Throughout the first six decades of commercial cinema in America, the love that dared not speak its name was not entirely invisible. But you had to know where to read between the lines, to decipher the mixed signals sent through cracks in the censorious Production Code.
Never mind the occasional use of mincing "sensitive" types for cheap laughs in broad comedies and macho melodramas. Just go back and take another look at such seemingly innocuous Hollywood fare as Red River (in which Montgomery Clift's lonesome cowboy bonds with a handsome drifter named Cherry), Morocco (Marlene Dietrich in top hat and tux, impulsively kissing another woman during a cabaret revue) or Bringing Up Baby (Cary Grant dons a woman's robe, then shrieks: "I just went gay all of a sudden!"). To say nothing of Jailhouse Rock, with Elvis Presley dirty dancing with a cellblock of similarly hunky convicts, or Johnny Guitar, with a preternaturally butch Mercedes McCambridge making life miserable for distressed damsel Joan Crawford.
You could reasonably argue that, when Hollywood initially slipped free of Production Code restraints in the late '60s, things got worse, not better, for gays and lesbians in search of role models in mainstream movies. Indeed, three infamous 1968 releases likely encouraged untold thousands to scurry back into the closet. After he impulsively placed a big wet sloppy one on John Phillip Law in The Sergeant (1968), Rod Steiger simply had no choice but to wander off into the woods and blow his brains out. In The Fox (1968), Sandy Dennis had to pay for slipping a wad of tongue to Anne Heywood by allowing a tree to fall on her. And poor Beryl Reid lost her delectable young lover (Susannah York) to a predatory rival (Coral Browne) in The Killing of Sister George, a movie that suggested Sapphic love transforms aging women into rapacious gargoyles.
After more than 30 years of slow but steady progress, gays and lesbians now can point with pride to well, not much. With rare exceptions, they are depicted in mainstream movies roughly the same way that African-Americans were rendered during the pre-blaxploitation era. That is, non-heterosexuals are sympathetic best friends, wisecracking supporting players, scene-stealing eccentrics and fodder for mad killers. Occasionally, somebody decides to make a movie about "the homosexual experience" -- as opposed to individual homosexuals -- and we get something on the order of Philadelphia, a sincere but treacly and altogether inadequate AIDS drama that, in terms of presenting an idealized and impossibly blemish-free hero, might be viewed as the gay equivalent of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. And speaking of that quaint wishdream of interracial harmony: Is Rupert Everett the gay Sidney Poitier? Is he, like Poitier in his '60s heyday, the designated trailblazer who's safe and acceptable enough to be the one minority figure widely accepted by the majority?
To find a broader range of gay and lesbian characters, you usually have to seek out indie productions, foreign-language imports and other kinds of movies that rarely appear at your friendly neighborhood megaplex. For the next several days, however, venturesome Houston ticketbuyers won't have to look too far for an edifying dose of what defiant gay filmmakers describe as "queer cinema."
The fourth annual Houston Gay & Lesbian Film Festival kicks off Friday, May 26, with a two-hour "Technicolor 2000" gala at the Alley Theatre, and continues at the Landmark Greenway 3 Theatre with the Houston premiere of Thom Fitzgerald's Beefcake. But wait, there's more: Two dozen other programs of shorts and features have been selected to unspool at Diverse Works, the Aurora Picture Show, the Angelika Film Center, the Rice University Media Center and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
Among the highlights:
The Watermelon Woman -- Cheryl Dunye's mischievously witty debut feature has some serious things to say about race, romance and sexual orientation. But that doesn't impede Dunye from having a wall-to-wall good time as the writer, director and star of this semi-autobiographical comedy-drama about an ambitious black lesbian filmmaker. Cheryl, who's marking time as a clerk in a Philadelphia video store, becomes obsessed with a legendary (and wholly invented) black actress who appeared prominently in a handful of '30s movies before fading into obscurity. As she looks into the fallen star's past, Cheryl also pursues a romance with a gorgeous white woman (Guinevere Turner of Go Fish), much to the irritation of her best friend and co-worker (Valarie Walker). Dunye will be on hand to introduce her movie, so you can ask her about the ruckus she raised when word got out that she received a NEA grant to partially fund her film. (9 p.m. May 27, MFA.)
Queer as Folk and Queer as Folk 2 -- Three gay men live large and party hearty in Manchester, England, and not one of them feels the need to shoot himself or stand under a falling tree. Showtime has announced plans for an Americanized version of this groundbreaking, wave-making BBC TV series. But don't be surprised if certain plot elements -- like, for instance, a grown man's dalliance with a 15-year-old boy-toy -- aren't replicated in the U.S. edition. (12:30 p.m. and 3 p.m. June 2-8, 5:30 p.m. June 4, Angelika Film Center.)
Living With Pride: Ruth Ellis @ 100 -- HGLFF co-chair Andrew Edmonson wants his target audience to make an extra special effort to catch this one. "Over the years," Edmonson says, "we've used the festival to educate the gay and lesbian community about its undiscovered history. In that vein, we're proud to screen this superb documentary about the US's oldest living African-American lesbian. Ruth was 'out' decades before it was cool to be visible, and she has led an absolutely fascinating life." (6 p.m. June 1, Rice University Media Center.)
Forbidden Love in the Twilight World of the Third Sex -- A mixed bag of short subjects, including "A Love Story," an examination of the lesbian love affair in WWII Germany that inspired the controversial feature "Aimee and Jaguar." Sight unseen, it's hard to tell whether any of the four shorts on this bill are worth the price of admission. But who cares: I just wanted to list the program's cool title. Sounds like the name of an unproduced Ed Wood screenplay, doesn't it? (8 p.m. June 2, Diverse Works.)
Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train -- Patrice Chereau's bittersweet appraisal of love and loss focuses on an egocentric artist (Jean-Louis Trintignant) who loved men, manipulated women and generally conducted himself as a heedless libertine for 70-something years. Even as he nears death, he can't resist making friends, relatives and intimates jump through hoops one last time. So he makes plans for a funeral that require mourners to travel by rail from Paris to Limoges. (5 p.m. May 27-29, MFAH).
The Hunger -- It's not entirely necessarily to be a connoisseur of camp to enjoy this sleek and sexy nonsense about chic vampires on the prowl in 1983 New York. For those of you who have always wanted to see Catherine Deneuve between the sheets with Susan Sarandon -- and you know who you are, so don't try to deny it --here's the stuff that dreams are made of. (9:30p.m. June 1, Rice University Media Center.)
Tickets for the "Technicolor 2000" party -- 6-8 p.m. Friday, May 26 -- are $15 and can be purchased at the Alley Theatre box office. Additional information is available at www.hglff.org.
Queer As Folk and Queer As Folk 2: episodes of British television series. 12:30 p.m. and 3 p.m. June 2-8, 5:30 p.m. June 4. Angelika Film Center, 501 Texas Avenue, (713)225-5232.
Schoolàs Out: Gay & Lesbian Teen Portraits: shorts program. 8 p.m. May 30. Aurora Picture Show, 800 Aurora Street, (713)868-2101
The Wrong Body: 7 p.m. May 31. (Followed by a 9 p.m. discussion led by Rice University gender studies professor Dr. Lynne Huffer). Diverse Works, 1117 East Freeway, (713)335-3445
Forbidden Love in the Twilight World of the Third Sex: video shorts. 8 p.m. June 2. Diverse Works.
Eating in Bed Is Good: video shorts. 10 p.m. June 2. Diverse Works.
Beefcake: May 26-June 2. Landmark Greenway 3 Theatre, 5 Greenway Plaza, (713)626-0402.
Women of Vision: 3 p.m. May 27 and 29. (Director Alexandra Juhasz will attend the May 27 screening.) Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH); 1001 Bissonnet, (713)639-7515
Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train: 5 p.m. May 27-29, MFAH.
Cheryl Dunye short films. 7:30 p.m. May 27. (Director will be in attendance.) MFAH.
The Watermelon Woman: 9 p.m. May 27. (Director Cheryl Dunye will be in attendance.) MFAH.
Chocolate Babies: 7:30 p.m. May 28-29. MFAH.
Living with Pride: Ruth Ellis @ 100: 6 p.m. June 1. Rice University Media Center,
Outtakes: 7:30 p.m. June 1. Rice Media Center.
The Hunger: 9:30 p.m. June 1. Rice Media Center.
Rice & Potatoes: 6 p.m. June 2. Rice Media Center.
Bedrooms and Hallways: 7:30 p.m. June 2, 9 p.m. June 4. Rice Media Center.
Gendernauts: 9:30 p.m. June 2. Rice Media Center.
Surviving Friendly Fire: 3:30 p.m. June 3. Rice Media Center.
The Man Who Drove with Mandela: 5:30 p.m. June 3. Rice Media Center.
Lola and Billy the Kid: 7:30 p.m. June 3. Rice Media Center.
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Sitcom: 9:30 p.m. June 3. Rice Media Center.
Myra Breckinridge: 11:30 p.m. June 3. Rice Media Center.
HGLFF Short Film Showcase. 5 p.m. June 4 (Directors Sharon Ferranti and Jenni Stark will be in attendance.) Rice Media Center.
The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me: 7 p.m. June 4. Rice Media Center.