While it's true that most filmmakers still keep on-screen gay romance in the hand-holding stage, the viewer who yearns to savor a little bit of tenderness between same-sex lovers may have been startled to find a wealth of sweet moments in the most unexpected places recently. Spike Lee, traditionally no champion of gay rights, hit viewers right between the eyes with a scene of reconciliation between boyfriends in Get on the Bus. The film was aimed squarely at African-American audiences, and if it's true, as many community leaders have acknowledged, that this demographic has an especially hard time accepting homosexuality, Lee fearlessly let the sparks fly as one man kissed the hand of his ex-lover in an exchange so unfettered it bordered on catharsis.
You can't get much more hetero than film noir--or the filmmaking team of brothers Larry and Andy Wachowski, for that matter. But those guys kept the cameras steady as Jennifer Tilly seduced Gina Gershon in Bound. Granted, the lust volume was turned up quite a bit higher there, leaving the boys vulnerable to charges of exploitation, but romance prevailed; Tilly and Gershon got each other and the money as the closing credits rolled.
Each of those movies was also created on an indie budget with zero interference from a big studio. A Hollywood romp like The Birdcage entertainingly portrayed the highs and lows of a long-term monogamous gay relationship, but maintained what I like to call the megaphone factor:The two principals are positioned so far apart during a scene of particular romantic poignancy that they'd need a megaphone to exchange sweet nothings.
And so it is that Western cinema stumbles toward a confrontation with its fear of projecting the full lives of gays and lesbians on a big screen, a fear grounded not so much in outright homophobia as in the pursuit of the almighty dollar; financial backers don't want to offend any potential ticket buyers before they've even left the gate. (As a gay viewer, I still vividly remember my first encounter with the hostility of a mass audience toward two gay men; I sat stunned while ticket buyers jeered and booed the scene when Michael Caine kisses Christopher Reeve in 1982's Deathtrap).
But with the rise of the so-called independent film companies and a renewed passion for making tiny-budgeted movies targeted at specific audiences, gay and lesbian romance flourishes for those who want to see it. It's impossible to imagine a major studio putting money behind a project like Beautiful Thing, a luminous little British import that tackles not just homo affection, but the blossom of first love between two high-school boys. Because of the aggressive campaigns waged by U.S. right-wingers against any mention of homosexuality in the public school system, gay and lesbian adolescents are left to fend for themselves in a hostile world. This makes for millions of tragically miserable youngsters, but the imposed silence offers myriad opportunities for a sensitive cinematic storyteller to capture the rush of clandestine excitement that a first gay kiss provides for its participants.
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Directed by first-time filmmaker Hettie MacDonald from a screenplay by playwright Jonathan Harvey, Beautiful Thing takes that cinder-glow of mutual secrecy and nurtures it to a fine, blood-warming temperature. The 27-year-old Harvey won raves in London two years ago with the premiere staging of Beautiful Thing, winning a shelfful of awards and notching a five-week sold-out run. The British can hardly be said to be less homophobic than Americans, but it's true they've been more inclined to explore homosexuality without the censorious undertones that have killed off stadiums full of gay and lesbian characters in American cinema.
With a bracing intelligence and a liberating lack of tragedy, Beautiful Thing traces the slow attraction between Jamie (Glen Berry), a sports-hating, movie-loving wiseacre, and athletic but deeply fearful Ste (Scott Neal)--next-door neighbors in a high-rise London apartment dwelling. Jamie has a love-hate relationship with his foul-mouthed barmaid mother (Linda Henry, in the film's best performance), whereas Ste pretty much just hates his father (Ronnie Pearce), an ex-boxer who, when he's in a bad mood, tends to knock Ste around.
The boys discover their feelings for each other in an exchange of looks and tentative words that accelerates with meaning as the film progresses. Beautiful Thing manages to find the gentle bond that lurks inside mutual repression and offers it to our lovers as an escape hatch from that repression. You wish every gay teenager could have a first romance as edifying; short of that, just getting to see it in a movie theater represents a small step forward.
Beautiful Thing. Sony Pictures Classics. Glen Berry, Scott Neal, Linda Henry. Written by Jonathan Harvey. Directed by Hettie McDonald. Opens November 1.