The story of the 1978 film La Cage Aux Folles doesn’t begin or end with the film itself. It began as a French stage play in 1973, spawned two sequels, became a Broadway musical, and was later remade as the 1996 comedy The Birdcage. So the film is just one point in the La Cage Aux Folles story. But it’s also part of a bigger story, one in which a movie about two gay men living together as a long-term couple became an international hit and found a mainstream audience, for a time becoming the highest-grossing foreign-language film in the United States. Gay marriage is gaining widespread acceptance on a scale unimaginable in 1978, and, as critic David Eherenstein notes in the booklet accompanying this new DVD and Blu-ray release, “La Cage Aux Folles is more ‘of the moment’ than ever.” Yet any frame of La Cage Aux Folles makes clear it’s a film very much of its time, starting with the outré 1970s decor and fashions, and carrying on through gay characters who often seem more like patchwork assemblages of stereotypes than flesh and blood. Often, but not always—and that crucial distinction makes La Cage more subversive than it might initially appear.
In its first incarnation on the stage, it was written by Jean Poiret as a starring vehicle for him and his longtime comedy partner Michel Serrault. Poiret played Georges, the co-owner of La Cage Aux Folles, a nightclub featuring drag acts. Serrault played Albin, the co-owner and flamboyant drag headliner, and Georges’ longtime lover. For the film version, Poiret stepped aside, apart from some screenplay work; he was replaced onscreen by Italian star Ugo Tognazzi, as the French Georges became Renato to better serve the international needs of a French/Italian co-production. The basics of the plot remained the same: A farce is set in motion when Renato’s biological son Laurent (Remí Laurent) returns home to tell his father he’s soon to be married. The hitch: His intended, Andrea (Luisa Maneri) is the daughter of an ultra-conservative, scandal-averse politician (Michael Galabru), and Laurent wants to keep his unconventional family a secret. To honor his wishes, Renato makes plans to camouflage their home and keep Albin under wraps. But as it goes with farces, the plan starts to unravel almost as quickly as it gets made.
A lifer in the French film industry, director Edouard Molinaro brings little flash to the proceedings, mostly getting out of the way and letting that material—reshaped for the screen in large part by Francis Veber, who was about to start directing his own hit farces—do the work for him. And while the film never finds much of a rhythm, it largely does work, thanks in large part to the melancholy undertones Serrault brings to Albin. In one scene, Renato tries to instruct him on how to butter toast in a more masculine fashion. Later, Albin wears a conservative suit and tries to look at ease. In both, he appears like a man at war with himself, pressured to pretend to be something he isn’t, at the cost of his own happiness.
According to Molinaro, on a new interview included on the disc, that’s an element absent from the play, and introduced for the film—and then under protest. Molinaro describes the conservative Serrault’s difficulty in playing “a real homosexual. It didn’t bother him to play a screaming transvestite queen performing a number onstage. In the play, it was almost like a clown act. But we asked him for greater reality and depth, and he wasn’t very comfortable with that.” However deep his discomfort, that element of humanity and tenderness makes the film more than a well-oiled farce filled with stereotypical characters. Tognazzi never seems particularly engaged, but Serrault works overtime, creating a sense of shared history and the possibility of tragedy, should the central couple’s relationship fall apart. There’s more at stake here than whether two men can fool the straight world for a couple of hours.
As an artifact, La Cage Aux Folles remains fascinating. As a film… Well, it plays like a fascinating artifact. Though pokily staged up to its final act, it manages some real laughs. Yet many of the gags consist of little more than men behaving effeminately, to the point where it all starts to feel like a wasted opportunity. (Anyone who thought Hank Azaria over-the-top as Agador the houseboy in The Birdcage should see Benny Luke as Jacob, that character’s inspiration.) That might be one reason mainstream critics in 1978 greeted the film more warmly than the gay press did. But the safety of stereotypes might also be why audiences who might otherwise avoid a gay-themed movie showed up for La Cage Aux Folles. Without challenging viewers’ notions of how gay men behave, the film shamed its homophobic characters while showing a loving family headed by longtime same-sex partners who are embraced by their community—boas, makeup, and all. Albin and Renato were onto something. It was the rest of the world’s job to catch up.
That Molinaro interview is the disc’s meatiest feature, though there’s also an excellent interview with Laurence Senelick that contextualizes the film within the history of drag and the representation of gay characters. Archival footage of Poiret and Serrault performing skits on French TV provides a glimpse into their partnership, and what French audiences wanted in the early days of television. More revealing is a 10-minute excerpt of a La Cage stage performance starring its originators. As Molinaro describes it, it looks both broader than the film it inspired—which is saying something—and also a little less humane.