“Why are gay movies always so awful?”
The question prompted an interesting conversation. With a casting director. Who is himself gay. He was the one asking the question, although his exact words were somewhat more forceful and somewhat less G-rated.
It’s a good question. Of course, not all gay movies are awful. It just feels that way sometimes. Many of them are embarrassingly bad. Filled with ridiculous stereotypes. Cliches. Cartoon characters in preposterous situations that don’t resemble anything from real life. Not any real life that I know.
It’s as if the (presumably gay) people making those films are so caught up with the idea that they are making a gay movie that they forget to make a good movie. The demands on the writers, actors, and the director are slackened. The production values suffer. The whole thing too often ends up feeling thrown together with no budget and less artistic integrity. The result is almost always insulting. To a gay person. To an intelligent audience.
Naturally, there are exceptions. Anyone searching long or hard enough will find a treasure hidden here or there. While thinking about the ones that I come back to again and again, I decided to compile a list. Not that I am a list person. I am not. However, just in case someone reading has wondered the same thing as my friend the gay casting director, perhaps my recommendations may prove helpful?
So, with that, here are my five favorite gay films:
5. Brokeback Mountain
It seems wrong to start off with such an obvious choice. The artist in me would prefer to stick to small independent features that have slipped beneath the radar. Still, this movie is so good on so many levels that it really should not be ignored just because it feels big. What I love best about it is that it is the very opposite of most gay movies. The attention to the art of film making is precise. The standards are set high. The result is a great movie in any category. Not just a great gay movie.
The only reservation I have is that, as in so many Hollywood scripts, the gay characters must be punished. Think about it. How many times have you seen the gay guy get killed off, or be allowed to live only on the condition that he is miserable? (Four Weddings and a Funeral, A Single Man, Best Exotic Marigold Hotel...) It’s disturbing. We have not yet reached the point where homosexuality is completely accepted, without condition or judgment. Even in an industry where there are so many openly gay people, there is still the residual sense that being gay is sinful.
In this particular case, if the Heath Ledger character did not do such a spectacular job of punishing himself, the story would not be as powerful. It is not an easy movie to watch. I can think of few films which have affected me so deeply. So I don’t watch this one unless I am prepared to be torn apart. Most of the time when I see it is on, I only tune in for the wonderful scene towards the end, where he visits the parents of his longtime lover.
That scene is as near to perfect as it gets. Even if you can tell what’s coming, it is done in a way that is better than you might have imagined. That’s good story telling.
4. Chuck & Buck
This is an offbeat film which takes you right to the edge of uncomfortable and then carefully guides you through with humor and a whimsical touch. It’s a story about a guy who is mentally not quite all there, who re-connects with his childhood best friend, who is now successful and about to be married to a smart and beautiful woman. The problem is that the first guy, the one who is mentally not all there, is still living in childhood, and expects the second guy to pick up right from where they left off.
It’s a fascinating premise. What is especially intriguing is the dynamic between the two guys. The second guy is straight, but he reacts to his old best friend/ new stalker with the complexity the bizarre situation deserves.
The delightful actress Lupe Onitveros plays the manager of a small theatre company where the central character finds a home as a children’s playwright. She befriends him, and provides much of the heart of this endearing little movie.
3. Broadway Damage
This is a light and fun comedy, one which shows how light and fun can be done right. The movie flirts a bit with camp, there is even a musical number or two, but it never feels superficial or shallow. Mostly thanks to a talented cast and some clever dialogue.
The premise is simple. Three college grads share an apartment in New York City in order to pursue their careers, with the hope of finding true love. Funny things happen, complications ensue, and if the final scene arrives too neatly packaged with a bright pink bow, who cares? It’s a feel good film, and happy endings are not a crime.
The movie mostly belongs to Mara Hobel. If she looks familiar, it’s because she had a recurring role on Rosanne as a teenager. She easily gets the best lines, and also the most challenging dramatic moments. Both of the male leads are likable, but Michael Shawn Lucas is so remarkably handsome, it is mystifying that he has not become more famous.
There are a few gems in the supporting cast, some have reappeared in other places. Hugh Panaro has done some actual Broadway, and has toured Europe with Barbra Streisand. Gary Janetti is on Bravo’s It’s a Brad Brad World, as real-life husband to the adorable Brad.
Manhattan is itself a central character, much as it is in Sex and the City. New Yorkers (and actors, for that matter) will appreciate the inside jokes.
2. Get Real
This is a coming out story, the kind which has been told many times. The introverted high school kid with a “cuddly” best female friend and a painful crush on the school jock. Although there may be nothing new in the tale, when it is told as superbly as this, it hardly matters.
The main character is played by a gifted actor named Ben Silverstone. He is particularly good in a scene where he gets drunk and confronts the boy he is in a secret relationship with. There are some intensely moving lines about wanting to be valued as a human being, delivered with complex layers of passion, rejection and yearning. It is difficult not to relate to him on levels you might not have accessed since being an awkward teen yourself.
Even the climactic (if somewhat prerequisite) coming-out-in-public scene is handled well, and raises valid questions about coming out. For a whole generation of kids, this is a different world. Being gay is not the curse it was just a decade or two ago. Although it is undeniable that there is still hostility directed towards gays, the main difference is that now the people who are acting hostile are the ones perceived as having a problem. Not the ones who are gay.
That is a seismic shift in awareness. It was not long ago that being gay was not something a person actually wanted to be. It was something a person wanted very much not to be. This movie straddles that shift. The main boy is okay with who he is. The object of his affection is not, and who could blame him? Why come out and risk everything? Why feel a need to announce to the world that you are gay? If it shouldn’t matter, then it shouldn’t matter. Right?
As much as a movie can, this one rephrases the question.
This seems to be everyone’s favorite gay movie, and for good reason. Aside from the high quality of the script, the acting, and the direction, this is a story that feels original. There are no stereotypes or cliches. There is nothing predictable. It is an ideal combination of inventive storytelling and new definitions of what it means to be gay.
The main character is a surfer type who gently falls for the older brother of his best friend. Their courtship is beautiful. One step leading logically, but not surely, to the next. The older man is gay, the younger is not. Until now. He has a nephew that he cares for, and the image of the two surrogate dads is played with as gently and logically as the romance itself. Why not have this relationship? Why not have this son? We write our own stories now.
The first kiss between the two male leads is one of the most believable on screen. It’s romantic, arousing, and totally realistic. As is everything about this movie. Even though you are watching a story unfold with no idea of where it will lead, you cannot doubt for a moment that it could happen exactly the way it does.
What’s more, this movie feels small. Independent. As if it is produced by artists, and not a studio. Not carefully edited by a panel of executives with their eye on profit margins, but rather by the ones most interested in sticking to the truth of the tale. The vision is pure. Which matters. At least to me, it does.
There you have it. Five good gay films. I’m sure there are others out there. I’ll keep looking for them.