The Wallflower

When is a movie about two women in love not "lesbian" enough? Ask Dallas filmmakers Gretchen and Julia Dyer, whose embattled indie gem Late Bloomers finally makes it to the national screen.

Dallas screenwriter Gretchen Dyer fully expected that some heterosexuals would resist the plot of her debut feature, Late Bloomers. The film, which was directed and co-produced by her sister, Julia Dyer, concerns two middle-aged women who unexpectedly fall in love while working at the same suburban high school.

But she knew the film really barbecued some sacred cows when a lesbian angrily approached her after the film was screened at a festival in Provincetown, Massachusetts, often cited as the unofficial gay capital of America.

"She said the movie was proof of my own internalized homophobia," Gretchen recalls with some bemusement. "And she also told me, 'There's not enough licking and sucking.' I said that I like licking and sucking, too, but that's really not what the film's about. It's about discovering a whole new side of yourself when you least expect it."

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Filmed in Dallas in 1994 using almost exclusively local actors and crew for $500,000, Late Bloomers is a modest study of unremarkable lives suddenly dragged under the harsh scrutiny of a disapproving community. Local stage, film, and TV actors Connie Nelson and Dee Hennigan give incandescent performances as Dinah Groshardt and Carly Lumpkin, the gym teacher and principal's secretary who ignite like firecrackers when they realize their attraction to each other. Unfortunately, the glare blinds friends, co-workers, and family in the process, compelling otherwise decent people to commit cruelties both accidental and intentional.

Along with their 32-year-old brother, Stephen, who acts as co-producer for the film, Gretchen, 38, and Julia, 34, have been through meteoric highs and gutter lows as Late Bloomers was accepted at every prestigious film festival in the country, including Sundance in 1996, and several abroad. The story was always the same--audiences were enthusiastic for a well-executed underdog saga, but distributors were cool to the film's deliberate unhipness--until the small but prestigious Strand Releasing chose to open the film domestically.

The company, which assumed distribution of Late Bloomers in January, has mapped an unorthodox marketing strategy--a film about midlife lesbian love makes its U.S. debut in Texas, not widely considered the most gay-friendly of states. After opening in Dallas, Houston, and Austin on June 27, the movie ambles northward to Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, and other, more traditional art-film stomping grounds.

The unidentified heartland setting of Late Bloomers couldn't be more commonplace, or the characters more humble in their aspirations and achievements. And yet the movie is a nimble, ingratiating little study of sexual anarchy. In fact, the film couldn't have been more subversive if it featured a pride parade full of drag queens and dykes on bikes. Director Julia Dyer sums up the theme as "It could happen to you," which only hints at the ambisexuality this terrifically acted movie serves on the fine china of the romantic comedy, that most reassuring of mainstream entertainments.

Mild-mannered, charming, and honey-coated though it is, Late Bloomers takes some fairly insurrectionist positions. It champions the idea of gay marriage, which has replaced gay promiscuity as the outrage du jour of cultural traditionalists. Yet more than a few gay and lesbian activists are equally uncomfortable with the idea of accepting marital rights, because they believe the institution has, by and large, failed heterosexuals.

Even more radically, the film suggests that labels like "straight" and "lesbian" are often meaningless when applied to the complex course of an individual's lifetime. The women who fall in love no more think of themselves as "lesbians" than your average heterosexual high school employee. Yet their passion for each other overwhelms definitions of normalcy and renders radical politics irrelevant.

You wouldn't think a movie as gentle as Late Bloomers could offend anyone but the usual homophobic suspects. Yet Gretchen, Julia, and Stephen encountered resistance from every conceivable force in America's culture wars--straights and gays, New York-L.A. sophisticates and inexperienced Southwestern investors, so-called "indie" film companies and the marketers who peddle their wares to arthouse audiences.

For a supposedly non-political film, Late Bloomers has challenged a myriad of social and commercial taboos in its ascent to nationwide theatrical release. The Dyers are delighted, determined, and exhausted from the fallout.

To settle the question that arises in many people's minds when they hear that two women filmmakers have made a lesbian love story, I ask Julia and Gretchen if they're--you know--that way. Their answers are as simple and complex as the uncertain sexual terrain traversed by their hardy heroines.

"I consider myself bisexual," Gretchen says. "So people are surprised when I tell them I'm getting married in November--to a man."

"Honestly, I hate that question," Julia says, "because it just allows people to peg you as a filmmaker, and explain your movie away. Let's just say I've known what it's like to fall in love with a woman."

The Dyers insist that the idea for Late Bloomers came about not from their own love lives, but because of their experience with a broader social phenomenon--the public ritual known as a wedding.

"We had what we called our 'year of weddings,' where one friend after another was getting hitched," Gretchen recalls. "First we attended this legal, socially sanctioned ceremony for a man and a woman. It was this huge, lavishly catered $100,000 affair. Three months later, the couple had split and filed for divorce.

"Shortly after that, we attended a ceremony for two female friends in Austin. It took place under a canopy in someone's backyard. One set of parents had threatened to boycott, but at the last minute, they showed up--these older, strait-laced people who'd put aside lifelong prejudices to stand by their daughter. In the middle of the event, rain came down like crazy. But that may have been the most beautiful wedding I'd ever been to. These women didn't have a church or a judge to support what they were doing, but that seemed to give the event even more importance. They couldn't afford to take the idea of marriage for granted."

Gretchen, the writing half of the duo, immediately began to mull over a story in which the impending nuptials of two women scandalize the townspeople who thought they knew them.

"It was our intention from the start to make a movie not about urban lesbian culture, but two women who'd assimilated into the mainstream," Julia insists. "You know, the people who get up every morning at seven, put on their lipstick and pantyhose, maybe even drive their kids to school, and go to the office. These women are lesbians, too."

Alonso Duralde, artistic director of the USA Film Festival, thinks the sheer ordinariness of the lives portrayed in Late Bloomers is what makes it so refreshing. He held a bon voyage preview right before the Dyers took the film to Sundance, then screened it at last year's festival. Duralde himself is gay.

"It was thrilling to see a movie where the main characters actually have to work for a living," Duralde explains. "They aren't fashionably unemployed, or mysteriously upscale. These women also aren't lesbians with a capital 'L.' They live in a suburban milieu among mostly straight people. We like to talk about how the gay and lesbian community is a patchwork, but the Dyers have actually visited a corner of the blanket where few filmmakers tread."

Which leads to a question--just how "lesbian" are the women in Late Bloomers? The "L" word is mentioned only one time in the film's script, although neither of the two leads refers to herself as one. Late Bloomers was lesbian enough so that Gretchen and Julia were compelled to hoodwink by omission and obfuscation the three Dallas schools, including one private religious institution, where they filmed; to this day, they won't reveal those locations. Lesbian enough so that a few otherwise enthusiastic local heterosexual investors specifically requested their names not be included among the end credits. Then again, not so lesbian that one self-identified lesbian who considered investing in the project declined because neither filmmaker chooses to describe herself as one. But Alonso Duralde scoffs at the notion of applying a litmus test to a film's gayness.

"Look, we've got a lot of catching up to do," he says. "You see quite a few gay and lesbian movies being released today, but they're still a relatively recent phenomenon in the history of popular cinema. Many stories that need to be told still haven't been."

Robert Redford's ultrahyped Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, certainly isn't shy about showcasing some of those stories. Last year, when Gretchen and Julia's film was accepted for competition, both filmmakers were interviewed for a segment that aired on ABC World News Tonight about the proliferation of movies by and about women who love women.

There may, indeed, have been a glut; the Dyers describe their film as not exactly generating a buzz, but not being ignored, either. Duralde, who attended his second Sundance last year, confirmed, "The best place to hear the vox populi was on the bus rides between screenings, and people who saw Late Bloomers really praised it." But considering how often words like "independent" and "alternative" are thrown around in the annual international media feeding frenzy that is Sundance, the Dyers discovered commercial considerations weren't quite moot.

"The William Morris Agency came to us and expressed interest in representing the film," Gretchen claims. "And there were some film companies, too, who said they were very interested. But ultimately, we encountered the same conflict with each one--the acquisitions people liked it, but the marketers nixed it. They said, 'How are we going to sell a movie about lesbians in the Bible Belt in New York and Los Angeles?' And without some kind of hip, urban, in-joke lesbian sensibility, they complained that the film wasn't 'erotic' enough. We were finally set straight on what that meant--Connie and Dee weren't curvaceous, 25-year-old model types."

"The movie industry is one big loop," Gretchen adds. "Since most of the people work in either New York or Los Angeles, the attitudes in those cities have come to be confused with America's attitudes. Well, we love Go Fish, but we didn't want to make just another version of it. We never intended this film to appeal to the New York sophisticate. They have plenty of movies to call their own."

Ultimately, the Dyers were left heartsick: The very reasons they'd chosen to write, produce, and film Late Bloomers were what the national indie companies (most of which are big studio holdings, anyway) had cited when they turned their backs on the film. They left Sundance without a taker, although one influential company head who saw it there later decided he had to have it. And his company may have been the unlikeliest distributor of all for a sweet little romantic comedy that climaxes with a wedding kiss.

When Marcus Hu is written about in the national press, gay or straight, he's inevitably mentioned in the company of homo indie stalwarts like Christine Vachon and Marc Huestis. Strand Releasing--the Los Angeles-based, eight-year-old company for which he serves as co-president--does release more than just the cream of the "new queer cinema." Recent acquisitions have included the national rerelease of that most hetero of coming-of-age movies, The Graduate, as well as Marcello Mastroianni's last film.

Still, profiles of Hu in Movieline and Out have pegged Strand as the salon of distinction for America's best gay indie filmmakers, and Hu, himself openly gay, is proud of the reputation.

"Early on, we established a brand-name association, because we worked with such a large pool of gay talent," Hu says, noting that Strand also produces some of its projects. "I'm happy to say, because of that, some of the best gay titles come our way."

These have included critically lauded art-house hits like Greg Araki's The Living End and Totally Fucked Up; two consecutive programs of short films called Boys Life; and last year's docudrama Stonewall. What do these movies have in common? They focus on the intersection of gay male sexuality and political identity almost exclusively in large cities--often as not, in a violent or emotionally barren context. They are about as far from Late Bloomers in tone, visual style, and theme as Last Tango in Paris is from Sleepless in Seattle. Yet Hu insists the Dyers' Dallas-made production fits nicely into his company's aesthetic. Ultimately, the decision to acquire the film was his.

"I loved Late Bloomers when I saw it at Sundance," Hu insists. "It was a very tender, funny little story. The lead actresses were terrific, and I appreciated the way the Dyers treated these humble lives without a trace of condescension.

"The film is about lesbian love in a Norman Rockwell setting, and I can't think of anything more disruptive in the world of DOMA [Defense of Marriage Act]. I found the fact that they were able to present such a blatant pro-gay message in such a candy-coated fashion to be fascinating. This film takes the family-values argument away from the right-wing very forcefully by daring audiences to disapprove of a loving relationship between two wonderful women."

As it turns out, Strand had other concerns about confronting a supposedly open-minded audience--specifically, critics and seasoned gay and lesbian art-film audiences in New York. Could they stomach a movie that translates one of America's bloodiest culture wars into a suburban high school scandal? But Hu insists that Strand's decision to premiere the film in Texas is only partly about averting condemnation from Northeastern cognoscenti.

"We worried about how this film would play in New York," Hu says. "It's a fairly sentimental little picture. But the Texas premiere was more about setting up a grassroots campaign--'local folks make good,' that kind of thing. Every movie has to be marketed in a different way. We opened another movie about gay male lovers [Eric Mueller's World and Time Enough] in Minneapolis, where it was filmed. It did very well for us."

But did Hu have any concerns about how a homegrown valentine to Sapphic amour would play in Dallas, a city not generally known for its tolerance of minorities, sexual and otherwise?

"I honestly didn't associate Dallas with any particular political mindset," Hu says with a small laugh. "But I'll make a note of that next time."

His concerns about New York, it turns out, were at least partially founded when the June 10 issue of The Advocate hit the stands. Although many would question whether the status is deserved, the L.A.-based national glossy is generally considered the weekly of record for gay and lesbian America. That edition contained a review by critic Bob Satuloff, a New York-based freelancer who has written for New York Native and Christopher Street, both defunct publications that were the quintessential voices of the cynical, urban gay sensibility.

Referring to Late Bloomers as "awkwardly staged, sluggishly paced, and gratingly scored," Satuloff declares "the movie is good-looking and technically proficient, but its simplistic, cartoonish style, one-size-fits-all plot resolution, and relentlessly feel-good treatment steamroll the complex issues it raises into pancake flatness--resulting in a comedy with a terminal case of the cutes." Satuloff goes on to say that the movie's sincerity may make "sophisticated gay and lesbian viewers...suffer guilt pangs if they find themselves...rolling their eyes."

While Satuloff's appraisal is undeniably condescending and at times unfair, it's true that the biggest weakness of Late Bloomers may be excessive optimism. Any lesbian or gay man who's ever felt the sting of rejection from a parent or best friend may think the mass conversion of the film's incredulous townspeople is suspiciously easy. Then again, as Julia says, "Why is it that filmgoers would believe Tom Cruise can be blown onto the top of a speeding train by a huge explosion and still survive, but they refuse to think two women in love can have a happy ending?"

On getting a whiff of what Bob Satuloff's review contained, Julia Dyer says she refused to read it. Gretchen did, however, and it's clear that one word out of the whole piece sticks in her craw--"sophisticated."

"This is the story of so many lesbians who live in small towns across America," she insists. "We've got countless letters and personal comments to make us think that. I think for this man to use the word 'sophisticated' says more about him than it does the audience.

"Another complaint we got from a gay viewer was that we treated the heterosexuals in the film with too much affection," Julia confesses. "And it's true that we regarded them as people who could change. There are certainly evil homophobes in the world, but I believe most homophobia can be chalked up to people thinking they don't know someone who's gay or lesbian. We treat homophobia as ignorance, not malevolence."

A particularly proud moment for Gretchen was a telephone interview with a gay writer from Los Angeles who told her that he learned something about heterosexuals from watching Late Bloomers.

"This fellow lived in an urban world that was very gay-centric. He didn't have to encounter on a daily basis what the women in our film faced from friends and family, so he'd come to think of people who make homophobic comments as monolithically evil. He said, 'This movie was a window for me. I saw they weren't always the villains.'"

Late Bloomers opens at the Inwood Theater June 27.

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