I remember when La Cage Aux Folles opened in my neighborhood. I was just a kid, but it was one of those “word of mouth” sensations – at least in LA’s San Fernando Valley. I may be looking back with rose-colored glasses, but I don’t think anyone was up in arms about its subject matter, which is quite tame today. The French have always been able to illustrate their culture and many sub-cultures’ way of life that is somewhat acceptable in the US. It could be because it is “foreign” to us, and so considered “safe.”
It took Hollywood 18 years to remake La Cage aux Folles, and by then it was a dated, cartoonish period piece – although my guess is Robin Williams’ doing his gay choreographer and Nathan Lane squealing and mugging worked perfectly for middle America in 1996. If anything, caricatures like this set back the movement and acceptance of the gay lifestyle.
So how does La Cage Aux Folles belong in the modern milieu , and can it be truly enjoyed for its 1970s “wink” to an alternative lifestyle that today, is just a lifestyle? (Again, I live in Los Angeles, so I tend to think our Left Coast’s view of society is much more open than it may currently be across the states.)
The French-Italian Production, re-released through The Criterion Collection in a dazzling set, includes essential interviews by director Edouard Molinaro, discussing both his career and the difficult machinations both to get the film made and to get over his distaste for the material, and Professor Laurence Senelick, who illustrates how La Cage Aux Folles fits into the history of transvestites and drag performance.
Re-watching La Cage aux Folles today, credit needs to be given to its sensitive portrayal of Renato and Albin, the middle-aged gay couple who obviously love one another, and their struggle to appear “normal” for their son’s engagement dinner with his fiancé’s conservative parents.
While the story works under the guise of the archetypal French “farce;” someone hiding something, someone or oneself from several parties to further the plot by a ruse, it’s actually more subversive, using the conservative family as a stand-in for that portion of society unable to accept the gay lifestyle.
Michel Serrault, playing the headlining female impersonator at La Cage aux Folles Cabaret, and the “mother” of the family, is a frail and sensitive “Diva” presented in the beginning as a spoiled child, throwing tantrums to get what he wants from his partner Renato, played by Ugo Tognazzi, the owner of the nightclub. It’s obvious these two love one another. What’s also obvious, and groundbreaking for the time, was the depiction of this couple, and the portrayal of their struggle to help their son complete the ruse. They are presented as any other family unit trying to deal with a crisis. The relationships to one another, and even those in the club and the neighborhood around them, is fully developed and as natural as any other family.
This was the revelation and the most significant element of the story. By illustrating that this family, as “alternative” as society may describe them, has the same emotions, concerns, fears and dreams as anyone, it normalizes them. Again, this may seem passé today, but in 1978, this was new territory.
Interestingly, Director Edouardo Molinaro only agreed to do the film if he could work with writers to update and add this level of sophistication to the original source material. The stage play La Cage aux Folles, which was a smash in France since 1973, but played more as a burlesque, should not be confused with the musical, which was an adaptation of the film.
There were no subtle shadings in the original play, which demanded over-the-top performances and drag show contrivances. In fact, Michel Serrault, a firm Christian who originated the role of Renato on stage, had the hardest time “accepting” the character as a sensitive gay man. He resisted at first; mugging and “prancing” instead of digging in deep and fleshing out the conflicts that this real person thinks and feels. It’s a testament then, to director Molinaro and Serrault that they found that subtle balance which makes the character, and his performance, the standout of the film.
Since the success of the film, there were two sequels, and of course, the Broadway musical. Interestingly, one element of the story which has always bothered me, is the character of the couple’s son; Laurent. He seems to have no issue expressing how embarrassed he is about his parents, and asking them to “pose’ as something they are not, his father and his “uncle”. To make their son happy, Renato goes as far as seeking out and convincing the boy’s biological mother, who has done nothing for him for twenty years, to pose as Renato’s happy, dutiful wife. It destroys Albin to have to hide away from who he is. The story, however, never reflects the sacrifice their son demands on his parent Albin, all to smooth over his engagement to his fiancée.
The musical updated this story point by having Renato discuss with Laurent the terrible sacrifice he is demanding; to ask Albin to hide the very nature of who he is, and it is Albin who decides to make the sacrifice on his own.
This plot point aside, the great moment, when in the middle of the masquerade, Renato decides to end the game and announce to the conservative parents that he and Albin are a couple, and Albin pulls off his wig, is not only powerful, but a tip of the hat (er…wig) to the history of drag shows, with the queen pulling his wig off at the conclusion, to the applause of an appreciative audience.
It’s easy to discuss the film in a historical context and forget that this is a lighthearted comedy. After all these years, the element of shock and surprise is gone, which originally helped elicit half the laughs. Even so, it is still an enjoyable romp, and worth seeing again, especially with the great interviews and extras which help establish La Cage aux Folles‘ importance in the evolution of gay storytelling.