Film

Get the Fuzzy Navels Ready, It's LGBT Movie Time

Queer, Isn't It? presents the first of five films in its LGBT Hall of Fame.

Last month, the National Film Registry closed nominations for 2013 additions to the list of the greatest of American cinema. Each year, a few films are honored with inclusion; last year saw the addition of such diverse classics as Born Yesterday, the 1914 version of Uncle Tom's Cabin, the 1957 version of 3:10 to Yuma, The Matrix, and The Times of Harvey Milk. There is no Hall of Fame for film (except in Texas, which has its own awards), so placement on the registry is the top honor, showing that a film has stood the test of time.

There's not an abundance of LGBT films on the list so far. In fact, The Times of Harvey Milk and The Rocky Horror Picture Show pretty much covers it. So, we introduce the first installment of the Queer, Isn't It? Registry of LGBT films. Highlighted below are five films that helped break ground for queer cinema.

One will quickly notice that all the films are from the '80s. It's a personal peeve to read a "Greatest (whatever) of all Time" list that doesn't go back any further than the writer's age (really, all the best comedies/ albums/ TV shows/ romances were released in the last 25 years?). Therefore, this registry is open to films of all periods, and we happily take nominations for future inclusion. However, the '80s were a pivotal time in LGBT cinema; it was the first time that films sought to portray members of our community realistically, as regular people dealing with the same issues of love, death, strife, heartbreak, and accomplishment as our straight counterparts.

This is not to suggest there weren't bumps along the way. Two major studio films, both released in 1982, weren't quite blessed with boffo box office. Robert Towne's Personal Best featured a young, gorgeous Mariel Hemingway as an athlete trying to choose between Patrice Donnelly and Scott Glenn, while Arthur Hiller's Making Love featured a young, gorgeous Michael Ontkean as a doctor trying to choice between Harry Hamlin and Kate Jackson. Both films have their fans, and both broke ground, causing lesbians and gays to dash to the video store and then rewind their VHS tapes endlessly over the scenes where Patrice and Mariel / Michael and Harry kiss for the first time.

What's more, both films symbolized where America was with gay issues in the '80s, coming out of the closet and struggling with questions of sexual identity. Many LGBT films of the era played upon this theme, with a seemingly straight man or woman discovering his or her "true" sexual self, thanks to the sexually liberated queer/dyke who takes a liking to him/her. Still, into this mix emerged films that featured large groups of queers or dykes or both, sometimes without a major straight character to be found. It's as if filmmakers wanted to say, "This is what Harry Hamlin and Patrice Donnelly's characters were like when they weren't hanging out with straight people."

With that in mind, we present the first five films of our registry (in chronological order), which covers both the "straight turned gay" storyline and the "we're here, we're queer" stories:

1. Lianna (1983)

Director/ writer: John Sayles. Cast: Linda Griffiths, Jane Halleran.

Four years after his exceptional directorial debut with Return of the Secaucus Seven and before he won over audiences and critics with The Brother from Another Planet, Eight Men Out, and Passion Fish, John Sayles crafted the tale of a not-so-happily married woman whose affair with a female professor leaves her struggling with her marriage and sexual identity. On its face, this sounds like a distaff version of Making Love, but Sayles' skills as a storyteller lift the film above the level of soap opera and presents fleshed-out characters for whom the audience can relate.

Lianna's choice isn't just gay or straight, but happy or miserable. In his review of the film, Vincent Canby of The New York Times called star Linda Griffith "splendid" and said the film "so effectively simulates the manner and temper of ordinary lives that there is a danger people will not recognize the very real art by which it was created." ("Lianna, Faculty Wife with Marital Woes", 19 January, 1983)


2. My Beautiful Laundrette (1985)

Director: Stephen Frears. Writer: Hanif Kureishi. Cast: Gordon Warnake and Daniel Day-Lewis.

Between this film and Room with a View, audiences were noticing Daniel Day-Lewis for the first time. His character in Room with a View, the prim Cecil, seems to be the gay character, but it was the tough, streetwise Johnny in My Beautiful Laundrette that turned Day-Lewis into a gay heartthrob.

My Beautiful Laundrette is a family drama focusing on an extended Pakistani family in London. About the same time that young Omar takes over managing his uncle's laundrymat, he runs into old friend Johnny, and the two act out on the feelings they had when they were younger. Their relationship is an integral part of Johnny's growth into manhood, and Frears presents it as loving and passionate as the heterosexual relationships presented in the film. The film won Kureishi several critic's awards for best screenplay, including an Oscar nomination, and won Day-Lewis the first of his endless string of acting awards.


3. Desert Hearts (1985)

Director: Donna Dietch. Writer: Natalie Cooper. Cast: Helen Shaver, Patricia Charbeonneau, and Audra Lindley.

Desert Hearts was a revelation for me personally, because it was the first LGBT film I had seen that starred people I actually heard of. Helen Shaver had countless film and TV appearances on her resume when she did this film, and I was amazed that someone with a blossoming career would risk it all to play a lesbian when doing so was still so risqué. Plus, it starred Mrs. Roper from Three's Company!

The plot, a married woman getting a divorce meets a sexually liberated lesbian who lures her to bed, was quite familiar by this time, but Desert Hearts threw in a twist by setting itself in the '50s. There were lesbians even in the '50s? Yes, little Tammy, there were, and they were having a good time apparently.

While noting the film had its flaws, Roger Ebert concluded, "Desert Hearts has undeniable power, and the power comes, I think, from the chemistry between Shaver and Charbonneau." (6 June 1985, Roger Ebert.com)


4. Parting Glances (1986)

Director/writer: Bill Sherwood. Cast: John Bolger, Richard Ganoung, and Steve Buscemi.

Parting Glances was only Buscemi's third film, but it allowed the young actor to truly shine and steal the spotlight for the first time. As a rocker dealing with the (then) fatal diagnosis of AIDS, Buscemi brings an amazing depth and warmth to the character, one of the first sympathetic portrayals of a person living with AIDS on film. Still, Buscemi's Nick is a supporting character, as the film focuses on a Michael and Robert, a young couple who are about to separated when Robert's job transfers him to Africa for a two year stint.

Set in the 24 hour time period leading up to Robert's departure, the film offers a realistic portrayal of gay life in the big city, as a host of LGBT types converge for Robert's going-away party. "Bracingly forthright and believable in its presentation of an all-gay world within contempo New York City" (Variety, 31 December 1985), Parting Glances showed the world what the LGBT community had already learned -- it's all happening in the big city! At least it was in the '80s.


5. Longtime Companion (1989)

Director: Norman Rene. Writer: Craig Lucas. Cast: Campbell Scott, Patrick Cassidy, Bruce Davidson, Dermot Mulrooney, Mary Louise Parker, among a cast of dozens.

For years, LGBT film fans uttered "Longtime Companion" in reverential tones, in honor of its status as the "little gay film that could". Could win over the public, could get a lot of favorable press, could seer itself into the public consciousness and make straight people openly weep. It also racked up a ton of awards for Bruce Davidson, whose emotional good-bye to his partner, dying of AIDS, was painfully real and made Davidson a leading contender for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar (he lost to Goodfellas' Joe Pesci).

The film examines the effects of the hideous disease on a circle of gay friends, and does so in such a way that The Washington Post concluded, "…what counts most is 'Companion's' palatability for non-gay audiences. The movie puts a human face on the AIDS scare and gently coaxes general audiences (at least, the open-minded variety) into rooting for, rather than fearing, people with AIDS. Given the greater epidemic of AIDS ignorance throughout our society, this film is a healthy dose of goodwill." In 1989, that was huge.


This, of course, is just the start of our list, and there's no implied statement that LGBT films made before the ‘80s were lacking, although too often, they relied so heavily on caricature and stereotyping that they lost credibility. We’ll be looking at some of those films and, as stated previously, are open to suggestions and nominations.

So, make your case why your favorite LGBT film deserves to be honored and you might just find it listed in a future column. In the meantime, if you haven’t seen some of the films listed above, take some time, get out the Jiffy-pop, make yourself a Fuzzy Navel or Tequila Sunrise (the hot drinks of the ‘80s), and enjoy some classic cinema.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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