Edouard Molinaro: Film director whose comedy 'La Cage Aux Folles' played a part in establishing mainstream acceptance of gay couples

 

The director Edouard Molinaro had a knack for transforming stage plays and novels into fast-paced comedies which attracted million of cinema-goers not only in his native France but also internationally. Most famously, in 1978 he directed the film adaptation of La Cage Aux Folles, Jean Poiret's farce about two transvestites who run a night-club on the French Riviera and have to be pretend to be man and wife to help the son one of them fathered during an earlier one night-stand marry the daughter of a straight-laced politician.

The ensuing misunderstandings and inevitable double entendres had made La Cage Aux Folles, premiered at the Théâtre du Palais-Royal in February 1973, one of the longest-running plays in Paris, but French producers had balked at the idea of bankrolling a film version. When Italian producer Marcello Danon acquired the film rights, the project became a Franco-Italian venture starring Michel Serrault and Ugo Tognazzi instead of Poiret, Serrault's usual sidekick in their established double act. Molinaro began writing the film adaptation with Poiret before completing the screenplay with Francis Veber and Danon. Filming at Cinecittà was far from straightforward, with Tognazzi refusing to deliver his lines in French and switching to Italian – he was dubbed by Pierre Mondy, another veteran of the French stage version.

Indeed, Molinaro felt both leads had overacted and didn't hold much hope for his "comedy of manners about homosexuals." But his hunch "that people would laugh with, rather than laugh at homosexuals" proved to be correct. La Cage Aux Folles was seen by more than five million cinema-goers in France and became a runaway success when it opened in the US in March 1979, where it became the highest-grossing foreign language film ever, with box-office revenues of $20 million, a figure only eclipsed two decades later by Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful. Its broad humour and stereotypical characters were criticised by certain sections of the gay community but the movie undoubtedly played a part in the mainstream acceptance of homosexual couples. In 1980, Molinaro directed a sequel, La Cage Aux Folles II, while his Oscar-nominated screenplay for the first instalment was acknowledged in the The Birdcage, the 1996 adaptation starring Nathan Lane and Robin Williams and directed by Mike Nichols, which relocated the action to Miami.

Born in Bordeaux in 1928, he was a contemporary of the New Wave but didn't seem as intent on breaking with the cinéma de papa tradition as François Truffaut or Jean-Luc Godard. "They came from the school of film criticism. I came from the technical side of things. I was closer to the American model of film-making," he said in his 2009 memoir Intérieur Soir. After making short films in his teens he was second unit director and assistant to various French directors and spent an eventful couple of days on The Miracle of St Anne, a 1950 short – now presumed lost – Orson Welles directed and screened as a prelude to his play The Unthinking Lobster at the Théâtre Edouard VII in Paris.

Molinaro's first feature length film, Le Dos Au Mur (Back To The Wall), a blackmail comedy drama starring Jeanne Moreau, was critically acclaimed in 1958 but he began making his mark the following year with the taut thriller Un Témoin Dans La Ville (Witness In The City). Featuring Lino Ventura as the killer who must track down the Paris taxi driver who saw him exiting a murder scene, Un Témoin Dans La Ville featured a jazz score by the tenor saxophonist Barney Wilen and drummer Kenny Clarke, a year after both contributed to the seminal soundtrack Miles Davis improvised for Louis Malle's Lift To The Scaffold, and is less noir and elliptical than its antecedent but just as atmospheric in its use of Paris locations and its depiction of the taxi driver's milieu.

Molinaro alternated between thrillers and comedies, often combining the two with striking results, including the spy intrigues of Une Ravissante Idiote (A Ravishing Idiot, 1964) starring Brigitte Bardot and Anthony Perkins, and Peau D'espion (To Commit A Murder, 1967) with Louis Jourdan. However, Oscar (1967) and Hibernatus (1969), his two vehicles for the French comic legend Louis de Funès, were vaudeville plays he adapted with brio for the screen, even if he and de Funès didn't get on.

Molinaro was more simpatico with the Belgian singer-songwriter Jacques Brel, whom he directed in the period comedy Mon Oncle Benjamin (1969), based on the eponymous novel by Claude Tillier, and L'Emmerdeur (A Pain In The... 1973) a black comedy also starring Ventura as the killer who can't execute his contract because of the constant interruptions of the suicidal character portrayed by Brel. Molinaro lacked the ego of many an auteur but his visual flair and sharp sense of editing made him a natural and versatile film-maker. In the 1970s he cast his second wife Marie-Hélène Breillat in several of his films and directed her portrayal of the controversial Claudine in a series of TV films based on Colette's first novels. Breillat also appeared in Molinaro's quirkiest project, the vampire spoof Dracula Père Et Fils (Dracula And Son, 1976), Christopher Lee's final outing as the Prince of Darkness alongside Bernard Menez as his hapless heir.

Following the success of La Cage Aux Folles, Molinaro helmed "The French Method" segment of the sex comedy anthology Les Séducteurs (Sunday Lovers, 1980) which also featured segments directed by Bryan Forbes, Gene Wilder and Dino Risi. In the mid-1980s he directed Just The Way You Are, a gentle English language comedy set in a French ski resort, and paired Emmanuelle Béart and Daniel Auteuil in another sex comedy, L'Amour En Douce, just before their international breakthrough in the Claude Berri remake of Marcel Pagnol's Manon Des Sources.

Molinaro's last major film was the ambitious 1996 biopic Beaumarchais, L'Insolent, adapted from an unfinished play by Sacha Guitry and starring Fabrice Luchini as the flamboyant adventurer and author.

Edouard Molinaro, film and television director and screenwriter: born Bordeaux 13 May 1928; twice married; died Paris 7 December 2013.

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