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Gay-themed films come of age

Stewart Oksenhorn

Among the five films in the inaugural “here! @ Aspen Gay Ski Week Film Festival” are two comedies, one film that mixes comedy into a Hitchcock homage, and one touching drama that has no shortage of laughs.That info alone says a lot about the state of gay-themed films. That corner of the cinema, once filled with heavy, look-alike dramas about AIDS, coming-of-age and coming out of the closet, has broadened considerably.Mark Reinhart is executive vice president for distribution and acquisitions at here! Films, which handles films with homosexual content and characters and is presenting the film festival at the Wheeler Opera House, Monday through Thursday, Jan. 17-20. Prior to becoming the first employee at here! Films three years ago, Reinhart worked for the Samuel Goldwyn Company and Artisan Entertainment, where he handled such gay-themed titles as “Longtime Companion,” “The Sum of Us” and “Desert Hearts.” He is pleased with the quick coming-of-age of gay cinema.”It was very much true that most gay-themed films were heavy in nature,” said Reinhart. “A lot were involved with AIDS, and they were important and served an important purpose, like ‘Longtime Companion,'” a 1990 film about how the onset of AIDS affects a group of gay men in New York City. And there were stories of people coming out.”Now there’s such a vibrant change. The films I like least are about coming out. We’ve seen that; we’ve done that.”

Reinhart sees the turn of the tide in such films as “Friends & Family,” a 2001 comedy about a gay couple who are both Mafia hit men. The twist is that the two are open about their sexuality, but have to hide their occupation.The change can also be seen in the films in the upcoming festival, which picks up where the Aspen Gay & Lesbian Film Festival of past years left off. Apart from the generous helping of comedy, the films on the whole are not point-blank about homosexuality, but use gay characters and issues to explore other topics. The wonderful, award-winning Thai film “Beautiful Boxer” is about a gentle man who takes up boxing so he can make money to have a transsexual operation. But rather than focus on sexuality, the movie is about dignity, family and the urge to excel. In “Merci Dr. Rey,” the young man trying to solve the mystery of his estranged father’s death is almost incidentally bisexual; he could have easily been rewritten as a heterosexual.”It’s just a broadening of the mind of the audience,” said Reinhart. “That’s what we’re after. We want to put gay people into roles that we’ve always seen straight people in, but not ourselves in.”‘Beautiful Boxer’ to me is about the hero’s journey – someone wants something in his life and he goes after it.”Reinhart says that taking the role of a gay character no longer comes with a stigma. “I mean, Jeremy Irons stars as a gay character in ‘Callas Forever,'” he said. Paradoxically, portraying a gay character on screen seems to be a problem mostly for homosexual actors. “We find that the gay actors won’t do the roles because they don’t want to be called gay,” he added.While the broadening of gay films seems a reflection of the growing acceptance of homosexuality, it may also be true that gay-themed films boost that tolerance. “The more people see, on film, gays not struggling to come out but just living their lives as people, they get more comfortable with it,” said Reinhart. “And that’s a good thing.”Of course, gay-themed films have to contend with the same problem that straight-themed movies do: Many of them just aren’t any good. So here are reviews of several of the films to be screened at the festival.

“Beautiful Boxer”Monday, Jan. 17, 1 p.m.Nong Toom has known since early childhood that his is a feminine soul in a man’s body. His tastes run toward lipstick, staging mini-dramas, and cuddling on his mother’s lap. The brutal sport of boxing, then, would seem to have little appeal to a supersensitive sort like himself. And doubly so for the Thai sport of kick-boxing, which throws elbows, knees and heads into the arsenal.But after stumbling into a boxing match at a country fair, and winning a purse of 500 Bhat, the peasant boy realizes that the sport may be his only ticket to the sex-change operation he dreams of. Nong joins a provincial boxing camp where he slowly discovers not only that he has an aptitude for kick-boxing, but that he loves the competition, the glory and even the beauty of the sport.Based on a real-life story, “Beautiful Boxer” could have easily been predictable, a Thai transsexual version of “Rocky.” But lead actor Asanee Suwan gives Nong such range and honesty that it never falls to that. And director Ekachai Uekrongtham handles all the small details that make Nong so believable and sympathetic. How, for instance, are we to accept that Nong would fall for boxing? Uekrongtham takes care of that with a scene that poetically depicts the grace of the sport, an aspect that appeals to Nong. The film is filled with fleshed-out minor characters like the female cook at the boxing camp, more testament to the director’s eye for nuance. “Beautiful Boxer” tells not just the story of a young man willing to do anything for his dream. It also depicts the struggle for dignity and acceptance in what can be a hostile world.

“Straight-Jacket”Monday, Jan. 17, 5 p.m.Thursday, Jan. 20, 4 p.m.”Straight-Jacket” crams a lot into its 96 minutes. Written and directed by Richard Day, “Straight-Jacket” is a broad comedy that sends an earnest message about not compromising one’s ideals. It is a period piece that pokes fun at 1950s conventions, while maintaining, more or less, the feel of a mainstream ’50s film. There are swipes at McCarthyism and the effect it had on Hollywood. The humor ranges from irreverent insider attacks at the movie business to mildly offensive gay stereotyping to the kinds of pratfalls typical of a ’50s sitcom. “Straight-Jacket” is populated with characters who are impossibly idealistic, like the writer Rick (Adam Greer), and coolly cynical, like the butler Victor (Michael Emerson), who seems an anachronism in the retro setting.At the center is Guy Stone (Matt Letscher), a Hollywood idol living Rock Hudson-like with the barely concealed secret of his ravenous homosexuality. Craving the lead role in the upcoming blockbuster “Ben-Hur,” Guy agrees to a conventional marriage to keep the gay- and Commie-sniffing feds off the studio’s back. Having no sense of moral fidelity to contend with, Guy figures he’ll carry on his sham marriage until “Ben-Hur” is done shooting.But Guy doesn’t count on having his world shook up by Rick, a hunky writer principled enough that he shuns Hollywood for serious novel-writing. As Guy falls for Rick, and the politics of the era begin to squeeze the couple, Guy realizes the cost of his compromised ways. Much to the film’s credit, “Straight-Jacket” is able to handle the serious issues – and to frame them broadly enough that they transcend homosexuality – while keeping the camp intact and the one-liners zinging. Best of all is Victor, who lights up most every scene he’s in with his deadpan wit.

“April’s Shower”Tuesday, Jan. 18, 5 p.m.Thursday, Jan. 20, 1 p.m.In “April’s Shower,” a group of 40-ish adults gather for a wedding shower for the prickly April (Maria Cina) at the house of April’s former roommate, Alex (Trish Doolan, who also wrote and directed the film). It’s a United Nations of fagdom: the bisexual porn star Spring Dawn; the flaming, flamboyant guy in a tight white tank top; the feuding lesbian couple; the exotic dancer; the token straight woman.And there are April and Alex, once best friends whose relationship has been strained over the years. Anyone care to guess why? As the guests bicker, April and Alex’s past unfolds in front of the party guests, including April’s mother.It’s obvious and over-the-top, but also decently acted and scripted. And “April’s Shower” clears the most important bar for a film, and makes you actually care about its characters. Call it a semi-guilty semi-pleasure.

“Merci Dr. Rey”Monday, Jan. 17, 7:30 p.m.Tuesday, Jan. 18, 1 p.m.A mess, and not a particularly glorious one. “Merci Dr. Rey,” by first-time writer-director Andrew Litvack and produced by the Merchant-Ivory team, attempts to wrap together French-style farce, Hitchcockian suspense, Freudian psychology, and parent-child drama. (It also crams in, inadvisably, appearances by Vanessa Redgrave and Jerry Hall.)Thomas (Stanislas Merhar) is a young man adrift, at odds with his diva mother (Dianne Wiest), with whom he shares a Paris apartment, and believing his father is long dead. He wastes his time teasing would-be dates through the gay personals. Through a convoluted series of events, Thomas falls in with a skittish voice-over actress, learns his father is living in Paris only to witness his father’s actual death, and befriends his father’s killer.Not only is the plot plodding, but there’s little reason to care about any of the characters either.Rounding out the program is “Callas Forever,” director Franco Zeffirelli’s fictionalized account of the last days of opera singer Maria Callas. The film, showing Tuesday, Jan. 18, at 7:30 p.m., stars Fanny Ardant as Callas, and Jeremy Irons as a gay film director who wants to make a movie starring Callas.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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