Don Roos’ The Opposite of Sex , from a screenplay by Mr. Roos, turns out to be a happy exception to the rule that any movie with “sex” in the title must be mediocre. Indeed, nothing I had known or anticipated in advance alerted me to the possibility that The Opposite of Sex would materialize on the screen as a seamless meld of mainstream savvy and Sundance sassiness.
In his directorial debut, Mr. Roos had four previous screenwriting credits- Love Field (1992), Single White Female (1992), Boys on the Side (1995) and Diabolique (1996)-that did not result in films of unalloyed delights. Diabolique , particularly, was a real stinker. On the other hand, the four most prominent members of Sex ‘s cast-Christina Ricci, Martin Donovan, Lisa Kudrow, Lyle Lovett-have had many more pluses than minuses in their careers. Still, if I had been warned that the straights outnumbered the gays in the cast by only four to three, I would have suspected the kind of coy byplay about sexual identity that is on the edge of thematic exhaustion. But The Opposite of Sex is nothing of the kind, for all the tough, down-and-dirty talk of the voice-overed 16-year-old Louisiana swamp hussy named Dedee Truitt, played by Christina Ricci with the kind of snarling cynicism that the character herself admits is off-putting to audiences. But wait, she tells us, she is going to introduce us to some real “losers” whom we are sure to like more than we like Dedee, and we do, though even Dedee winds up nicer and wiser than she begins.
Among the losers are Martin Donovan’s Bill Truitt, Dedee’s gay half-brother who’s a small-town schoolteacher, and Lisa Kudrow’s Lucia, the once-ugly-duckling sister of Bill’s late, rich lover, Tom, whose ghostly spirit hovers over all the characters in the big house he bequeathed to Bill, and to which they keep returning no matter how far their loony-tune adventures take them. Though Bill Truitt is living with Ivan Sergei’s Matt Mateo and takes in Dedee as “family,” he has never gotten over Tom’s death, but he persists in doing the honorable thing. How? As a dedicated high school teacher, he helpfully corrects the grammar and syntax of a smutty homophobic sentence for the student who scrawled it there as a deliberate insult to the teacher. When Dedee seduces Matt and runs off with him, Bill goes after them not to punish them, but to bring them back so that the baby of pregnant Dedee can have a decent home and loving care. When Johnny Galecki’s Jason turns up as Matt’s lover on the side, and falsely accuses Bill of having molested him when he was a student, Bill never becomes angry or vindictive.
For her part, Lucia is drawn to Bill because of her love for Tom, and she has some of the sharpest lines in the film in denunciation of all sex, straight and gay, as not the equal in satisfaction of a good shampoo and back-rub. Yet, she finally succumbs to her long-time unglamorous admirer, local sheriff Carl Tippen (Lyle Lovett). William Lee Scott’s Randy rounds out the ensemble as Dedee’s high school boyfriend, father of her child and the homophobic possessor of but a single testicle, at which every girl in his life except Dedee has snickered.
Randy, like Tom, is headed for the cemetery, but the balance with life is redressed by the arrival of two babies, Dedee’s and Lucia’s, and two intermingling parental groups linked by something warm and noble beyond sex. Even the hard-as-nails Dedee begins to get the point. Sex is merely a messy passageway to love and lasting commitment even beyond the grave. Some critics have derogated The Opposite of Sex for turning softhearted even in the midst of Dedee’s hard-boiled voice-over. What Mr. Roos achieves, however, is a marvelous lucidity and generosity in his characterizations, particularly with Bill and Lucia, who lift Mr. Donovan and Ms. Kudrow to new heights of ironic comedy.
The Opposite of Sex is one of a kind even though, like Chasing Amy and Groundhog Day before it, it may superficially resemble many other zany romances that are not a tenth as good. The potential banality of the situation is transcended by the beautiful preciseness of the execution. The casting just happens to click with the writing. The direction bubbles in a steady flow of coherent characters embarking in many directions toward a single destination. The Opposite of Sex works when so many films like it don’t. And that is almost a miracle, but not quite. Many talents just happened to coalesce on this occasion.
Ultimate Double Bill
Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who, it must be said at the outset, are still going strong, are primed by proxy to enchant New York moviegoers with a joyous June, at least from the 12th to the 25th at Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, during which time eight of their legendary M-G-M musicals will be shown, including, on June 18-21, two of the most glorious song-and-dance-fests ever made: The Bandwagon (1953) and Singin’ in the Rain (1952). Over the years I have decided that I prefer The Bandwagon by a slight margin over Singin’ in the Rain , not only because Pauline Kael prefers Singin’ in the Rain , or because I rank Vincente Minnelli over Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen as directors, or because I like the Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz songs in Bandwagon over the Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown songs in Singin’ in the Rain , or because Fred Astaire’s projection of an introspective loneliness affects me more deeply than Gene Kelly’s brash exuberance.
Yet, I can see contrary arguments as well. Cyd Charisse is much more devastatingly sensual in Singin’ in the Rain than she is in Bandwagon , and Jean Hagen’s Lina Lamont in Singin’ is one of the great comic characterizations in world cinema. Debbie Reynolds explodes out of a party cake with more charm and innocence than I have seen in any musical, with the possible exception of Charles Walters’ Lili (1953), in which Leslie Caron emerged in full flower. Medievalists of the medium can argue these questions in the whirl of the Astaire-Kelly dialectic, the dynamic “Make ‘Em Laugh” number of Donald O’Connor, the Comden and Green representations by Nannette Fabray and Oscar Levant, but, folks, what a double bill! As the French would say, it is to swoon.
The series kicks off on June 12-14 with two wide-screen musicals in newly struck 35-millimeter prints, which in themselves are alone worth the price of admission. Bells Are Ringing (1960) has generally been less highly regarded than some of the other Arthur Freed, Betty Comden and Adolph Green collaborations, possibly because the now immortal Judy Holliday and the vaguely disreputable Dean Martin were never considered a screen match made in heaven.
Bells Are Ringing was adapted by Ms. Comden and Mr. Green from their own successful stage vehicle for Holliday, and some of the numbers directed by Minnelli still sport that facing-the-invisible-wall-of-the-audience look. The musical genre was dying by that time on the screen, but Ms. Comden and Mr. Green were still at the top of their form. I was particularly struck by Martin’s line when he enters the dingy offices of Susanswerphone for the first time: “This looks like something out of Oliver Twist .” I wonder how many people appreciated the educated wit behind that line. I can’t imagine any Hollywood producer today allowing it to remain in the script. The other feature is It’s Always Fair Weather (1955), which marked one of the last gasps of Kelly’s ultra-macho musicals that made up in energy and gimmicks what they lacked in charm and romance.
But let me tell you about Holliday in Bells Are Ringing . That girl could do anything, and did. She was a treasure. See her and enjoy.
The estimable Susan Sontag has proclaimed the “death of cinephilia,” at least as we knew it during the glorious 60’s. I would argue to the contrary that it is more widely and finely spread than before, and as evidence I submit a communication I received recently from Peter Myette of New Rochelle, N.Y.: “In praising the romantic nobility of Titanic , you might have cited the influence of John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley . The dream of Gloria Stuart’s Rose which closes Titanic , reuniting her with her lost lover-of whom she had ‘no photograph’ but who lived ‘only’ in her memory-and other kindred spirits, is a sublimely realized evocation of Valley ‘s memory-image finish. The finish which complements Huw Morgan’s statement that lost friends are not gone, but ‘remain a living truth within my mind.’
“Putting aside the irony in Ford’s presentation of Huw’s fidelity-[James] Cameron’s Rose is an unambiguous portrait of a life fulfilled, as figuratively and literally dictated by her beloved Jack-the unbroken devotion of Rose shows her to be a direct descendant of another Ford. Peggy Mudd, the wife of Dr. Samuel Mudd in The Prisoner of Shark Island , was forever constant and ever hopeful in petitioning for his deliverance, and she was memorably played by Gloria Stuart.”
The connection Mr. Myette established between two Gloria Stuart performances more than 60 years apart shamed me somewhat, inasmuch as I considered myself a connoisseur of Ford’s career. But as you see, Ms. Sontag, cinephilia is alive and well, and living in New Rochelle.