Eduoard Molinaro’s hilarious La Cage aux folles, based on Jean Poiret’s play, is one of the most successful foreign films ever released in the U.S. The unprecedented popularity of this gender-bending sex farce inspired two sequels, a hit Broadway musical, and at least one transvestite nightclub. A madcap excursion into the chaotic life of two aging St. Tropez homosexuals, this giddy foray into the outre left mainstream audiences breathless from laughter in towns that still think of Scorsese and Coppola as aliens. So just how could La Cage have conquered America, one of the few countries in the world where consensual adult sexuality can still be a crime?
For one thing, La Cage aux folles (an idiom that translates loosely as “birds of a feather") is a modest, finely crafted film (Molinaro was nominated for an Oscar) with sidesplitting roots that go back through Hollywood's screwball comedies, through neoclassical French theater and commedia dell’arte, all the way back to the origins of Roman drama. Furthermore, La Cage is brilliantly cast and features spectacular acting in two idiosyncratic leading roles. Ugo Tognazzi plays the vain but long-suffering Renato, owner of the eponymous nightclub over which he lives with the more flamboyant Albin (Michel Serrault), his high-strung lover and star of their drag revue. A typically bickering middle-aged twosome in the retrograde “powder-puff” mold, they are nonetheless refreshingly frank. Their love not only dares speak its name, it dresses up in sequins and struts in front of a flattering pink spotlight for the delectation of the voyeuristic hoi polloi and the simpatico fringe.
The delightfully convoluted plot ruffles and flutters like a chiffon train caught in the gust of a passing fan. Our heroes have raised Renato's son (product of a two-hour flirtation with heterosexuality), who returns from college engaged to the daughter of a Pillars-of-Morality bureaucrat so repressively right-wing you have to wish him ill. At the boy's request, Renato and Albin attempt to play down “what is special” about themselves for an impending meeting with the disapproving dad. One scene, in which the meticulously fey Renato attempts to teach Albin to be more butch when he butters his toast is as brilliantly slapstick as any on film.
Certainly the timing of the release had a great deal to do with its success. In 1978, La Cage aux folles rode the crest of the sexual revolution, but many gay liberationists took exception to the film for what they believed to be negative stereotyping. Renato and Albin are certainly descendents of the effeminate types who have always been ridiculed in the theater—everyone from Franklyn Pangborn to Fatty Arbuckle in drag. But Renato and Albin embody and express a universal humanity that transcends both their sexual orientation and individual peccadillos. The duo may skate on the thin ice of stereotype, but they challenge received notions rather than pander to them. In fact, the film generates much of its humor, as well as its unsentimentalized poignancy, by undermining audience expectations—as when we’re lead to believe that Renato is having an affair with a younger man who, eventually, turns out to be his son.
La Cage aux folles is more conservative than might be apparent in the glare off its mirrored surface. Like Moliere's Tartuffe, it doesn't take issue with legitimate government or traditional family values; it attacks hypocrisy and the interventionist agenda of self-appointed arbiters of morality. In fact, the film ends, as all true comedies do, with a wedding, as affirming a rite as the right could wish—but with our Albin, of course, having taken his place in a seat of honor as mother-of-the-groom.
A psychological dimension of this film that has gone largely unnoticed may explain its continued popularity. As more and more of us come to realize that being loved for ourselves, that being totally accepted for who and what we are, is a life quest rather than a birthright, we see in Renato and Albin two men who have fulfilled this core need without having sacrificed personal integrity. That they have had more to overcome than most of us only increases our admiration. They can stand, wigs in hands, and declare without shame: “I Am What I Am” (the title of the show-stopping song from the Broadway version)—and we not only respect them, but embrace, cheer and emulate their creative courage.
Finally, of course, the ongoing popularity of La Cage aux folles is absolutely unmysterious: It makes us laugh aloud time and again after all these decreasingly innocent years.