All through my life, a twinkly array of cinema has helped locate the dazzle in my soul. For many years, movies have provided a metaphorical treasure map that’s entertained, enlightened, and filled my days with pleasure trips. The following 10 flicks are the ones that have long amped up my camp quotient, whether I saw them when they came out or caught up with them later.
WHAT A WAY TO GO! (1964)
Shirley MacLaine was delightful in this glorified succession of blackouts (written by Comden and Green) costarring Hollywood’s hottest leading men, from Paul Newman to Gene Kelly and beyond. In the slight but appealing film, Shirley’s looking for true love and tranquility, and always finds it, but then her new hubby somehow becomes wildly successful and rich and dies. That won’t sound so bad to some people, lol, but it drives Shirley nuts—albeit in an array of fab Edith Head gowns.
THE TROUBLE WITH ANGELS (1966)
It was the nuns versus the mischief makers in this lively, slapsticky comedy with Roz Russell as a long suffering Mother Superior battling it out with Hayley Mills, the original Lindsay Lohan. Filling out some of the other habits were wryly funny Mary Wickes, beautiful Camilla Sparv, and Marge Redmond, who also became known from The Flying Nun, she was that habit-forming. Add Gypsy Rose Lee as a modern dance teacher, plus the fact that Ida Lupino directed, and I was so wowed I practically want to enroll in this particular academy.
THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE (1967)
This effervescent flapper musical starring Julie Andrews, Mary Tyler Moore, John Gavin, Carol Channing, and Bea Lillie (which later became the basis for the Broadway show) was a toe-tapping delight, full of fun and frolic. I begged my friend to go see it, even though he desperately wanted to catch the new John Wayne movie instead. To encourage him, I paid for his ticket and even bought his popcorn. I had saved up several weeks’ allowance for this experience, knowing it would be a life changer and well worth the expenditure. At the intermission—yes, the movie actually had an intermission—my friend bolted for the exit, but I stayed, in camp heaven.
FUNNY GIRL (1968)
I didn’t even see this Oscar winning Barbra showcase, but it managed to confirm my gayness anyway. My father drove me from Brooklyn into “the city” to see the splashy bio-musical, but it turned out to be a pricey ticket, since it was playing as a roadshow attraction in a premium theater. When we had to ditch our plan and drive back home, I was devastated—and that helped me confirm my Thoroughly Modern Millie experience and face the fact that I was different. After all, why would I care that much about musicals? When I finally did see Funny Girl—again and again—I was the biggest out queer in the world, and adored every frame.
I was too young to realize that this Joseph Losey-directed version of Tennessee Williams’ The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore was pure twaddle. I was dazzled by the Sardinia and Rome locations, by Elizabeth Taylor’s stunning headdress (even better than in Cleopatra), and by the fact that gay wit Noel Coward played a character called the Witch of Capri. At a time when there was very little gay representation in the popular culture, his presence reached out to me in a big way. My head—and heart—went boom.
SECRET CEREMONY (1968)
Hot off her second Oscar (no, not for Boom), Liz kept cranking them out, and this Joseph Losey-directed film with she and Mia Farrow in a story of confused identities was so bizarre, it convinced me I could sit through something beyond Oscar fare and get to the end. It also confirmed my appreciation for divas, especially when they worked in titillating tandem (though Robert Mitchum arguably gives the best performance in the film).
This Andy Warhol produced film, directed by Paul Morrissey, was a riotously subversive romp in which Joe Dallesandro, as a hunky junkie,
has romantic problems with his girlfriend, played by Warhol drag star Holly Woodlawn. When I caught up with this film some time after its release, I was mesmerized, especially with some of the more insouciant shtick.
THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (1975)
This wacky, sci-fi-inspired musical spoof, full of potent messages about sexual freedom, grabbed emerging gays (among others) by the collar and pulled them out into freeness. A huge cult developed around it, and I was thrilled to be there to watch not only the dangerously clever film, but the ebullient audience response that organically emerged from its drag-tastic genius. It was a cathartic experience all around, even when you had to finally leave and re-enter the extremely mundane real world.
THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH (1976)
I didn’t even really love this film about a guy who’s landed here to find water for his planet. I found it a bit dull, to tell the truth. But David Bowie was so gorgeous and otherworldly and so obviously comfortable with his feminine side that it totally helped me jump on the Bowie bandwagon and tap into my own inner alien diva.
I don’t remember much about this Derek Jarman film except that it had a naked guy strung up and shot with arrows, and that it dealt with gay passion in a way that was generally unheard of in movies. I adored it.
A COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN
Bruce LaBruce is the Canadian filmmaker of No Skin Off My Ass and Hustler White, and he has a new provocation — his movie Gerontophilia, in which a young guy who’s obsessed with older people gets a job in a nursing home, where he becomes involved with one of the men there and launches a road trip. The fascinating result has been called Harold and Claude. I asked Bruce…
In the old days, did it ever become tiresome to be so controversial?
I wouldn’t say tiresome, but you do get a certain fatigue. A few times I feel I pushed the envelope too far and you get to this state where you’re constantly on the defensive, which takes a lot of energy. I’m still making some lower budget experimental or art films that are explicit. It’s not like I’ve completely changed or something, but it feels like I should be able to do both. And it was a nice change to show a gentle story people responded to with affection.
Tell me about one of your outrages.
I had a photo exhibit in Madrid in 2012 called Obscenity, which explored a lot of Catholic imagery, using well known Spanish celebrities in religious garb. The mayor of Madrid tried to close down the show. It was like being a war correspondent. It felt like a battlefield. It felt like our lives were in danger. We weathered the storm. Oh, no. I hope I didn’t sound like Madonna there, comparing my art to being like a soldier…Every day, it was, “Oh, my God, What’s gonna happen today?” You really have to stand up for your art and say what you want to say. That’s always what’s intrigued me as an artist—to get to taboo areas, find out what the boundaries are, and see how far you can push them.
Do you think most gay people are repulsed by old age because it’s a reminder of their own mortality?
Yeah, definitely. A lot of people miss the fixation on death that the young character has. He has a hyper awareness of the person’s proximity to death and they’re even more precious because of that. They’re living on the memories and wisdom they’ve accumulated, but nobody seems to appreciate them for that. But this boy is not only aware of the value of old people, but their impermanence. But there always has been a sort of cult of the body and of youth built into the homosexual world. I think the mainstream world has almost caught up to it because there’s such a premium now on the cult of youth in pop culture. The disposability of people who are washed up when they’re 23! That’s always been there in the gay world, with body fascism and that kind of thing.
Have you heard the expression "wrinkle queen"?
Yeah, I don’t mind it. Or “raisin queen.”
Will your movie change attitudes towards older people's sexuality?
I’ve already shown it a lot of places internationally — it did really well in France at the box office and critically — and I’ve seen it with a lot of audiences, and they all respond the same. They appreciate what the film is saying and like that it’s kind of frank about the sexuality without being explicit. It doesn’t shy away from showing the old man’s body or sexuality. The trick of the film was to make it work — to find actors who had chemistry and make a believable relationship, which I think the film accomplishes. It’s realistic that he would think there is something wrong with him. At one point, he says, “You think I might have a fetish?” His girlfriend says, “You mean like leather?” He replies, “Not that bad.” The impression I wanted to give without being too on the nose about it was that his fetish for the elderly seems to trump everything else. In a way, it’s easier for young guys and older guys to have an almost pedagogical relationship, where the younger guy is learning from the older man. It’s easier access. Lake [the character] happens to get a job in an all-male aging facility, so it’s all circumstance, but in his notebook, he’s also drawing old women, so you never know. I didn’t want to make it too specific. I’m making the point that sexuality can be a little more fluid than people think.
Sawyer Nunes, Alex Dreier, Laura Michelle Kelly, Aidan Gemme, Matthew Morrison, and Christopher Paul Richards in 'Finding Neverland' | Photo by Carol Rosegg
For the eternally youthful in spirit: If Sondheim had written Finding Neverland, the Broadway musical adaptation of the 2004 movie (and play before it), it would be a dark, cerebral look at the creative process, with lots of analytical sprecht-singing. Instead, we have an alternately chirpy and heart tugging show that’s aimed squarely at the panting crowd, who totally eat it up. In the handsomely produced production, directed by Diane Paulus, Glee’s Matthew Morrison plays J.M. Barrie, the author who, traumatized by the early death of his brother, becomes obsessed with the fantasy theme of not growing up. He comes to develop Peter Pan thanks to his association with widow Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Laura Michelle Kelly, who has a terrific voice and breathes humanity into her role) and her four sons. A funny Kelsey Grammer is aboard as a potential antagonist, and along the way there’s a joke about Cheers, a Barrie comment about what he might have called Tinker Belle, and even a fairy crack. (Asked if he believes in fairies, an effeminate actor responds, “My good man, I work in the theater. I see them every day!”) A real feeling for Barrie doesn’t really filter through the presentation, but it’s entertaining and goes down easily—and Broadway needs hits!