First Time Watch: La Cage Aux Folles (1979)

By Christian DiMartino

Édouard Molinaro‘s La Cage aux Folles comes at an unfortunate disadvantage: I have seen Mike Nichols’ The Birdcage so many times (so, so, SO many times) that I had a hard time not picturing it as I was watching La Cage aux Folles, which was of course the source material for The Birdcage (which was also an adaptation of a play of the same name by Jean Poiret). Truth is, after you see and hear this material in the hands of Robin Williams, Nathan Lane, and Hank Azaria, it’s hard to un-see it, and hear it. Having said that, without La Cage aux Folles, we wouldn’t have The Birdcage, so naturally, I liked La Cage aux Folles, even though I love The Birdcage.

The two movies are pretty hard to separate, and again, I know The Birdcage so well that I can tell you that La Cage aux Folles almost has an identical script. Which makes me feel like I should be dinging The Birdcage. But you know what? Nope, not today. Again, La Cage aux Folles is at an unfair disadvantage because The Birdcage is a movie that has practically been injected in my bloodstream. I know it well, have seen it countless times, and frankly, I think it’s a perfect movie. The comedic timing, the character development, the performances, the direction, all of it. Gangbusters.

The flaw of La Cage aux Folles is me, not the film. Because La Cage aux Folles is pretty funny, of course, and the screenplay is top notch. Each of the performances are also what you expect and want them to be. I just… it’s not The Birdcage. I’m sorry, I can’t help it. I of course liked this movie, and appreciate it not only for paving the way for The Birdcage but for also being really ahead of its time. It’s weird to think that Midnight Cowboy was considered taboo during its release. Since La Cage aux Folles was a French production, it probably didn’t receive controversy in France (you notice that it didn’t get an English-language adaptation til the 90’s, and even then…). But it had to have broken through in America, because the film received three Academy Award nominations, including Best Director and Screenplay. You know what didn’t? The Birdcage. Maybe I’m an idiot American. I appreciate European art, and I liked this movie. But my words to The Birdcage, in the words of Sinead O’Connor: nothing compares to you.

So the premise you probably know. Ugo Tognazzi and Michel Serrault play Renato and Albin, a gay couple who own a drag club in Saint-Tropez known as La Cage aux Folles. Renato runs the joint, and Albin is the star of the show. Renato is the more macho of the two of them, and Albin is certainly more flamboyant. Renato once had a son named Laurent (Remi Laurent) with a woman, and that son appears one night to announce some surprising news: he’s getting married, to a girl.

At first thrown off, they’re happy for him nonetheless. Laurent’s future in-laws are also thrown off by the sudden engagement, and neither family has met one another. It turns out that Laurent’s in-laws are rather conservative, and when they leave their home to dodge a current scandal, they hatch the idea to go meet Renato and Albin. Of course, they have no idea that they’re a gay couple. So Laurent and Renato concoct a plan to give off the illusion that Renato is straight, which of course causes the already hysterical Albin to go wild, and turn their lives and their homes upside down.

It is almost wild just how much of La Cage aux Folles is in The Birdcage. The fact that the scandal involves an underage African American prostitute, the fact that Renato suggests Albin try imitating John Wayne, and really just a good amount of the dialogue is verbatim in the film’s counterpart. Which… makes this film tough to put my finger on. Because on the one hand, it makes it seem like The Birdcage might’ve been a somewhat lazy remake. On the other hand, I just can’t help but feel like everything done in La Cage aux Folles is perfected in The Birdcage, as if Mike Nichols and Elaine May watched this film and thought, “this is good, but watch this.” I’m sorry, I can’t help the way that I feel, and it’s tough because it sounds like I’m dragging La Cage aux Folles down.

I’m not trying to, at least. Because this film is funny and surprising, and the performances are top notch and truly this material is just great. I just have too many images from the other movie clouding over it. The energy that The Birdcage has from the opening number of Sister Sledge’s “We are Family;” the score that’s present throughout it; the way in which the characters and the scenario feel a bit more developed, and sure the movie is half an hour longer than La Cage aux Folles, but these were wise additions; the performances (Hank Azaria’s Agador Spartacus is a much stronger character, too) and the line delivery. It just can’t be topped.

Dammit, I don’t really know why I have ultimately chosen to write about La Cage aux Folles today, because it ultimately comes across like I’m some young moron who is besmirching the good name of a classic European film. I found myself in a similar boat when I contemplated reviewing the original Nightmare Alley: I have the images of Guillermo Del Toro’s Nightmare Alley practically etched into my skull, and I think Del Toro did it a little better. I guess maybe the point is, sometimes a remake can actually be better. It’s rare, for sure. Perhaps, maybe had I seen La Cage aux Folles first, I might feel differently. Or perhaps maybe there is only one true La Cage aux Folles in my heart, and as good as La Cage aux Folles is, it simply isn’t The Birdcage. I’m sorry, I tried.

One response to “First Time Watch: La Cage Aux Folles (1979)”

  1. […] after you see the original, it can’t really be topped (so basically, it’s a bizarro La Cage aux Folles). Just take Schreiber, for example. Love the guy, will watch him in anything. There comes a scene […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: