Tag Archives: LGBT

Steven Soderbergh: Another Steven in Hollywood

Steven Spielberg, possibly the most recognizable name in Hollywood, has entertained and educated America for decades with his films—Jaws (1975), E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982), Indiana Jones (1984), Jurassic Park (1993), Schindler’s List (1993), and Saving Private Ryan (1998)—to name a very few. Steven Spielberg’s resume lists one big-grossing blockbuster after another, and no other director, producer, or writer comes close to duplicating this. He stands alone on top of the "Ivory Tower of Hollywood," where he could rest comfortably on his laurels with a career that goes beyond even his wildest dreams.

Steven Soderbergh inspired by Spielberg

Yet, there is another successful Steven in the movie-making business, set on that course by receiving serious exposure to movies from his movie-buff father, coupled with an awe-inspired viewing of Jaws—directed by Spielberg, of course. This man is Steven Soderbergh and he can boast an impressive resume as well. Soderbergh spun out his own movie-making magic with Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989), Traffic (2000), the Ocean’s Eleven series (2001), and Magic Mike (2012). His movie Erin Brockovich (2000) won him a much-deserved Oscar.

Soderbergh's calling - a film on Liberace

steven soderbergh
Steven Soderbergh

Born in 1963, Soderbergh was among a generation familiar with America’s infatuation with the flamboyant Liberace—an outrageous pianist, singer, and actor. Soderbergh felt called to do a film on Liberace, but struggled with a framework to base it upon. When he came across the book written by Liberace’s alleged lover, Scott Thorson—Behind the candelabra: My life with Liberace (Thorson & Thorleifson, 1990), he knew how he was going to preserve Liberace on film. However, finding a studio willing to finance a project is the necessary evil for every director with good ideas in Hollywood.

Directors can easily round up the best among available screenwriters, costume designers, actors, prop designers, etc., but coming up with the money to make the movie is the first order of business. Even in this age of enlightenment for LGBT causes, studios are still skittish about financing gay-themed movies. It’s all about return on investment. The concern about the Liberace film was whether or not mainstream America would open their wallets to watch unsettling scenes of an older man romancing a teenage boy. Producer Jerry Weintraub,  another movie-making legend, said this about his attraction to the project (HBO, 2013):

What excites me is story and character. . . . The other thing that excites me is working with people like Steven Soderbergh. He and I have a great relationship. That excited me. Working with Michael Douglas and Matt Damon excited me. Working with Richard LaGravenese’s script excited me. Working with Marvin Hamlisch excited me. The people involved are so creative and compelling; I’d be out of my mind not to do it.

Thus, Weintraub managed to interest HBO executives with Soderbergh’s idea and a deal was eventually sealed. These executives were subsequently rewarded for their risky investment in Behind the Candelabra with two Golden Globes and numerous other awards.

Soderbergh attracts top actors to HBO

"behind the candelabra" - cannes
Douglas, Weintraub, Damon

It must be a testament to Soderbergh’s reputation that he was able to attract two big-name actors, Michael Douglas and Matt Damon, for a movie that was not destined for the big screen. These actors’ skills contributed enormously to Behind the Candelabra's success. I am wondering if we are entering an age heavily influenced by Netflix, Amazon Streaming, and home theater technology, where actors don’t think of making it to the big-screen as the ultimate determining factor of success in Hollywood. The same must go for directors.

Now today, according to IMDb (“Steven Spielberg,” 2016) Steven Spielberg has a slew of movie projects in the works, so he is not resting on his laurels anytime soon. Yet, Soderbergh has decided that the time has come to fold up his movie-making chair. He has since moved on to other ventures such as releasing a novella on Twitter (@Bitchuation). In my view, it will not be surprising when he feels called to make another movie.

REFERENCES

HBO. (2013). Behind the Candelabra: Interview: Jerry Weintraub. Retrieved from http://www.hbo.com/movies/behind-the-candelabra/interview/jerry-weintraub.html

Steven Spielberg (2016). In IMDb.com. Retrieved from http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000229/

Soderbergh, S. (Director), Weintraub, J. (Producer), LaGravenese, R. (Screenwriter), & Thorson, S., & Thorleifson, A. (Writers). (2013). Behind the Candelabra [Motion Picture]. USA: HBO.

Thorson, S., & Thorleifson, A. (1990). Behind the candelabra: My life with Liberace. New York: Knightsbridge Pub Co Mass.

Liberace: Staying in the Spotlight

Entertainers, musicians, movies, and all popular cultural items come and go, but some manage to keep their profiles high across multi generations; Elvis, The Beatles, Star Wars are examples among many.  It is a safe bet that our great-great grandchildren will be reading books on a certain boy wizard named Harry.

While these cultural icons survive the test of time, there are those that belong to only the generation that first embraced them. Liberace—American pianist, singer, and actor—is clearly one of those.

20th Century "Mr. Showmanship"

LIberace
Liberace

Also known as "Mr. Showmanship," Liberace’s fame spanned the mid 20th century, when many a woman had a celebrity crush on this flamboyant entertainer.

Liberace's shows in Las Vegas were stuff of legend, and rightly so according to my husband who saw one during a business trip. He recalls when his mother’s dressmaker replaced a framed picture of Cary Grant with one of Liberace, an entertainer who had that knack of making you feel like you were the special person in the audience, that he was performing solely for your enjoyment.

Liberace unknown to millennials

Recently while visiting in the hospital room of my granddaughter, as a steady stream of young nurses and patient care techs trickled in, I asked each one if she had heard of Liberace. They all expressed confusion, scanning their brains for mention of that unusual name. Not a one could give an affirmative response. Liberace must be slowly but surely dying that third death in which no one speaks of him or remembers him anymore. One nurse did not even bother to ask who Liberace was, and instead started talking about Prince, an entertainer that I know next to nothing about, except that my Facebook newsfeed was inundated with posts regarding his recent death.

Can there be a Liberace revival?

Michael Douglas and Matt Damon
Michael Douglas and Matt Damon

However, there is hope for Liberace’s name and fame to linger on for more years. For the movie, Behind the Candelabra (2013), Director Steven Soderbergh made the wise choice to cast Michael Douglas as Liberace, and Matt Damon as Scott Thorson; both actors are well renowned with multi-generational appeal, and loyal audiences. In a way, Scott Thorson, his life story, and how it resonated with Steven Soderbergh, saves Liberace from becoming obsolete.

Liberace and Scott Thorson
Liberace and Scott Thorson

How is that? Well, Behind the Candelabra focuses on the volatile six-year relationship between Liberace and Scott Thorson, who is the author of the book (Thorson & Thorleifson, 1990) from which the movie is adapted. Thorson, approximately 40 years younger and Liberace's alleged lover, was just 16 years old when their paths crossed. Yes, that might be statutory rape, but this is the entertainment business after all.

Now, how did a boy whose childhood was spent bouncing from one foster home to another end up personally involved with a world famous entertainer?  It started with Thorson's knowledge of animal care, and a chance visit backstage where Liberace invited the teenager to care for his blind dogs at home.

Thorson bedazzled by Liberace’s glittering lifestyle

One does not need a psychology degree to understand how the best defense against being swept away by cults, gangs, and toxic individuals is a strong and consistent family foundation. Thorson's family background was anything but, making him a prime target for Liberace to pick up and play with exclusively for the next six years.

Thorson was understandably bedazzled by Liberace’s glittering lifestyle, so he fully consented to the twisted sexual/father-son relationship, which included a chin implant with the purpose of looking more like the entertainer. It is not a surprise that drugs came into the picture; and Thorson became addicted, sending him into a tailspin that continues to this day with his imprisonment in the Northern Nevada Correctional Center (AP, 2014).

Thorson sues for palimony

People who come onto you strongly leave just as strongly, so it was inevitable that Liberace would eventually move on to other boys. However, after being discarded, Thorson did not go quietly into the good night. He sued Liberace for palimony, gave interviews about their relationship, and released his tell-all book, Behind the Candelabra in 1988. Intensely private about his homosexuality, Liberace would have denied all allegations and gone out of his way to counter Scott’s claims. Yet, it is that very book that caught Steven Soderbergh’s eye, and started the ball rolling toward a movie focused on Liberace, keeping him in his favorite position—in the spotlight—more than 25 years after his death.

Liberace's entertainment continues

After Soderbergh approached a number of studios with the project, HBO took the bait, and Behind the Candelabra ended up winning two Golden Globes in 2014. While Liberace belongs to a time that is long past, Michael Douglas’s performance should give these nurses a reason to search for videos of the real Liberace on YouTube. For the essence of LIberace, they would best start with his Christmas special from 1954.

REFERENCES

Associated Press. (2014, Jan 23). Behind the bars: Liberace's former lover jailed for up to 20 years after failing drug test while on probation. Retrieved from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2545059/Liberaces-former-lover-Scott-Thorson-jailed-20-YEARS-failing-drug-test-probation.html

Soderberg, S. (Director) & Thorsen, S. (Writer). (2013). Behind the Candelabra [Motion Picture]. USA: HBO.

Thorson, S., & Thorleifson, A. (1990). Behind the candelabra: My life with Liberace. New York: Knightsbridge Pub Co Mass.

The Celluloid Closet: Viva Vito’s gay rights legacy!

On June, 26, 2015, the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage, and the world erupted in celebration of gay rights. Rainbow flags flew with pride, the White House lit up in rainbow colors, and millions of Facebook users commemorated the occasion by adding a rainbow to their profile pictures. In the midst of the euphoria, there was not one mention of Vito Russo that I remember. That is akin to Americans forgetting Martin Luther King, Jr. while appreciating what the Civil Rights Movement has achieved for African Americans.

gay rights poster
gay rights poster

Why had so many forgotten Vito Russo? After all, the record shows he is credited with writing a landmark book (Russo, 1987) that led to the making of our featured film, The Celluloid Closet (Epstein & Friedman, 1996), with being a "a giant in the fields of gay and AIDS activism" (Tomlin, 2011), and the "founding father of the gay liberation movement" (Schwartz, 2011).

Russo was born in the 1940's and grew up in New York City and New Jersey. As a child, he was surrounded by boys playing stick ball in the alleyway, but he, himself, never felt compelled to join them. It was a lonely childhood because he knew something was different about him from other boys. Film provided an escape from those confusing emotions.

Like a good Catholic, Vito went to confession many times to ask for absolution after having sex with a man.

And of course, (the priest) recognized my voice because, you know, every week he was hearing me say this, so he says finally, 'Look, enough is enough! Next time I'm not giving you absolution' (Ibid., p.38).

That was a turning point for Russo, who realized that being gay was not a sin. How could it be when it felt so natural to him? It was simply a part of who he was, and he could no more change that than the color of his skin.

Cabaret Nights and Firehouse Flick

Russo began to embrace his homosexual nature and proceeded to encourage others to do the same. He reached out to other gay men through his passions for theater and film in “Cabaret Nights” and “Firehouse Flick.”

Cabaret Nights was an instant success since it guaranteed entertainment from talented gay men and gave performers an outlet to express their talents, thoughts, and feelings in a safe place. Through Firehouse Flick, Russo had the opportunity to network with gay men by gathering in an old firehouse to watch movies. This allowed good camaraderie and total acceptance from their fellow man, something they did not have in mainstream society where they were openly shunned at places of employment and multi-tenant complexes.

One Firehouse Flick movie they watched was Battle of Algiers, which fired up the audience to storm up and down 6th Avenue screaming for rights. At the same time, Russo had witnessed Martin Luther King, Jr. advancing the cause of black people in the Civil Rights Movement, which inspired him to do the same for gay people. Russo felt called to dedicate himself to improving lives of gays; thus, he became the first true activist for the gay community.

Russo's gay rights activism cut short

Sadly, in 1990, Russo's life was cut short by the big AIDS monster.  Though he did not get to pursue gay activism for as many years as he would have liked, others were more than willing to pick up  the torch and carry on through the 1990’s and beyond.  There is no question progress has been made in all areas.

Today, many gay people will not have to fear their lifestyles’ affecting their jobs. People who are openly gay, e.g., Neil Patrick Harris, Ellen DeGeneres, et al., are hired in starring roles on TV and in movies.  Nary an eye is blinked at a family with gay parents, or parents of gay children.  Now, we’ve achieved the ultimate: gay marriage. Michael Schiavi, Vito Russo's biographer, believes that back then, gay marriage was so far beyond Russo's frame of reference that he would never have conceived of that victory (2011). For that reason, Schiavi does not know how Russo might have reacted. But I think it is safe to say he would be waving a rainbow flag!

So, here we are in 2016. It would be a grave disservice not to tip our hats to Vito Russo.

REFERENCES

Epstein, R., & Friedman, J. (Directors). (1996). The Celluloid Closet. B. Grey, S. Nevens, H. Rosenman, & L. Tomlin (Producers). USA: Home Box Office (HBO).

Russo, V. (1987). The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies (Revised ed.): Harper & Row.

Schwarz, J. (Director). (2011). Vito. B. Singer & S. Nevens (Producers). USA: HBO Documentary Films.

Schiavi, M. R. (2011). Celluloid activist: The Life and times of Vito Russo. University of Wisconsin Press.

Tomlin, L. (2011). Editorial review. In M. R. Shiavi (Ed.), Celluloid Activist: The Life and Times of Vito Russo. University of Wisconsin Press.

The Birdcage: Can We Learn from Our Films?

Many have mourned the loss of Robin Williams and his comic genius. In revisiting his films, we can consider aspects of his work that may have changed us all without realizing it.

[W]hat makes the film interesting is that [Robin Williams] must play against type, toning down his manic persona in the face of Lane’s hilarious over-the-top turn.
—Chuck Koplinski, The News-Gazette

You do an eclectic celebration of the dance! You do Fosse, Fosse, Fosse! You do Martha Graham, Martha Graham, Martha Graham! Or, Twyla, Twyla, Twyla! Or, Michael Kidd, Michael Kidd, Michael Kidd! Or, Madonna, Madonna, Madonna! … but, you keep it all inside.
—Armand, The Birdcage

genre comedyA comedian has been described as a person who seeks to entertain audiences, primarily by making them laugh. Filmmakers employ comedy in the same way, seeking to make their targeted audiences laugh. How do they do this? We have learned from our series on comedy that they do this in a number of different ways—using social satire, slapstick, etc. Might they do this also as a way to dispel prejudice against certain groups or against certain individual characteristics? Alternatively, might screenwriters focus so totally on what to them seems funny that the result is irresponsibly mean?

Comedy Is Where Filmmaking Began

We have learned a little (and witnessed a lot ourselves over our lifetimes) about how filmmaking has evolved since the beginning of the cinema. At the outset, comedy was central to explorations with the medium. Imagine our positioning comedy films in chronological order of release date in order to assess our culture in stages of social adaptation and advancement. Where would films about same-sex relationships come in? Could we track and assess social attitudes about this topic with this method?

Movies about Same-sex Relationships

The following movies are among many others that include this cultural component:

8: the Mormon Proposition (2010) And the Band Played on (1993) The Bird Cage (1996)
Boys Don’t Cry (1999) But I’m a Cheerleader (2000) The Celluloid Closet (1995)
The Children’s Hour  (1961) Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean (1982) Desert Hearts (1985)
Far from Heaven (2002) Go Fish (1994) How to Survive a Plague (2012)
The Imitation Game (2014) The Kids Are Alright (2010) Fire (1996)
The Laramie Project (2002) The Matthew Shepard Story (2002) Milk (2008)
Philadelphia (1993) Pride (2014) Kinky Boots (2005)
Queens (Reinas) (2005)  Maurice (1987) Times of Harvey Milk (1984)
To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Nemar (1995) Torch Song Trilogy (1988) Transamerica (2005)
 Brokeback Mountain (2005)  The Danish Girl (2015) Carol (2015)

Does our present film show gay men in an unflattering light or not? —as “the other,” not fitting our preconceived ideal or image of a “normal” man? Alternatively, are the depictions of relationships or cultural/societal settings so enjoyably funny as to diminish the focus on gay men, and thus are the characterizations harmless—or even helpful? I would like to know how a gay man felt about this movie in 1996 when it was first released, or even now for that matter.

Dirk Shafer, a “Closeted” Gay Man

Dirk Shafer, who died this year, posed nude as a Playgirl model in earlier decades and wrote about his experiences. Posing as a sex object for straight women, he had to portray himself as a straight man to keep his job (Stack, 2015). Man of the Year, a fictionalized version of his life story, explores the tension of being a “closeted” gay man. The film was a public “coming-out” for Shafer and, as one might imagine, his nude modeling career slowed after the publication.

In a review in The New York Times, Holden (1996) wrote this about the film:

On a deeper level, Man of the Year treats Mr. Shafer’s modeling experience as a metaphor for the way society pressures gay people to act straight. After watching Mr. Shafer wriggle uncomfortably inside the role he has agreed to play, it comes as a relief when he finally abandons it.

We have learned that during the days of the studio system, a number of film stars hid their sexual orientation in order to keep their jobs or simply their privacy: Rock Hudson, Montgomery Clift (Petersen, 2014) and others. Did anyone really think about this aspect of Liberace’s life when he was at the peak of his career?

The Birdcage Shows a Committed Relationship

The Birdcage
Nathan Lane and Robin Williams

Through The Birdcage, we can experience the lifestyle and social issues of gay men in a committed relationship, much as we can experience the life of the President and First Lady through Netflix’ House of Cards. I thought of the term “virtual reality” to describe the immersive environment of a film that is so well presented that one can be transported into the scene and experience the action and emotion first hand.

Glossary

Comic climate

The comic climate, in contrast to verisimilitude, often requires of the audience a suspension of belief.

Social satire

The use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule in a text in order to expose and criticize social groups, often in the context of contemporary politics, customs, and popular trends.

Parody

Parody makes fun of or re-creates what people do. Parody is a frequent ingredient in satire and is often used to make social and political points. Characters or settings belonging to one work are used in a humorous or ironic way in another.

Comedian

A comedian or comic is a person who seeks to entertain an audience primarily by making them laugh. This might be through jokes or amusing situations, or acting a fool, as in slapstick, or employing prop comedy. A comedian who addresses an audience directly is called a stand-up comic.

Virtual Reality

Virtual reality is an artificial, computer-generated environment that is aided by hardware devices such that the user suspends belief and experiences it as real.

Drag

Drag is used for any clothing carrying symbolic significance, but usually referring to the clothing associated with one gender role when worn by a person of another gender.

Drag queen

A drag queen is a person, usually male, who dresses in drag and often acts with exaggerated femininity and in feminine gender roles. Often they will exaggerate certain characteristics such as make-up and eyelashes for comic, dramatic, or satirical effect.

REFERENCES

Briggs, K. C. (2013). Trans, Genderqueer, and Queer Terms Glossary.   Retrieved from https://lgbt.wisc.edu/documents/Trans_and_queer_glossary.pdf

Ebert, R. (1996, Mar 8). The Birdcage, Movie review and film summary. Retrieved from http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-birdcage-1996

Koplinski, C. (2015, Mar 19). Film capsules, March 19, 2015. Champagne, Ill: The News-Gazette. Retrieved from http://www.news-gazette.com/arts-entertainment/local/2015-03-19/film-capsules-march-19-2015.html

Nichols, M. (Director, Producer). (1996). The Birdcage [Motion Picture]. USA: United Artists.

Petersen, A. H. (2014, Sep 23). Scandals of Classic Hollywood: The Long Suicide of Montgomery Clift.  Vanity Fair. Retrieved from http://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2014/09/scandals-of-classic-hollywood-montgomery-clift

Scott, A. O. (2014, Aug 11). Robin Williams, an improvisational genius, forever present in the moment. New York City: The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/12/movies/robin-williams-an-improvisational-genius-forever-present-in-the-moment.html

Stack, L. (2015, Mar 7). Dirk Shafer, Playgirl centerfold who revealed he was gay, dies at 52. New York City: The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/08/arts/dirk-shafer-playgirl-centerfold-who-revealed-he-was-gay-dies-at-52.html

Zur, O., & Wolz, B. (2015). Therapeutic themes and relevant movies: addendums to movie therapy, reel therapy, or cinema therapy. Retrieved from http://www.zurinstitute.com/movietherapy.html#lgbt