Film Reviews

Sexual Orienting Onscreen

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 toŠ 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.)

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Joe Leydon