The Bad Old Days for LGBT Characters in Goofy Films Still Worth a Look
With the recent box office failure and critical thrashing of Stonewall (now available on DVD), which has strong potential to become a camp classic due to its hilariously overwrought performances and stupefyingly inept execution on every other level, and with the media celebrating the 20th anniversary of Showgirls as a cultural milestone, it’s as perfect a time as any to look back at other bad movies with queer aesthetics we love. You know, films that aimed really high but landed with a giant, earth-shattering thud. To disregard these movies as mere disasters is to be ungrateful for the wonders (misconceived casting, misguided performances, the garish art direction and costumes, stultifying plot twists) they offer. I’ll take it on faith that you’ve already seen Glen or Glenda, Valley of the Dolls, Myra Breckinridge, Can’t Stop the Music, Xanadu, Mommie Dearest and Glitter and if you haven’t, move those to the top of your must-see list stat.
The Gay Deceivers (1969)Director: Bruce Kessler
Cast: Michael Greer, Lawrence P. Casey, Kevin Coughlin
Where you can see it: DVD, YouTube
Why it’s worth watching: For decades The Gay Deceivers was regarded as the ne plus ultra of insulting, horribly misguided gay-movies — even in a year that saw the release of Staircase (more on that one below). With the demise of the restrictive Production Code in the mid-1960s, movies began addressing more adult subject matter, such as homosexuality, but rarely in an enlightened manner. The plot centers around two straight pals who pretend to be a gay couple to avoid being drafted into the military so that gives you an idea of how stereotypical the characters might be. Time has been strangely kind to this film, which actually received a respectable review in the L.A. Times upon release. The swishy performance of Michael Greer as the landlord makes Cliff Gorman’s unfairly maligned Emory in The Boys in the Band seem like a butch top daddy in comparison. Yet it’s curiously touching that Greer, who managed to be an out working actor at a time when it was still career suicide, reportedly rewrote some of his dialogue to try to make the screenplay a bit less homophobic. Also, it’s not a huge reach to think this might have provided inspiration for the long-running sitcom Three’s Company nearly a decade later.
Director: Stanley Donen
Cast: Rex Harrison, Richard Burton
Where you can see it: DVD
Why it’s worth watching: Rex Harrison and Richard Burton, two of cinema’s most notorious womanizers in real life, re-teamed six years after their history-making historical epic Cleopatra to play a middle-aged, waspish gay couple (both men are hairdressers!) in this comedy-drama from director Stanley Donen (the graceful comedy of Singin’ in the Rain and Funny Face a distant memory but another disaster Lucky Lady still ahead) and based on a stage play by Charles Dyer. Journalists at the time asked Burton how he’d disguise his deep voice to play a gay man. Imagine! Although the producers anticipated Oscar nominations, reviews were horrendous. It’s definitely a groan-inducing slog most of the time and the movie’s tag line “a sad gay affair” is pretty apt. Still, there’s the curio factor of the two hetero actors Harrison, who was something of a homophobe offscreen, and Burton, who according to biographer might have had a few same-sex trysts prior to his marriage to diamond-studded sex pot Elizabeth Taylor, playing a pair of extremely effeminate queens. Today, stereotypical portrayals of this caliber would result in a Stonewall-style backlash, but it’s likely that baby steps like this eventually led to Brokeback Mountain.
The Christine Jorgensen Story (1970)
Director: Irving Rapper
Cast: John Hansen
Where you can see it: YouTube
Why it’s worth watching: For people who complained about The Danish Girl being too glossy and polite this crude adaptation of the best-selling memoir by Christine Jorgensen, a former WW2 soldier who made sensational headlines around the globe for undergoing sex reassignment surgery in the early 1950s, might just be gritty enough for you. Veteran studio director Irving Rapper, who had put Bette Davis through her paces in countless Warner Bros. melodramas, was given the task of trying to turn this in to the next Now Voyager, instead it slipped beneath the rails as a piece of cheap exploitation. Although rights to the book were purchased in 1960, it took a decade for the film to actually be made and the time in between sadly wasn’t spent rewriting the pulpy script. The real-life Jorgensen would later say that every drag queen in the country fled to Hollywood hoping to star in the film. Ultimately, the plum role was handed to John Hansen, a little-known actor who was completely defeated by the sensationalistic screenplay. Famed film critic Leonard Maltin infamously complained at the time that Hansen looked more masculine as female Christine and vice versa. If for no other reason, watching this will cause viewers to empathize with the pioneering Jorgensen, who after surviving this debacle of her life, would go on to become a nightclub performer and summer story actress before her death in 1989. Among her final words were the revelation that she’d given the sexual revolution a “good swift kick in the pants.” We can’t argue.
Director: Berry Gordy
Cast: Diana Ross, Billie Dee Williams, Anthony Perkins
Where you can see it: DVD, YouTube
Why it’s worth watching: After her Oscar-nominated acting debut as tormented jazz singer Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues, Diana Ross seemed to be poised for Streisand-like movie superstardom. The former Supreme followed up that performance with an old school women’s picture that might have starred Bette Davis or Joan Crawford had it been made a few decades earlier, but alas it’s merely a highly-varnished rags-to-riches tale. Mahogany chronicles the rise of a ghetto girl to the heights of fame as a world-famous supermodel, who makes breathless proclamations like “I’m a winner, baby!” Anthony Perkins shows up in full-on psychopath mode as a creepy pig of a photographer who demands things of the heroine, such as “Show us your tits!” Motown founder Berry Gordy, AKA Miss Ross’ baby daddy, took over the directorial reigns from Oscar-winner Tony Richardson so there was little hope that this would be anything but a glossy soap opera. Although Mahogany was a huge box office hit in 1975, the film is most famous today for introducing the singer’s gorgeous melancholy anthem “Do You Know Where You’re Going To?,” which should be enough. If it isn’t, there’s also Billy Dee Williams at his most ridiculously handsome. As an additional bonus, there’s a car crash scene which is so over-the-top hilarious that it seems to show up in my Facebook newsfeed every few weeks.
Director: Lamont Johnson
Cast: Margaux Hemingway, Anne Bancroft, Chris Sarandon, Mariel Hemingway
Where you can see it: DVD
Why it’s worth watching: Intended to launch Margaux Hemingway, photogenic granddaughter of novelist Ernest, to stardom, this torrid drama about a fashion model who seeks vengeance after she is raped, then humiliated when a jury acquits the defendant, torpedoed her fledgling career instead. Featuring Chris Sarandon, who’d just scored an Oscar nod as a trans woman in Dog Day Afternoon, as the dastardly rapist and Anne Bancroft mugging like mad as Hemingway’s attorney, the drama reaches its camp zenith near the end when Hemingway, clad in a glamorous crimson gown and shotgun in hand, chases her perpetrator through a parking lot. As a footnote: Later that year, producer Dino De Laurentis followed Lipstick with King Kong, another bomb with critics, in which he cast another gorgeous blond model as his lead. Although that film’s heroine, Jessica Lange, would eventually go on to become a national treasure, Hemingway met a tragic end. After appearing in a string of Z-grade movies with titles like Killer Fish, her badly decomposed body was found in her apartment in 1996 (one day before the anniversary of her grandfather’s suicide) following a long struggle with alcoholism and bulimia.
Norman, Is That You? (1976)
Director: George Schlatter
Cast: Redd Fox, Pearl Bailey, Michael Warren, Dennis Dugan
Where you can see it: Streaming
Why it’s worth watching: Laugh-In creator George Schlatter purchased the rights to the 1970 Broadway comedy, about a macho man trying to come to terms with his only son being gay, that closed after a dozen performances (although it would become a popular staple on the community theater circuit in the U.S. and in Europe), as a vehicle for Oscar-winning thespian George C. Scott. Instead, after many years delay he cast popular comic Redd Foxx, then a big TV name due to the hit series Sanford and Son. The usually-delightful Pearl Bailey (who’s a mid-century doppelganger for Queen Latifah) came out of self-imposed retirement to play Foxx’s shrill estranged wife. Like a few of the other films on this list, the performances and production values in this movie barely reach the level of a quickly-canceled sitcom. Dennis Dugan, who’d go on to direct a slew of Adam Sandler “comedies” like the insidious I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry, appears here as the boyfriend of Foxx’s son and deliver’s the, um, hilarious retort “Oh fabuloussss!” ad infinitum. This is more-or-less what one would expect of a queer-themed comedy in the mid-’70s. Their intentions probably weren’t bad. In fact, Mike Warren, who played the title gay character and who had been a big college basketball star, told reporters at the time that the comedy would “deal with homosexuality better than any drama could” and that he hoped “the movie will emerge as a sympathetic study.” As another bonus, this film offers an early glimpse at the renowned puppet act Wayland Flowers and Madame, who always bring the yuk-yuks.
Ode to Billy Joe (1976)
Director: Max Baer, Jr.
Cast: Robbie Benson, Glynis O’Connor
Where you can see it: DVD, Streaming
Why it’s worth watching: If one of these films is not like the others, it’s this film adaptation of the 1967 chart-topping ballad by Bobbie Gentry. Directed by Max Baer, Jr., best-known as two-digit IQ’d Jethro Bodine on The Beverly Hillbillies, this isn’t loaded with intentional laughs like most of the other movies on this list. It tries to get to the bottom of the haunting song’s mystery about why local boy Billy Joe MacAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge. Robbie Benson, a major hearththrob in the mid-’70s, stars as a pallid title character Billy Joe who tosses something off the bridge before he himself jumps after having been drunkenly seduced into a one-night stand with an older closeted man. Yeah, we’re firmly in 1953 in the land below Mason-Dixie where any boy thought thought it’s better to be a dead fag than a living one (“a sin before God and man.”) Townsfolk assume that BJM jumped because he got his gal pal Bobbie Lee (O’Connor) pregnant so she splits town to protect his memory. Yeah, there aren’t a lot of laughs in this film, but it’s worth a peek to see how far we’ve come from the ugly scenario.
Thank God, It’s Friday (1978)
Director: Robert Klane
Cast: Jeff Goldblum, Debra Winger, Donna Summer
Where you can see it: DVD, Streaming
Why it’s worth watching: Think of the worst Z-grade sitcom you’ve ever watched and how you cringed at the terrible writing, flat acting and uninspired direction. Trust me, it’s heaps better than this alleged comedy, which aimed to be a disco spin on American Graffiti. Donna Summer, in her only movie role, stiffly plays an aspiring singer and gets to introduce her Oscar-winning “Last Dance,” but it’s not the version you dance to at your local gay bar’s ’70s night. Jeff Goldblum and Debra Winger also make early film appearances, but they don’t have fully developed characters to play. Even the dance scenes, which you think a film coming out a half year after the transcendental Saturday Night Fever would get right, are completely lacking in energy and pizzazz. Yet, there’s something curiously progressive about the way the screenplay regards the peripheral gay characters. Male couples boogie on the dance floor and a drag queen trims his chest hair in the crowded men’s room (who does that?) at the disco, without any signs of dismay from the other bar patrons. It’s the little things…
The Next Best Thing (2000)
Director: John Schlesinger
Cast: Madonna, Rupert Everett, Benjamin Bratt, Neil Patrick Harris
Where you can see it: DVD
Why it’s worth watching: Fresh from her Golden Globe-winning turn in Evita, it seemed Madonna might achieve her dream of becoming a movie star after all. This Will & Grace-esque rom-com, with an uncredited rewrite by a not-yet famous Ryan Murphy, directed by Oscar-winner John Schlesinger (Midnight Cowboy) and costarring pal Rupert Everett, high on his success in My Best Friend’s Wedding, must have seemed like the vehicle to cement Madge’s big screen charisma. The superstar, who’d split from the fact-based Music of the Heart (she was replaced by Meryl Streep, who, of course, scored an Oscar nod) over pesky creative differences, stars as a yoga instructor whose drunken hook up with her GBF (Everett), results in pregnancy and later a nasty custody battle. As always, Madonna’s greatest obstacle is her complete inability to deliver dialogue in a believably human manner. Plus, there’s a vaguely insulting concept that a gay man is just a few drinks away from committing heterosexual intercourse. Madonna has one solid scene here, in which she gazes into a mirror and contemplates her breasts in 1989 vs. 1999. Yep, apart from her polarizing cover of “American Pie,” that’s it. Personal aside: Right after this was released I had a conversation with Gavin Lambert, the acclaimed novelist and Oscar-nominated screenwriter who appeared in a small role as a favor to his pal Schlesinger, and told him I’d just seen this film. Before I could complete my sentence, he interrupted to offer an apology for this debacle. It’s that bad.
Other howlers worth seeking out: Beyond the Forest (1949), The Oscar (1966), The Big Cube (1969), Trog (1970), Lost Horizon (1973), Sextette (1978), The Apple (1980), Flash Gordon (1980), Body of Evidence (1993), The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996), Swept Away (2002), From Justin to Kelly (2003)