Pride and Prejudice

by Brian Holler

4 August 2010


Object Lesson

Similarly, Object of My Affection cravenly uses children to elevate and cutesify the screenplay, imparting a familial message, and even tries to have it both ways by giving the little buggers acid tongues. The difference is the strength of the material. Object’s script, based on a book by Stephen McCauley, is actually a solid tale of practical, well-adjusted folk trying to weld together some semblance of a family from some very impractical constituent parts. 

I was worried that Object of My Affection would be a typical fag hag film which, like execrable “my gay boyfriend” press of late, is never flattering and usually insulting to both straight women and gay men. These types of films usually objectify the male as an accessory and treat both as cartoon characters.  A couple of scenes dangerously skirt this territory, such as a tricky seduction in which Aniston’s character’s feelings for Rudd’s character come to a head, but the two are interrupted when the script pulls back for a clichéd timely phone call from an ex. 

This “pride collection” is clearly no occasion for reliving the terror of the “new gay cancer” and gauntlet-throwing, storm-the Catholic-church, Doc-Marten-stamping shenanigans, nor for holding Reagan accountable for murder, Larry-Kramer-style.

Aniston delineates her role with the complexity required to render the character three-dimensional, and the film allows her in kind to maintain her dignity. Rudd isn’t let off the hook here either; he’s just as complicit in succumbing, whilst playing house with Aniston, to some all-too- fleeting bisexual impulses – his heart’s not really in it, but he’s slipped in the deep end, with one foot still in the shallow end (Timothy Daly) of the male dating pool. Additionally, Object avoids the pitfalls of the reductive fag hag storyline, inasmuch as the whole thing plays more like a roundelay in which each member of the ensemble couples up with the proper team at the end.

Excepting, of course, the jaded, bitter old-school queen. Nigel Hawthorne gives the film the ring of bitter truth, as a theatre “mentor” (read: sugar daddy) and sort of Greek chorus in the film, commenting on the action and occasionally dropping nuggets of wisdom to the younger, besotted and, in his mind, misguided characters.

At times the dialogue plays, for better or worse, like a wittier Neil Simon, but the scene in Aniston’s Brooklyn digs in which her pregnancy is inadvertently divulged is staged ingeniously—conflicting agendas and motivations erupting in a bout of overlapping, incisive dialogue,  which must have made Robert Altman green with envy.  Although it’s very nearly marred by a mawkish ending , Object of My Affection is a worthy choice for this mini-queer canon; it displays a healthy sense of ambivalence about virtually every “lifestyle” going, conflated with the rhythm of actual New York lives.

From My Beautiful Laundrette (1985)

From My Beautiful Laundrette (1985)

Stephen Frears’ brilliant My Beautiful Laundrette is also a worthy addition, yet far from sentimental.  A young Daniel Day Lewis stars as working class thug Johnny, and Gordon Warnecke as Omar, his opportunistic partner in business. It’s a note-perfect satire of race, class and upward mobility at any cost set in Thatcherite England. Homosexuality is not necessarily front-and-center in the plot, but merely incidental to it. The love story reveals itself so organically –  we aren’t even aware the characters are lovers until almost midpoint—that it’s miles more effective than any gay pigeonholing (or cornholing) would have been. As a dissection of manners and mores at the intersection of filthy lucre and seedy, sooty ‘80s London, My Beautiful Laundrette may be reflective of its time, but its wit and humanity remain intact, despite a shaky DVD transfer.


Heather Jurgensen & Jennifer Westfeldt in Kissing Jessica Stein (2001)

Though instantly dated by its central gimmick (the protagonist answers an ad in the print version of the Village Voice), the sweet, stinging, sparkling comedy Kissing Jessica Stein gives Woody Allen a run for his money in the neurotic Jewish New Yorker stakes, rivaling Allen’s best and breeziest, while refraining from easy answers or too-pat endings.

Unhappily single and her own worst enemy, Jessica is also something of an ascetic, a hypercritical editor pushing 30 who, after a series of romantic disasters and false starts, finds herself pining for “the one”.  She fortuitously stumbles on the Voice singles listing, which impresses Jessica with its quotation of Rilke, and has been placed by Helen , who is looking for her first foray into same-sex relationships. Jessica, naïve to a fault, has never been with a woman, yet decides to set aside her (very pronounced and comically manifested) reservations, taking the plunge with a reluctant-yet-horny Helen.

They say that comedy is the harder than drama to engineer; indeed, the cast must have been sweating this one out—it’s one of the funniest comedies of any year, offering up some unvarnished truths and no real resolution, yet somehow remaining optimistic and light as a feather. It’s also a canny depiction of the shifting power dynamics in relationships gay and straight.  Any film with former Hollywood Square Jim J. Bullock as an in-denial would-be suitor of the titular heroine couldn’t be anything but a massive delight. However, whither the cast and crew of Kissing Jessica Stein? The ending leaves an opening for a possible sequel. Charles Herman-Wurmfeld, where are you now?

Kissing Jessica Stein mercifully leaves identity politics behind—well, except for one piss-taking character who doesn’t believe Jessica is a “real lesbian”. It’s a laugh seeing the great range of reactions to Jessica’s self-discovery, especially one pal who sees it as a bohemian stamp of coolness (“It’s so radical!”)  Like My Beautiful Laundrette, Kissing Jessica Stein isn’t a gay film per se, but it too sees hard-working, imperfect human beings fumbling through life, trying not to become prisoners of their patterns.


From Bent (1997)

From Bent (1997)

The final triumvirate of works in this collection are all love stories at heart: the improbable but funny Imagine Me and You (a woman seduces a bride on her wedding day) applies the queer thing to a twee Brit rom-com setting; Boys Don’t Cry, with an electrifying Hilary Swank in her star-making performance as Brandon Teena; and Bent, a lugubrious Holocaust drama which casts a crooning Mick Jagger as drag diva and a smoldering, young Clive Owen as a gay soldier, proving once again that no category remains untouched by the pink demographic.

The collection is entertaining enough, but a viewer of a certain persuasion could while away hours assembling the perfect collection in her head. There’s no representation, for example, from the much-hyped transgressive New Queer Cinema of the early ‘90s. One can’t help but wonder if in the end such controversial mainstream films (also of varying degrees of quality) as Silence of the Lambs, Basic Instinct and Philadelphia didn’t have a more ironically lasting effect on the public’s sensitivity to and perceptions of the oh-so-nebulous gay community.

Presenting these artifacts as sociological tome, with each film representing the discrete attitudes of its respective era in the popular psyche, the assemblers of this handsome box set have committed a major sin of omission. Charting progress in the age of Reagan, Thatcher,  ACT-UP and Clause 28 without even mentioning HIV seems calculated. This “pride collection” is clearly no occasion for reliving the terror of the “new gay cancer” and gauntlet-throwing, storm-the Catholic-church, Doc-Marten-stamping shenanigans, nor for holding Reagan accountable for murder, Larry-Kramer-style. However, it’s possible that the great scourge merits its own collection. I imagine it would be just as uneven as this one.

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