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The Next Best Thing

Director: John Schlesinger
Cast: Madonna, Rupert Everett, Benjamin Bratt, Malcolm Stumpf, Lynn Redgrave, Ileana Douglas

(Paramount Pictures; 2000)

The Least Worst Thing

Imust admit, against all my better judgment, I actually rather enjoyed Madonna’s new film, The Next Best Thing. Make no mistake, the movie is a total schlockfest that tugs at all the requisite heart strings, and wraps up its relatively predictable story in a sappy ending. Furthermore, as Abbie, Madonna proves once again that she is really not much of an actress (although she is working against the super-nova stardom of being “Madonna,” so that it becomes nearly impossible to see past that to any character she tries to portray), and her affected, British-ist elocution is maddening throughout. And yet, I can’t say that I hated it.


The cast of The Next Best Thing generally turns in fine performances, but in a script that offers largely underdeveloped stereotypes, the actors are left with little opportunity to breathe much life into their characters. The film follows the lives of Abbie (Madonna, playing straight) and Robert (Rupert Everett, playing gay), best friends who, during one drunken encounter, conceive a son, and decide to raise him together, unmarried and unwilling to compromise their own sexual lives. The film chronicles the changes wrought by this situation not only in Robert and Abbie’s lives, but in the lives of those people closest to them, stereotypical characters whose “changes” are quite unoriginal. So, Robert’s mother (Lynn Redgrave) is predictably loving and a bit daffy, supporting her gay son regardless of his decisions, while her husband Richard (Josef Sommer) toes the line as the father barely containing his disappointment with his son’s gay life, until he’s transformed when Robert’s newfound domesticity is threatened.


In a film that tries so hard to question legal and moral definitions of family and love, this father-son relationship is one of its most disappointing elements. It is, of course, only over the gay son’s normalization that father and son can bond; without Robert’s (queer) “marriage” to Abbie and his devotion to their son Sam (Malcolm Stumpf), Richard would continue to be just as implacably resentful of his son’s gayness as he always has been. It’s instructive too, that only Robert has parents (Abbie’s family is nowhere in sight), as if only the parents who would have a “problem” with this unorthodox situation can or must be present.


The Next Best Thing follows in the footsteps of a recent trend in film and television to feature stories about straight girls with relationship problems and their best gay boy pals. Obviously, The Object of My Affection (whose straight girl, gay boy, and a baby formula The Next Best Thing replicates), and the NBC hit comedy Will and Grace are the closest correlates. And Everett himself has played this part before, opposite Julia Roberts in My Best Friend’s Wedding. Clearly there are some cultural anxieties over the status of masculinity and heterosexual romance at work here. In these representations, gay boys are either better lovers of men than women, and have a lot to teach straight girls about being more compassionate, more attractive, and better in the sack, etc., or else gay boys make more appealing long-term companions than straight men. Either way, these varying representations are responding to a perceived “crisis of masculinity” being experienced in America today (just think of the cultural response which met Susan Faludi’s recent book Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man), and to what I would say is a crisis of heterosexuality brought on since (roughly) the mid-to-late 1970s by the fragmentation of a normative social order in the proliferation of public displays and acknowledgments of sexual desires—lesbian, gay, bi, trans, and beyond.


In response to the diversity of politicized and mediated sexual publics engendered by and displayed within postmodern America, what all these representations, including The Next Best Thing, have in common—as sanitized (sub)cultural spectacles—is the nearly total desexualization of their gay boy pals. In order for the “platonic” relationship of the gay boy and straight girl to work (and in order to forestall a heterosexual audience’s presumed anxieties or homophobia), neither must be too successful at relationships—indeed, they must largely be failures. Of course, the straight girls are often given more leeway, more sexual freedom in these tales than the gay boys. Will and Grace is perhaps the best example of this, working from with the seemingly more restrictive, oppressive atmosphere of prime time, major network television—poor Will, will he ever get laid?


And so, in The Next Best Thing, both Abbie and Robert are shown to be failures at the game of love. In the beginning, during her breakup with Kevin (Michael Vartan), Abbie is sniveling and “codependent” (as Kevin calls her). Yet by the middle of the film, Abbie has found true love in an investment banker, Ben (Benjamin Bratt), and their desire to settle into wedded bliss (and move across the country from LA to New York City) is what initiates the family drama and custody battle which is The Next Best Thing‘s primary concern. Robert, on the other hand, is alone throughout. At the beginning he has recently broken up with a never-seen ex-boyfriend, and for about two seconds in the middle, he has a cardiologist lover who breaks up with him because he refuses to get more involved in the relationship, as his only concern is his son.


Robert remains isolated not only from an active, embodied sexuality, but also from any broader support network of gay friends or gay community. He does have a few queer friends, only one of which, David (Doogie Howser, MD‘s Neil Patrick Harris), seems to have any sort of closeness with Robert. Furthermore, Robert directly distances himself from those “other,” less domestic (and thus, in the logic of the film, less respectable, less worthy, etc.) gay men, saying to Abbie, “I’m bored with the parties, the drugs, the body obsessions.” The Next Best Thing is informed by the conservative political logic of “respectability” which undergirds, for example, the move towards legally recognized gay and lesbian marriage. Additionally, it seems to be directly influenced by the work of gay public intellectuals like Larry Kramer (who has remarked in the past that all “we” really want is to be able to get married and to serve in the military), Andrew Sullivan, and Bruce Bawer (who calls for “a place at the table” for lesbian and gay America), and traffics in a specious political “tolerance” which is based on a certain normalization and desexualization of queer culture and queer individuals.


What is, perhaps, different from these other straight girl-gay boy films, is that The Next Best Thing tries to raise complex and tricky questions about gay people’s access to and rights under the law. The ultimate disappointment of the film is that after raising these questions, and following its own assimilationist tendencies, The Next Best Thing offers only pat, status quo-compliant answers. Early on, at the funeral of David’s lover, the film tries to address the contentious issue of lesbians and gay men’s rights concerning the death of their partners. As David’s lover’s family disapproved of his gay life, and refuse to recognize David as his life partner/spouse (or whatever else you might want to call him), David finds himself shut out of the planning of his lover’s funeral and the disposal of his estate. What the film suggests (or rather, merely hints at) is that if lesbian and gay marriage were legal, this lack of recourse to estate planning and inheritance law would be rectified. Rather than suggesting that, as a society, we need to reconsider the social contract called marriage, as well as the cultural values and public policies which delimit it, the film simplistically asserts that legally sanctioned marriage is the answer to (at least some of) “our” (queers’) problems.


The Next Best Thing handles the questions it raises about custodial rights and lesbian and gay parenting in a similarly non-critical manner. Really, it is essentially Kramer vs. Kramer for the start of the twenty-first century. Like Robert Benton’s 1979 film, John Schlesinger’s reflects contemporary, shifting cultural values and definitions which accrue to questions of parenting and family, which come to a head in the court-room custody battle which takes up the last third of the movie. What none of the promotional materials prepare you for is that this legal dispute becomes quite a bitter, rancorous, and hateful affair, and which is initiated by Abbie’s stealing away with Sam, to move in with Ben. The courtroom drama boils down to two considerations, in light of which Robert’s appeal for joint custody is denied. First, is the question of biological paternity. It turns out Robert is not Sam’s biological father after all, and thus he has no legal right to custody, even though, in practice, he has been Sam’s father since birth. Second, is the question of the “inappropriate” influence of “deviant lifestyles.” When on the stand, Abbie’s lawyer grills Robert about his appropriateness as a “caregiver” (refusing to call Robert Sam’s “father”), and questions whether Sam has ever been witness to Robert’s sexual exploits, specifically whether he has ever witnessed Robert “performing oral sex” on another man.


Left out of this custodial drama are a number of more complicated social and political questions. Why, for instance, in a climate where biology is becoming both more (through genetic selection, neonatal/fetal care, etc.) and less (through surrogate parenting, egg/sperm donations, etc.) than it has ever been, is biology still the last (and often only) factor in deciding on the rights of parents (or even “caregivers”) and the well-being of children? Further, the legal double standards in dealing with alternative (“deviant”) lifestyles, is made horrifically obvious in Robert’s testimony. It is, of course, only Robert who has to take the stand. Abbie never has to defend her behavior, or her rights or ability to be a good parent. What would it mean to ask of Abbie the same question that is asked of Robert? Would is mean something different, or have a different possible effect on Sam’s development if he witnessed Abbie “performing oral sex” on a man? And why? The Next Best Thing‘s final answer to questions of lesbian and gay parenting, and non-traditional families, is that the law fails us, and the only possible solution is the one reached at the very end by Robert and Abbie, an amicable, negotiated sharing of parental rights and duties reached by two responsible and rational adults. Well, in a perfect world that might be so, but what the film also demonstrates is that if not for Abbie’s generous capitulation, Robert would essentially never be able to see his son again.


And so, with all of these shortcomings, and all of the ways in which I radically disagree, morally and politically, with the film, how can I say that I still rather enjoyed The Next Best Thing? All things considered, I would say it is for two reasons. First, in its attempt to address complex sexual, legal and political publics, this film (however lamely) draws attention to some of the very real potential problems and difficulties of gay parenting in America today. Second is the performance of Malcolm Stumpf as Sam. Really, this kid is impossibly cute, and he does an admirable job portraying Sam’s love for his gay daddy, and his confusions over why mommy and daddy don’t sleep in the same room, or what it might mean that daddy is a “faggot.” (In a too self-consciously cute line, Sam explains that being a “faggot” is “when two boys kiss and they go to the opera,” which, nonetheless, gets a laugh.) It’s obvious that the relationship between Sam and Robert, and particularly as acted by Stumpf, appeals on some level to a phantasmatic idea/l of gay parenting (even if it largely leaves out the messy, quotidian details of parenthood), and this fantasy leads me to feel that even if the film isn’t The Next Best Thing, it is, perhaps, in the context of recent, similar stories, the least worst thing.

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8 Nov 2012
John Schlesinger was interested in exploring the many layers of humanity, and he wasn’t afraid to remind audiences that they were sexual beings and that sex, even if rarely featured onscreen, was essential to making them who they were.
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