Screen times: B.A.R. film coverage through 50 years, part 1

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Tuesday March 30, 2021
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'Cruising' explored in thee Feb 28, 1980 B.A.R.
'Cruising' explored in thee Feb 28, 1980 B.A.R.

It wasn't until the third issue of the newly published Bay Area Reporter in May 1971 that that the rationale for having a film section in the newspaper was revealed by its first critic Terry Allan Smith:

"The editors felt in the area of in-depth commentary on homosexually-relevant films, there is too little being published. In the Establishment news media, the often-present homosexual critic, paranoiac about exposing himself, is the most destructive of all: dismissing the homosexually-relevant film as trash, or if he finds it impossible to deny its obvious quality, scrutinizing it until he finds a flaw, however miniscule. For this reason, it is the policy of the Bay Area Reporter to devote its film column to this much neglected area."

Smith continued: "However, there are films, which, though they have no direct homosexual relevance, are relevant indirectly, relevant by association with relationships common to both the homosexual and heterosexual ways of life. It is my own personal policy to review only those films which I feel are worth discussing in depth in the hope such reviews might whet the appetite of you, the reader, and motivate you into becoming you, the viewer.

"I also see these commentaries as a sort of silent dialogue between you and me. But there has been some praise of late by other critics writing in homosexual periodicals, of films which by the very receipt of such praise, do more damage to the homosexual than these critics are capable of managing. Condoning such warped views of the homosexual as those films convey must be the product of a non-thinking mind that is under the ridiculous assumption he is perceptive. 'A little bit of knowledge in the hands of a fool,' is the applicable phrase."

Smith is quoted in-depth because unwittingly he expressed the mission statement for films that the B.A.R. has followed in its 50-year history: discussion by an openly LGBTQ critic about either LGBTQ films or non-LGBTQ movies that have relevance for queer lives. And to critique films with negative, stereotypical or one-dimensional portraits of queer people, or which promote invisibility (removing or ignoring LGBTQ content when it should have been included).

What is also implicit in Smith's comments is that critics, like audiences, go to movies because they want to see their lives validated and affirmed on screen, even in all its ordinariness. They desire to have their identities reinforced but also challenged and expanded, to be recognized for their inherent respectability and right to exist, yet also to combat inequality and injustice. One can say that the B.A.R. in its first 50 years has been faithful to this statement of purpose first proposed by Smith.

'Death and Venice' in the Sept. 15, 1979 B.A.R.  

Scene one: fade in
1971 was an auspicious year for LGBTQ films in that they were the first ones to embrace the liberation ethos unleashed at Stonewall. Fortune and Men's Eyes, based on the acclaimed stage play, centered on homosexuality in a Canadian prison. It had its faults but it did focus on the power dynamics and gender roles of the inmates, and was among the first films to present gay men as real human beings, not stereotypes, a point reinforced by Smith in his review.

Death in Venice, based on the Thomas Mann novella, concerns the composer Aschenbach's lust for a beautiful 17-year-old boy, and Smith discerned a potential gay classic.

The problematic drag soap opera, Some of My Best Friends, dissects the travails of denizens in a gay bar espousing a ghetto mentality but a tentative connection is made between any self-hatred with political oppression.

But the jewel of that year was John Schlesinger's Sunday Bloody Sunday, still one of the greatest LGBTQ films ever made, detailing the love triangle between a gay Jewish doctor, a straight career woman, and the bisexual artist they both love. Schlesinger was gay, though not out at that time, yet the movie has all the hallmarks of a queer viewpoint in that for the first time, the character's sexuality is not the focal point. There's no angst about being gay, a revolutionary perspective that rarely appeared again in films for at least fifteen years.

Again, all four films were profiled in reviews by Smith, who in that seminal year, reviewed mostly heterosexual films, trying to find gay-related themes such as male bonding in Cassavette's Husbands and a ten-year retrospective analysis of Lawrence of Arabia: A Homosexual Christ Figure.

Most of the B.A.R. film reviews in the 1970s were of popular straight movies, even though there were many gay characters (i.e. the gay bank robber in Dog Day Afternoon) but few mainstream gay films, though underground art-house ones like Pink Narcissus (1971) were discussed. The murder of gay movie actor Sal Mineo and the subsequent trial of his assailant was a major story through the '70s.

'La Cage aux Folles' in the July 19, 1979 B.A.R.  

Two stand-out gay films in this period showcased by the B.A.R.: gay director Wolfgang Peterson's The Consequence (1977), about two former gay prisoners, now lovers, trying to build a life together; and the first gay box office smash, La Cage Aux Folles (1978), a French farce about a gay couple, the owner of a nightclub and his drag-performing partner, who must convince their son's prospective conservative in-laws they are straight.

It must be mentioned that both mainstream and LGBTQ movies were uncommon from the 1970s through the late 1980s, so when one appeared regardless of quality or any pre-opening reviews, it was a significant media event. The B.A.R. often announced where people could buy tickets in advance for an upcoming LGBTQ movie which created buzz and excitement (July 19, 1979).

Livin' in the '80s
1980's contentious Cruising kicked off the new decade with an explosive bang, in that it incurred opposition from LGBTQ people who saw it as homophobic. It concerns a cop investigating a killer of homosexuals, who stabbed and castrated them. The policeman travels through the 'depraved' leather scene and we are led to believe this contact with the gay underworld results not only him becoming gay, but after presumably solving the crime, becoming a murderer of gay men himself. (Feb 28, 1980)

The cast of 'Making Love' in the B.A.R.'s Feb. 4, 1982 issue.  

Homosexuality was presented not only as contagious, but menacing and brutal. The B.A.R. extensively covered the protests and controversy, capped by a justifiably scathing review, pointing out the film had no redeeming qualities, that it glorified senseless violence with no denunciation of how cops mistreated gay men, or anything substantive vis-à-vis straight men's inability to come to terms with homosexuality.

Another feature of this decade was mainstream movies slowly and tentatively dealing with homosexuality or at minimum to make the unconvincing argument that gay people are the same as straights, climaxing in the 'landmark' film Making Love (1982), about the coming out of a rich white doctor to his beautiful straight wife announcing he's in love with a male architect. Notably, it was the first time a gay couple was permitted a happy ending. The film was heavily promoted and a huge media event that the B.A.R. followed. (Feb 4, 1982)

There were other affirming LGBTQ films during the dark Reagan years, such as: My Beautiful Launderette (1986) in which both main character's homosexuality was incidental as they tried to open an elegant laundromat amidst dealing with race and class issues in Thatcherite England.

Other films that were reviewed include Personal Best (1982) about lesbians training for the Olympics; Prick Up Your Ears (1987) a bio film on satirical gay playwright Joe Orton, who was murdered by his jealous lover; Maurice (1987) based on E.M. Forster's posthumous novel of a gay love story with a happy ending that defied class, made by the gay couple independent film team Merchant-Ivory; Another Country (1984) recounting the gay Guy Burgess 1950s spy scandal linking homosexuality with repressive politics.

Donna Deitch's Desert Hearts (1986) depicted two lesbians falling in love during the 1950s, and became the most successful lesbian movie up to that time. Harvey Fierstein's Torch Song Trilogy (1988) recorded the life and travails of a NYC drag queen/torch singer on and off stage. All these films received ample B.A.R. coverage, often interviewing the writers, directors, and stars.

an ad for 'Parting Glances' in a March 1988 B.A.R.  

Visualizing the virus
The other major trend in the 1980s was films about AIDS. The first independent film to mention AIDS was Buddies (1985), starring a gay man who becomes a volunteer friend to another gay man dying of AIDS in a hospital. It was written and directed by one of the first openly gay directors, Arthur Bressan, who created only gay-themed films (i.e. Gay USA, about the 1977 Pride parades across the country).

It was an enormous B.A.R. media event, as this film even preceded the much-discussed first TV movie on AIDS, An Early Frost, later that year. Arthur Bressan was interviewed in what became his final movie.

Parting Glances (1986) written and directed by Bill Sheridan (who also later died of AIDS), was a realistic look at urban gay life and the impact of AIDS on the LGBTQ community by focusing on a gay male couple, one of whose ex-boyfriends, is dying of AIDS. The B.A.R. review presciently commented it might become one of the top films about AIDS and 35 years later (March 6, 1986). Many critics rate it as one of the best movies ever made about AIDS (note: Mike Nichols' Angels in America (2003) was an HBO cable television miniseries).

However, the most remembered films about AIDS, both mainstream Hollywood productions, appeared in the following decade. The beloved low-budget Longtime Companion showcased the impact of AIDS on a close-knit group of friends throughout the 1980s, and though the B.A.R. critic was not thrilled with it, he included an interview with director Norman Rene, who later died of AIDS.

The biggest AIDS film of the '90s was Philadelphia, a big budget Hollywood feature, directed by Jonathan Demme, which won Tom Hanks an Oscar as a gay lawyer with AIDS fighting for his job against corporate discrimination.

Though much anticipated, the B.A.R. critic was disappointed as he found the film riddled with clichés and a lack of intimacy between Hanks and his male partner, played by Antonio Banderas. In a separate article he wondered how much had really changed in Hollywood's depiction of LGBTQ people.

One major event in the 1980s that received major attention was the filming of the documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, which interviewed many San Franciscans who knew, worked, and loved the slain supervisor. The film was given a rapturous B.A.R. review in November 1984 when it played at the Castro Theater. It was front page news in (March 1985) when it won the Academy Award for Best Documentary with the banner headline, 'Harvey Milk Wins First Gay Oscar,' providing reactions from local Castro Street residents and injecting much needed hope in the middle of the devastating AIDS crisis.

Gay '90s: Catherine did it
The B.A.R. media event of the 1990s was the 1991/1992 protests surrounding the making and release of the film Basic Instinct, the story of a police investigation over the murder of a rock star with the primary suspect, a female bisexual psychopath. Although praised for its groundbreaking treatment of women's sexuality, the LGBTQ community resented its depiction of queer people as murderous villains.

In a sense the protests were the culmination of Hollywood's decade-long poor treatment of LGBTQ people, magnificently summarized by the late gay journalist Vito Russo (profiled several times in the B.A.R), in his classic book, The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies.

April 1991 coverage of the SF 'Basic Instinct' protests.  

The reporting done by the B.A.R. would be the height of film coverage in its 50-year history, mainly because the protests occurred right here in San Francisco as the film was being shot.

Ground Zero was the Rawhide II Country Western bar owned by Ray Chalker, who also published The Sentinel, a rival gay newspaper to the B.A.R. Despite that competitiveness, the B.A.R. reported on the vandalism done to the Rawhide and the death threats sent to Chalker. Eventually the producer of the movie would have protesters (especially Queer Nation) arrested and during the course of the disturbances, and B.A.R. journalist Dennis Conkin was roughly slammed by a member of the film crew and demanded $5000 for anti-gay bashing.

The Bay Area Reporter also pushed against the counter-argument that the protests were censorship in the streets and a threat to future movies shooting in San Francisco, a mainstream media mantra. However, the protesters' goal was not to close down the production, but make substantive changes to the script, which despite a successful meeting with the screenwriter willing to alter the screenplay, the producer and director vetoed the emendations.

The protesters considered their efforts a success because it brought attention to the motion picture industry's long history of anti-lesbian and anti-gay bashing/homophobia and also raised the question of whether the city should be contractually entangled as an active partner in making oppressive films like this one.

Thirty years later, we can see this controversy as a tipping point in Hollywood's depiction of LGBTQ people, which though hardly perfect, did slowly improve in the intervening years, using advisors, focus groups, and warnings/advice from GLAAD, a media watchdog community organization (heavily publicized in the B.A.R), to avoid the mistakes made in Basic Instinct.

Read part 2 in next week's issue.