Directed by Edouard Molinaro
Screenplay by Francis Veber, Édouard Molinaro, Marcello Danon, and Jean Poiret, based on the play by Jean Poiret
Starring Ugo Tognazzi and Michel Serrault
The further back into Academy Awards I delve, the easier it is to find films to include in this project – that is, it’s easier it is to find a Best Picture loser I haven’t seen before. Which is to be expected, given people tend to be more interested in things contemporary to their own lives, and not so much on things before. So, my knowledge of films since the mid-70s is much deeper than my knowledge of those films from before then.
The converse of this is that, the closer to contemporary I get, the harder it is to find a Best Picture loser I haven’t seen. The first entry that dealt with this problem was The Madness of King George, which wasn’t the first year this would be a problem, just the first time I encountered it. In that instance, not only could I not find a Best Picture loser I’d not seen, I’d also seen all the Best Director losers – or was sure I had, given I was certain I’d seen Krzysztof Kieślowski’s film Three Colors: Red. To be fair, I could have been mistaken about Red and actually saw either Blue or White.
Nevertheless, because I couldn’t find a loser from Best Picture or Best Director 1994 I hadn’t seen, I looked to a Best Actor loser – Nigel Hawthorne for The Madness of King George.
But while the first time I encountered that problem in this series was with The Madness of King George, the first chronological year this problem occurs is 1974. Here is fact: for the first 50 years or so of the Oscars, there were at least one loser per year I hadn’t seen. Between 1974 and 2008 – after which the Best Picture race basically doubled in size – I’ve seen all Best Picture nominees in all but 16 years. Or, more than half the years I saw them all, winners and losers alike. And in the stretch from 1996 to 2006, I’ve seen every single one. And from 2009 forward – which was the year the Best Picture race basically doubled – I’ve seen all but 11 total Best Picture nominees.
My whole point? No real point other than to be aware that as this Project moves forward, we’re going to see more Also-Rans from outside the Best Picture race. Yes, I’ll do my Best to pull the entries from the Best Director losers, but can’t guarantee it.
Anyway, for 1979 I’ve seen all Best Picture nominees – Kramer v. Kramer (winner), All That Jazz, Apocalypse Now, Breaking Away, and Norma Rae. This left me looking at the Best Director losers I hadn’t seen, which was only one – Edouard Molinaro, whose film La Cage Aux Folles couldn’t quite sneak into the Best Picture race, even as it was nominated for Best Director, Adapted Screenplay, and Costume Design.
What’s It About?
It’s the late-1970s France. The son of a gay couple, Renalto (Ugo Tognazzi) and Albin (Michel Serrault) – actually, the son of a Renalto and the woman he had a momentary fling with some decades before, but raised with Albin – announces his engagement to the daughter of a conservative politician. And by conservative, I mean the social conservative kind, to whom anything ‘gay’ would be a non-starter. So, to keep from sinking the nuptials, the gay couple decides to play it ‘straight’, or as straight as they can, to get through the wedding. Hijinks ensue.
Is It Any Good?
In many ways, La Cage is ahead of it’s time, what with the way it takes the gay couple as being just another couple. It treats them as just another, albeit one that’s a bit flamboyant. Moreover, it’s also ahead of it’s time in treating the politician as a spineless asshole, which is a completely recognizable character in today’s world. So in it’s way, La Cage very progressive.
That said, the movie is also disgustingly transgressive, treating the gay couple as a cartoonish stereotype, all campiness and broad gestures. To be fair, the culture clash of the film plays funnier the more extreme the two camps are – the gay couple and the conservative pol – so it’s no surprise they’re each made to go ‘big’. The difference is that while the conservative politician is simply made an extreme asshole – and not nearly so extreme, by today’s standards, if we’re honest – the gay couple is played as the worst kind of offensive, even by the standards of the late-1970s.
So, while I acknowledge the film as a step forward for gay depiction in films, and gay people in general, I am also sad because if this was a step-forward, that really demonstrates just how backwards things were when people were forced to grab hold of a film that was clearly lesser as an example of progress when they deserved so much more.
Stepping back from the themes of the film, the various elements of it are a bit of a hodge-podge. Filmed mostly hand-held, and very much in a vérité style, there is an immediacy and energy in the film. Unfortunately, this leaves the farce the film is supposed to be very shaggy and uncontrolled, which bogs it all down. And by bogs it down, I mean stifles nearly all humor.
The score, by Ennio Morricone is surprisingly terrible. It feels half-hearted, lackluster, very much boring and undistinguished, and something fit for a TV show, not a movie. Worse, it only detracts from the film, never adds to it.
Finally, like most other European films of the era, La Cage was shot without sound, to accommodate the pan-European cast and crew of the films, who would all later be dubbed in the final edit by an actor local to the country of release. This was the way with Spaghetti Westers, this was the way with Giallo’s, this is the way of La Cage. Under these circumstances it’s easy to see why Ugo Tognazzi – an Italian – was dubbed by a Frenchman in the French release of the film, while Michel
Serrault was dubbed by an Italian for the Italian release. Now I normally wouldn’t call out this dubbing, because it’s universally kind of lousy in Euro films of the era – after all, the actors on set were as likely to be saying the actual lines as they were to be saying the alphabet, so there was rarely good synchronization. Except, while pretty much every other actor in this film was well-synched between the sound of their French and their lip movements, Tognazzi was poorly synched, even as he, too, appeared to be speaking French. The synch on him was so awful at times that I had to look away.
This Is A Comedy, Right?
I’ll be honest – this was a comedy that really wasn’t all that funny. It’s a farce that fails to reach the usual fever pitch of a farce and truly feels completely devoid of humor. Worse, the script feels half-baked, more tossed-off than developed, and smacks of wasted potential. And while it’s doing the least it can to mine the potential of the scenario, it tries hard to mine whatever laughs it can by emaking the gay couple the ugliest of caricatures, essentially turning the character of Albin (Michel Serrault) into a shrieking, flouncing Queen. A depiction that is all-around offensive.
Two Great Moments
Despite my complaints that the film is not funny, it does have two good moments, which were not nearly enough.
In the first, Renalto (Ugo Tognazzi) and Albin (Michel Serrault) are in a bar, talking about how they can pass for straight. One idea is to walk like John Wayne. For Albin this seems to spark an ‘A-ha!’ moment, and he immediately shows us his John Wayne walk. Only it’s so goofy and wrong I couldn’t stop myself having a laugh.
Later, after Albin has dressed in what is for him ‘drag’ – a suit – he tries to show he can pass for straight by sitting in a chair. Only, the second he sits he struggles with what he’s supposed to do with his hands, and how to hold them, and it threw me right back to the episode of 30 Rock, the one where Jack Donaghy had to shoot one little scene in an internal company video and could not figure out what to do with his hands, so calls for two coffee cups. As it went on, I kept waiting for Albin to demand somebody have him two coffee cups.
Better Than Martin Ritt?
La Cage Aux Folles was not nominated for Best Picture, the only film in the Best Director race that did not get a corresponding nom for Best Picture. The Best Picture Also-Ran to be left out of the Best Director race? Martin Ritt for the nakedly pro-union film, Norma Rae.
Prior to Norma Rae, Martin Ritt had a fairly long and distinguished career. First he was a plywright and theater director, then he was a TV director. For a brief period his career was interrupted by the Black List but, once that hysteria cooled down in the later-1950s, he found work as a film director. His debut was Edge of the City. Later, he’d direct The Long, Hot Summer, Hud, and The Front. On the whole, he wasn’t a visual stylist, though he worked well with actors and always stuck with his leftish-ideals.
By the late 1970s, Ritt was a known quantity with a track-record. Yet, he was overlooked for a nomination for Norma Rae in favor of a French director who was not one of the auteur class, nor auteur-adjacent. The question then, is whether Molinaro was more deserving of the Oscar nod than Martin Ritt? Honestly, it’s been a while since I’ve seen Norma Rae, but even so, my memory of it is as a searing and moving piece of drama, that succeeds in everything it attempts. La Cage, on the other hand, feels like a bit of a stumble and, but for having been a hit in the arthouse, would have never come close to the Oscars.
It’s a shame that in a long career, Ritt only received one Oscar nod, for directing Hud.
See the rest of the Also Rans Project here.
 Of those five films, I can’t quite decide which I think is the true Best Picture. On the one hand, I love All That Jazz for it’s energy, it’s vision of a driven artist, and for ending on a glorious dance sequence scored to a man’s death. Similarly, Breaking Away is super-relatable to me, as a person from the Midwest and with working-class parents. But, because it tends to follow the usual sports film beats, it feels a bit samey-samey after 40 years, even as it helped bring those beats into being, and wasn’t merely aping them.
 If this plot sounds familiar, it’s because Mike Nichol’s The Birdcage is an adaptation of the film, and play, La Cage Aux Folles.
 To be clear, this complaint of mine has nothing to do with him being a drag queen for a living – the guy’s an entertainer and this is what he does. No, it’s how he’s portrayed when he’s off-stage that aggravates me