THE DVD SHELF: The Original French Laugh Hit "La Cage aux Folles" and Richard Burton as "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold"

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22 Sep 2013

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This month's column looks at "La Cage aux Folles," the French-language film which launched that title on the international level and prepared the world for the Broadway musical that soon followed, and Richard Burton (with Claire Bloom) in Martin Ritt's 1965 Cold War thriller "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold."


In 1973, Parisian actor Jean Poiret sat down and wrote himself a role to play: Georges, the owner of a nightclub in St. Tropez called La Cage aux Folles. The role of Albin (Zaza), the star of the nightclub, was played by Michel Serrault, with whom Poiret had intermittently been partnered with on stage and screen for twenty years. La Cage aux Folles was a long-running Paris hit, clocking almost 1,800 performances. In those days it was highly unusual to make a film adaptation while the original show was still running, so it wasn't until 1978 that "La Cage aux Folles" [Criterion] made it to the screen. (Because this was an Italian-French coproduction, the producers deemed it necessary to use a more-popular Italian actor, Ugo Tognazzi, in place of Poiret, with Serrault recreating his Zaza.)

The film version of "La Cage" was wildly successful on an international scale, resulting in "La Cage aux Folles 2" in 1980 and "La Cage aux Folles 3: 'Elles' se marient" in 1985. Meanwhile, there was the little matter of a 1983 Broadway musical version as well as a totally separate 1996 English-language film adaptation of the play from Mike Nichols, "The Birdcage." (Nichols had been involved in the original Broadway plans. Transplanted to New Orleans, The Queen of Basin Street was to have a score by Maury Yeston, book by Jay Presson Allen and choreography by Tommy Tune. Nichols and producer Allan Carr had a falling out, the piece was disbanded and Carr turned to Jerry Herman and Harvey Feinstein.)

Edouard Molinaro's film version was the most successful French-language film the United States had ever seen, a widespread commercial hit which earned three Oscar nominations. (How many foreign-language films, I wonder, have been nominated for the best screenplay award? In this case, "La Cage" lost to "Kramer vs. Kramer," which had the advantage of being in English.) Thus, the title, and the plot, were readily familiar to American audiences when the musical came along.

I hadn't seen the film since its original release. When the musical opened, I found myself less than thrilled; my memory kept whispering that the movie was better. This remained a hunch until this week, when I watched the new Criterion Blu-ray edition. We needn't compare the worth of one against the worth of the other, but I now understand why the musical has always let me down. The leading role of the musical, pretty much, has always been Albin; he has the flashiest songs (including Herman's most searing song ever, "I Am What I Am"), and he has the biggest scenes. Georges stands by like a straight man (if you'll pardon the expression) and facilitates Albin's histrionics.

In the film, though, your attention — or at least my attention — is on Georges. The long-suffering Georges is the center of the story, juggling his partner Albin, his son Laurent, the outré housemaid Jacob, Laurent's birth-mother Simone and the morally bombastic in-laws. That, it turns out, is what I've always missed in the musical: Georges in the spotlight.


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