Knight at the Movies Archives
The Best of the year and Kate and Leo reunite
2005 was the year that gay movies went mainstream thanks mainly to Brokeback Mountain though, sadly, that trend did not continue
– that is until 2008 when conventional cinema again saw a slew of film releases with either positive portrayals of gay characters or
gay themes. The year began on a sad note with the death of Brokeback star Heath Ledger. News of Ledger’s passing came the
same day as the Academy Award nominations. Ironically, his performance as the villainous Joker in The Dark Knight, his last
completed film (and one of the year’s biggest financial and critical hits) will surely see his name announced as a contender with this
year’s Oscar nominations (and it’s my hope that that he’ll win).
The ironies continued to pile up as the year progressed with the reinvigoration of the chick flick, a movie genre in desperate need of
a hit, with two of the biggest of the year, Sex and the City and Mamma Mia!, both helmed by out directors making their feature film
debuts (Michael Patrick King and Phyllida Lloyd, respectively). And suddenly gays were being portrayed in straight male movies not
as the shrieking, lisping, mincing, limp wristed disco dummies of old but as characters to be envied, emulated as paragons of cutting
edge cool, and looked up to by their straight counterparts. Cases in point: Tropic Thunder, Zack and Miri Make a Porno, Nick & Norah’s
Infinite Playlist, and others.
The ironies culminated with a serendipitous convergence of real life and cinema art: the year-end release of Milk, the long awaited
biopic of the slain pioneering gay activist Harvey Milk, just weeks after the passage of California’s anti-gay marriage Proposition 8.
The latter kickstarted a new phase of gay rights that is being likened to the shift in the Civil Rights movement in the early 1960s,
helped in no small measure by out director Gus Van Sant’s tremendous movie. At last, it seems, a healthy majority of
heterosexuals are ready to stand with GLBT folks in securing our long overdue rights. Not surprising that movies have helped point
the zeitgeist in that direction.
I’d like to point out – as I do every year – that all these “Best of” lists are completely subjective. My list tends to shift around with
repeat viewings and reconsiderations. And what exactly constitutes a “gay” movie these days anyway? As in the past, some of
these pictures were “coded” so perfectly for Our People that they made my list. And with that, here’s my list of the 10 Best GLBT
Movies of 2008 (in preferential order):
1. MILK Sean Penn’s acting acrobatics in the title role are a wonder in Van Sant’s unadorned masterpiece which also features rich
supporting performances by James Franco, Emile Hirsch and Diego Luna. The movie also has a great first time feature script by gay
writer Dustin Lance Black.
2. WERE THE WORLD MINE The gay indie release of the year, a full length version of the short “Fairies” from queer writer-director
Tom Gustafson again collaborating with offscreen partner Cory James Krueckeberg and songwriter Jessica Fogle on this delightful
gay fantasia, a musical reimagining of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
3. TROPIC THUNDER-NICK & NORAH’S INFINITE PLAYLIST-ROCKROLLA-ZACK AND MIRI MAKE A PORNO Four films aimed at
heterosexual audiences featuring gay characters as either just “one of the guys” or more likely, positive role models for their straight
counterparts – a refreshing trend after decades of derision and a hopeful harbinger of things to come.
4. SAVE ME Gay actors Chad Allen and Robert Gant star and produced (along with co-star Judith Light) this moving character drama
about a party boy (Allen) who turns to an ex-gay rehab center headed by Light and improbably finds a kindred spirit in Gant, another
troubled resident. Helmed by out director Robert Cary.
5. WALL-E One of the year’s biggest hits with audiences and critics was this futuristic tale of a lonely, show tune adoring robot who
inexplicably finds true love with another robot and expresses it with the help of a forgotten gem from the score of Hello Dolly –
penned by gay musical theatre icon Jerry Herman.
6. SEX AND THE CITY-MAMMA MIA! When out writer-director Michael Patrick King brought Carrie & Co. to the big screen he brought
along not just the hot fashions, the hot men, and the dishy comedy that were a hallmark of the HBO series but more importantly, he
brought along his innate gay sensibility to his feature film debut. The result was a huge success and singlehandedly saved chick
flicks from intensive care. As was out director Lloyd’s frothy, sun filled, Abba drenched musical concoction. Thanks to mighty Meryl,
a strong supporting cast and Dominic Cooper’s sensational abs, the film was a hit and gave Streep the box office clout to match her
7. BRIDESHEAD REVISITED An admirable adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s sprawling novel that focused on the super rich,
dysfunctional Marchmain family on a wide eyed innocent (played by a marvelous Matthew Goode) who is torn between the gay son
and his mysterious sister. Emma Thompson as their controlling, religiously devout mother was thrilling and unlike the 1981 mini-
series, the gay material wasn’t deep sixed.
8. CHRIS & DON: A LOVE STORY and BLACK, WHITE + GRAY: A PORTRAIT OF SAM WAGSTAFF AND ROBERT MAPPLETHORPE A
charming and moving documentary of the decades long relationship between writer Christopher Isherwood and his much younger
partner, painter Don Bachardy was enlivened by the surviving Bachardy’s memories and acidic assessments while the
Wagstaff/Mapplethorpe documentary was a cogent look at a great collaboration between art collector and artist, mentor and student,
and the impact of both on each other as their relationship blossomed and then withered because of AIDS.
9. THE WITNESSES Gay French writer-director Andre Techine’s movingly observed character piece about the impact of a beautiful
Adonis on a group of friends in France at the outset of the AIDS crisis in the early 80s. The sun drenched exteriors of the film belied
the terrible price the insidious pandemic would soon have on the world at large.
10. THE LIFE OF REILLY Gay actor-director Charles Nelson Reilly lived an extraordinary life long before he became the Match Game
game show panelist that he’s remembered for today. This one-man show is a fascinating, funny, heartbreaking tour of his life and
luckily was lovingly recorded live on stage by director Barry Poltermann not long before Reilly’s death.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: SHELTER, a gay character drama/coming out story about West Coast surfers from out writer-director Jonah
Markowitz and ANOTHER GAY SEQUEL were also popular with audiences and just two of the relatively few gay indies to actually get
theatrical releases in 2008.
Kate and Leo (Winslet and DiCaprio) are back together 11 years after setting millions of hearts aflame (including mine) as the
doomed lovers in Titanic. But it’s unlikely that anyone will want to romanticize the unfortunate couple they play this time out. There
are no feel good “king of the world” catch phrases in Revolutionary Road, a cautionary tale of suburban ennui. Instead, one
character plainly states the theme of the movie when he comments acridly, “Plenty of people are on to the emptiness, but it takes
real guts to see the hopelessness.” In place of Celine Dion wailing on the soundtrack over the Celtic pipes we get Thomas
Newman's signature icy percussion, barren piano and strings. If there is lovemaking it springs from guilt and desperation, rather
than passion, intimacy or desire. But believe it or not, there are thematic similarities in this new film and Titanic – if one looks closer
– from American Beauty-Road to Perdition director Sam Mendes.
Based on a novel by cult favorite Richard Yates (the high minded Sloan Wilson of his day), the story of Revolutionary Road is set in a
world not unlike the one inhabited by the characters in Titanic. We are stuck in the conservative 1950s and if the trappings of the
characters are not quite as first class as those of Titanic, the social conventions are just as rigid in the abhorrent world of bland
suburbia lavishly portrayed in the film. The pristine surroundings inhabited by Frank and April Wheeler encapsulated by their picture
perfect home on Revolutionary Road out on Route 12 are no less monstrous a symbol of their world than the vast ocean liner was of
Rose and Jack Dawson in Titanic. But this time it’s the structure, representing the achievement of the conventional hopes and
dreams Frank and April buy into that remains intact while the more ominous conventionality and liability it also represents slowly
drowns their relationship (or capsizes, or crashes like an ocean liner striking an iceberg, etc. – feel free to fill in your own metaphoric
The roles are reversed, this time it’s Kate who is the risk taker, yearning to be free of the social constraints while Leo plays the more
cautious one, hemmed in by responsibility and laziness. When April suggests that the couple sell everything and move to Paris
Frank at first sparks to the idea but when the exhilaration fades, reality sets in and the stage is set for awful consequences. As in
Little Children, Winslet plays a trapped housewife but there is no hunky Patrick Wilson for a hot affair to ease the tension though
neighbors and secretaries aplenty are available for both she and DiCaprio (a bedroom scene between Frank and his secretary has
similarities to TV’s retro themed “Mad Men” but none of its fun). A sexual dalliance won’t fix what’s wrong with April. Only Frank, in
the male dominated world of the 1950s, has the power to do that by releasing her from her cage and as April becomes more and
more desperate the film descends along with her.
The movie’s really a psychological horror story in which the characters, especially the wife, are broken down as surely as the spinster
Eleanor Vance played by Julie Harris in The Haunting. Like poor Eleanor, who the haunted house wants to help “come home,” April’s
powerful spirit will not be able to overcome the suffocating conventions and ultimate cowardice of her husband engulfing her (and as
in The Haunting, the perfect house stands ready to trap another couple in its seemingly perfect web).
The film turns on a scene in which Kathy Bates (another holdover from Titanic), who memorably plays the couple’s realtor and her
husband bring over their grown son John (Michael Shannon), a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic for a “social call.” Shannon, who
is funny and sad and moving in his two scenes, plays a character so fed up with the conventions of the era they’ve driven him nuts.
He’s the truth teller of the piece, the author’s voice, the physical embodiment of suburban crazy who speaks the “hopeless” line
quoted above and whose insights April wants to escape.
Directing his wife for the first time, Mendes elicits a strong performance from Winslet who is matched in intensity by DiCaprio (their
last confrontation and her knuckling under are powerful, frightening and depressing). Both vividly demonstrate the hysteria just
beneath the polite veneer (as does Bates). The film is as suffocating to watch as its subject matter and has none of the suburban
crazy fun of American Beauty or the dark beauty of Road to Perdition, his masterpiece. It’s a hermetically sealed movie that gets under
your skin just as The Hours and Far From Heaven did but it left me in a funk as all these kinds of emotionally punishing movies do in
which suburban ennui and repression overcome their characters.
I was born in the mid-fifties the time period in which the events unfold in Revolutionary Road and I grew up in the world it portrays.
Perhaps the consequences the characters are forced to endure, the dashed dreams of Frank and April, hit a little too close to home
for a product of 1950s and 60s suburbia like myself (arguments heard through the walls late at night, you know). I appreciate the
filmmaker’s desire to present a story with such emotional intensity and the actors’ willingness to go down the dark ladder for him but
I also readily admit that this reunion of Kate and Leo will never hold a candle to their first onscreen match up for me. I much prefer
the phony, ersatz exuberance, junky old time romance of Titanic. I’ve seen it at least a dozen times and I’m going to book return
passage again right now because, clichéd as that song is, it’s also true – my heart, indeed has gone on and on and on with that
movie. Yes, yes, I laud the achievement that has been wrought with Revolutionary Road but I don’t expect I’ll be in the mood to
experience its bleak sentiments again anytime soon.
Say Goodbye 2008, Hello 2009:
2008 Best GLBT Movies-Revolutionary Road
Expanded Edition of 12-31-08 Windy City Times Column
By Richard Knight, Jr.