The Lavender Scare


Before the rainbow.

(2017) Documentary (Full Exposure) Frank Kameny Glenn Close (narrator), Zachary Quinto, David Hyde Pierce, T.R. Knight, Cynthia Nixon, David K. Johnson, John D’Emilio, Lillian Federman, John W. Hanes, Carl Rizzi, Peter Szluk, Jen Totka, Vince Ferrence, Rev. Bruce Forbes, Joan Cassidy. Directed by Josh Howard

Most of us are aware of the strides that the LGBTQ community have made in recent years in asserting their rights and gaining mainstream acceptance. To truly appreciate how far they’ve come, however, it is important to note where they came from.

During the so-called “Red Scare” during the late Forties and Fifties, Americans became convinced that every echelon of our society had been infiltrated by communists and that our way of life was under immediate threat. That belief was amplified when the Russians detonated their own atom bomb in 1949, much sooner than most experts thought they should be able to. It was (correctly, as it turned out) assumed that the Russians had gotten help – from spies or traitors smuggling nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union.

This gave rise to one of the most shameful periods in our history, when constitutional rights were routinely violated in the name of national security, when scum like Senator Joseph McCarthy and Roy Cohn both rose to power. Most remember how the McCarthy hearings went after communists in Hollywood as well as in government service. Few remember what happened to the gay community.

President Eisenhower, in one of his first acts after taking office, signed an executive order banning homosexuals from working for the government. The thinking went that those with socially unacceptable sexual preferences were vulnerable to blackmail (although there is no evidence that this ever occurred in America). This led to investigations of people who would be accused of being gay or lesbian.

During the Thirties and Forties, many gay men and lesbians came to Washington to get government jobs which were plentiful. There was tolerance for their lifestyle and there were plenty of bars that catered to that clientele. They were cautiously uncloseted but this very freedom would be worked savagely against them as regular attendance at a gay bar would be enough to get you fired; most went quietly, not wanting to let their secret get out. Most were aware that they would have a hard time getting employment for the rest of their lives.

People would be brought into a room by a pair of federal ages without any legal representation. Their accusers would never be identified; they would be badgered and humiliated, and left little choice but to resign otherwise their secret would come out. Most went meekly into the night.

Not Dr. Franklin Kameny, though. An astronomer for the Army Map-making Corps, he was unceremoniously fired from the job he loved. Not about to take this lying down, he became an activist fighting for the rights of homosexuals; his chapter of the Mattachine Society (an early gay rights organization) was the most in-your-face chapter of the society, with Kameny organizing picketing, demonstrations and marches. In 1963, he became the first openly gay man to testify before Congress and he brought lawsuit after lawsuit trying to overturn the unjust laws which he was remarkably unsuccessful at, although nobody could doubt his intelligence and bulldog tenacity. However, Eisenhower’s executive orders banning gays from government jobs were  finally overturned by President Clinton in 1995.

Director Josh Howard seems to subscribe to the Ken Burns school of documentary filmmaking, using actors (including Hyde Pierce as a young Frank Kameny) reading letters and journal entries of those affected by the persecution of that era, supplemented by interviews with historians as well as those who still survive from that era. There’s also a lot of archival footage, both of pre-Stonewall gay life and anti-Gay propaganda pieces popularizing the myth that gay men are child molesters. The narration of Glenn Close brings everything together nicely, offering up context.

Some of the interviews are heartbreaking, such as Joan Cassidy who aspired to be the first female admiral in the United States Navy but who didn’t dare look for advancement lest her sexuality be discovered. Some are hilarious such as postal employee Carl Rizzi offering smarmy federal agents a better picture of himself in drag for their files. Some are reprehensible, such as the audio interview with investigator Peter Szluk who takes great delight in his accomplishment of ruining lives.

If there is anything that the film gets wrong is that it tends to be repetitive, making a lot of the same points over and over again despite a fairly short 1 hour and 14 minute length. That’s okay to a degree but repetition gets amplified the shorter a film is.

Kameny, who is interviewed here late in life, didn’t live to see the Defense of Marriage Act overturned in 2013 (he died in 2011) but chances are he would have growled “We still have a long way to go” before tilting at another windmill and he’s absolutely correct on that account. Gay rights remain very tenuous and fragile; already there is legislation that seeks to undo all that is done, particularly in red states. There is still plenty of anti-gay behavior out there and the struggle to end repression for our gay brothers and sisters is ongoing. It behooves us to take heart however, in that the cause has come a long way. The efforts of men like Frank Kameny are important to note, if just to remind us that we need more people like him in our society even now.

REASONS TO SEE: The celebration of a largely forgotten but important figure in early gay activism. Lots of nifty archival footage.
REASONS TO AVOID: Despite the compact length the film is repetitious in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as sell as adult thematic material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was based on and inspired by the book of the same name by historian David K. Johnson
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/11/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Before Stonewall
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Oceans 8

Sleepless in Seattle


An affair to truly remember.

An affair to truly remember.

(1993) Romance (Tri-Star) Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, Rosie O’Donnell, Bill Pullman, Victor Garber, Ross Malinger, Rita Wilson, Carey Lowell, David Hyde Pierce, Barbara Garrick, Frances Conroy, Tom Riis Farrell, Rob Reiner, Gaby Hoffman, Dana Ivey, Calvin Trillin, Michael Badalucco, Kevin O’Morrison, La Clanche du Rand, Tom Tammi, Valerie Wright, Caroline Aaron. Directed by Nora Ephron

CINEMAOFTHEHEART-5

Back in the 90s (and who knows, maybe it’s still true) radio call-in shows were big. Many of them provided a kind of social service, therapy for those who couldn’t afford a therapist and didn’t mind thousands of people (and maybe millions in the case of syndicated talk show hosts) listened in on their problems and phobias.

Annie Reed (Ryan) is a reporter for the Baltimore Sun. She doesn’t really believe in romance, although she believes that she doesn’t want to be alone. She’s engaged to Walter (Pullman), a nice enough guy who clearly adores her but she just doesn’t feel inspired, particularly as Walter is allergic to – um, everything. She listens to the Dr. Marcia (Aaron) show late at night and yaks about it with her good friend and editor Becky (O’Donnell) the next day.

Sam Baldwin (Hanks) – not one of the lost Baldwin brothers – is in a deep funk. His wife Maggie (Lowell) succumbed to cancer a year and a half ago but things just aren’t getting any better, not even after moving to Seattle from Chicago with his son Jonah (Malinger). Jonah worries about his dad, who can’t seem to get past his wife’s death and resume living and maybe even find happiness. Sam is skeptical about it – he knew he had found his soulmate from the first touch. “It was magic,” he muses, “You don’t get that lucky twice.”

Jonah is so concerned that he phones in the Dr. Marcia show and calls his dad to the phone. Reluctantly he gets on and tells his story and as Dr. Marcia coaxes his feelings about Maggie out of him, Sam is so eloquent, so heartfelt, so lost that he stimulates the maternal instincts of every woman listening. From then on he gets bags of mail from women proposing marriage or just wanting to meet.

One of the listeners is Annie who is drawn to his story. After watching a rebroadcast of An Affair to Remember she impulsively writes an expressive letter to Sam, proposing that they meet at the top of the Empire State Building on Valentine’s Day. At the urging of Becky (who also mails the letter after Annie chickens out), she flies out to Seattle to ostensibly do a story on the talk radio phenomenon but primarily to find Sam. However, after seeing him with his sister Suzy (Wilson) she gets the mistaken impression that he has a girlfriend and flees back to Baltimore, ready to marry Walter.

In the meantime, Jonah reads Annie’s letter and tries to get his dad, who by now is dating a co-worker (Garrick) that Jonah hates, to make the rendezvous but Sam refuses. Instead, Jonah writes Annie as Sam and tells her that he’ll be there.

More I will not tell you. Either you know what happens so there’s no point in recapping the plot further, or you don’t know and I don’t want to ruin the expert heartstring tugging you’ll undergo. Romantic movies tend to be very much formulaic these days, but this one is certainly not. Yes, it does borrow liberally from classic romances (particularly the aforementioned An Affair to Remember) but it’s smarter than most rom-coms and treats its audience as intelligent people while gently poking fun at how men and women express their emotions.

The interesting thing about this movie is that Hanks and Ryan spend very little screen time together but are often considered to be one of the prime screen couples of the last 20 years – yes, it’s been two decades since this came out. The characters are so compelling thanks in no small part to the sterling performances by Hanks and Ryan that people root for them to be together with unbridled fervor. The chemistry between the two is often discussed when this picture comes up for discussion, but maybe people are channeling their performances from Joe vs. the Volcano which they both previously starred in. They would go on to do one more movie together but for many they are the greatest screen couple since Hepburn and Tracy.

The interesting thing is that Walter, Annie’s fiancée, is really a nice guy whose only fault is that he’s not Tom Hanks. Pullman and O’Donnell both deliver solid supporting performances. The only acting letdown belongs to Malinger and it’s really through no fault of his own; the script (particularly during the last third which focuses more on him) calls on him to do more precocious things and instead of being cute it becomes painfully obnoxious. He’s one of those screen kids who knows better than adults and outwits them, often with the help of his friend Jessica (Hoffman).

This is one of the classic romantic movies. There are women who get misty-eyed at the mere mention of the film. As Valentine’s Day cuddle movies go, you could certainly do much worse. Undoubtedly putting this on the TV and snuggling up together with some microwaved popcorn and a couple of glasses of wine could lead to a memorable evening of your own.

WHY RENT THIS: Terrific performances by Hanks and Ryan. The prototypical multi-hankie modern romance.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The kid can be a bit obnoxious.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some mild bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The radio call-in listener Desperate in Denver is voiced by Nora Ephron.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The most recent limited edition Blu-Ray includes a separate score only track as well as a music video.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $227.8M on a $21M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: An Affair to Remember

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: The LEGO Movie

The Perfect Host


Always use your right hand when threatening a guest with a knife.

Always use your right hand when threatening a guest with a knife.

(2010) Thriller (Magnolia) David Hyde Pierce, Clayne Crawford, Tyrees Allen, Cooper Barnes, Megahn Perry, Annie Campbell, Helen Reddy, Indira Gibson, George Kee Cheung, Brooke “Mikey” Anderson, Cheryl Francis Harrington, Amanda Payton, Joseph Will, Nathaniel Parker, Greg Brown, Mike Foy, Tracy Britton, Maple Navarro. Directed by Nick Tomnay

What makes the perfect host? Is it the immaculate home they live in? Or perhaps the feeling of welcome and hospitality that they radiate? Or is it the details of putting on the perfect party?

When entertaining, one may sometimes be accosted at one’s door by a complete stranger, claiming to be a friend of a friend. Do not immediately assume they are a bank robber or some similar reprobate but invite them in. Should you see evidence on television that they are in fact a bank robber, do not panic and whatever you do, never lose your civility. Should the bank robber pull a knife on you, remember these three things – manners, manners, manners! Offer your guest refreshment.

And by refreshment, of course, we mean wine. But what wine should the perfect host offer in such a situation? Why, red of course! That way when you drug the wine, the powder dissolves more fully, allowing the sedative to move more quickly through your guest’s system. And while he takes a nice refreshing nap, a perfect host always ties his slumbering guest to a chair so that there is no danger of him hurting himself through a fall or being stabbed with his own knife. Thus we see the hallmarks of a perfect host – courtesy, concern and commitment.

Despite his status as a party crasher, a perfect host always includes his guest in the activities of the party. Should a conga line form, make sure it snakes around him – don’t allow him to join the line however, as the physical exertion so soon after a restful nap may lead to perspiration and we can’t have that.

We’ve seen this kind of film before, including the Michael Haneke classic Funny Games but this one has a bit of a twist. Neither one of the protagonists are really likable. The bank robber, John Taylor (Crawford) is a nasty piece of work and although the script works at making him likable, at the end of the day he isn’t a nice guy.

Then again, neither is Warwick Wilson (Hyde Pierce), the titular homeowner whose dinner party Taylor crashes. In fact, Warwick’s hold on reality is extremely tenuous and we’re never quite sure if what’s going on is all in his head or real. Hyde Pierce is perfectly cast, drawing on his stiff-as-a-board Niles Crane role from the Frasier TV series only adding a psychotic edge. The results are very effective.

Where the movie goes off the rails is in the last third; one gets a sense that the writers painted themselves in a corner and rather than getting paint on their shoes hired an imaginary helicopter to fly them out. It doesn’t really work, even as the metaphor above doesn’t work.

Still, the movie is funny (in a sick and twisted way) in places and scary in others. You’re never really sure who has the upper hand and which one of the two you want to see get their just deserts until near the very end. Personally I wish they’d just bitten the bullet and made Taylor a truly despicable man instead of giving him an out. To my mind that would have been a better movie, although the one that they ended up making is pretty dang good.

WHY RENT THIS: Hyde Pierce gives a bravura performance. Well cast, well-written and funny as hell upon occasion.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Falls apart in the last third.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of foul language, some sexuality and some violence as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie originally began life as a 26-minute black and white short.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed, oddly enough although clips of the original short can be seen in the making of feature, the full short isn’t included here for reasons completely beyond my comprehension.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $48,764 on a production budget of $500,000; the film lost money during its theatrical run.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Misery

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The American Experience begins!