The 1978 movie La Cage Aux Folles (itself based on a stage play) has had quite a life, getting two sequels, being remade as the hit 1996 Hollywood hit The Birdcage and also ending up as a massively successful Broadway musical, which gave us the song, I Am What I Am. The film that started all this off is fun but relatively small, but it stands loud and proud as one of the first movies that put gay characters front and centre, making them the heroes. Although there are several things that seem slightly old-fashioned about its attitudes to homosexuality, compared to nearly every other gay-themed movie of the era, it’s astonishingly progressive and fun.
Renato (Ugo Tognazzi) and Albin (Michel Serrault) are a loving gay couple who run the nightclub, La Cage Aux Folles, where Albin’s drag queen creation, Zaza Napoli, is the main attraction. They’re also the fathers of Laurent (the very cute Remi Laurent), who is the product of Renato’s brief liaison with a woman two decades before. Laurent is now engaged to the beautiful Louise and her folks want all the parents to meet. The problem is that Louise’s father is high-up in a moral rectitude society and wouldn’t think much of Renato being gay. Laurent manages to convince his dads to calm things down for the visit, and even gets Albin to agree to stand aside and perhaps even get his real mother involved. However due to a series of events, when Louise’s parents arrives Albin ends up introducing himself in drag as Laurent’s mother, which begins an evening of chaos.
La Cage Aux Folles is a movie with real charm and verve. The fact it always roots for Renato and Albin while never suggested they are anything but gay – with all the ‘flourishes’ that come with that – is a rare and wonderful thing for a movie from 1978, as is the fact that it doesn’t even question that a child can be successfully raised by two men. Charmingly played with great characters and with plenty of humour, the film’s one weakness is that there’s a lot of set-up for not a lot of pay-off.
As always in farce, much of the opening of the film is about setting things up so that what would otherwise seem ridiculous, appear ‘sensible’ or even inevitable in this context. La Cage Aux Folles spends an awful lot of time setting things up for the arrival of Louise’s parents, but the actual dinner passes by at lightning speed. It’s a balance both the musical and The Birdcage realised needed redressing, although to be honest it’s a small flaw as the film does much more right than it does wrong.
La Cage Aux Folles has played an immensely important role in gay entertainment history, as it was one of the first times a movie treated homosexuality positively and hardly bothers to question that idea. Indeed the real problem in the film is dealing with those who’ve got a problem with gay people. It was such a rare thing to see at the time that it had a ridiculously long run in cinemas, with one theatre in New York showing it for well over a year. Nowadays it still definitely entertains, although it’s as worth seeing for its place in queer cinema history as it is for the laughs.
Overall Verdict: A very entertaining farce that holds an incredibly important spot in gay cinema history. Other versions may have smoothed out some of its flaws, but it’s still a great little flick.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac