Monday, June 20, 2022

Barbary Bonhomie

 


Actress Olympia Dukakis was born on this day in 1931 (she died just last year, which I criminally let slide by because I was working on something else at the time.) She deservedly won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as long-suffering Italian-American wife and mother Rose Castorini in 1987's Moonstruck. As good as that movie is--one of the best films of the '80s in my opinion--I'd like to focus on an equally memorable character of hers, middle-aged, free-spirted San Francisco landlady Anna Madrigal, and that beings us to the dude right next to Dukakis, writer Armistead Maupin. Starting in 1974, Maupin took a page out of Charles Dickens and began writing a series of interconnected stories that appeared first in the Marin County-based Pacific Sun, and when that paper folded, the San Francisco Chronicle. Once Maupin had enough material, he did a bit of rewriting, and in 1978 came out with this:

The humorous and sometimes poignant adventures of a collection of straights and gays living in the City by the Bay, it proved to be a best-seller and has been followed by many sequels in the decades since. The television rights to the book was picked up by HBO, with hopes of turning it into a weekly sitcom. But the novel's casual attitude toward casual sex (particularly among gay men) made it seem less like a sure bet as Reaganites took over of the country and the AIDS pandemic began taking its deadly toll. So the rights were dropped, but then quickly picked up by...

...4? The rights were picked up by a number? Actually, it's Channel 4, a British network, and rival of the BBC, that came into existence in 1980. Tales of the City, the miniseries, made its television debut in the United Kingdom in September 1993. Four months later, it crossed the Atlantic, ending up...


...here, a chance if there ever was one for the publicly-funded, nonprofit US network to let its hair down, and get big ratings in the process (though not big enough to calm down outraged conservatives in Congress, who've made sure nothing like that would ever again be shown on a broadcasting system that gets 15% of its operating budget from the federal government, the subsequent reruns and three sequels ending up on cable instead.)

I doubt if too many Americans watching PBS' American Playhouse in 1994 realized they were viewing a British production since the whole thing seemed as American as Ernie and Bert. The following is the trailer for the 20th anniversary DVD box set, but if you were around back in the day, try to imagine seeing it for the first time during the early years of the Clinton administration:

British production notwithstanding, all those American accents would have sounded a bit odd on Masterpiece Theatre, don't you think? Of course, the nudity would have made it odder still.

You saw a few seconds of it during the trailer, but here's the scene in its entirety of the first meeting between Laura Linney's Mary Ann Singleton and Olympus Dukakis' Anna Madrigal:

Mary Ann Singleton is from Cleveland, as am I, and neither one of us can tell you what the hell that...


...Tennyson poem has to do with anything. Maybe if I google it:

How sweet it were, hearing the downward stream,
With half-shut eyes ever to seem
Falling asleep in a half-dream!
To dream and dream, like yonder amber light,
Which will not leave the myrrh-bush on the height;
To hear each other's whisper'd speech;
Eating the Lotos day by day,
To watch the crisping ripples on the beach,
And tender curving lines of creamy spray;
To lend our hearts and spirits wholly
To the influence of mild-minded melancholy;
To muse and brood and live again in memory,
With those old faces of our infancy
Heap'd over with a mound of grass,
Two handfuls of white dust, shut in an urn of brass!

I'm pretty sure lotus is some kind of drug (Anna Madrigal attaches joints to the doors of new tenants as a welcoming gift), but all this stuff about tender curving lines of creamy spray, I just don't get! Maybe if I google some more:

 

Hmm. It sez here it's a poem about "mariners." 

Now I get it.

 

Monday, June 13, 2022

Reflections of the Way Life (or the Undead) Used to Be

 
 

Basil Rathbone examines Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff in this publicity still from 1939's The Son of Frankenstein. If that wasn't spooky enough, that very same year Rathbone had to contend with a Baskervilles hound!

Monday, June 6, 2022

Vital Viewing (Lavender Labels Edition)

 


Actor, playwright, and librettist Harvey Fierstein was born on this day in 1952. Should I include female impersonator, or is that considered an actor? It's considered a performer and performing in the guise of a woman is what Harvey did, beginning at the age of 15, at various gay venues in Manhattan. There was acting out of drag as well, and since some of that acting was in improv, he realized so too he could write. After a painful breakup with a lover, Fierstein put his acting, writing, and crossdressing skills into the one-act play International Stud, which premiered off-off-Broadway in 1978. Two one-act sequels, Fugue in a Nursery and Widows and Children First! featuring the autobiographical character he created, Arnold Beckoff, soon followed. Eventually, Fierstein decided all three one-acts could be performed in a single night: 



Running for 1,222 performances, the Tonys took notice. At this point I'd like to hand it over to Wolfgang Amadeus Skywalker:



Close your eyes and you can almost hear Froggy in the later Little Rascals/Our Gang shorts, but that's part of Harvey's charm. In addition to Fierstein winning Best Actor, Torch Song Trilogy won Best Play. One of the show's producers, John Glines, acknowledged in his acceptance speech his coproducer and lover Larry Lane, a first-of-a-kind moment for a televised award show.

In 1988, the four-hour play went on a crash diet and, its overall integrity remaining intact, became a two-hour feature film: 


Ya gotta love advertising. Compare the movie poster above to the Broadway poster farther up. The latter's mascaraed, peekaboo eyes seem to promise thrill-seeking patrons of The Little Theatre a walk on the wild side. Hollywood, though, appears to want to take a different tack. The wry phrasing, the camaraderie that seems to exist among the quartet of people pictured, all of it shouts out FEELGOOD MOVIE! I don't think either poster quite nails it. As provocative as the general public may have found the subject matter back in the day, Torch Song Trilogy takes a matter-of-fact look at drag shows and gay hookups, echoing its characters casual attitude towards both. As to how you should feel while watching it, the story does end on a note of cautious optimism, but that's only after first going to a very dark place. But don't let that turn you off. As a comedy-drama, it has solid laughs throughout. And since everyone loves to laugh, that's very much what's emphasized in this commercial for the stage version:



  That makes it seem like a farce. All that's missing is a door slamming. To be fair, the huge bed plays quite a prominent role in the second act, the funniest of the three, though I would hesitate to call this Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice x 2. The trailer for the film version tries to restore some sense of balance between the comedy and the drama, but not at the expense, as I said before, of feeling good:



It skipped over the murder. Ya gotta love editing.

None of this is meant as a criticism of either the stage or film versions. I'm only pointing out how hard it can be to categorize (and market) the uncategorizable. But then that holds true for the LGBTQ experience in general. 





 

There's an ongoing debate in the LGBTQ community between those who may be called assimilationists and those who may be called subculturalists. At least I'll call them that. The assimilationists believe that outside of whom one chooses to sleep with, there's essentially no difference between gays and straights, and to avoid being marginalized, it behooves gays to be as much like straights as possible, be part of the hetero-hegemonic mainstream, with all the employment opportunities and suitable housing that comes with it. It's why some lesbians wear lipstick, why some gay men look and dress like lumberjacks, and why some gay members of both genders are Log Cabin Republicans. All kidding aside, assimilation was and continues to be one of the main arguments put forth for allowing same-sex marriage (of course, there are other, more constitutional reasons, such as equal treatment under the law, and more heartfelt reasons, such as the simple act of falling in love.) I don't know that gays who raise children do it for any other reason than a strong desire to be parents, but that too puts one on equal footing with straights (though minus the happenstance that works so well for the latter group, meaning a gay either adopts or, as an added option for lesbians, undergo in vitro fertilization.) The subculturalists counter that if it's so morally wrong to bend one's sexual orientation to the will of the majority, why is it so morally right to bend in every other direction that the majority insists, and rather than be part of some Reader's Digest social order, LGBTQ people should have their own bars, their own hangouts, their own shops, their own literature, their own clothing, their own hairstyles, their own slang, their own mannerisms, and everything else that goes into the making of an alternative lifestyle (or stereotype.) Leave the kids to the breeders, and as for holding down a job and having decent housing, hey, Li'l Nas is doing very well for himself these days (just as David Bowie did before he switched over to women.)


Because Arnold Beckoff yearns for a relationship that approximates marriage and has plans on adopting a teenage boy, Torch Song Trilogy has been described as a play and movie that argues in favor of assimilation. But I think it's more complicated than that. Back in the 1980s, and maybe even today, Arnold's flamboyant, effeminate personality and occupational crossdressing would have been a tad too subcultural for the mainstream, even if he showed up at the gate in a Dodge Caravan jam-packed with all the Family Ties, Growing Pains, The Cosby Show, Who's the Boss, Full House, Charles in Charge, Mr. Belvedere, Family Matters, Life Goes On, and Our House kids combined. Arnold wants some of what straights take for granted, but on his own terms, terms that go beyond mere sleeping arrangements. He inhabits that great space in-between assimilation and subculture. Because gays are like everybody else except in those moments, in and out of the bedroom, when they're not like everyone else. Gays are the same but different. In fact, gays are the same but different from each other (as are straights.) It's why an ongoing debate in the LGBTQ community is possible in the first place. The differences and similarities are there to be seen and heard in the stage and movie versions' opening monologue. The following is obviously the result of someone pointing a video camera at a TV screen, and at an odd angle at that. But it's not the full cinematic effect that I'm after--you wouldn't get that on a computer or cell phone anyway--but Harvey Feirstein's acting and writing prowess as he recites the lines that he himself wrote:  



Throughout the course of the film version, Arnold is wooed by both Matthew Broderick and Brian Kerwin, so don't feel too sorry for him.



Thursday, June 2, 2022

This Day in History

 


On June 2, 1924, some 125,000 men, women, and children were granted United States citizenship. Why so many all at once? Did a whole fleet of immigrant ships arrive at Ellis Island? No, it turns out these folks were already here, and had been here for a long, long time:

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That all non citizen Indians born within the territorial limits of the United States be, and they are hereby, declared to be citizens of the United States: Provided That the granting of such citizenship shall not in any manner impair or otherwise affect the right of any Indian to tribal or other property.

Approved, June 2, 1924. June 2, 1924. [H. R. 6355.] [Public, No. 175.]

SIXTY-EIGHTH CONGRESS. Sess. I. CHS. 233. 1924.

Signed into law by President Calvin Coolidge, who as you can see got a photo op out of the whole thing. So if they weren't citizens the day before June 2, what exactly were they? Uh, foreigners. At least the separate tribes were considered foreign nations, and the members of the tribes considered citizens of those nations. And the foreign soil on which these citizens inhabited? There it gets, and remains, complicated. While according to US law the soil has always been under some sort of US jurisdiction, some sort of US sovereignty, by 1924 such foreigners lived on especially set aside tribal lands, better known as "reservations", the result of bloody wars and treaties signed to end those wars, almost always on terms favorable to the United States government. Incidentally, that 125,000 number wasn't the whole of the indigenous population. At the time there were 300,000 Indians, or if you will, Native Americans, living within the borders of the USA. 275,000 of them were already citizens, having become so by either joining the military to fight in World War I or simply by giving up tribal affiliations, and entering the American mainstream, i.e., forgoing the concept of communal ownership in favor of private property (the pretext for European excursions onto non-European lands that had been going on for centuries.) After June 2, all it took for a Native American to become nationalized was to be born on national soil. The tribal lands were still theirs, too. So, then, does that mean Indians have dual citizenship? Technically no, because they can't have their own military or their own currency. They can make their own laws on their own lands, as long as those laws don't contradict the United States Constitution. Native Americans have been known to chafe under these conditions, but not any more so, in fact maybe even less, than some present-day nonindigenous Republicans.

Friday, May 27, 2022

Saturday, May 21, 2022

Vital Viewing (Serenading Second Banana Edition)

 


Singer and comedian--no, no, that's not right--comedian and singer--no, I had it right the first time--singer and comedian Dennis Day was born on this day in 1916 (he died in 1988.) Day thought of himself as a singer first and a comedian second, and I have to respect that. Yet watching this clip from the once-popular game show What's My Line, it's hard for me not to think of him as first and foremost a comedian:

If you haven't figured it out, the way the What's My Line mystery guest segment worked is the blindfolded celebrity was allowed to keep asking questions as long as each answer approximated a "yes".  A "no" and the next celebrity to the right got their turn, or if you were at the very right, as was Random House publisher and best-selling joke anthologist Bennett Cerf, then the next celebrity up would be the one at the very left, in this case Broadway gossip columnist and occasional true-crime journalist Dorothy Kilgallen. Dorothy's string of correct guesses was unusual. In most cases, there's were enough "no" answers to go around, assuring each panelist got a chance to ask a question. I suspect it was no accident that the line of questioning began with stage and radio actress Arlene Francis, that the producers hoped that the segment would reach an exciting climax once radio comedian Fred Allen's turn came up. If I'm right, then obviously, things didn't go according to plan. Why does it matter? Well, in the larger scheme of things it really doesn't, except that Allen previously had been engaged in decades-long mock feud with...


...radio, and by this time, television comedian Jack Benny, Dennis Day's long-time boss. As it was, poor Fred had to settle for blurting out Benny's name afterwards, but it would have been a lot cooler, and a lot funnier, if the acerbic comic had guessed the answer instead of Kilgallen. Oh, well, at least you know the contest wasn't rigged. As for whether Day was first and foremost a singer or a comedian, we have Benny to thank for that bit of confusion. Day indeed started out as a singer. Mary Livingston, Benny's wife and radio show castmate, had heard the 23-year-old Day sing on some local New York program and told hubby about it. Benny liked what he heard and hired him on, a big break for Day since he was now heard coast-to-coast. But he couldn't just sing, he had to perform comedy when asked to do so, and as time went on, he was asked to that more and more. Day was most certainly as good a comedian as he was a songster, more than holding his own with program regulars Livingston, Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, Mel Blanc, Frank Nelson ("EEE-yeeeeeeeesssss?") Phil Harris (a band leader first and Baloo the Bear second?) and Benny himself. You just heard how good he was with the mimicry, but he became best known as the smiling innocent who couldn't help but get on the dryly prickly Benny's nerves. 

It's more than nerves at stake in this gangster film parody:


Given the all the shootings in public places--there's been several just this past week, including that one in Buffalo--you may question whether the gunplay in the above video is an appropriate subject for humor. But that sketch is from 1960. Back then, as far as the average person was concerned, shootings in public places mostly happened in fictional movies and on fictional TV shows, and not on the nonfictional news found on yet-to-be-invented smart phones. So give Benny and his writers some slack. In the meantime, Turner Classic Movies fans may have recognized the first gangster to succumb to Jack's bullets. It's Dan Duryea, a supporting actor mainstay of the 1940s and '50s genre we now call film noir. Gunplay for him was rare enough outside a movie set that he could make fun of it, and himself.



By 1968 both the long-running radio show and the long-running TV show were off-the-air, but Benny and Day occasionally found things to do together, such as this Texaco commercial. Day is in his early 50s by now, but gamely still plays the insouciant youth of yore:


Life before the self-serve pump.

OK, I've said Day was also, even primarily, a singer, but what did he sing? Usually novelty-numbers, especially when he sang on TV. But the son of Irish immigrants seemed particularly drawn to...



...Irish songs (or songs written in America about Ireland.) Here's one such song. Longtime Benny announcer Don Wilson provides a bit of musical accompaniment towards the end:



Maybe Day was a singer after all. A comedian shouldn't let the announcer have the last laugh.


Dialect comedy has fallen out of favor in this century, arguably for a very good reason. By poking fun at foreign (as well as homegrown ethnic) accents, it encourages xenophobia and racism, which so plagues present-day politics (and, increasingly, present-day police dockets, hospitals, and cemeteries.) Yet I don't think Dennis Day's intent in the above video was meant to be so harmful. It was all in fun, and, besides, the British, French, and Germans haven't historically been among the more oppressed groups to make a home on these shores. The Irish are a different matter. If you go far enough back in time, you'd find they were a put-upon group in the early days of our republic. But as Dorothy Kilgallen already told you, Day was really Owen Patrick Eugene McNulty. Jack Benny (Benjamin Kebulsky) was another first-generation American, in his case the son of Russian Jews. It all harkens back to an earlier "great replacement" that took hold on an island named Ellis, one of those occasional moments in our nation's history when people aren't afraid of foreigners, or the descendants of foreigners, whether they have accents or not.


 

 

Saturday, May 14, 2022

Quips and Quotations (Invasion of the Body Snatcher Edition)

 


Not even gays. Most would be surprised. Only because what you see on TV, a serious guy in a suit, unsmiling, isn’t how anyone thinks of gay males.

--actor Richard Deacon (Leave It to Beaver, The Dick Van Dyke Show), on how aware the general public was of his sexual orientation.