Monday, June 1, 2009

The Agony and Ecstasy of Extended Families

Based on a novel by Patrick Dennis, the 1962 musical Little Me starred Sid Caesar and featured a book by Neil Simon with music by Cy Coleman and lyrics by Carolyn Leigh. Directed by Cy Feuer and Bob Fosse (with choreography by Fosse), its final number marked the reunion of the ever-buxom Belle Poitrine ("Little Miss Schlumpfert, you've been such a comfort") with her childhood sweetheart, Noble Eggleston. Sung by Nancy Andrews, "Here's To Us" contained the following lyrics:
"Here's to us, my darling, my dear.
Here's to us tonight.
Not for what might happen next year
For it might not be nearly as bright.

But here's to us, for better or worse
And for thanks to a merciful star.
Skies are blue and muddling through
And for me and for you as we are.

And here's to us for nothing at all
If there's nothing at all we can praise.
Just that we're together and here
For the rest of our beautiful days.
Here's to us forever and always.

Here's to us for all that we have
And the road that we've traveled so far.
Skies are blue and muddling through
And for me and for you as they are.

And here's to us for nothing at all
If there's nothing at all we can praise.
Just for spring and wanting to sing
And for feeling like flinging bouquets.
Here's to us forever and always!"
For gay people more than most others, an extended family of friends, lovers, professional colleagues, and blood relatives forms a safety net that can get someone through tough times when their nuclear family may not be able or willing to help. Sometimes these people lend a helping hand when you least expect it. Sometimes an extended family member can get you out of a sticky wicket. 

Sometimes you have no choice but to depend on a member of your extended family -- whether or not you even like the person. Few can forget the final moments of The Birdcage, in which an ultraconservative Republican senator (Gene Hackman), his wife (Dianne Wiest), their daughter (Calista Flockhart) and the young man who wishes to marry her (Dan Futterman) make a narrow escape from a gay nightclub thanks to the ingenious help of the club's owner (Robin Williams) and star drag queen (Nathan Lane).

Four films being shown at Frameline 33 (the 2009 San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival) -- two features and two shorts -- show how we find extended family, interact as extended family, work to retain our extended families, and reach out to the members of our extended families in times of crisis.

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First, let us consider Making The Boys, a documentary which looks back at how gays were represented onstage and onscreen in the early 1960s and what inspired Mart Crowley to write The Boys in the Band: the drama critic for The New York TimesStanley Kauffman, had suggested that instead of gay playwrights trying to write about heterosexual characters, they start writing about people they know and understand -- like themselves.

Crowley faced incredible hurdles trying to get his play produced and finding actors willing to play gay characters onstage (Edward Albee did his best to discourage a potential producer). In addition to examining the playwright's close friendship with actress Natalie Wood, Crayton Robey's meticulously plotted film describes how, when it opened in 1968, The Boys in the Band sent shock waves through the entertainment world. And yet, by the time the film version was being shot on location in New York (at the time of the Stonewall Riots) the play was already doomed to become a period piece.

I remember seeing the original production twice, as well as the horror expressed by my parents that I might be anything like the characters they saw onstage. They had good reason to be scared. While there were severe emotional problems devastating our family, none of us were filled with the kind of closeted self-hatred that filled the stage during each performance of Crowley's play. Who can forget Michael's weary plea: "If only we could just not hate ourselves so much!" 

The other factor was that no one in our family drank.  It would be years before I understood the effect a long night of booze can have on some people's behavior. One of Emory's best lines ("Who do you have to fuck to get a drink around here?") has since become a part of the American vernacular. 

It wasn't until a friend of mine who had entered Alcoholics Anonymous -- and was trying to stay sober -- pointed out that a great deal of the play was about alcoholism (Crowley himself spent many years as an alcoholic) that I began to understand certain moments in the play that had always confused me.

Then of course, there was the bitter cold night in November 1984 when, having returned from a performance at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, I switched on the television in my hotel room to learn that Ronald Reagan had just won a second term in office.  As I began to surf channels in the hope that something else might be available to cheer me up (some 15 years after Stonewall and in the early part of the AIDS crisis), I found myself watching the film version of The Boys in the Band.

What a depressing night that was!  Come to think of it, that evening was almost as big a downer as the time I saw the Ruffino Opera Company perform a truncated version of Aida on an op-art set for The Boys in the Band at the Matunuck Theater-By-the-Sea in which, during Act III, Amonasro was forced to peek out from behind a potted palm in Michael's bedroom!

Crowley's often venomously funny drama was the first truly gay play. It exposed audiences to language that would later be found in Bruce Rodgers' groundbreaking dictionary of gay slang entitled The Queen's Vernacular (first published in 1972, republished in 1979 under the title Gay Talk, and now a collector's item). It was the first time audiences had seen a group of gay men interacting on a social basis and providing a support group for each other that was at once catty and caring. In his director's statement, Crayton Robey writes:
"Mart Crowley's The Boys in the Band was a major creative breakthrough in gay life.  For the first time, gay men were seeing themselves as who they really were, not as victims, pathetic losers, loners, and society's discards, but as people. The importance of the work transcends time, making it a crucial document for the youth of today and all who lived through these uncompromising times.  The work not only illuminates the lives of middle class gay men in New York City on the cusp of Stonewall, it also represents the catalyst for the repressed rage and energy that exploded on June 28, 1969.

Mart Crowley is a personal hero of mine. During my coming out years, the writings ofJames BaldwinLangston Hughes, and The Boys in the Band were the reference materials that informed me about gay life. I finally got to meet Mart when I interviewed him for my debut documentary When Ocean Meets Sky.  Following the interview, Mart enthusiastically agreed to share his thoughts and personal archive with me, leaving me in this unique position to create a doucmentary that captures from stage to film the groundbreaking making of The Boys in the Band."
Today, many gay people have never heard of the play, much less read it or seen it. The closeted lifestyle it depicts is completely alien to gay men and women who are out of the closet, cruising online, marrying their partners, or who simply embrace their sexual orientation without reservation. Of the original cast members Kenneth Nelson (Michael), Leonard Frey (Harold), Robert La Tourneaux (Cowboy), and Frederick Combs (Donald) as well as the director (Robert Moore) and producer (Richard Barr) all succumbed to AIDS-related illnesses. Keith Prentice died of cancer and Cliff Gorman died of leukemia. 

Among the surviving members of the original cast, Laurence Luckinbill (Hank) and Peter White (Alan) share their recollections of the play, along with dramatists Terrence McNally, Larry KramerTony Kushner, Paul Rudnick, Edward Albee and, of course, Mart Crowley. Others sharing their insights include Carson Kressley, Michael Musto, Dan Savage, Dominick Dunne, Robert Wagner, Marc Shaiman, and Michael Cunningham.

To my astonishment, Making The Boys provides the perfect cultural landmark for viewing the progress of the gay rights movement. Some 40 years after its premiere at Theater Four, the back story behind the play's creation proves as riveting as the original production. For anyone interested in theater, the entertainment industry, and the history of the gay rights movement in America, Robey's documentary demands to be seen. 

* * * * * * * *

Two short films included in Frameline's Fun In Boys Shorts program deserve special attention for their depiction of how gay men find and maintain extended family. In Boy Meets Boy (a 13-minute short from Korean filmmaker KIM-JHO Gwang-soo), young Min Soo makes eye contact with an older boy on a bus who turns out to be his classmate, Seok-I. The roll of film that creates an unexpected bond between them triggers a chain of events that, in retrospect, demonstrates how fate works in the strangest of ways.

In Dennis Hensley's candid 11-minute short, Reunion, the out and proud host of a TV home makeover show (Kenny Kelleher) returns to his home town to attend his 20-year high school reunion. As he and his lover BJ (Marcus de Anda) thumb through the class yearbook, Kenny recalls his sexual fantasies about Ty (Lowen Burg),  the quarterback who was the class stud. When, during the reunion dinner, the long-married jock of his dreams comes on to him in the men's room, a curious chain of events allows everyone (including the jock's wife) to return home from the reunion fully satisfied.

* * * * * * * *
Finally, we come to a British drama that, from the moment its paisley-patterned credits start to flash across the screen, announces its distinct sense of style. Written by the brother and sister team of David and Jacqui Morris, Mr. Right follows four couples around London as their relationships get tested, strained, and in some instances, shattered. It takes a while before the viewer really gets a sense of where the film is going, and with good reason.

Former rugby player William is the father of a nine-year-old daughter from hell. Filled with resentment about her father's divorce and her mother's subsequent death, Georgina (Maddie Planer) has some amazingly creative ways of sabotaging her father's love life in order to keep William's attention focused entirely on his emotionally needy offspring. William's insistence on making Georgina an absolute priority offers little solace to Lawrence (Leon Ockenden), the star of a hospital soap opera who, for the first time in years, has actually found himself falling in love.

Harry (James Lance) is the producer of a home makeover reality show who does not consider himself to be stereotypically gay. His lover, Alex (Luke de Woolfson), is a frustrated young cater/waiter who aspires to become an actor but who can't bring himself to give up his pet rabbit (who has an annoying habit of eating his own turds).

Their friend Tom is a successful artist who owns a gallery catering to wealthy gay men eager to purchase the works of gay artists. With enough money to be a sugar daddy, Tom has had a succession of kept boys who easily become bored with him.  His latest is Larrs (Benjamin Hart) a drop-dead gorgeous stud whose roving dick knows no conscience.

Rounding out the extended family is Louise (Georgia Zaris), a notorious fag hag, and her hunky boyfriend Paul (Jeremy Edwards), a supposedly straight soccer player who, despite his protests about having to spend any time with Emma's gay friends certainly knows how to flirt with another man when opportunity knocks.

While one might think that a disastrous dinner party that goes sour would be the high point of the film, it is only part of the tangled web woven by the screenwriters. As David Morris explains:
"I wrote a script in which, although the main characters are gay, the story lines aren't gay related. I don't want to give the impression that the characters being gay is ignored -- it's just that it's not a central issue for them -- as it isn't for many people who live in London or New York or civilized places like that. Before anyone says it -- yes, I know that for a lot of people (those in Iran and Jamaica spring to mind) being gay is a matter of life or death. While the script was still in development, we were introduced to an American distributor who deals in gay product (it was hoped that he would talk us out of it). He politely listened to the synopsis and then gave an argument as to why we shouldn't make it. There isn't really space here to give his reasoned critique or or his nuanced assessment, but, in short, the problem was that there wasn't any "cock" in it.

Apparently, a gay audience wouldn't be interested unless it had "cock." Cock and musclemen in tight tops. Also, gays are only interested in stories with recognized "gay" themes. Try anything else, he warned, and you'll be throwing your money away. He then contrasted our disastrous proposal with a project that he was developing -- a project that followed the "gay" formula: A guy, bought up by a right-wing family, is part of a gang that beats up "fags;" only the guy realizes that he has feelings for one of the victims and he has to can probably guess the rest. Apparently there's going to be a lot of cock in it. Cock and self-discovery.

We came out of the meeting feeling depressed. What he was really saying was that most gay drama is marketed with the subliminal message "Yeah, alright, the story may be crap, but at least you can get a good wank out of it." After much soul-searching, we decided against cock. I hope that we were right to make that decision. I think we were. I'm not saying that Mr. Right is Dostoyevsky. It's not going to change anyone's life. It's a romantic comedy with a bit of a message -- that's all. And I hope that we don't regret that we didn't put cock in."
As one follows the relationship crises plaguing the four couples, one gets a strong sense of how these people cope with their real families as well as the support (and occasional sabotage) they receive from their extended family. Although the film is gorgeous to watch (thanks in large part to Michael Wood's cinematography), American audiences may have trouble with some of the cast's British accents. Co-writer Jacqui Morris, however, has little doubt about the film's basic appeal:
"A generation of women spent a decade watching Sex and the City, sharing Carrie Bradshaw and friends' quest for self-discovery and the perfect man. The Sex and the City guys weren't characters so much as cardboard cut-out targets for the girls to prowl after and then cry over. Easy pickings also for an audience of dissatisfied women. Even in the film, the men had what can only be described as walk-on parts.

For a woman who is actually interested in understanding men, there isn't much out there that dwells on male vulnerability, as shown by the great popularity of Brokeback Mountain with female audiences.There’s also a natural affinity between gay men and women. We don’t have to resent gay men. They have the same handicap we still face: a horrible prejudice and pigeonholing which has disappeared to some extent, but a residue of which is still present today. Women recognise in gay men a shared interest in the human condition. This film is about human relationships and issues. Women relate to these insights and subtle humor and aren’t threatened by the incidental sexuality of the key players."
Here's the trailer:

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