attaché to Greece, while Albert is a house-wife. When the Senator listens in on a phone call between Barbara and Val, he quickly suspects something is up and confronts Barbara. She tells him the Goldmans are vacationing in Florida, not far the Bushes, for the winter. At first, Keeley wants nothing to do with the wedding and focuses on developing the agenda for the "Coalition for Moral Order"—a conservative group trying to bring back traditional views and moral codes- which he co-founded with another conservative senator, Senator Jackson. His plans take a turn, however, when it is learned that Senator Jackson has been found dead in the bed of an underage black prostitute. Louise convinces Senator Keeley that a visit to his daughter's fiancee's family would be the perfect way to stave off bad press, as there is nothing controversial about them, and the family plans to travel to South Beach as soon as possible. To ensure the press don't follow, he tells them the family is heading to their farm further north.
Barbara shares news of her father's plan to Val, as well as the lies she told about his family. To ensure he gets the Keeley's blessings, Val asks Armand to help him out by changing his mannerisms, redecorating the house and closing the club for a night. Armand refuses to deny who he really is, but after some thought agrees to play along and has the Birdcage staff help him redecorate the apartment. After Albert refuses to go away on "vacation," so as not to blow their cover, he decides to introduce himself as Val's uncle and starts training with Armand on how to be "a man". Feeling that Albert will only pass for an 'uncle' if there is a 'mother' to complete the picture, Armand contacts Katherine and explains the situation; she agrees to the farce, promising to come to the party and pretend to be his wife. With only the Keeleys minutes away, Albert realizes he can't pull off the act and locks himself in his room.
The Keeleys arrive at the Goldmans' (who are calling themselves the "Colemans" for the evening to hide their Jewish heritage) redecorated apartment; they are greeted by Agador, who is passing himself off as a Greek butler named "Spartacus" for the night. Unfortunately, Katherine gets caught in traffic, and the Keeleys begin wondering where "Mrs. Coleman" is. Suddenly, Albert enters, dressed and styled as a conservative middle-aged woman. Armand, Val, and Barbara are nervous, but Kevin and Louise are tricked by the disguise, especially when Albert delivers tirades about the collapse of morality in the United States; the act is so convincing that Louise even becomes jealous of Albert, accusing her husband of flirting with her. Despite a few near misses, including Louise discovering that all of the old-fashioned books on the shelves are Nancy Drew mysteries, Agador only preparing a soup for dinner, the music from the club making its way into the apartment, and the dinner plates featuring Greek depictions of homosexuality, things seem to be going smoothly.
Unbeknownst to Senator Keeley, though, his chauffeur has tipped off two tabloid journalists as to where the family was really going and this information has leaked to all the news networks, who are quickly descending on South Beach. As the two tabloid journalists stake-out The Birdcage, they remove a note that Armand has left on the door informing Katherine not to come upstairs. When she finally arrives, Katherine races upstairs and is let in by the Keeleys, to whom she promptly introduces herself to as Val's mother. Senator Keeley, who has taken a dislike to Armand for his treatment of Albert, believes Katherine is Armand's live-in mistress and demands to know the truth. Though Armand and Albert scramble to find a new cover story, Val instead confesses to the scheme, removes Albert's wig and identifies him as his true 'mother'.
Shocked, Senator Keeley is unable to accept the truth of the situation, which Louise promises to explain in the car, and demands Barbara leave with them. However, they are forced to stay when they discover that the journalists and news teams are waiting outside. As the group mulls over what to do, Albert realizes that there is only one way for the family to escape unnoticed: he dresses the Keeleys in drag and they use the apartment's back entrance to sneak into The Birdcage and onto the stage. There, Armand has the entire Birdcage staff join them and introduces them as part of the club's nightly act. They all dance out of the nightclub door (with Louise even being propositioned by a man who thinks she is a drag queen) and reach Katherine, who drives them to safety in her convertible. The film concludes at Barbara and Val's interfaith wedding, which both families, including Katherine and Agador, attend.Robin Williams as Armand Goldman
Gene Hackman as Senator Kevin Keeley
Nathan Lane as Albert Goldman
Dianne Wiest as Louise Keeley
Dan Futterman as Val Goldman
Calista Flockhart as Barbara Keeley
Hank Azaria as Agador Spartacus
Christine Baranski as Katherine Archer
Tom McGowan as Harry Radman
Grant Heslov as National Enquirer photographer
Kirby Mitchell as Keeley's chauffeur
Originally, Williams was going to portray Albert whereas Steve Martin was going to portray Armand.
A number of songs written by Stephen Sondheim were used in the film. The song that Albert rehearses during the sequence with the gum-chewing dancer is entitled "Little Dream" and was written specifically for use in the film. Albert's first song as "Starina" is "Can That Boy Foxtrot", cut from Sondheim's Follies. The song that Armand and Katherine sing and dance to in her office, "Love Is in the Air", had been intended as the opening number for the musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum in 1962. The song was cut from the show and replaced with Comedy Tonight.
The film opened on March 8, 1996, and grossed $18,275,828 in its opening weekend, topping the box office. It remained at #1 for the next 3 weeks before being derailed by the openings of Primal Fear and A Thin Line Between Love and Hate. By the end of its 14-week run, the film had grossed $124,060,553 domestically and $61,200,000 internationally, eventually reaching a total of US$185,260,553 worldwide.
The film received positive reviews upon its release, and as of 2017, the film holds a 79% approval rating on the review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes, based on 47 critic reviews. The site's critical consensus reads: "Mike Nichols wrangles agreeably amusing performances from Robin Williams and Nathan Lane in this fun, if not quite essential, remake of the French-Italian comedy La Cage aux Folles."
The review aggregator Metacritic reported that the film received "generally favorable" reviews, with a score of 72% based on 18 reviews.
James Berardinelli wrote:
"The film is so boisterously entertaining that it's easy for the unsuspecting viewer not to realize that there's a message here."
Desson Thomson from The Washington Post described the film: "A spirited remake of the French drag farce, has everything in place, from eyeliner to one-liner." Owen Gleiberman from Entertainment Weekly called the film "Enchantingly witty".
The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) praised the film for "going beyond the stereotypes to see the character's depth and humanity. The film celebrates differences and points out the outrageousness of hiding those differences." The film was also nominated for a GLAAD Media Award.