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'La Cage aux Folles' Director Édouard Molinaro Dies: Gay Comedy Became International Hit

La Cage aux Folles director Édouard MolinaroÉdouard Molinaro

'La Cage aux Folle's director Édouard Molinaro, who collaborated with Catherine Deneuve, Jeanne Moreau & Orson Welles, dead at 85

Édouard Molinaro, best known internationally for the late '70s box office comedy hit La Cage aux Folles, which earned him a Best Director Academy Award nomination, died of lung failure on Dec. 7, '13, at a Paris hospital. Molinaro was 85.

Born on May 31, 1928, in Bordeaux, in southwestern France, to a middle-class family, Molinaro began his six-decade-long film and television career in the mid-'40s, directing narrative and industrial shorts such as Evasion (1946), the Death parable Un monsieur très chic (“A Very Elegant Gentleman,” 1948), and Le verbe en chair / The Word in the Flesh (1950), in which a poet realizes that greed is everywhere – including his own heart.

At the time, Molinaro also worked as an assistant director, collaborating with, among others, Robert Vernay (the 1954 version of The Count of Monte Cristo, starring Jean Marais) and Orson Welles (the 1950 short The Miracle of St. Anne).

Édouard Molinaro movies

Édouard Molinaro's feature film career took off in 1958, with the release of Back to the Wall / Le dos au mur, a crime drama starring Jeanne Moreau and Gérard Oury. Several other mysteries and thrillers would follow in the ensuing decade, among them Un témoin dans la ville (“A Witness in Town,” 1959), with Franco Fabrizi in the title role, plus Lino Ventura and Sandra Milo; the lighthearted Arsène Lupin contre Arsène Lupin (1962), with Jean-Claude Brialy, Jean-Pierre Cassel, and Françoise Dorléac; and the spy thriller To Commit a Murder / Peau d'espion (1968), with Louis Jourdan, Senta Berger, and Hollywood veteran Edmond O'Brien.

In the early '60s, Molinaro also dabbled in comedy, e.g., A Mistress for the Summer / Une fille pour l'été (1960), featuring Pascale Petit in the title role, in addition to Michel Auclair and Micheline Presle; and the well-received Male Hunt / La Chasse à l'homme (1964), an episodic satire of the sacred institution of marriage, featuring an all-star cast: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean-Claude Brialy, Françoise Dorléac, Catherine Deneuve, Marie Laforêt, Bernadette Lafont, Hélène Duc, Claude Rich, Francis Blanche, Bernard Blier, Mireille Darc, Marie Dubois, Micheline Presle, and future La Cage aux Folles star Michel Serrault.

But the director (and at times co-screenwriter) would become associated with the genre following his two collaborations with French comic superstar Louis de Funès: Oscar (1967), based on Claude Magnier's play, and remade in 1991 with Sylvester Stallone and Ornella Mutti; and Hibernatus (1969), in which a man (Bernard Alane) is brought back to life after lying frozen for decades in Greenland, much to the concern of his late '60s relatives, who decide to pretend they're living in 1905.

Among Édouard Molinaro's other film comedies were My Uncle Benjamin / Mon oncle Benjamin (1969), starring Belgian singer Jacques Brel; the crime comedy A Pain in the Ass / L'Emmerdeur (1973), with Brel and Lino Ventura; Dracula and Son / Dracula père et fils (1976), with Christopher Lee, Bernard Menez, and future filmmaker Catherine Breillat (The Last Mistress, Anatomy of Hell) in a supporting role; and L'amour en douce (1985), with Daniel Auteuil and Emmanuelle Béart in one of her first important movie roles.

La Cage aux Folles Michel Serrault Ugo Tognazzi'La Cage aux Folle's film: Édouard Molinaro international box office hit (image: Ugo Tognazzi and Michel Serrault in 'La Cage aux Folles')

But Édouard Molinaro's best-known effort – comedy or otherwise – remains La Cage aux Folles (approximate translation: “The Cage of the Queens”), which sold 5.4 million tickets when it came out in France in 1978. Perhaps because many saw it as a letdown when compared to Jean Poiret's immensely popular 1973 play, Molinaro's movie ended up nominated for a single César Award – for eventual Best Actor winner Michel Serrault.

Somewhat surprisingly, in the next couple of years La Cage aux Folles would become a major hit in the United States and other countries. Released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in the U.S. in 1979, the film grossed $20.42 million at the North American box office – or about $65 million in 2013 dollars, a remarkable sum for a subtitled release.

Starring Ugo Tognazzi (in the role played by Poiret onstage) and Michel Serrault (reprising his stage role) La Cage aux Folles chronicles the travails of a middle-aged gay couple (Tognazzi as the “man,” Serrault as the “woman”) – and gay cabaret owners – who try to pass for a straight (and strait-laced) couple so their handsome son (Rémi Laurent, who would die of AIDS at age 32 in 1989) can marry the daughter (Luisa Maneri) of a rabid Traditional Family Values politician (Michel Galabru). Needless to say, things don't go quite as planned.

Walking – and frequently tripping over – a fine line between witty screwball comedy and low-brow farce, and between a progressive portrayal of late 20th century families and a reactionary depiction of at times cringe-inducing gay stereotypes, La Cage aux Folles was nominated for three Academy Awards. Besides Édouard Molinaro's Best Director nod, the film was shortlisted for Best Adapted Screenplay (Édouard Molinaro, Francis Veber, Marcello Danon, and Jean Poiret) and Best Costume Design (Ambra Danon and one of this year's Honorary Oscar recipients, Piero Tosi). Molinaro's Best Director nod was particularly surprising; bypassed were Best Picture nominee Norma Rae director Martin Ritt, Woody Allen for Manhattan, and James Bridges for The China Syndrome.

'La Cage aux Folles': Awards, sequels, and American remake

Additionally, La Cage aux Folles won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film, the National Board of Review Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and Italy's David di Donatello Award for Michel Serrault (tied with Richard Gere for Days of Heaven) in the Best Foreign Actor category.

Édouard Molinaro's hit also led to two decreasingly popular sequels, both starring Ugo Tognazzi and Michel Serrault. Released in 1981 in the U.S., the MGM-distributed, Molinaro-directed La Cage aux Folles II collected a relatively modest $6.95 million (approx. $20 million today), while the Tri-Star-released, Georges Lautner-directed La Cage aux Folles 3: The Wedding / La cage aux folles 3 - 'Elle's se marient collected a paltry $345,280 in 1986 (approx. $750,000 today). Despite the ahead-of-its-time gay marriage theme of movie no. 3, note the feminine pronoun in the original French title.

It took a while, but Hollywood eventually came up with a remake of the 1978 original. Directed by Academy Award winner Mike Nichols (The Graduate), The Birdcage (1996) starred Robin Williams and Nathan Lane in the Ugo Tognazzi and Michel Serrault roles. Gene Hackman was the foaming-at-the-mouth Family Values politician, Dianne Wiest his submissive wife, Dan Futterman the gay couple's son, Calista Flockhart the right-wing couple's daughter, and Christine Baranski the young man's estranged mother (in La Cage aux Folles played by Claire Maurier, who was featured in five Molinaro films).

Actually wittier and less condescending toward its gay characters than the French original, the Elaine May-scripted The Birdcage turned out to be a major box office hit, collecting $124.06 million in North America (approx. $226 million today), in addition to an estimated $61.2 million internationally, according to Boxofficemojo.com.

Édouard Molinaro: Television work

From the early '80s on, Édouard Molinaro would focus mostly on television, including adaptations of works by Honoré de Balzac (La femme abandonnée, 1992, starring Charlotte Rampling), Henry James (Nora, 1999), and Emile Zola (Nana, 2001).

Other efforts in that medium include the TV movie La veuve rouge (“The Red Widow,” 1983), with Françoise Fabian; the mini-series Le Tiroir secret (“The Secret Drawer,” 1986), with veteran Michèle Morgan; and several episodes of the series Le Tuteur, his last directing efforts, from 2005-2008.

Édouard Molinaro was at one time married to Marie-Hélène Breillat – sister of Catherine Breillat, and a film and television actress featured in Molinaro's Sweet Deception (1972), Dracula and Son, and the popular mini-series Claudine (1978), in addition to Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris and Ingmar Bergman's Fanny and Alexander, among others.

Ugo Tognazzi and Michel Serrault La Cage aux Folles photo: MGM.


         
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