In the age of don't ask, don't tell, when networks are rating their own shows for mature content, Ellen DeGeneres has very publicly declared herself a lesbian and staged her coming-out party in 14 million American living rooms.
Why is it okay for Ellen to be gay? Simple -- the aw-shucks innocent doesn't have sex. The show may hint at the issue with books such as Lesbian Love (which causes even Ellen to raise her eyebrows in surprise), but there will be no rolls in the hay. Middle America is perfectly willing to accept gays and lesbians -- but only up to a point.
The first-ever Houston Gay and Lesbian Film Festival shows no such hesitance, bringing to town even the latest reason for conservative congressmen to hate the NEA: The Watermelon Woman, a meditation on the black lesbian heritage in which director Cheryl Dunye herself performs in what one critic hailed "the hottest dyke sex scene on celluloid."
More representative of the festival, though, is this week's heavy-hitting offering: the fuzzy-wuzzy, hetero-friendly Love! Valour! Compassion! More sweet than sexy, more tender than tantalizing, the film is one even a prime time audience could love. With warm piano melodies, soft cozy lighting and a grand old Victorian house, the movie feels like an Our House family reunion. Adding to the safe-enough-for-TV vibe is the presence of Seinfeld's familiar lovable loser, Jason Alexander, who's even been promoting the film on the talk show circuit.
Don't misunderstand: Love! Valour! Compassion! -- based on the Tony Award-winning play by the same name -- is much smarter, funnier and more realistic than a half-hour sitcom. Patriarch Gregory (Stephen Bogardus) and his much younger, blind lover Bobby (Justin Kirk) host six friends at their well-appointed home in the country. Each character is likable and well-developed, from the utterly stable couple Perry (Stephen Spinella) and Arthur (John Benjamin Hickey) -- "We're role models. It's very stressful" -- to Ramon (Randy Becker), the Puerto Rican modern dancer who loves the fact that Gregory, a brilliant but aging choreographer, can feel both the professional and private threats of his youth. Even John (John Glover), a misanthropic British pianist, is allowed to redeem himself through his AIDS-afflicted twin brother, matronly James (also John Glover), who giggles, wears tapered pants and muumuus and wins the affection of all.
The ensemble's obvious intimacy is inviting and involving. The most riveting performance comes from Jason Alexander, who plays Buzz, the self-proclaimed "love child of Judy Garland and Liberace." Perhaps Alexander's advantage over the other actors is that he has more experience in front of a camera; or perhaps he simply gets the best lines. Whatever the reason, flamboyant Buzz is hilarious, whether singing show tunes from Cabaret, leading cheers during a volleyball game or sunning himself while wearing only a flower-printed apron and a pair of butterfly-shaped sunglasses.
Of course, life in the country isn't always peachy. The men of Love! Valour! Compassion! deal with one another's racism, jealousy, AIDS and political correctness. Gorgeously egotistical Ramon threatens to unsettle the happy order of things when he tempts Gregory's partner with a passionate kiss. But fresh air -- not to mention a moonlight skinny-dip and a dress rehearsal of Swan Lake -- somehow dispels the hurtful words and repairs the makeshift family.
The play moves to the screen more gracefully than might be expected. Probably it helps that playwright Terrence McNally also wrote the screenplay, and that director Joe Mantello and his cast were imported from the Broadway production. The only slip-up is a strange scene at the movie's end: While we see the characters dancing, slow motion, in tutus and ballet slippers, each describes via a voice-over his own eventual death. The effect is less poignant than silly.
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An added bonus is the camera's ability to pull away from episodes of nude sunbathing and to crop out most of the film's singular make-out scene in favor of a milk bottle. On-stage, a man standing naked for more than 20 minutes can hardly help but make an in-your-face statement.
In the film, however, the light from a setting sun and brief shots from a distant camera combine to make strutting Ramon seem like nothing more than a giddy boy at summer camp. Ellen fans won't be offended in the least -- and neither will fans of the play.
Love! Valour! Compassion!
Directed by Joe Mantello. With Jason Alexander, Randy Becker, Stephen Bogardus, John Glover, John Benjamin Hickey, Justin Kirk and Stephen Spinella.