Here I am copying the full next and highlighting the most salient points
Guess Who's Coming To Dinner?
by Michael D. Klemm
Posted online, March, 2009
La Cage Aux Folles (1978) is, quite simply, one of the funniest farces ever filmed. Younger gay audiences are probably more familiar with the 1996 remake, The Birdcage, but they owe it to themselves to check out the original French film because it is one of the true masterpieces of screen comedy. Although famed director Mike Nichols assembled a vast stable of talent for the remake - and his film certainly has it moments - The Birdcage still pales compared to its predecessor. This essay will discuss both titles in sequence. I am assuming that most of my readers have seen one, or both, films. For those who haven't, there are major spoilers ahead.
La Cage Aux Folles has always been a very special film to me. My first viewing was back in 1979, when I was a closeted senior in college, and it was the first film that I had ever seen that treated the subject of homosexuality with sympathy. La Cage Aux Folles was outrageous and, despite its extreme levity, the film had a serious point to make. Conventional notions of family and morality were challenged and turned upside down, yet only the most ingrained homophobe could watch this film and still cling to his bigotry.
Ugo Tognazzi and Michel Serrault are Renato Baldi and Albin Mougeotte, a longtime gay couple who have been partners for twenty years. Together, they own a night club in Saint-Tropez named La Cage Aux Folles (which translates as Birds of a Feather). The night club's specialty is fabulous drag revues and Albin is 'Zaza Napoli,' the main attraction and the sensational star of its stage. Albin is also the diva from hell and La Cage opens with the temperamental star having a hissy fit in his dressing room and refusing to perform. Apparently this is a nightly ritual and Renato is at his wits' end. To call Albin a screaming queen would be an understatement and the verbal sparring during this scene is pitched at such a level that is surprising that they do not kill one another.
While Albin is on stage, Renato receives a young visitor and the audience is deliberately led to believe that he is an old Chicken Hawk who is having an affair with a delicious young man. Then La Cage Aux Folle's truly subversive script drops its first surprise on the audience. The lad, Laurent, is Renato's son(!) and he has some very upsetting news for his father. He is getting married. To a woman. The usual familial cliches of "where did we go wrong" are given a workout in reverse and the viewers' expectations are smashed with a sledgehammer.
And then, the true comedic genius of La Cage Aux Folles comes into full bloom. The action swiftly cuts to Laurent's finance, Andrea, and her parents, Simon and Louise Charrier. They resemble medieval schoolmasters and they are demanding to know what the boy's parents do for a living. Simon, we will soon learn, is the Deputy Minister of The Union For Moral Order. The poor girl is terrified of her parents and lies that Renato is a Cultural Attache for the Italian Embassy and Albin is a housewife with six children.
But wait, it gets even better. Simon receives a phone call the next day and learns that the President has just been found dead in the arms of a prostitute... who is also a minor... and black. The press is already having a field day at Simon's expense and The Union For Moral Order is the laughing stock of France. But Louise has the answer - invite the press to a big public white wedding where he gives his daughter's hand in marriage to the son of a diplomat. "Morality, background, tradition! Restored!" beams his wife. They can even get the Pope's blessing.
Meanwhile, Albin is also shocked that their little boy is getting married. To a woman. "It hurts at first," he whines while wiping away copious tears. But it's going to hurt a lot more soon. The Charriers are on their way to meet their future in-laws and this meeting is going to be... shall we say, awkward? Laurent begs his father to redecorate their very garish apartment and to send Albin away for a few days. Renato is understandably outraged and refuses, but then gives in even though his son has got to be the most ungrateful brat who has ever lived. An elaborate charade ensues and the climactic dinner, as the two families with their clashing values meet, is perhaps the funniest French farce since Moliere.
It is a rare film that can still make me convulse with laughter even after more than a dozen viewings. The number of funny scenes in La Cage Aux Folles are too numerous to list. Their apartment looks like a bordello and, to impress the future in-laws, it is redecorated to resemble a monastery. At the disastrous dinner, soup is hastilly served before the Charriers can notice the pictures of naked Greek athletes wrestling in the bowls. When the papprarazzi arrives with cameras in tow to capture Simon leaving the gay nightclub, Albin dresses the humiliated Deputy up as the ugliest woman you will ever see.
Two minor, but memorable, characters round out the cast. One is Laurent's biological mother, who has had no contact with her son since his birth. Laurent, we learn, is the result of a drunken liaison that lasted one night from 2:30 to 3:45. The other is Renato and Albin's "maid" - a muscular black man named Jacob who loves to wear skimpy French maid uniforms and Albin's wigs. Did I just say a black "maid?" Wait; before someone charges the film with racism, Jacob has one of the film's best lines when Renato remarks that "You French make such shitty coffee" and Jacob replies: "I've been called nigger and I've been called queer but I've never been called French."
Also, as Laurent's demands become more and more excessive, an annoyed Jacob sarcastically refers to the boy as his "little white master."
Some have complained that La Cage Aux Folles perpetuated stereotypes, and Renato and Albin have even been called the Amos and Andy of Gaydom. Yes, they are a pair of flaming queens but they weren't objects of ridicule and this is the crucial difference - certainly not the norm in films at the time. Renato and Albin are utterly delightful and the audience laughs with them and not at them. Which is more than I can say for the sanctimonious Simon Charrier and his wife. Renato and Albin might be a tad eccentric, but audiences embraced them and recognized that they were harmless. As opposed to the Charriers, with their rigid beliefs and prejudices, who are downright dangerous!
Do the "politically correct" amongst you still think that Albin is too much of a drama queen? Well, then take a closer look at Simon. The temper tantrums that he throws throughout the film are as histrionic as Albin's - his voice is just a few octaves lower. Also, like Albin, he craves chocolate whenever he is stressed.
Ugo Tognazzi and Michel Serrault were both noted European actors; Tognazzi usually played tough guys, and was actually once a heartthrob in Italy, and he is beautifully cast against type in La Cage. Fans of Phillipe deBroca's classic anti-war comedy, King Of Hearts, will recognize Serrault as the barber who pays his customers because he "hates to see the shop empty." Their chemistry together and comic timing is sublime. This is a film that knows how to tell a joke correctly, utilizing the actors, the photography and the cutting for maximum effect. Look, for example, at the classic scene where Renato tries to teach Albin how to act more "like a man." Following Renato's exasperated instructions, Albin tries to forcefully butter his toast and then screams each time the toast that he clenches in his hand keeps snapping in half. The lesson concludes with Renato unsuccessfully trying to teach Albin how to walk like John Wayne.
Yet, despite all the drama, it is clear that Renato and Albin truly love each other. They bicker and then reconcile like Lucy and Ricky Ricardo and, after awhile, the straights in the audience forget that they are watching two men. Renato tells Albin that he is a pain in the ass but confesses that he still loves him because "you make me laugh." Some critics complained that we never see them kiss or show any signs of affection. Wrong. We do see them kiss; it only happens once but it does happen. Early in the film, Albin returns from shopping and kisses Renato and the director doesn't call any attention to it. Perhaps it is so subtle that no one noticed. (In the remake, the two men also kiss just once and during the same scene.)
There is also genuine pathos in La Cage Aux Folles. It is sad to see these two men, used to living their lives so openly, suddenly being forced to pass as straight. Albin looks so uncomfortable and pathetic when he makes the effort and dresses in a conservative suitcoat; his pink socks are his one last vain attempt to maintain his identity and you almost want to cry when he says "No. Dressed like this I'm even more ridiculous." He is far more in his element when he makes a surprise entrance, in drag, to masquerade as Laurent's mother when the Charriers arrive for dinner.
Perhaps one might ask why Renato would even give in to his son's unreasonable demands but, like any other parent, he wants to do what is best for his son - even at his own expense. In Renato's case, this means denying his very identity. To his credit, he first refuses and I've actually heard audiences cheer at his initial response. "Yes, I wear make-up," he tells his son, "I live with a man, and I'm an old fag. But I know who I am. It's taken me 20 years and that Deputy won't destroy it. I don't give a damn about the Deputy. The hell with the Deputy. Fuck the Deputy."
Every straight person who I have ever seen the film with has reacted to it the same way. They all agreed that the Deputy Minister of The Union For Moral Order was the one who was ridiculous and not the two "fags." La Cage Aux Folles was a milestone and its message is still very important even today, three decades later.
Note: The less said about the two sequels, the better. La Cage Aux Folles II (1980) was an inane spy caper made somewhat palatable only by the chemistry between Tognazzi and Serrault. La Cage Aux Folles 3: The Wedding (1985), in which Albin has to get married and father a son in order to receive an inheritance, was so intolerable that I couldn't even finish watching it.
There would not be an American remake for almost twenty years even though La Cage Aux Folles was, at the time, the highest-ever grossing foreign film to date. (In 1985, La Cage would become a Tony award winning musical with a book by Harvey Fierstein.) In 1996, noted stage and film director Mike Nichols (The Graduate) re-united with his old comedy partner, Elaine May, and assembled an all-star cast, to update La Cage.
The Birdcage, aside from being transferred from Saint-Tropez to South Beach, Florida, is essentially the same film as La Cage Aux Folles. Robin Williams and Nathan Lane star as Armand and Albert Goldman. Their nightclub is called The Birdcage, and Albert graces its stage as the great Starina. Hank Azaria is the Guatemalan "maid" with a penchant for wearing Albert's wigs, and Dan Futterman plays the ungrateful son, Val, who sets chaos into motion.
Their nemesis is now a Jesse Helmes-styled conservative Senator. Gene Hackman is a hoot as Ohio Senator Kevin Keeley, one of the founders of The Coalition For Moral Order. Having the President of the United States die in the arms of an underaged, black prostitute would have been a bit much and so this time it's Keeley's Coalition co-founder, Senator Eli Jackson, whose comical death sends the media into a feeding frenzy. To wag the dog, the wife, Louise (Dianne West), again suggests a big white wedding for their daughter, Barbara (Calista Flockhart).
It made sense to remake La Cage Aux Folles during the 90s because the "family values" crowd was heating up their efforts to legislate homophobia in America. Humor is a potent weapon and any big budget Hollywood film that could help foster acceptance from mainstream audiences was certainly welcome. The Birdcage makes the same satiric point as La Cage does, and it is very funny, but somehow it doesn't reach the same comedic heights as its predessessor.
The basic set-up of the story is so funny that it's almost impossible to screw it up, yet many of the scenes that had me screaming with laughter in the original are flat in the sequel. Somewhere along the line Albert's character was toned down and I don't think that was wise. Starina is nowhere near the hissy diva that Zaza was in the first film and the character needs to be more over the top. You might say that the lady doth protest too much in La Cage when Albin throws a fit on stage because his young dancing partner chews gum and blows a bubble in his face, but in which film was the tantrum funnier? The toast scene in the new film doesn't come close to matching the comedic genius of the same moment in the original. It's all in the timing. When Gene Hackman's Senator Keeley gets the phone call that his Coalition co-founder is dead, his delivery is too rushed. Whereas, in the first film, Simon Charrier was breathing heavy and muttering slowly, with long pregnant pauses for comic effect: "She was a prostitute....... and a minor...... and black."
But The Birdcage does have many delightful touches of its own; one example is Albert returning from the stage dressed as the hobo Judy Garland from Easter Parade. There are a few improvements too; Renato allowed himself to be seduced by Laurent's mother in the original but Armand just does his old dance number with her this time and I liked this scene a lot better. Williams matches Tognazzi when he rightly tells off his son and then says "Fuck the Senator, I don't give a damn what he thinks." And I thought it was brilliant that, when Albert came in un-announced at dinner, he was dressed - and looked - like Barbara Bush. His winning over of the Senator with his dumb Republican smalltalk (instead of killing abortion doctors, why don't we kill the mothers?) is also hysterically funny.
The Goldmans' apartment is flamboyant but not quite as frilly as Renato and Albin's; one of the best jokes occurs during its makeover when one of the drag performers thinks it will butch up the apartment if he hangs up a large moose head. Elaine May's script adds a few zingers that were untouched upon in the original. The Kelleys are so conservative that Barbara is afraid to even tell her parents that her future father-in-law is Jewish, and she lies that his last name is Coleman instead of Goldman. When Mrs. Keeley suggests getting the Pope's blessing for the wedding, her husband sneers that the Pope is too controversial and that Billy Graham is too Liberal.
Again, if anyone in the audience doesn't think that it's the Senator who is ridiculous by the conclusion, then that person is watching the film with blinders. And probably thinks George W. Bush was a good President.
The cast is, for the most part, terrific. Robin Williams is oddly subdued, considering how manic he can sometimes be, but his subtle performance works. (His dry one-liners include telling Agador that he looks like "Lucy's stunt double.") Nathan Lane was a good choice but his Albert pales next to Michel Serrault's Albin. Williams and Lane do have a nice chemistry together though and, despite the bickering, seem much more happily married than the Keeleys. Christine Baranski does a memorable turn as Val's biological mother, and Hank Azaria literally steals every scene in which he appears as Agador.
My vote is still with the original but it all boils down to one's personal taste. Some will undoubtedly prefer the American remake because they can recognize the actors and they don't have to read subtitles, but its delightful story has an important message that comes strongly across in both versions. Let us hope someday that the central conflict in the two films will soon be such a non-issue that there will be no need for another remake two decades from now.