I recently and belatedly caught up with three movies that have found favor with the ever fickle public as reflected in box-office receipts, enthusiastic word-of-mouth, or both. The three apparent hits under discussion are Frank Oz’s In & Out , from a screenplay by Paul Rudnick; Peter Cattaneo’s The Full Monty , from a screenplay by Simon Beaufoy; and Gary Fleder’s Kiss the Girls , from a screenplay by David Klass, based on the novel by James Patterson. What links these three seemingly dissimilar works in my mind are some disturbing trends I have recently witnessed both on and off the screen. Indeed, I am reminded of Lionel Trilling’s comment in Reality in America : “Dreiser and James: With that juxtaposition we are immediately at the dark and bloody crosswords where literature and politics meet.”
The “bloody crossroads” in this instance is an intersection where sexual politics, racial politics and economic politics crash head-on. As it happens, I am considerably less mystified by why people have embraced The Full Monty than by why In & Out and Kiss The Girls have enjoyed comparable acclaim. Even so, The Full Monty is hardly the barrel of laughs promised in the critics’ blurbs. Its harrowing tale of unemployed Yorkshire steel workers desperate enough to become male strippers is as funny as a broken leg for most of its running time. Their blue-collar travails remind us as few American films do of the horrors attendant on downsizing for the sacred causes of industrial efficiency and the free market. One character is unmanned by his inability to pay child-support payments to his divorced wife for his steadfastly loyal and loving son. Another pretends to his wife that he is still employed until the finance company comes to take away all their furniture. A third is mortified by his unbecoming plumpness for the performing task at hand until his marvelously loving wife convinces him in almost magical fashion that his naked blubber is every woman’s erotic dream. What therefore saves the movie as enjoyable entertainment is a combination of a rousingly triumphant communal ending and the sheer warmth of the sustained relationships between father and son, and husband and wife. Yorkshire accents and all, these are universally accessible characters.
So a hearty thumbs up for The Full Monty , and two thumbs down for In & Out and Kiss the Girls , though for vastly different reasons. How these two films crisscross with grotesquely sociological reverberations is more interesting than the films themselves. The big titillation of In & Out is the much publicized full-on-the-lips kiss and who knows what else by an overt gay character played by Tom Selleck on a closeted-even-from-himself gay character played by Kevin Kline. A screen taboo has been shattered, at least for amnesiacs who don’t remember a more matter-of-fact kiss shared by characters played by Peter Finch and Murray Head in John Schlesinger’s and Penelope Gilliatt’s Sunday, Bloody Sunday (1971). Mr. Finch won the National Society of Film Critics Award that year for his unstereotyped portrayal of a gay character, but the Oscar just happened to go to an equally worthy Gene Hackman for his “straight” role in William Friedkin’s The French Connection (1971), just as Helen Hunt recently won an Emmy as the “straight” wife in Mad About You over the “outed” and hilariously gifted Ellen DeGeneres in Ellen . No bias involved, of course, just the way the cookie crumbles, particularly when Ms. DeGeneres’ detractors demean her on the grounds that she is suddenly not really that funny. Har, har, har. In addition, the taboo-tracking amnesiacs seem to have completely forgotten Blake Edwards’ audacious Victor, Victoria (1982) and its two manly men in bed together played by the robust Robert Preston and ex-Detroit Lion lineman Alex Karras.
So what’s the beef about a long overdue piece of gay stroking rather than gay-bashing laugh-filled propaganda like In & Out ? In this instance, I am torn by my fond feelings for director Frank Oz and his string of graceful comedies, beginning with the memorable Muppet movies- The Dark Crystal (1982) and The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984)-and extending to the underappreciated Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988), What About Bob? (1991) and Housesitter (1992). And so I choose to heap all my scorn on screenwriter and playwright Paul Rudnick for crossing the thin line between harmless fantasy and invidious unreality. Mr. Rudnick moonlights as a very funny movie columnist for Premiere magazine under the pen name of Libby Gelman-Waxner, an ostensibly faux-naïf bitchy movie matron.
Well, as a faux-naïf provincial square who has never ventured beyond Staten Island, I would like to pose a few skeptical questions to Mr. Rudnick in or out of drag as Ms. Gelman-Waxner:
1. Do you actually believe that real men don’t dance, as you imply in the “How to Be Masculine” audio cassette the Kevin Kline character listens to in his effort to suppress his suspiciously effeminate mannerisms? I happen to have seen John Wayne himself performing a mean jitterbug routine in a service canteen cameo.
2. Do you believe it is likely or even possible that a thirtysomething or fortysomething high school teacher of romantic poetry and Shakespeare’s sonnets would suddenly discover on the eve of his marriage that he was gay only after a hunk kissed him on the lips?
3. Would a Catholic priest, even in a troubled television series, declare in a confessional booth that any man who did not fornicate with his fiancée during the three years of their being “engaged” must be gay?
4. How many high school teachers of romantic poetry also have a knack for directing a school team in athletic competition, particularly when the boys never seem to get on the field but prefer to remain semi-clad in the locker room for their “coach’s” perusal? Nor is the sport they play ever identified.
5. Why do you ridicule women for either being too fat or too thin? You almost get away with being cruel to Joan Cusack’s character, stranded in her wedding dress like her comic counterpart in Shirley Barrett’s Australian-made Love Serenade earlier this year. But when you choose to insult a gorgeous if anorexic fashion type, you are being hypocritical as well as meanly misogynistic.
6. Do you believe that a town of rock-ribbed conformists would stand up in unison with a fervor that would have embarrassed Frank Capra with its fairy-tale corniness to declare that they, too, were gay just like their fired English teacher?
And don’t try to “It’s only a movie, Ingrid” me, Libby. I’m madder than a wet hen, but not so much at you as at all the people who have laughed and laughed at this level of borscht-circuit humor about gay stereotypes, and yet felt good about themselves because they could get away so cheaply with feeling tolerant and enlightened. And I must admit it takes considerable, if questionable, talent to make Bob Newhart, one of the most likable and subtle comic performers in the business, come off as an unpleasant, uncool, prissy homophobe.
The Hollywood stuff at the beginning with Glenn Close as an Oscar presenter and Matt Dillon as a puffed-up star on the rise is as funny and as nasty as anything in Libby Gelman-Waxner’s columns, but when the action shifts to a so-called real-life community, the we-are-all-gay slyness becomes a silly evasion of the darker realities of our social intercourse.
Still, though a character played by Kevin Kline can kiss a character played by Tom Selleck, would Mr. Kline or Mr. Selleck be allowed to kiss a character played by Denzel Washington? Not in the present mainstream climate, which on some levels has not changed all that much from D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation in 1915. Here is where I have traced the link between what was shown on the screen for In & Out , and what was not shown on the screen in Kiss the Girls . I would not have made the connection if it were not for a silly printed piece of tabloid gossip raising and answering the question of why Morgan Freeman as a crime-solving forensic pathologist did not kiss Ashley Judd, his de facto assistant in tracking down a pair of serial rapists and murderers. It would never have occurred to me that Mr. Freeman and Ms. Judd had to fall in love during their high-stress partnership in pursuit of two dangerous criminals. What made the situation completely grotesque was the reason given for the platonic treatment: Mr. Freeman was deemed “too old” for Ms. Judd. That reminded me of the “problem” raised by a nervous talk-show host about blond May Britt’s interracial marriage to Sammy Davis Jr. Wasn’t she too short for him?
As the French would say, it is not to laugh, but to cry. The ultimate taboo is still firmly in place, and it is not between man and man, or between woman and woman, but between white and black, especially between the white woman and the black male. In the Lethal Weapon series, the Mel Gibson character is free to date Danny Glover’s daughter, but Mr. Glover is not free to date any white woman. Ralph Fiennes does kiss Angela Bassett in Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days (1995), but Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington never kiss in Alan Pakula’s The Pelican Brief (1993). Somewhere in Hollywood there lurks an unspoken and unwritten fear that a portion of white America is still afflicted with a lynch-mob mentality when it comes to the spectacle of the black male and the white female romantically entwined, despite all the real-life examples to the contrary.