Boy Meets Boy

The explosion of gay visibility in contemporary cinema might make some believe that you can't get a script produced in America unless it has at least one world-weary, big-hearted gay neighbor or a wisecracking lesbian best friend/daughter/sister, both of whom put the central heterosexual romance into perspective by the exotic contrast of their presence in the film.

Yet there remains in American film a grim and stubborn apartheid where sexual expression is concerned. Homo affection is rarely permitted outside the kinds of vision-on-a-shoestring projects that get screened in places like the Slamdance Film Festival and other alternative forums. Just ask Bruce Willis; he almost walked off the set of The Jackal because the producers wouldn't permit his character, who changes his identity to that of a gay man, to plant a kiss on another male.

Jeez, you can't throw a rock at a movie screen these days without hitting a supporting homosexual, the embattled heterosexual movie fan might be thinking. What else do they want? Well, a few more non-sensational, in-context same-sex kisses would be nice. Straights might simply swap shoes for a while with gay and lesbian viewers and imagine growing up in a world where Leonardo DiCaprio woos Billy Zane for three hours while Kate Winslet is identified as Kathy Bates' girlfriend, but all are physically placed so far from their respective lovers in every scene, you could sink a luxury liner in the space between them.

A little more lavender woo might alleviate a "problem" that seems to annoy many straights (and a few gays) to no end: reading homoerotic undertones into otherwise hetero-specific situations. If gays and lesbians saw themselves as sexual beings on the big screen more often, they might not be so hell-bent on interpreting every innocent conversation as a closeted come-on or unconscious confession.

The gay subtextualizing of old Hollywood is the subject of one of three gay-centered films screened at USAFF. Together, The Silver Screen: Color Me Lavender, Finding North, and I Think I Do create an arc that perfectly summarizes the slow blossoming that same-sex affection has made in American movies. We'll call them, respectively, Nobody Here But Us Heteros; Homosexuality in Theory (But Not in Practice); and Kiss Me, Bruce. They were directed by two gay men and a lesbian.

The Silver Screen: Color Me Lavender is the third consecutive meditation on "queer film theory" by writer-filmmaker Mark Rappaport. His most famous film, Rock Hudson's Home Movies, was shoddy, but made a convincing case that the late gay actor's long career was studded (if you'll pardon the expression) with the reflections of a funhouse mirror aimed at his private life. Color Me Lavender, hosted by stage and TV actor Dan Butler, focuses on male relationships in Hollywood films from the '30s and '40s.

While keeping perspective with an occasional admission on which interpretations might be a little far-fetched, Color Me Lavender is even more focused and credible as it hunts for clues amidst the industry's official party line: Nobody Here But Us Heteros. The movie's crowning achievement is its exploration into the very ambiguous friendship between Bing Crosby and Bob Hope in those road movies, which, as ample clips testify, were loaded with some very unambiguous innuendoes. Why did they so often wind up in bed together, each usually mistaking the other? Why did they so often mistakenly kiss each other on the lips? Why all the drag and jokes that self-deprecate their masculinity? Not because they were secretly gay, Rappaport argues, but because such a close, constant movie friendship between two males had to introduce the topic of homosexuality, then lampoon it to defuse its possibility. He investigates the same notion using clips from the careers of Walter "The Grizzled, Asexual Sidekick" Brennan and Clifton Webb.

Finding North, screened as part of the Texas Filmmakers Showcase, is a textbook example of Homosexuality in Theory (But Not in Practice). A sturdy but bland combination of road movie and fable, director Tanya Wexler follows the journey of a brassy, lovelorn Brooklyn woman (Wendy Makkena) and an emotionally distraught gay man (Plano native John Benjamin Hickey, currently wowing 'em on Broadway in the Cabaret revival) from New York to Texas to confront the small-town past of the man's lover, dead of AIDS.

There's a lot of love and lust swirling around in this good-natured little movie about two misfits trying to make the most of life without partners, but don't expect Hickey's character to enjoy the expression of either. Horrible a tragedy as AIDS is, it's served rather conveniently as a desexualizing device for gay male characters in movies from Long-time Companion to It's My Party. It's pleasing to the open liberal mind to show a gay man grieving instead of kissing. Besides, Finding North does offer Hickey a chance at love...if only he'd broaden his horizons a little and accept the overtures of the female traveling companion who has a crush on him, his boy-craziness be damned. This situation is perfectly suitable fodder for farce, but because Finding North isn't smart enough to fully exercise this very difficult form, the lead characters come across as rather pathetic individuals who can't get laid, not charming madcaps who demonstrate the follies of the human heart with flair.

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