All the Bars to Laughter Are Down as Michel Serrault Mihces His Way Through La Cage Aux Folles

updated 04/07/1980 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/07/1980 AT 01:00 AM EST

Playing a preening, fluttery transvestite may not be every virile Frenchman's tasse de thé. For actor Michel Serrault, 52, it was un morceau de gâteau. "I like to transform myself," Serrault says. "The more I disappear, the more I am amused. I don't think I have ever played a role that resembles me." Serrault, a happily married family man, transforms himself into Zaza, the prissy half of a homosexual couple in the surprise foreign film hit, La Cage aux Folles. The warmhearted farce has already grossed $8.5 million on the subtitle circuit and seems certain to surpass I Am Curious (Yellow) as the biggest-grossing foreign-language release ever.

Nonetheless, the import that is most popular with critics and audiences this year is the one that will definitely not win the Best Foreign Film Oscar next month. La Cage is ineligible because it was released abroad two years ago. However, because of a quirk in Academy rules it is eligible in other categories, and has received nominations for Best Director, Screenplay and Costume Design.

Serrault, a veteran of some 85 films, including 1954's classic Diabolique, shrugs off acclaim. "It's not an event in my life," he says. "If I had this success when I was 20, maybe I would have reacted differently." Incongruously somber offscreen—"Anyone who makes people laugh is serious," he explains—Serrault perfected his outrageous impersonation for six years in the theatrical version of La Cage. The gay couple masquerade as straight so that the son of Zaza's lover, fathered in a weak moment, can marry his fiancée in proper middle-class fashion. "I never ridicule Zaza," Serrault insists. "Homosexuals, bandits, gangsters, all those characters have a moment when you want to like them, when you say to yourself, 'I understand them.' " Initially hostile to the plot, French homosexuals later went backstage to thank Serrault for his touching portrayal, though he mock sighs, "No one ever made me a proposition." (In the U.S. there has been none of the protest from gays like that which greeted Cruising, another current film about homosexuals.)

Serrault has been married for 30 years and has a 20-year-old daughter, Natalie. Another daughter was killed in a car accident in 1977. He met his wife, Juanita, at Paris' Centre du Spectacle acting school, where his father, a textile salesman, had sent him on a teacher's recommendation. Charles Aznavour was a classmate, but Serrault's best friend was aspiring writer-actor Jean Poiret. Besides teaming with Serrault to form one of Paris' most popular cabaret acts, Poiret wrote the stage version of La Cage.

At 5'6", Serrault considers himself "too short for tragedy," and the closest he's come to the grand tradition are Molière comedies. Long ago he gave up the notion of being a star and is accustomed to secondary parts. "I like it this way," he says. "People discover me again and again, and I hope they will keep on till the end of my days."

When not planning the film's sequel—Zaza becomes ensnared in espionage—or playing a suspected murderer in the upcoming Pil ou Face (Heads or Tails), Serrault appears to be the bourgeois gentilhomme who is satirized in Cage. Home is a three-story townhouse in the exclusive Paris suburb of Neuilly, but he often drives his 1974 Chevrolet Camaro—a luxury in France—to an 18th-century Normandy château he is refurbishing. He is modest in his tastes ("I find grand wines snobbish"), particular about his pommes frites ("crisp and not too greasy") and determined in his work. "You have to try very hard," he says, "and start over again every day. Nothing comes automatically." Concludes Serrault, "All of us are actors. Some translate it better than others."

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