1979 / Best Director

Film #563: La Cage Aux Folles (1979)

After sitting through quite a few long and dark films I was glad to learn that my next film on the Best Director list was going to be a ninety minute comedy. The film in question was La Cage Aux Folles, directed by Édouard Molinaro which at the time it received its nomination was the highest grossing foreign language film at the American box office. The film’s success at the box office did make me wonder why if it was that much of a hit why it was only nominated for Best Director and not Best Picture.

The La Cage Aux Folles of the title is a Saint-Tropez nightclub owned by Renato Baldi whose headlining act is drag Queen Zaza Napoli the alter-ego of his long-term partner Albin. After an extended colourful opening sequence, the comedy of errors truly begins when Renato’s son Laurent, the product of a one-night stand, comes home from university and announces that he’s getting married. Meanwhile his bride-to-be Andrea has tried to hide the true nature of the profession of Laurent’s father and lies to her own parents telling him that he’s a diplomat. This then leads to Renato trying to alter his house before Andrea and her parents come round to dinner. To make matters worse Andrea’s father Simon is the head of a moral party who has recently suffered a scandal after their leader died whilst in the bed of an underage prostitute. With Simon trying to avoid scandal and Albin at the last minute trying to pose as Laurent’s mother things go wrong pretty quickly but then again that’s part of the fun of the film.

As I mentioned in the introduction I really enjoyed watching a comedy which as we know by this point is a genre rarely recognised by Oscar. But rather than just being a-joke-a-minute the comedy here came from the characters and the absurdity of the situation with all of the laughs feeling incredibly natural. There were also quieter moments as both Renato and Albin reflected on the nature of their relationship especially after the former tried to get in contact with Laurent’s birth mother. I felt the performances from both Ugo Tognazzi as Renato and Michel Serrault as Albin were absolutely brilliant with both men bringing out the best aspects of their characters. I felt Serrault was particularly brilliant as he was able to portray Albin’s completely hysterical side and later his more vulnerable side which came out at a very touching scene at a train station. I do feel that both men should have been nominated for Oscars but as we’ve seen in the past performances in foreign films rarely get recognised by the Academy. In fact aside from Molinaro’s nomination, La Cage Aux Folles only picked up two more nods for its adapted screenplay and its costume design. Both in my opinion were deserved with the costumes being an integral part of the story from beginning to end and I feel that the art direction should have been given similar recognition.

However Molinaro’s nomination seems like an odd one as, as good La Cage Aux Folles looked, at no point did I marvel at how well it was directed. To me it almost feels like a bit of a cop out as the Academy didn’t want to put a subtitled film in the Best Picture category so instead snuck Molinaro’s name into the Best Director category instead. Molinaro’s inclusion in Best Director meant that Martin Ritt, who helmed Best Picture contender Norma Rae, wasn’t included in this line-up. As I believe that Norma Rae was the weakest Best Picture contender that year I think replacing that film with La Cage Aux Folles would ultimately make the 1979 Best Picture line-up a lot more solid. Whilst Sally Field’s performance in Norma Rae was outstanding the film itself was very generic where as La Cage Aux Folles was funny, touching and incredibly colourful throughout ultimately deserving a lot more Oscar love than it was given.

Next time we have a history-making Italian film as it is helmed by the first woman ever to be nominated for the Best Director prize.

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