Glad to be just like everybody else

Will films about gays and lesbians in loving relationships move the genre out of its ghetto? By Howard Rombaugh

You'd never guess it from the headbanging backlash, but a sneakily subversive message lurks behind the frothy antics of the US hit The Birdcage (see review, page 11), the re-working of the 1978 French smash La Cage Aux Folles. For Armand and Albert, the gay couple played by Robin Williams and Nathan Lane, enjoy a relationship that is not only long term and monogamous, but loving and affectionate. Criticism of the film (targeted squarely at the stereotypical portrayal of gay men as either screamers or trite drag queens) has over-shadowed the calmly progressive message that these two men have clearly developed a caring, enduring and committed union.

Gay men in loving relationships? In the movies? Who'd have thought? After decades of Hollywood treating gay men and lesbians as emotionally stunted freaks or victims (or worse, victimisers) obsessed with sex - see everything from the S&M thriller Cruising to the psycho-lesbian dud Windows - it seems that Tinseltown is catching on to not only the reality that homosexual lives are just as diverse as any other, but profiting from the assimilation politics spearheaded by ex-New Republic editor Andrew Sullivan, author of Virtually Normal, a treatise that calls for, among other things, the right for gays to marry.

Birdcage's Armand and Albert already have a marriage. Together they have raised Armand's son Val into a young, responsible adult - "I'm the only kid in my dorm who isn't from a broken home" - a sly take on the nuclear family. Verily, The Birdcage preaches reconciliation and family values - even if the sermon is delivered by flamboyant Miami Beach queens in outrageous get-ups. The picture is carefully not about flesh - a preoccupation not only of Hollywood but also of the "New Queer Cinema" (The Living End, Swoon, Poison) of the early Nineties - but about feelings: there's not much touching but much that is touching. Hence the scene that has the punters sniffling into their hankies: Williams going after Lane and telling him he can't leave, that they will laugh, cry, grow old and die together. (These days, remaining a couple is starting to look like a radical act.)

"Until recently gay writers have been asked to sit on their feelings," says the writer Martin Sherman, whose films Bent and Indian Summer (about a dancer and his lover living with Aids) are released later this year. "Those feelings as lesbians and gay men extend into all areas, certainly not just sexuality. We really haven't had a voice."

Times have changed. Images of gay men and lesbians either searching for love, finding love or living with a same-sex partner are popping up everywhere. In the wake of Paul Rudnick's romantic comedy Jeffrey (can our winsome, lose some, hero find his Other Half in the age of Aids?) come the more sombre-minded Chris Newby's Madagascar Sun, Nigel Finch's Stonewall and Roger Mitchell's movie of My Night With Reg. And that's before we move on to the writer Paula Milne's Hollow Reed, originally prepared as a Dustin Hoffman vehicle, about a gay father fighting for custody of his son; Jonathan Harvey's much touted Beautiful Thing, about two young working-class gay men finding one another, and directors Neil Hunter and Tom Hunsinger's Boyfriends, a pounds 25,000 British film about three couples on a weekend trip, which has been attracting awards and rumours of a big-budget remake.

Hunter and Hunsinger wrote the film after interviewing over 100 gay actors about their lives. "The majority were looking for someone to share their life with, a partner" says Hunsinger. "Most were looking for intimacy rather than sex."

Gays are forced to define relationships because they are creating their own rules (something heterosexuals are also increasingly forced to do), which gives rise to perfect dramatic material for film, as Hunsinger found. "Gays negotiate a lot in their relationships because there aren't any boundaries pre-set to us... We learn how to make a relationship work on whatever terms suit us."

It's that learning curve that may propel these pictures out of the "minority film" ghetto towards mass appeal. In Hollow Reed, directed by Angela Pope, a gay father (Martin Donovan) and his lover (Ian Hart) publicly define their relationship in a court battle. Pope makes it clear that the father's sexuality in Hollow Reed is "in some ways irrelevant. I'm tremendously interested in light and dark and the soul," she says. "It was important to have the gay love scene, because one needs to see the couple's passion, but it is part of their lives - they can't be totally defined by this."

But one can ask what the public might feel most threatened by (if it feels threatened at all): images of lesbians and gay men having sex, or portrayals of lesbians and gay men living lives together much like the heterosexual majority. That gay love scene remains difficult. As writer Barry Sandler recalls in the forthcoming documentary, The Celluloid Closet, its first mainstream depiction, in 1982's aptly named Making Love, had audiences "storming up the aisles - people panicked". By 1996, however, the gay love scene no longer seems pivotal, but part of. Indeed, writer Howard Schuman could include an interrupted shower sex scene between two men in his film Nervous Energy and get laughs from the outraged heterosexual characters' reactions; a tactic that succeeds because the context around the couple is already - an important word here - intimate.

"We can now look in terrific detail at a relationship," says Schuman of Nervous Energy, a moving and much acclaimed depiction of the power and limits of love between Ira and his partner Tom, who has Aids. Schuman cites a particular moment when Ira brushes Tom's hair - something that sends an emotional shockwave through viewers, straight and gay. "Because the film had taken the time to look at this very quiet, incredibly personal moment, it has an impact way beyond the simplicity of a gesture."

It's also a subliminal message from the Aids crisis. The closeness of romance, rather than the closeness of sex, is at a premium when facing mortality. Take the next-to-final frames of Philadelphia. The family having departed, left alone with his failing partner in a hospital room, Antonio Banderas kisses Tom Hanks's fingers one by one. Still, the suggestion that this tenderness is permitted because one character is dying can be discounted by Jonathan Harvey's Beautiful Thing. Jamie gently massaging peppermint foot cream into Ste's bruised back isn't merely a prelude to sex, but a potent act of care and concern, and all the more effective for it.

But Beautiful Thing is a British film, and independent. It has little problem with making homosexuals, one way or another, at last the heroes of their own lives. Hollywood's portrayal can't yet be applauded wholeheartedly. The system is leery of taking risks, even if it may be no risk at all. "The public is always ahead of us," as Shirley Maclaine admits in The Celluloid Closet. So, as Closet co-director Epstein regrets, taking a sideswipe at Birdcage and the recent To Wong Foo, "Gay characters in Hollywood are presentable on screen only if they are secondary roles or if they're drag queens. We are at the Guess Who's Coming To Dinner stage. In the mid-1960s, Sidney Poitier is brought home to meet his white fiancee's family - that was the most radical film to come out of Hollywood in its day. And they never even kissed. That's the stage we're at now. We're not yet at the kiss even - we're at the peck stage."

Still, the enormous success of The Birdcage has given fresh impetus to other gay projects. Jodie Foster is working on a movie of Jane Anderson's play The Baby Dance and is talking about a mainstream lesbian love story that Foster would direct and Anderson would script. Others to come include Flirt (a Hal Hartley three-parter with one gay segment); Losing Chase (Kyra Sedgwick has an affair with Helen Mirren); Johns (a hustler drama with David Arquette); and Bound (Jennifer Tilly as a lesbian ex-con). And Larry Kramer's Aids drama The Normal Heart is finally ready to be filmed, with John Schlesinger directing after Barbra Streisand lost her option. Kramer's telephone hasn't stopped ringing with major film actors asking to star. "Calls have come in, unsolicited, from people like Kevin Costner and Alec Baldwin," Kramer says.

Perhaps these macho stars, and their fans, are up for learning something from The Normal Heart's free-and-easy male camaraderie: the unembarrassed hugs and kisses that are the (body) language, and deeper meaning, of gay culture. For the days when Gable and Tracy could embrace with tears in their eyes without being considered sissy are long gone. Today it's punches and phallic gun play and cries of "Faggot" should straight male defences be breached. Even at the "peck stage", gay men may have the advantage, knowing as they do that such everyday affection is indeed the expression of a normal, not a bleeding, heart.

'The Birdcage' opens tomorrow, 'The Celluloid Closet' opens 5 July

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