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The French Did It First: Comedy Remakes (Part 1)

Updated: Dec 2, 2023

The Birdcage, Three Men and a Baby, and Dinner for Schmucks. What do these movies have in common? Yes, they’re funny, but you might not have known that all three of these beloved Hollywood comedies originated in France. There is a lesser-known twin, stuck in the shadow of his overachieving English-language brother, from whom the Americans took the clout for their market.

The Birdcage (1996)

Having lived in both cultures, I had to ask the question: “Why bother remaking it?” How do the French originals and the American remakes measure up to each other, and what elements did the American versions change to better suit their markets? Were the remakes an improvement upon their predecessors, or were they just part of the trend of appeasing the masses of subtitle-weary monolinguals?*


*I’m looking at you, Oldboy (2013).


Among the changes, there’s more than just the linguistic and cultural adaptation of a concept. Time of release also plays a large part in narrative convenience and direction. I’ll do my best to distinguish what I believe to be a temporal variant as opposed to a cultural one. But at the end of the day, this exploration is about comedy, structure and national tone. I would not expect one movie to speak for the whole of its country, but one cannot make a movie without letting a bit of their country sneak in there. A multi-part series awaits. Let’s dive in.


1. La Cage aux Folles (1978)

La Cage aux Folles (1978)

Synopsis:

A gay couple who owns a drag club must pretend to be straight in order to satisfy their son’s fiancée’s conservative family.


FR: US:

BALDI (Ugo Tognazzi) — ARMAND (Robin Williams)

ZAZA (Michel Serrault) — ALBERT (Nathan Lane)

LAURENT (Rémi Laurent) – VAL (Dan Futterman)

ANDREA (Luisa Maneri) – BARBARA (Calista Flockhart)

SIMON (Michel Galabru) — KEVIN (Gene Hackman)

LOUISE (Carmen Scarpitta) — LOUISE (Dianne Wiest)

SIMONE (Claire Maurier) – KATHERINE (Christine Baranski)

JACOB (Benny Luke) — AGADOR (Hank Azaria)


La Cage aux Folles (literally translated to “the cage of fools,” with the double meaning of folle = “drag queen” in French slang) is a bit of an outlier on this list because it was a French and Italian co-production. French director Édouard Molinero cast several Italian actors in the movie, most notably Baldi (Ugo Tognazzi), whose status as a foreigner is significant in the film. However, the play that it’s based on is French, and its American remake The Birdcage (1996) is arguably the most revered of the three featured movies in this project.

American director Mike Nichols had already won the Academy Award for Best Director back in 1967 for The Graduate. During his career, his films would secure a grand total of 42 Oscar nominations. His extensive career in comedy and theater made him the perfect choice for a remake of this nature. With his friend and collaborator Elaine May helming the adapted screenplay, the film took some character liberties and tweaked some pacing to make it the classic that it is today. It went on to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Art Direction.


I was quite shocked to read that La Cage aux Folles actually received two more nominations at the 1979 awards ceremony than Nichols’ 1996 copy, including Best Director. It even won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language film. However, in a decade dominated by big names like Fellini and Buñuel, it’s not shocking that Molinero slipped through the cracks. By the mid-80s, he was almost exclusively working in television.

I have not read the original play, so I cannot speak to any differences between it and the first film adaptation of it. I was simply a viewer, on a journey of passive discovery, trying really hard to not let the fact that I saw The Birdcage (1996) first alter my impression of the French version.

Structure:

The general structures of the movie, particularly in the first half, are almost identical. La Cage aux Folles runs for 1 hr 32 minutes, while The Birdcage runs for 1 hr 58 minutes, but they hit most of the same beats, including the iconic, climatic drag scene.


In La Cage aux Folles, Zaza’s wig becomes loose and she drops her voice dramatically when doing an impression of of Baldi, arousing Simon and Louise’s suspicions. Laurent’s real mother, Simone, shows up much earlier on, to Baldi’s surprise. The dinner party also happens to coincide with the nightclub’s 20th anniversary; a bunch of drag queens enter Baldi and Zaza’s home to present them with a cake.

The Birdcage extends the dinner scene and alters character chemistries. When Albert shows up in drag, Barbara's father is actually thrilled. He takes an immediate liking to her and defends her sensibilities to his wife. Val's mother Catherine shows up much later on, allowing enough time for Albert and Kevin to dance together to “I Could’ve Danced All Night” from My Fair Lady, with piano accompaniment provided by Armand and Louise. Both Armand and Val know that Catherine is coming, so Val leaves a note for her telling her not to bother, but the reporters usurp it, so she shows up anyway.


Characters:

The characters (as visible in the character list), are pretty much the same in both versions. Baldi and Simone's (Armand and Katherine) dynamic is probably the most similar, followed by Baldi and his son, Laurent (Armand and Val). Although Laurent is a bit less outspoken than the widely hated Val, their affection for their father is equally tender.


The first thing I noticed with the French version is that there were two main “large” personalities: Zaza and Simon. Zaza is just as flamboyant as Nathan Lane’s Albert, but Simon (playing the equivalent to Gene Hackman’s Kevin), is borderline hysteric. He is a raging chauvinist, but not in the goofy, heartwarming way that Hackman’s Kevin is characterized. He is just constantly on the verge of popping a vein out of his forehead.

As an unfortunate consequence of this, almost every other character in the French version is deprived of a personality. Baldi’s role could be described as the subtle foil to Zaza, but Laurent and Andrea are virtually lifeless. They are not a fun couple to root for. Andrea's mother Louise is unconscionably cold. What so many people appreciate about The Birdcage (1996) is the interaction of its ensemble, but many scenes in the La Cage aux Folles operate on a rotational basis of actor power. In contrast, Val and Barbara (U.S.) actually seem like they are in love, and they approach the situation with a bit of humor.


In both movies, there is some tension between Zaza and Baldi (Armand and Albert), but the French version perpetuates an interrelational inequality to the point of abuse. When Baldi threatens to hit Zaza for not performing, the next scene shows Zaza with a big welt. In the remake, Armand’s threatened attack is much more comical, and Albert is not actually hurt before going on stage.

The perspective of the reporters is also highlighted in the remake. Whereas they are presented as faceless media people in the French version, the American version presents two Harry & Marv-style goons plotting the politician’s downfall, which accelerates the tension of the final act.


Technicals:

Emmanuel Lubezki shot The Birdcage. He is one of the greatest cinematographers in the world (you may know the name from The Tree of Life, Children of Men, etc.). Armando Nannuzzi shot La Cage aux Folles. His other credits include some lesser-known Italian dramas (although one of them is a Pasolini movie) and Stephen King’s poorly received directorial outing, Maximum Overdrive (1986). One doesn’t have to work on exclusively brilliant movies to be a good cinematographer, but unfortunately, in comparison with Lubezki, his camera moves are weak sauce.

Lubezki moves the camera like a graceful dancer, and most of Nannuzzi’s work is static or unpolished handheld. It’s just not comparable, particularly as you try to forget that the work is based on a play. Nannuzzi reinforces the limited setting, and rewatching The Birdcage made me realize how critical Lubezki’s role is in making that movie as good as it is. Both movies are set in resort towns, but only The Birdcage captures that idyllic beachfront environment. The average viewer probably wouldn't realize that La Cage aux Folles was set in the French Riviera if you didn't look it up.


Also, drag costuming and makeup were much more refined by the late '90s. It's an unfortunate discrepancy, but it's something that sticks out when you watch the original.


Jokes:

Overall, the remake has MORE jokes than the original. Perhaps it’s because the French way is to be somewhat dry and harsh, but even when the outline of a gag is drawn, the lines are frequently obscured by the drama. Molinaro collaborated on the screenplay with three other writers, including the original playwright (Jean Poiret). Francis Veber also has a writing credit – this will not be the last time he is mentioned during this three-part project, so remember that name.


Both versions feature the extended gag about the male erotica dinner bowls, Baldi/Armand threatening to beat up an unexpectedly tall man for bullying Zaza/Albert, and servants Jacob/Agador struggling to act masculine and wear shoes around the house. There is an interesting variation to one of the final jokes in the movie. Simon, after having inconspicuously escaped the nightclub in drag, approaches his chauffeur. The chauffeur, not recognizing him and assuming him to be a prostitute, asks: “How much?”

In the American version, Kevin orders his driver to “meet me at El Dorado and Palm.” The driver responds, “Lady, not for a million dollars.”


Screenwriter Elaine May, for those who are unfamiliar, was a superstar comedienne. She met Mike Nichols back in the ‘50s, and the two became a comedy duo. That friendship endured. Although many of the gags in the two movies are the same, May added some angles, including Armand and Albert's Jewish identity. Armand must feign that their last name is Coleman, not Goldman, despite several mix-ups. Kevin, upon the climatic reveal of Albert being a man, laments confusedly: “They can’t be Jewish!” The film also ends with a Jewish wedding ceremony.


Culture:

It is always possible that certain elements in the French version went over my head. It is not as if I was alive during 1978 French society. However, I can vouch for many of the cultural references in The Birdcage aging well. Kevin watches Jay Leno one night as the world reacts to the controversial death of his political party’s leader (Simon does the same when reading the newspapers in the French version). But the American one has a great throwaway gag about the next guests on the show being “Yasser Arafat and Kate Moss.” That’s funny!


There’s a Rush Limbaugh reference, a hyperbolic conversation about abortion during which Albert in drag suggests to “kill the mother, that’ll take care of it,” a bit where Louise (in would-be drag) is told by a guy at the club that “he’s never danced with a man before.” She responds, in a grisly voice, “There’s always a first time.” Dianne Weist should’ve gotten an Oscar for that line reading alone.

Most of the best moments in La Cage aux Folles come from Baldi and Zaza: after Simone attempts to seduce Baldi (a bit more blatantly in the French version), Zaza laments that “every time you’re with her, it’s the same thing.” Baldi responds “just two times in twenty years.” Later, Simon, sporting drag, complains that “the white dress makes me look fat.” Still, not as much to write home about.


From my secondhand interpretation, the wit of the writing in the original is not as precise as the remake. It’s primarily situational, and sometimes dragged out, which is remarkable given the film's shorter runtime. The French version ends with a freeze frame of Baldi and Zaza bickering at the wedding. The Birdcage, on the other hand, ends with a freeze frame of Val and Barbara kissing. As you’ll understand by the sequels the movie spawned (see the next paragraph), the Baldi/Zaza dynamic supersedes the significance of their son’s union. The French version thus features a rugged acceptance of Laurent's romantic whims and the couples' differences in the place of a bona fide, family-unifying love story, which we see in the American take.


Legacy:

When La Cage aux Folles was released, it was the highest-grossing foreign language film in the U.S., earning a little under $20.5 million internationally. It inspired two sequels, with both lead actors returning. The first, the creatively titled La Cage aux Folles 2, brought in a little under $7 million. The third, La Cage aux Folles 3: The Wedding, made $345,280 according to IMDb. It was a big deal at the time – same-sex marriage wasn’t legalized in France until 2013, although same-sex civil partnerships had been permitted since 1999. The froideur of its conservative characters is made a mockery of in all practical senses, taking aim at their hypocrisies with cynical bite.


The Birdcage doesn’t demonize its ultraconservative characters as much. It makes them out to be – well – kinda silly. The film achieved major success in the U.S., and not only because of Williams’ and Hackman’s bankability (Steve Martin was originally in talks to play Armand and Williams Albert – what a timeline that would be). It was a major commercial success at a time when LGBTQ+ narratives seldom made it big without exploiting the community’s trauma.

My main takeaway, although I’m mainly here to talk comedy, is the thought of one particularly important scene. Both movies contain the moment in which Zaza/Albert exits the bedroom, dressed in a dull suit, prepared to act in the role of the masculine uncle.


Their stride is uncertain, their sense of being compromised. Albert flashes a pair of pink socks – something to hold onto as he is forced to hide an essential component of his identity. The pressure to conform after years of living in liberation. It’s a tragic moment, wedged in the middle of a movie consisting primarily of bickering, and a good reminder of why the story exists in the first place. Those “aha” moments are what make the comedy cut deeper. No one should feel like they have to resign themselves to make others more comfortable. We're not that different, after all.

Stay tuned for parts 2 & 3, featuring Trois Hommes et un Couffin (1985) and Le Dîner de Cons (1998).


-Lydia

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