La Cage aux Folles was an enormous success worldwide when it came out in 1978/79. It was for many straight audiences the first time they had seen the world of drag on screen, although cross-dressing is one of the oldest tropes in cinema. However, it was normally played for laughs, and it was a straight person who has to hide out in drag—for example, Some Like It Hot or I Was a Male War Bride. The only filmmaker who really took crossdressing on screen seriously before the ‘70s was Ed Wood, with his masterpiece Glen or Glenda—although the film was campy, it was deeply sympathetic, Wood was a cross-dresser himself, and actually the film is still ahead of its time in some ways, although I’m sure some trans-activists would despise the film if they watched it today. It’s also worth mentioning John Waters, whose films during the ’70s would star Divine, his drag-queen muse. But they were very much underground cult films, while La Cage aux Folles was a bonafide box-office hit.
The film is about Renato (Ugo Tognazzi) and Albin (Michel Serrault), a middle-aged gay couple who live above the glamorous gay club La Cage Aux Folles. Renato is the manager of the club, and Albin is one of the stars of the show. However, one day Renato’s son (the result of a one night stand with a woman 20 years ago) reveals that he is getting married, and to make matters more complicated, it’s to a girl with right-wing parents. Naturally, they have to have dinner with his son’s fiancée’s parents, so they have to hide who they actually are when the soon-to-be in-laws come for a visit. That’s really about the whole gist, and the humour comes mostly from the absolutely absurd situation that the couple find themselves in.
The first major problem with the film is that it has an extremely “problematic” portrayal of race in the role of their African butler, who routinely refers to Renato as his white master. It’s a film which most certainly has its heart in right place, but it’s a serious problem that I’m sure will make many modern and first-time viewers extremely uncomfortable, because it does undeniably border on a minstrel show vibe at times. The gay audience from the very start also had a slightly ambivalent view on the film: some on the more radical side considered it to just perpetuate gay stereotypes, and it does, but it’s not like people who personify these ultra-camp stereotypes don’t exist in the gay community. It’s probably better for some to take it as a time capsule of its era rather than some perfect politically correct portrayal of gay people.
Despite these stereotypes, La Cage aux Folles has a message that is unabashedly about not conforming and accepting people no matter what. It has an important place in the history of comedies about drag queens, which is becoming a genre unto itself, and it certainly paved the way for the far better The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, which also is more emotionally satisfying and richer than this rather fluffy farce. It’s probably safe to say that RuPaul’s Drag Race probably wouldn’t exist if La Cage aux Folles hadn’t been this massive crossover success four decades earlier.
The film was later remade by Mike Nichols as The Birdcage, and I barely remember it. After a quick glance over some scenes on YouTube, it seemed like it was pretty much a note-for-note remake which the exception that the black houseboy is replaced with a Guatemalan houseboy played by the white actor Hank Azaria. Both films are undeniably stagey, but that’s because it was based on a very successful stage play, it was later readapted for the stage as a musical, and La Cage aux Folles ended up spawning two film sequels in the ’80s.
Criterion released this back in 2013, and it’s finally becoming available in the UK. The most interesting feature is an interview with Laurence Senelick, who gives a pretty interesting history of drag on stage and on screen over the last few centuries. He does completely gloss over John Waters and Ed Wood, which is a massive oversight, but they did get a mention in his book on the subject, The Changing Room: Sex, Drag and Theatre. The other interviews are a then newly-filmed interview with director Edouard Molinaro and some archival interviews with the two leads. It’s rounded off by trailers and a booklet with an essay by David Ehrenstein.