Gus Van Sant, the openly gay auteur behind My Own Private Idaho, Elephant, and Good Will Hunting is releasing a biopic in the next few months about Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official from San Francisco who was assassinated in 1978. Sean Penn's playing the title role, and I'm really excited about the trailer and the film, which also stars Emile Hersch, Diego Luna, and Josh Brolin.
Anyway, the trailer has gotten me thinking about gay films and how there really aren't many good gay films for us, by us, and about us. In fact, this might be the first masterpiece, assuming it's as good as the preview suggests. Queer people have always ruled literature, theater, art, fashion, and cuisine, and we've had some occasional breaks in television and music (I'm talking Elton John, not techno), but in the cinematic world we've always been left far behind, with lots of offensive, inaccurate, and just plain badly made portrayals. See my review of Dressed to Kill, where transsexuals are psychotic schizophrenics (see also Psycho, Silence of the Lambs...), or In & Out, where a man just suddenly (and comedically!) discovers that because he's effeminate he's also gay (much to the chagrin of the poor, helpless straight fiancee caught in the middle, who's just trying to find a nice man who doesn't take it up the ass). Or Philadelphia, with a straight director and a straight cast convincing a straight audience that gay people can be interesting when they're suffering to death from headline-grabbing illnesses. I won't even go into the insipid genre of gay-targeted movies, the kind you find in the showcase window of Lambda Rising, where there's always a shirtless twink on the cover, if not several, all abs and pectoral muscles and bedroom eyes, as if a film can't possibly be interesting if there's not a serious fuck factor. Another Gay Sequel, The Fluffer, Edge of Seventeen. God knows, most gay-themed films are as interesting as most teen sex comedies. How unique can the story of discovering you're attracted to boys, much to the possible disagreement of your mother, possibly be? Either that or you make it controversial, throwing in AIDS and prostitution, as if that's an integral part in every queer person's life.
Anyway, I thought I'd examine the few good gay movies that we have been offered in the past....
Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001): There may be very few good queer films, but at least one of them is flawless. This rock musical by and starring John Cameron Mitchell is about a confused, young, effeminate East Berlin boy who sees an out from the bland, communist world of oppressive mothers and colorless Gummi Bears by marrying an older American Marine. One catch, though: in order to get the proper marriage certificate and visa he has to become a woman, undergoing a brutal surgery that leaves him with one angry, bleeding inch of mutilated crotch. Abandoned in a Kansas City trailer park (the center of the country, a character who's in the center of a lot of dichotomies...), having become a woman without really wanting or needing to be one, Hedwig launches a quest of self-discovery that involves fucking a spineless, Bible thumping teenager (Michael Pitt) and starting a failed rock band. In the end, the film's about loving yourself--discovering who you are inside and learning to accept it, and how loving oneself is essential to loving and accepting everyone else. Forgiveness, wholeness within self-identity, sexual freedom... it's all embraced within a flawless film that's rounded out by great rock music, artful cinematography, a hilarious script, and powerful, convincing acting.
Queer as Folk (UK, 1999): Technically this was a television series, but its production, content, and running time suggest more of a very long, episodic film to American audiences. A not very physically attractive yet confident and personality-rich gay sex machine (Stuart) fuels his ego by constantly alluring his best friend of over a decade, an insecure and nerdy yet lovable gay man who loves science fiction and is actually more attractive but doesn't seem so because of his confidence issues (Vince). They get drunk, go to drug-drenched clubs, and hook up with strangers while dealing with judgmental parents, friends who die of drug overdoses, lesbian parent friends, and societal oppression. But, unlike the horrible American remake (which replaced hot scenes of pornography for actual content), it never came off as silly, pointless, forced, or sensational. Meanwhile, Vince stares longingly at Stuart and longs for the unrequited love affair that can never really happen, the tug-and-pull that enriches them both because of its inchoate quality. A break occurs when Vince meets a flawed Australian who actually gives him reciprocated love and attention (but, self-deriding Vince thinks, how genuine can that love and attention be if it's directed toward me?), the friendship dissolves when Stuart becomes jealous and Vince finally gives up on his impossible teases, and they end up in a cafe trying to speak truthfully to each other for the first time since meeting at age fourteen: "You can't [love him]. You can't even respect him. He loves Vince Tyler, so that makes him stupid. The moment he said it, it all just died.... You've done nothing, Vince. You go to work. You have a drink. You sit and watch cheap science fiction. Small world. What's there that's so impressive about that? What is there to love?" At which point depressed but knowing Vince shies off and agrees, "Yeah..." only to be rebutted by a dead-certain Stuart: "It was good enough for me." No consummation, no swelling score, no steamy sex, just one sad, reflective homo admitting that love is more than methamphetamines and techno music, political anarchy and taut abs. An emotional and realistic scene in an evocative and compelling series, and one that the American show comes nowhere close to.
Elephant (2003): This low-budget Gus Van Sant film, full of amateur high school actors (some of them quite bad), is loosely about the Columbine massacre. It's a strangely paced film that a few people adore and a lot of people hate, and I think its one of the most misunderstood movies of recent history. It's smart because it doesn't follow Hollywood formulae. Case in point: toward the end of the film, after the bloodshed begins, an intimidating-looking black character is introduced (Benny, with a title screen and everything) who looks prepared to save the day. He walks tall and strong toward the gunner, only to be as quickly and mercilessly shot down as everyone else who gets in the way. What the movie's really about, though, is gay alienation and how the current gay culture is failing gay children. What is The Fluffer really doing to advance self-esteem and gay rights? One point early on we witness a meeting of a gay-straight alliance, where the hip, well-adjusted students in attendance are discussing fashion and other frivolous topics. Meanwhile, the gay students who end up becoming the gunmen are having awkward sexual encounters, denying their deep-rooted feelings, and plotting acts of violence while enduring bullying for reasons they can't understand. Being gay might be fashionable these days for those who have the cajones to embrace it, but we're still a long way from teaching people not to hate themselves for being unable to understand their feelings of sexual attraction.
Capote (2005): A movie about an openly gay historical figure who's neither a tragic martyr nor a schizophrenic villain... a complex person grappling with issues of self-importance, deception, insecurity, fame... a complex person who also happens to be gay... just like many complex people in reality!
Angels in America (2003): An HBO original film based on Tony Kushner's Pullitzer Prize winning play about the AIDS epidemic: arch-conservative Ray Cohn (Al Pacino), despite getting AIDS from bareback fucking gay prostitutes, denies being a faggot because faggots are weak, unorganized, and pitiful, whereas he is strong, well-organized, and powerful. It's a statement on the origins of the AIDS epidemic, when Reagan refused to do anything to prevent it because it only affected drug addicts and homosexuals, that the rich conservative is able to dismiss his Kaposi sarcoma as liver disease and help fight it with the most expensive drug treatments while sincere, hardworking homosexuals with the same illness shit and bleed themselves to death because they're actual "faggots." This play/film is very "issue-oriented"--AIDS, Mormonism, etc.--but it works because of the poetic writing, the fantastic acting, the emotive direction. Jeffrey Wright as Belize (a country midway between north and south), Roy's genuine nurse who operates somewhere between male and female, black and white, bitter and compassionate, past and present, is the epitome of progress away from oppression, and is description of Heaven to a dying, frightened Cohn is one of the most beautiful passages of prose-poetry: "Bit city, overgrown with weeds. But flowering weeds. On every corner a wrecking crew and something new and crooked going up catty-corner to that. Windows missing in every edifice like teeth, gritty wind, and a gray, high sky full of ravens. Prophet birds, Roy. Piles of trash, but lapidary like rubies and obsidian, and diamond-colored cowspit streamers in the wind. And voting booths. And everyone in Balenciaga gowns with red corsages, and big dance palaces full of music and lights and racial impurity and gender confusion. And all the deities are creole, mulatto, brown as the mouths of rivers. Race, taste, and history finally overcome. And you ain't there."
The Laramie Project (2002): Another HBO original film, this one about the aftermath of Matthew Shepard's homophobic murder in Laramie, Wyoming, based on a Broadway play based on interviews with actual citizens from Laramie following the murder and trial. Matthew's lesbian best friend (Christina Ricci) reflects on his angelic qualities and her coping with his death. His sometime chaffeur (Steve Buscemi) muses that instead of dying in the pitch black barrenness that is rural Wyoming at night, he may have found solace in the shining stars and the flickering city lights in the distance. A closeted gay man with a broken leg watches the memorial march seen from the window on one side of his apartment expand to a massive movement by the time he limps to the window on the other side. And numerous other people, all completely real, struggle through the anger, sadness, and confusion of a despicable crime.
Happy Birthday (2002): I can't in good faith call this a "good" film, but I do have a strong soft-spot for it. This unheard-of feature debut from gay, Malaysian director Yen Tan is a ponderous, black-and-white, ensemble piece held together by the unnecessary fact that all of the main characters (half a dozen or so) happen to be celebrating birthdays on the date when most of the action falls. The budget was nonexistent, some of the actors seem to have been pulled from the street, a few of the subplots are distracting, and the birthday gimmick that ties it together is strange, but a few notable strengths stand out: some courageous new themes, some very talented unknown faces, and dialogue that, overall, is sharp and moving. Benjamin Patrick (who, according to IMDb, hasn't been in anything else--which is very unfortunate) plays an Overeater Anonymous who sells diet pills over the phone and yearns to not be ashamed of himself. Devashish Saxena plays a gay, Pakistani refugee who finds peace and love in the United States only to be deported by an INS that doesn't consider constant homophobic assaults from family and neighbors to be a justified foundation for refugee status. Ethel Lung portrays a young, Asian lesbian trying to conceal all the minutiae of her queer life from her visiting, conservative mother. The stories are humane, intimate, and unique, and the multilingual, ensemble direction is fascinating. With some hard script-editing and a larger budget, Tan could turn this noble first draft into a mesmerizing film. Unfortunately, I don't think that'll happen. Of the mere 47 people who have voted for it on IMDb, the average is only 5.6 stars; even Paul didn't bother to sit past the first few minutes. I guess it's too hard to overlook a ten-dollar budget.
My Own Private Idaho (1991): In this eccentric update of Shakespeare's 1 Henry IV, Keanu Reeves plays a confident, wealthy sex idol who slums it up in the gay, urban underground, fucking around with the affections of a hustling, destitute River Phoenix (in a career-defining, Oscar-worthy role). When his magnate father suddenly passes, though, he must reject his silly faggot nonsense and embrace the straight, conservative, whitebread lifestyle, abandoning all of the loves and friends he's known in the past. It's the Shakespearian equivalent of Roy Cohn's "Republicans don't get AIDS." An emotional, humorous, and highly stylistic film, worthy of several viewings.
The Birdcage (1996): Surprisingly, I'm not a fan of the French original (La Cage aux folles, 1978), but the Americanized remake with Nathan Lane and Robin Williams is hysterical screwball comedy with a queer twist. Williams and Lane play a long-term gay couple on the outs who live above the night club (The Birdcage) they own. Williams has a grown son from a former straight relationship (one treated with the proper complexities of love), and the son intends to marry the daughter of a conservative politician up for election, who insists on meeting the groom-to-be's lovely parents. When the real mother gets caught in traffic, the drag-dressing Lane--having been unfairly cut out of the picture to conceal the homo element--steps in (cognito) to assume the maternal role, in a dawdling, traditional, Barbara Bush style. Things unravel, hijinx ensue. It's a mainstream comedy with serious hetero-input, aimed at a broad crowd (my ex-stepfather saw it and loved it, for example), but unlike I Know Pronounce You Chuck and Larry or Boat Trip, it manages to avoid condescension and spite. In the end, it's Williams and Lane who are loving, clever, and likable, and Gene Hackman as the uptight father-in-law-to-be must rectify himself.
Boys Don't Cry (1999): It's hard to express an enjoyment for this film when it's as bleak as it is, but this true story of a female-to-male transsexual's love affair and subsequent arrest, rape, and murder in 1993 Lincoln, Nebraska, is powerful, important, emotionally-wrought, and unforgettable. Hilary Swank won a deserved Oscar as the skinny, shy boy just trying to live his life as innocently, compassionately, and inoffensively as possible, and Chloe Sevigny gives a fine performance as his confused but loving girlfriend. The movie is disturbing, but sometimes that's how our lives are.
Nico and Dani (2000, Krampack): A simple, coming-of-age gay tale from Spain that manages to add a little bit more than the typical genre film. High schooler Dani (Fernando Ramallo) has the hots for his skinny, cool friend Nico (Jordi Vilches), an ambiguous tease who desperately wants to bang as many chicks as possible while on vacation at the beach. Dani's unrequited infatuation reaches a breaking point, throwing the friendship into confusion and drama. It's a standard film (with beautiful settings, actors, and cinematography) with a plot that every gay boy has undergone, but a few touching scenes rise it above the rest.
Some Honorable Mentions that don't quite count: American Beauty, Dog Day Afternoon, Mysterious Skin, Monster, Todo sobre mi madre, Gods and Monsters (which, to be fair, I haven't seen in a long time, so I can't really comment on)