On Homosexuality and Hollywood

“Oh, did I forget to mention? I’m gay… yeah… Gay, gay, gay, gay, gay!

-Announced joyfully and matter-of-factly by Steven Russell (Jim Carrey)

The Artfiact: A week ago, I rented Milk from the video store. I also left the video store with one other movie — this black comedy starring Jim Carrey as a con-man who falls in love with an angel, but can’t stop his criminal ways. In this particular con-man in love movie, the angel he falls in love with just so happens to be a man, played delightfully by an American-accented Ewan Macgregor… I swear, I did not know I was leaving the video store with the two gayest movies of the last half-decade; the connection did not occur to me until I got home. In reality, I had no intention of the connecting the two movies… But… After watching both, I’ve noticed a common thread that gives me hope for the future of LGBT cinema.

There is a moment fairly early in I Love You Phillip Morris, when we first meet the eponymous Morris, played by a platinum-blonde Ewan McGregor as a vulnerable bombshell who is just begging to be loved and taken care of (and who just so happens to be male), where it seems that the conflict in the film might come from a refusal on the part of the clearly gay Phillip Morris to admit that he might have feelings for men. It’s all in the way that first encounter between the delicate Morris and his horndog suitor, Jim Carrey’s Steven Russell, is played by the two: Russell is putting on the charm and Morris is rather obviously playing coy despite his obvious attraction to the more outgoing con-man. And you go, “Oh no, this movie is going to be about whether Steven Russell can get Phillip Morris to come out of the closet. This is a drama about whether two men can love each other in this world we live in today… Oh joy…”

There are similar moments in Gus Van Sant’s fantastic biopic, Milk. In 1970, Harvey Milk hits on a young hippie in a subway (James Franco looking like he just stepped off the set of Godspell). Milk is coming on strong, but his sparring partner plays hard to get, and your first reaction is “closet case…” But then, in what feels like a refreshing mist cascading over dry, overwrought desert afflicted by the stuffy notion that the only drama in films dealing with homosexual themes stems from the difficulty one is faced with when coming out, the two begin to openly flirt and Scott, played as a laid-back but whip-smart stoner, reveals that his hesitation comes from Harvey’s advanced age (he is on the cusp of forty) and not his sexuality. The same conflict plays out later, when Harvey, now rallying support for his campaign to be a city supervisor, asks for the support of a young and angry Cleve Jones, who he can tell immediately is gay (Emile Hirsch). Jones isn’t buying, and he shoots Milk’s political advances down repeatedly as his friends look on. It is easy to assume that Harvey’s mission will then be to help Cleve Jones come out of the closet and realize the
empowerment that comes with admitting who you are even if it means losing friends. And then… surprise, surprise! Jones is, it turns out, is very much out and proud. The problem Milk will face, it turns out, is not that Jones is not openly gay – it is that he, along with most of the film’s gay population in mid-‘70s California, is not ready to be politically
gay.

What I love so much about how both of these films deal with homosexuality: both Milk and Phillip Morris nod in the direction of the closet – acknowledging that its dark recesses do indeed exist – but neither movie dwells there for any longer than it takes to point at the closet and say, “Yep, it’s there… but we’re not in it!” Or as Phillip Morris says to Steven when he finally gives up on foreplay and gives into their inevitable whirlwind romance: “Enough romance, let’s f**k!” Which is a wonderfully crude way of saying: “Enough with the hand-wringing about whether gay men can do this (make love to each other, obtain political clout); let’s see them do it already!”

Brokeback Mountain broke major ground six years ago when it asked, before millions of enraptured viewers, whether two men could accept how they felt about one another long enough to be happy. (The answer, it turned out, was a resounding and very powerful “Meh.” They did, it turns out, love each other very much, but happiness proved extraordinarily elusive because, of course, coming out of the closet can be so difficult.) And while there will now always be room in post-Brokeback mainstream cinema for dramas and comedies dealing with the difficulties of coming out of the closet, it is extraordinarily refreshing to find two films that revel in the progressive notion that, as plots dealing with homosexual themes go, not everything has to be about that darn closet. It is nice to see that, at last, in Hollywood, a gay man is not less interesting when he reveals he is gay.

The characters in Milk and Phillip Morris are unendingly fascinating without ever having to contemplate the difficulty of admitting who they are! They are fascinating because they are written as fascinating characters, and also because they prove definitively that a gay man’s story can be compelling well after the all-encompassing conflict of accepting who you are is mostly resolved. Milk, it becomes clear ten minutes into the film, is not the story of a man trying to find out who he is – it is about an extraordinarily self-possessed man (who has been given the rare gift of already knowing perfectly well who he is) rallying his troops and making others accept who he is and who he can be, pretty much or else. I Love You Phillip Morris is not about whether two men can share an open, honest, caring relationship – it is about whether these two profoundly strange men can, in spite of their eccentricities, share an open, honest, caring relationship. These films are finally absolving pop culture of the very serious, very dark shroud which implies that the only conflicts gay men face are outings and AIDS, as if homosexuals do not live normal, screenplay-ready lives between those peaks and valleys. Of course, in the old Hollywood equivalency, which places the closet at the pinnacle of dramatic tension, you only got two kinds of gay men – openly gay men, who are joyful, trouble-free gay best friends who take sad woman in search of love on shopping sprees; and closeted gay men, who skulk around asking themselves difficult questions about the nature of identity while worrying about the wife and kids back home. In this new equivalency-free frontier, the gay men in Milk and Phillip Morris can explore the full spectrum of character traits normally bequeathed upon – gasp – “normal people”! In these films, we are given gay men who are smart and bookish; shy and unassuming; needy and depressed; laid-back and care-free; loud and angry; determined and charismatic; clever and manipulative; outgoing and dramatic. Many even explore contradictions. Philip Morris is delicate and profane, fragile yet strong. Scott and Cleve both change before our eyes, growing up throughout the sea-changes of an entire decade, refusing to be defined by one trait. One of the wonders of these movies is finally seeing, on screen, more than two gay men in a room, speaking and acting with diverse motives, coming from distinct backgrounds, disagreeing about something (whether it be opera or golf) other than leaving behind their beard and admitting who they are.

Philip Morris delights in making light of the travails typically soldiered through reverently
in an LGBT drama. From the moment Steven Russell admits his sexual preference to the audience, we see him quickly throw off the shackles of closeted life – the movie treats the process as irreverently and briskly as it had treated Steven’s married life. His emergence from the closet, his early time as an openly gay man living in Miami, his acclimation to sexuality in the prison system — it all flies from Carrey’s loosey-goosey Russell as fast as one would expect from a comedian as limber as Carrey, never stopping to marinate anything in schmaltz. It seems to spare nothing in its broad depiction of a passionate gay
romance – except for AIDS. The movie, which sneakily takes place in the early-‘90s,
at the height of Philadelphia-and-Pedro-like AIDS awareness in popular culture, painfully depicts the demise of Steven’s ex-boyfriend. The movie takes a serious turn when it becomes clear that Steven, heart-broken and trapped again in prison, is also dying from AIDS, and we watch quietly and reverently as Steven withers away and he and Phillip tearfully reconcile by phone as our protagonist fades… and dies.

Phillip Morris’s twist ending got me – you may have seen it coming from a mile away, or you may have heard, in the ‘90s, about the hubbub surrounding the real Steven Russell, who escaped prison by faking his own death by AIDS, an absurdly bold and controversial move that got the State of Texas so peeved at him that they locked him away for a life sentence. I knew none of this. I was taken for a ride, the ride the filmmakers intended – a jarring shift from black comedy into serious drama, and then, in one huge reveal where
we see that Steven is alive and this has all been a con, back into the terrain of the blackest comedy possible. Evidence that nothing is sacred, not even in the once hallowed ground of serious LGBT cinema, but also evidence that, in Hollywood, a new leaf is being turned. The shock of seeing a character fake his own death from AIDS may, rightfully, anger you or offend you to your very core, especially since I Love You Phillip Morris considers this to be a sympathetic act, an act of love, even if it is one that does not go unpunished. This reaction is fair. Like much of the comedy that has centered around the very serious things that make up hetero culture since the advent of, well, laughter, it is, without a doubt, offensive. Comedy so frequently is. I just want it to be acknowledged that it is a small, and very welcome, miracle that, in Hollywood films like these, you can make a joke at the expense of the very serious things and revel seriously in the minutiae of the little things that make up something that much more closely approximates the true day-to-day existence of life for gay men. For this reason alone, I Love You Phillip Morris and Milk would be a joy to behold. They both also happen to be very good — one is warm and uplifting, the other is cold as a dead fish and vaguely dispriting, and both have very much left the closet behind. These films are out and proud.

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