Read now, cry later
credit: Netflix/Searchlight Pictures

Here come the films with queer elements, all grabbing for a golden trophy of a naked man. I say, bring them on.

Bayard Rustin is “free at last”

In Netflix’s Rustin—which was the opening night film at New York’s LGBTQ+ festival NewFest–civil rights activist Bayard Rustin is described as “a shark trapped in a shot glass”; he exuded that much ferocious energy.

Rustin was instrumental in planning the 1963 March on Washington, which brought out 250,000 protestors, peacefully demanding equality for Black people. He also happened to be gay, which complicated things, since his life was painfully spent battling two oppressions at once.

The film—directed by George C. Wolfe and produced by the Obamas—doesn’t attempt a biopic, but rather focuses on the time of the March, when Rustin is determined to make a national impact, while also trying to persuade Martin Luther King (Aml Ameen) to stand by him despite his strategically revived sexuality scandals.

In the title role, Colman Domingo delivers, with clipped, cultured talk that makes even the often speechifying dialogue sound believable. Rustin has been shunted aside by history for too long (despite a bit presence in 2014’s Selma). No longer is he made to take out the trash, both literally and figuratively.

Bening and Foster swim to more nominations

Another Netflix film at NewFest centered on a fierce female hero–lesbian marathon swimmer Diana Nyad, who made a successful fifth attempt in 2013, at age 64, to swim all the way from Cuba to Florida. (Today, this would be Ron DeSantis’s worst nightmare.)

At first, the film about this feat—Nyad, directed by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi–threatens to turn into a feel-good, mature ladies’ answer to Rocky, but it becomes so much more than that. It’s about the impact of friendship and the need to reach out to others to live out your own dream, while being sensitive to theirs. Interestingly, the lead characters’ lesbianism is not dwelled on–it’s just part of who they are, which is exactly the kind of movie I’ve long fought for.

Annette Bening is ferocious as the determined, single-minded Nyad and Jodie Foster (finally playing an out lesbian like herself) is level headed as Nyad’s friend Beth (who once briefly dated the swimmer), devoted enough to keep quelling her qualms about feeling like a cog in Nyad’s machine. Both actors are perfection (as is Rhys Ifans as their knowledgeable skipper) and there’s sensational underwater photography, including fantasy excursions and scary stuff too, all set to the soundtrack in Nyad’s mind.

After looking at water for two hours, I was amazed to feel wet at the end. I was drenched from sobbing!!!

Strange fruit…

Another queer bond led to healing in NewFest’s closing night attraction–All of Us Strangers, a potent romantic fantasy courtesy of gay, British writer/director Andrew Haigh (45 Years, Weekend), based on the novel Strangers by Taichi Yamada.

In an otherwise unpopulated London housing complex, middle-aged Adam (Andrew Scott) and mysterious neighbor Harry (Paul Mescal) have an affair, which somehow prompts Adam on a mental trek to revisit his parents, who died in a car crash 30 years ago, but who appear to him just as they once were. Adam seizes the surreal opportunity to come out to mom (Claire Foy) and explain that being gay is not a big deal the way it was back when he was growing up. Mom isn’t thrilled, but she and dad (Jamie Bell) come around and they all work things out lovingly, at the same time that Harry proves to be a living rock of support (and hot in bed).

The fact that neither Adam or Harry ever look at their phones or focus on anything other than their relationship (and Adam’s issues and fantasies) suggests that their romance is whimsy too. But as sketchy as the plot may be, it’s executed with an aching intensity and emerges as a hypnotically personal film about the power of love. Again, tissues might be required.

Bradley Cooper conducts a movie about a conductor

Without sentimentality, Maestro tells the turbulent tale of composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein’s relationship with music,  his wife, and various boys. Directed by and starring Bradley Cooper, it captures a time when gay was everywhere, but hardly talked about; when gay sex was a guilty pleasure one enjoyed before either creeping back to the spouse or simply inviting the trick to move in for a while and holding your breath.

The film—which veers between color and black-and-white sequences–is a complex portrait of a man who admits, “I love too much! What can I say?” Cooper is terrific in the part—his performance is “on the nose”–and Carey Mulligan is good as Felicia Montealegre, the Costa-Rican-Chilean actor who marries Lenny and has to dodge his boyfriends left and right. (“If you’re not careful,” she tells Leonard, “you’re going to die a lonely old queen.”)

The two most memorable sequences have Leonard and Felicia being pretend-swept into a ballet from On The Town (He ends up cavorting with sailors while she looks confused) and one where Leonard conducts Mahler’s “Resurrection” in a thrillingly accurate fashion.

Oscar-wise, Mulligan could be the Reese Witherspoon here, but Cooper has the better odds (for Best Actor), thanks to those two sequences, plus the fact that they love straight people playing queer—plus he directed! Whatever happens, this needs to be on a double bill with Tar.

It ain’t no lie, baby, bi, bi bi

Maryam Keshavarz’s The Persian Version is a film about a queer, Iranian-American woman named Leila, who is knocked up by an actor in drag, and who—in another plotline–comes to learn that her mother is more simpatico than she thought. Impressed by the film’s fresh takes, I contacted Keshavarz and asked her a quickie:

Hello, Maryam. I’ve seen Leila described as a lesbian, but wouldn’t you say she’s bisexual? And as a bisexual yourself, do you feel there has been bi erasure in moviemaking?

“Leila, like me, identifies as lesbian and queer, even though she’s clearly bisexual. When I was younger, as a community, we were still fighting for basic rights like gay marriage, second parent adoption, etc…so I came of age where queer spaces and events were organized largely around a fight for these legal rights. One of my most vivid memories in my university days was carpooling with a group of friends from Chicago to D.C. to march for gay rights in 2000…When we attained many of the rights we were fighting for, my expression of identity shifted where I was more comfortable saying ‘bisexual’. But certainly, many in the straight and queer communities think of bisexuals as confused or in denial one way or another. I’m certainly at times confused; not sure it’s because I’m bisexual. I’m bi-everything–bi-cultural, bi-national, bi-sexual. But I, of course, have always viewed sexuality more on a spectrum and have become more comfortable stating that now that we have our legal rights more secured.”

Thank you, Maryam. Thank you, queer Oscar films. By the way, The Color Purple is on the way too–and Eileen, American Fiction and several other films that include representations of our community. Get used to it!

Purlie is Victorious indeed

But let’s move on to a Tony contender. I need to echo the hosannahs for the Broadway revival of Purlie Victorious: A Non-Confederate Romp Through The Cotton Patch, Ossie Davis’s raucous 1961 play about a Deep South preacher who schemes to trick a racist plantation owner. (The play became the basis for the hit 1970 musical Purlie.) 

The rapid-fire comedy is breathlessly directed by wunderkind Kenny Leon, who’s done no fewer than four productions that won the Tony for Best Revival of a Play and who might be on to number five. (His previous winners were Fences, A Raisin in the Sun, A Soldier’s Play and Topdog/Underdog). Rather than fight the sitcommy elements of the premise, Leon plays into them, leading a great cast into high spirits and hilarity. 

Leslie Odom, Jr. (Tony winner for Hamilton) is wondrous as the title character, full of charisma and righteousness—and he captures the bluster too. Reverend Purlie is far from perfect, but Odom plays him like a winner whose foibles make him even more adorable and persuasive. Rising star Kara Young (a two-time Tony nominee) is Purlie’s love interest, Lutiebelle—petite and wide eyed as she falls for him and even succumbs to being part of his scheme, while soon enough revealing waves of non-shyness. Young is a quirky genius, diving into Lutiebelle’s role-playing assignment like a pro, though she occasionally goes over the top and/or pushes for a laugh. 

Poignant moments are provided by a sardonic cotton picker who fades out certain scenes by singing bits of the bittersweet slave song “Old Black Joe”. (Billy Eugene Jones, who played two roles in the queer Shakespeare update Fat Ham, is a scream in the rest of this part.) 

While the characters’ observations are quick and witty (“Being colored can be a lot of fun when ain’t nobody looking”), the pain of oppression is always evident, and Odom has a powerful late-evening speech about that, which is delivered like a sermon–and almost like a song too. (“Who made it like this—who put the white man on top?”) The bravura sequence is one of the season’s true marvels. He then delivers a real sermon, which I won’t give away…but Davis (and Leon) manage to shake up the mood again and leave you with tears in your eyes. End of sermon. Well, shut my mouth!

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