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Where Are All the Ridiculous Gay Sex Comedies?

The Ritz

Everett collection (Ritz)

The movie past teaches us our future. This is true even of forgotten or never-known oddities such as the movie version of Terrence McNally’s Broadway play The Ritz, directed by Richard Lester and now celebrating its 40th anniversary. I found The Ritz—like buried treasure—in a dollar store’s used-DVD bin. Rewatching it triggered my rediscovery of that period in film history when gay subjects were just gaining visibility and mainstream mediamakers were advancing recognition at the same time as the out-front cultural progress of disco. 

The Ritz is a true oddity—halfway between post-Stonewall self-acceptance and slowly waning public unease. McNally was clever enough to make fun of those positions through his satire set in a New York bathhouse, bringing together both the gay habitué and the befuddled straight viewer. 

In McNally’s play (revived on Broadway in 2007), a straight mafioso from the Midwest, Gaetano Proclo (Jack Weston), hides out in the last place anyone would expect. New York bathhouses had become destinations for gay recreation alongside bars and porn theaters; they were part of the era’s sexual liberation when even straight “swingers” mixed it up at sex clubs, before bathhouses became a health risk and acquired a morbid specter during the AIDS crisis. 

McNally’s plot innocently pokes fun at its own premise (and at ambisexual history), yet the farce works classically as mistaken identities and rampant libidos clash. Gaetano is pursued by a chubby-chaser fetishist (Paul B. Price) as a street-smart queen, Chris (F. Murray Abraham), teaches him bathhouse protocol, while private detective Michael Brick (Treat Williams), who was hired to find Gaetano, closes in. 

The Ritz’s comic confusion reflects a changing, unsettled social structure. From this chaos, McNally very subtly declares facts of cultural liveliness and sexual identity. Order is restored, intolerance is punished, and gay culture—even bathhouse subculture—is validated.

Part of that validation had begun a few years earlier when Bette Midler gained fame from her gig singing at the nightclub space in a New York City bathhouse. The Ritz parodies Midler’s breakthrough with Rita Moreno’s Tony-winning turn as Puerto Rican showbiz wannabe Googie Gomez, who mangles show tunes for the boys lounging between their orgies. 

Moreno and Abraham are central to why The Ritz succeeds and why it matters. Their high-flying burlesques put both sexual and ethnic stereotypes in focus; they go beyond the point of caricature and derision to the hearts of Googie’s and Chris’s being. Desire equals ambition. It’s a metaphor for gay personal and social progress. Years before McNally’s prizewinning AIDS epic Love! Valour! Compassion!, The Ritz shows that he knew to express this yearning with humor and energy and no self-pity. 

Director Richard Lester, who had already mastered absurdist farce when introducing the Beatles to the screen in A Hard Day’s Night (1964), shows a cheeky enjoyment of gay practices in The Ritz, much like the impudence that the late gay playwright Joe Orton probably intended for his own never-produced Beatles script. 

Speaking of cheeky: What McNally and Lester understood about the subversive potential of sex farce is apparent in The Ritz’s most appealing gimmick: private dick Michael Brick swaggering through the bathhouse, gradually stripping down to a white towel. He’s a male version of a nubile showgirl but uses a high-pitched voice that satirizes both puberty and he-man expectation. Sexy, chirpy Brick, portrayed by the playfully named Treat Williams (the Channing Tatum of his day), gives The Ritz a high point of proud gay-teasing eroticism.

What mainstream filmmaker is bold enough to make a gay sex farce today?

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