The Gay Canon

My geeky, Pokemon Go loving friend Mick came out not too long ago, and I got the idea to make him a list of my personal “gay canon” of films and TV (with a few books thrown in for good measure).  I sent him this list on the occasion of this past weekend’s Pride celebration in his hometown of Manchester, England.

Armie Hammer and Timothy Chalamet in Call Me By Your Name

Philadelphia (1993)—It may play as outdated now, but Jonathan Demme’s drama, the first studio movie about AIDS, is a significant time capsule and features a terrific Oscar winning performance by Tom Hanks as a gay lawyer who sues his firm for firing him when they learn he has the disease.  Denzel Washington is equally strong as the initially homophobic lawyer who represents him on the case, and it’s a compelling and undeniably affecting tear jerker.  The soundtrack, featuring Bruce Springsteen’s award winning ballad “Streets of Philadelphia” as well as Neil Young, Peter Gabriel, and the Indigo Girls, is also terrific.

Laura Linney and Olympia Dukakis in the original Tales of the City

Tales of the City (1993-2019)—Armistead Maupin’s saga of the lives and loves of straight and queer San Franciscans isn’t just one of my favorite gay series, it’s one of my favorite things, period.  The original 70s-set miniseries brilliantly captured the excitement and uncertainty of living on your own for the first time, as Mary Anne Singleton (a terrific Laura Linney) moves into a magical apartment complex lorded over by sage transgender landlady Anna Madrigal (Olympia Dukakis, sublime) and becomes fast friends with adorably wide-eyed Michael “Mouse” Tolliver and acerbic, frizzy haired omnisexual Mona, who memorably melts down in a board meeting with a snooty client by bellowing “crotch, crotch, CROTCH!!!!”  The three original series—Tales, More Tales, and Further Tales—possess an irresistible mixture of soapy shenanigans and genuine heart.  Later, un-filmed books in the series included Babycakes, the first work of fiction to address AIDS, Significant Others, Sure of You, Michael Tolliver Lives, and Mary Anne in Autumn. All are worth reading, and this year’s Tales of the City, while not a direct adaptation of any of them, incorporates elements and characters while perfectly updating the franchise for the 21st century.  (Just try not to think about how Linney and the other returning players are nowhere near old enough to have aged forty years since the originals.)  The newest installment pays particular care to the trans characters, including casting trans actress Jen Richards as a young Ana Madrigal in a captivating flashback episode.


The Broken Hearts Club (2000)—A friend once mocked this film, written and directed by future TV mega producer Greg Berlanti, as the story of a young man who becomes enmeshed in a world of shallow West Hollywood gayness.  There’s some truth to that, but Broken Hearts Club is still an entertaining, occasionally affecting, and trailblazing comedy about the lives and loves of a group of gay friends.  There’s an inspired bit of casting with TV Superman Dean Cain as a man-eating lothario, plus lots of retroactive recognition with Timothy Olyphant, Justin Theroux, Zach Braff, and Billy Porter in the mix.  John Mahoney shines as the mother hen of this squabbling but ultimately loving and supportive group.


Queer As Folk (2000-2005)—Let me start by admitting I never watched the British original—set in Manchester, appropriately enough—and have heard it’s great, and maybe superior.  But QAF, as fans in the know called it, was an endearing if occasionally dopey and maddening soap opera that portrays “boys becoming men” in that well known American gay capitol… Pittsburgh.  The whole cast is great, but Peter Paige is transcendent as unapologetically queeny Emmett, and Robert Gant is charming and extremely sexy as HIV positive professor Ben.

John Cameron Mitchell as Hedwig

Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)—John Cameron Mitchell directs and stars in this brilliant, intensely cinematic rock musical about a “little wisp of a girlie boy” who escapes East Germany via a botched sex change operation for the promise of a better life in America.  Abandoned by his would be sugar daddy, Hedwig falls in love with Tommy, a teenage Jesus freak, then winds up stalking him across the country when Tommy gets famous off the songs they co-created and embarks on a national tour.  The songs are terrific, the performances are outstanding, and one liners abound in this sardonically funny, moving film.  It’s considered somewhat problematic in these more enlightened times, but I think its genuine heart and innovation outweigh any such concerns.  Mitchell has gone on record stating he doesn’t consider it a representation of the transgender experience, a sentiment with which many would agree.

Mary Louise Parker and Justin Kirk are some of the disparate souls whose worlds collide in Angels in America

Angels in America (2003)—Mike Nichols’s made for HBO adaptation of Tony Kushner’s epic “Gay Fantasia on National Themes” puts most feature films to shame for sheer ambition and cinematic art.  An indomitable cast led by Al Pacino and Meryl Streep breathe life into this elaborate work of magical realism, which dramatizes the anguish and inspiration of the AIDS crisis and a particular moment in queer Manhattan.  It’s a really extraordinary and engrossing production.  Related: I’ve always wanted to see the two part play live. Maybe you’ll get the chance sometime.


Brokeback Mountain (2005)—Ang Lee’s heartbreaking shoulda-been Best Picture is certainly depressing, but it’s a sublimely crafted and essential film in queer cinema history.  Heath Ledger was rightly praised for his tormented ranch hand Ennis Del Mar, but the entire cast is first rate, including Jake Gyllenhaal as his lover Jack Twist (swoon), and Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway as their long-suffering wives.  The cinematography and Oscar winning music are excellent, too.  Related: Annie Proulx’s gorgeous short story.

The L Word stars Leisha Hailey and Kathering Moennig

The L Word (2004-2009)—The trailblazing saga of the lives and loves of lesbians—and occasional straight women and trans folk—in very glamorous Los Angeles could be all over the place, but it was never boring and often moving.  A strong, almost entirely female cast (many writers, directors, and crew members were women as well) portrayed women’s struggles with sex, relationships, monogamy, family, and, um, the high stakes world of lesbian poker (?!).  There were some missteps—the cynical and unnecessary killing off of a beloved character, iffy trans storylines—but this was still an addicting and often rewarding series. The L Word: Generation Q , a “woke” revival with original cast members Jennifer Beals, Leisha Hailey, and Katherine Moennig (my favorite character, womanizer with a heart of gold Shane) is coming in December, so cram now!

Left to right: Emile Hirsch, Kelvin Han Yee, Sean Penn, Alison Pill, and Joseph Cross in Milk

Milk (2008)—One of the best biopics ever made, Gus Van Sant’s dramatization of the brief career of America’s first openly gay elected official is perfect in every aspect.  The performances are uniformly excellent: Sean Penn rightly won an Oscar as Harvey Milk, a darkly compelling Josh Brolin plays troubled assassin Dan White, and a luminous Emile Hirsch brings sass to budding activist Cleve Jones.  The film makes great use of San Francisco locations and balances character with story.  Despite a tragic ending, it remains buoyantly hopeful and inspiring.  Related: Randy Shilts’ book The Mayor of Castro Street and Cleve Jones’ memoirs Stitching a Revolution and When We Rise.


Call Me By Your Name (2017)—There was backlash and criticism of the age disparity in this celebrated gay romance, but the beauty and eroticism of Luca Guadagnino’s film is undeniable.  Timothy Chalamet is sexy and utterly convincing as the teen who finds himself inextricably drawn to Armie Hammer’s hunky grad student one sumptuous summer in Northern Italy.  Dad Michael Stuhlbarg’s speech to his heartbroken son is one for the ages, and Sufjan Stevens’ songs, as well as a needle drop of the Psychedelic Furs’ “Love My Way,” provide the perfect accompaniment.

Left to right: Ryan Jamaal Swain, Angel Bismark Curiel, Indya Moore, and MJ Rodriguez on Pose

Pose (2018-Present) — I consider this the best thing Ryan Murphy has ever done.  He and creative partner Brad Falchuk were smart in teaming up with Steven Canals to offer an authentic point of view on the world of Ballroom culture.  Pose applies somewhat formulaic, crowd pleasing tropes to characters that have never before been the center of a narrative.  The record-breaking number of trans, queer, and people of color in the cast make this a show that finally centers non-whites in the LGBT community.  The series also serves as a history lesson, especially as it delves into the devastating AIDS epidemic and dramatizes real-life incidents like a “die-in” at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Related: the coming of age musical Saturday Church, co-starring Pose’s MJ Rodriguez and Indya Moore.

TFF2019 Review: Pilot Season

Julia Lindon in Lady Liberty

This year’s Tribeca Film Festival Pilot Season features five different television pilots, and with one exception, they’re all terrific.  The first is particularly exciting for LGBT audiences: Lady Liberty, starring Julia Lindon as Shea, a young aspiring comedienne in New York City.  Shea works for an established comedian (Jason Sudeikis), but is afraid to tell him about her own ambitions; she’s also struggling to define her own sexuality after an intense affair with a longtime friend (Rebecca Henderson).  A chance encounter with a beautiful young lesbian (Karen Eilbacher) in an Uber pool leads to her first night out with “gay gals,” and it’s clear that Miller’s taking her first thrilling steps towards self-actualization.  Lindon, who created the series, is tremendously appealing and relatable, and the first episode is wonderfully real and authentic.  I think this could become the next Broad City.

Anastasia Leddick in Halfway

Another, distinctly different strong female is at the center of Halfway, about a woman’s struggle to re-enter society, and reconnect with the daughter she abandoned, after prison.  Anastasia Leddick is mesmerizing as Krystal: she’s got an incredible punk look, and is utterly convincing as a woman who’s been through the ringer.  The first episode is equal turns funny and dramatic, and left me wanting to binge.

Elizabeth De Razzo in Unimundo 45

The rest of the program is comprised of DC Noir, a strong, gritty slice of urban life; the goofy but promising Unimundo 45, about a plus-sized Latinx news producer (Elizabeth De Razzo) looking to inspire her family and friends in the wake of Trump’s election; and the faintly obnoxious Awokened.  The latter was the only entry I had no desire to see more of—it focuses on entitled, irritating millennials and lots of forced wackiness, and it retreads ground better explored by the critically underrated Enlightened.


Pilot Season screens as part of the Tribeca Film Festival.  Visit tribecafilm.com for more info.

Mutant & Magical Boy—Episode 09: And I’ll Form the Head

Episode 9 – And I’ll Form The Head (Voltron Legendary Defenders Review) by Mutant & Magical Boy

There’s no shortage of thunder cats in this episode as we gag on ALL things Voltron. Featuring special guest Ashley/Melanin Popin’ Paladin, we dive into cosmic war Star Wars wishes it was. (That was read. fight us.) The sexiest villain you’ll ever know, Prince Lotor and some literal black girl magic.

Welcome to episode 9 of Mutant & Magical Boy: The AfroQueer Guide to Pop Culture! There’s no shortage of thunder cats in this episode as we gag on all things Voltron. Featuring special guest Ashley/Melanin Popin’ Paladin, we dive into cosmic war Star Wars wishes it was. (That was a read. Fight us.) The sexiest villain you’ll ever know, Prince Lotor and some literal Black girl magic. While the tea spillage is hot, we source some real life racial ramifications seen with the two warring civilizations, the Galra and the Alteans and the reveal is a galactic death drop!

Mutant & Magical Boy—Episode 08: The Category Is Pride

It’s tea time, ladies! In what might be our gayest episode yet (don’t @ us), we’re gagging on FX’s new queer spectacular, Pose. Is it 10s, 10s across the board? Well, you’ll have to listen, hunty! Do the queens serve you life, death, and glitter on a platter? Bih, you already know. Happy Pride!

 

[INSERT EXPLODING GLITTER RAINBOW HERE]


XO,
The gayest blerds you’ll ever meet ,
Mutant & Magical Boy

Review: Pose

The largest ever cast of trans actors on a scripted series assembles for something both entertaining and resonant.

 

The Pose screening held at New York City’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center hosted a wonderfully eclectic crowd. Refreshingly diverse (my partner estimated that only about 15% of the audience was white), the audience included numerous trans folks and people of color as well as celebrity drag kid Desmond Is Amazing, who dazzled the audience with a brief vogue routine just before the episode started. I mention all of this for a few reasons. The program’s cinematic look translated effortlessly to the big screen, no surprise considering co-creator Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, credited here alongside African American Bronx native Steve Canals, brought a polished visual aesthetic to their Glee, American Horror Story, and American Crime Story franchises. The audience’s response was rapturous at times—the ball scenes may as well have been happening in the room for how enthusiastically everyone applauded, and audible gasps were heard when villainous rival Mother Elektra (Dominique Jackson) called protagonist Blanca (MJ Rodriguez) “beast.” This would seem to indicate that the community being portrayed was satisfied with the depiction, a genuine concern when this show was announced. (Because I love me some Ryan Murphy, but he can be problematic as hell, especially where racial and gender identity politics are concerned.) The community center venue and carefully cultivated crowd indicated canny marketing, to be sure, but also an honest desire to reach out to and include the people this program is meant to celebrate in addition to the usual suspects: i.e. white, mostly male critics. (Guilty as charged.)

 

Based on the premiere alone, Pose has huge potential. The series explores the Manhattan ball culture of the 1980s, a world made famous by the documentary Paris Is Burning. The first episode largely works as a self-contained experience, while also setting up characters and conflict for subsequent installments. In the stunning opening sequence, we meet Elektra, Blanca, and the other members of the House of Abundance and immediately sense a conflict between the first two women; the scene quickly shifts to a museum where the group raids an exhibition of authentic royal finery and manages to win a nearby ball competition before being led away in handcuffs. “And that is how you do a Ball!” Billy Porter’s Pray Tell breathlessly declares. Cue Pose logo and enthusiastic cheers from the crowd.

 

Cut to Allentown, Pennsylvania, where Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain) dreams of becoming a dancer before being beaten and literally thrown out of the house by his homophobic father and Christian mother. The expected caring mom versus cruel dad dynamic is shattered the instant she slaps Damon across the face. He winds up on the streets of New York City around the same time Blanca gets diagnosed with HIV and decides to leave the House of Abundance to form a house of her own. Needless to say, their paths soon cross, with Blanca impressed with Damon’s dancing. Swain is a terrific dancer, and tremendously appealing, if a bit green as an actor—something that could be said of numerous Glee cast members who subsequently improved over the years. Rodriguez, meanwhile, is excellent and imbues her role with real pathos and conviction. She sells at times on-the-nose dialogue by bringing out its truth.

 

Some of the character’s experiences—for example, explaining that the knowledge she’ll die of AIDS is at least one certainty in her otherwise uncertain existence—are so specific that they surely came from a creator’s actual life. Blanca and Damon’s burgeoning family dynamic soon grows to include Angel (Indya Moore), who’s fed up with the House of Abundance and the painful rejection she experiences applying for a job, and in her burgeoning romance with Stan (Murphy stalwart Evan Peters), a Trump executive with a wife (Kate Mara) and kids. Stan picks Angel up while she’s working the street, and their encounter in a hotel room is touching, funny, and incredibly specific. It also gives us our first taste of Moore’s considerable acting chops. Having co-starred in the trans themed musical Saturday Church, the actress here takes center stage. She’s beautiful and by turns confident, insecure, sassy and hilarious. (“Can we talk?” Stan asks while “I’m Not in Love” purrs over the radio. “Of course. It’s my second best skill,” Angel declares.) It’s a three dimensional character, and if there’s any justice in the world it will be a star-making role for Moore. Speaking of stars, Porter inches closer to an EGOT with his host/fashion designer character, a sort of fairy godfather to Blanca and her group. He steals every scene he’s in, no small feat considering he’s usually acting alongside elaborately dressed voguers.

 

Of course, it wouldn’t be a ball show without balls, and Pose has them in abundance (pardon the pun). The choreography and extravagant costumes are exhilarating, including a show stopping solo Damon performs to Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody.” It’s an eleventh-hour dance school audition secured by Blanca, who replies to the dean’s “who are you again?” with “I’m his mother.”

 

As the premiere ended to the sounds of Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill”—the soundtrack to Pose is amazing—there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. There are a lot of gay shows and movies, but not many of them feel queer, and they too often foreground white characters and experiences. Not so this series, which rewards audiences hungry for representation and looks to be an illuminating and engrossing experience. It’s about time.