Welcome to Screen Gems, our weekend dive into queer and queer-adjacent titles of the past that deserve a watch or a re-watch.
The Disney Queen: Howard
Director Don Hahn (Waking Sleeping Beauty) helmed this beautiful 2020 documentary, a portrait of a queer artist, and a dear friend. Howard recounts the life and career of Howard Ashman, the brilliant writer/lyricist behind such musical classics as The Little Mermaid, Little Shop of Horrors, Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast. For the first time, Hahn (and by proxy, Disney) dive into how Ashman’s life as a gay man in the 1980s influenced his work, and gave birth to some of the most popular songs and movies of the era.
Howard features interviews with Ashman’s family, his longtime boyfriend Bill Lauch, and various collaborators including composer Alan Menkin, producer Jeffery Katzenberg and actresses Jodi Benson (the voice of Ariel) & Paige O’Hara (the voice of Belle). Through their recollections, home movies and Disney archival footage, Hahn sketches Ashman as a complicated, if proud, individual who didn’t hesitate to let his experience as a gay man or elements of queer culture pop up in his work. Among the film’s revelations: Ashman suggested the design of Ursula in The Little Mermaid as a caricature of drag icon Divine. His former collaborators also suspect that Beauty and the Beast‘s mob song “Kill the Beast” grew out of Ashman’s resentment of growing homophobia in the 1980s and the persecution of AIDS patients.
Hahn also doesn’t hesitate to recount Ashman’s notorious tantrums–violent rants that often left those in his presence horrified. Above all, Howard argues that music lost a titan when Ashman died of AIDS in 1991. Having seen the film, we can’t help but agree. Imagine another 30 years of songs on par with “Under the Sea,” “Suddenly Seymour” or “Be Our Guest.” Now that would be something to sing about.
Gay Days Anaheim runs September 17-19.
Streams on Disney+.