La Cage aux Folles: Folles Family Values

On Film / Essays — Sep 9, 2013

Where to begin with La Cage aux Folles? Actually, the real question is, Where to end? Since this farce about a gay couple upending the bluenoses who inadvertently stumble into their freewheeling transvestite-nightclub world is without question one of the most durable of all comedies, its life spanning thirty years of sequels and spin-offs, including a Broadway musical, with no sign of letting up. The reason for its popularity isn’t difficult to divine. For while the milieu may be colorful (to say the least!), the story—about the son of a flamboyantly gay couple who falls in love with the daughter of the leader of the French equivalent of the Moral Majority—is, in the end, no more outré than I Love Lucy. La Cage aux Folles (1978) is a pitch-perfect farce that has always aimed to please, a twenty-one-gun salute to “family values”—even though the family in question happens to be covered in feathers, sequins, and tulle.

Initially created for the stage by actor-playwright Jean Poiret (so memorable in François Truffaut’s The Last Metro), La Cage aux Folles ran for almost 1,800 perfor­mances, from 1973 to 1978, at the Théâtre du Palais-Royal in Paris. This is impressive in and of itself. But of course, its success didn’t end there. It was inevitable that some­one would want to make a film of it. The choice of director, Edouard Molinaro, was a most appropriate one—an accomplished mainstream veteran who, while the nouvelle vague was raging, had been keeping the “cinema of quality” tradition alive with comedies and thrillers. Molinaro’s more tradition-minded approach was ideal, for while the characters may go wild, for the story to work, the mise-en-scène couldn’t. Molinaro had excellent help in transferring the work from stage to screen, as not only was Poiret involved but also Francis Veber, an experienced comedy screenwriter soon to make the switch to writer-director. Together, they managed to transform the play into a visually fluid film, without a trace of staginess.

Their stars, Ugo Tognazzi and Michel Serrault—Tognazzi replacing Poiret from the stage version, being both more famous and Italian, which suited this Italian-French coproduction—were highly skilled high-style comedians: Tognazzi specialized in the suave (particularly in Luciano Salce’s 1962 gem Crazy Desire), Serrault in the stylized (the comic lunatic Monsieur Marcel in Philippe de Broca’s 1966 classic King of Hearts). And as might be expected from their and the play’s fame, the film was a hit in France. But it was far from a foregone conclusion that it would work in the U.S., where French “boulevard” hits rarely made a splash and the actors were virtually unknown outside of art houses in select major cities. That’s doubtless where United Artists sought to score with La Cage aux Folles. After all, in 1978, who would have expected a gay comedy to attract a mainstream crowd?

That’s precisely what happened, though. As the weeks went on and the receipts piled higher, wider theatrical bookings followed. Soon La Cage aux Folles was running nationwide, with an English-dubbed version made to attract the subtitle-averse. Two sequels followed, one in 1980 and the other in 1985. And that’s not to mention the Broadway musical fashioned in 1983 by Jerry Herman, of Hello, Dolly! and Mame fame, with a book by the rising Broadway star Harvey Fierstein and direction by theater veteran Arthur Laurents. And then there was the movie The Birdcage (1996), a full-court-press American version written by Elaine May and directed by her old improvisational comedy partner, Mike Nichols, very much along the lines of the Molinaro original. Instead of La Cage aux Folles’s Saint-Tropez locale, the action takes place in Florida’s South Beach, with Robin Williams and Nathan Lane comfortably slipping into Tognazzi’s and Serrault’s roles.

What was going on here? How could such a work sustain this sort of multi-transformational longevity? Clearly, La Cage aux Folles had struck oil no one knew was there. The rapid real-world assimilation of gays and lesbians during the time period in which La Cage aux Folles has flourished obviously played a part. Interestingly, gays and lesbians weren’t center stage cinematically during all of this. At the time of the original, gay filmmaking was largely confined to the avant-garde (e.g., the works of Andy Warhol and Kenneth Anger). Hollywood would dip its toes in a few years later, both cautiously (Making Love in 1982) and recklessly (Cruising in 1980). But the New Queer Cinema that spawned such signal works as My Own Private Idaho (1991), The Living End (1992), and Swoon (1992) was still quite a ways off. Actual politics was front and center in everyone’s lives in 1978—the year that La Cage aux Folles was released was also the year a rising openly gay San Francisco politician named Harvey Milk was assassinated. The film was not without interest for gays and lesbians, especially transvestites—and it stirred some controversy among more “mainstream” gays—but when it comes right down to it, that wasn’t the film’s target audience anyway. Despite the fact that we’re talking about a couple of middle-aged gay men and the offspring of an illicit hetero­sexual transgression by one of them, La Cage aux Folles is really, at heart, a classic interfamilial culture-clash story in the tradition of that hallowed theatrical chestnut Abie’s Irish Rose, and thus was capable of garnering sympathy from audiences not otherwise interested in the home life of drag queens.

This is made quite clear at the start, as we see Renato (Tognazzi) trying as best he can to deal with a tem­per­a­mental outburst by Albin (Serrault), the star of his show. Tognazzi and Serrault play their roles like an old married couple, long used to each other’s emotional idiosyn­crasies. The former is a steady hand, alternately amused and exas­perated by his partner’s frequent tantrums; the latter is a bundle of shat­tered nerves. Yet just beneath this surface lies a reservoir of real tenderness. Their maid, Jacob (Benny Luke), may be a tall, thin, sass-talking black man in a ridicu­lously skimpy chamber­maid’s uniform, but while a walking cartoon, he functions as a real aide would in a normal household. He, in fact, under­scores the dichotomy that keeps La Cage aux Folles afloat—for while what we’re looking at may be comically absurd at first glance, there’s something quite genuine at its core.

Sometimes, however, La Cage aux Folles plays fast and loose with our expectations. For instance, when Renato asks Jacob if he’s made all the arrangements for a special visitor who’s coming to see him—and said visitor is a handsome young man—we quickly assume adultery is in the offing. But no sooner is that scenario suggested than we learn that the young man is Renato’s son, Laurent (Rémi Laurent). This is a canny move, for it piques our possible prurient interest and does away with it at the same time, signaling that La Cage aux Folles is not going to “go there” when it comes to sexual details. Where it goes instead is to actual comedy, with the first of three pivotal scenes that form the film’s backbone. As Laurent has invited his beloved (Luisa Maneri) and her family—headed by her morality-obsessed father (Michel Galabru)—over for dinner, the problem of “Aunt Albin” arises. Can he pass for straight? Renato starts in finding out in a scene at a local café, where he tries to teach Albin to “walk like a man” and, that hilariously failing, makes a stab at advising him on how to butter a piece of bread in a less feminine manner. That fails too, and when, in the second key scene, Albin puts all the skill he can muster into donning a conservative suit and sitting in a chair like an everyday bourgeois, and flames out there as well, he elects to withdraw. What’s particularly powerful about these scenes as played by Serrault is the way they emphasize the personal dignity of a character we’ve up to now thought of solely as someone to laugh at. Albin may seem silly, but he is also human, and his inability to “rise to the occasion” and appear as a conventional male wounds him deeply. It also makes us love him all the more.

All is not lost, however, as Simone (Claire Maurier), Laurent’s birth mother (a wryly sophisticated woman free of “maternal instincts”), has agreed to pretend to be Renato’s wife for the evening. Problem solved? Not really, for Albin, in a startling burst of inspiration, upstages her by showing up at the dinner in drag as Laurent’s mother. The comic confusion that ensues in this third pivotal scene—involving ludicrously straight redecorating, comically credulous in-laws, potentially delicious political scandal, and drag queens galore—is priceless.

Yet underneath all the raucous laughter stands a very serious truth. The fierce graciousness with which Serrault and Tognazzi go through their paces is not only funny but deeply touching. For while some spectators may have come to laugh at the likes of Albin and Renato, they soon find themselves laughing with and feeling for them. The reason is simple. Albin is Laurent’s mother in every way save for his gender. Consequently, the plot’s climactic revelation of who he/she really is weds farce logic to strongly felt moral conviction. And that, in a nutshell, is why, after all these years and all these incarnations, La Cage aux Folles is more “of the moment” than ever. Once an idle pipe dream, gay marriage is on the fast track to becoming a reality world­wide. Who knew a French farce would lead the way?