A candle in the closet

By David Sturm, Copyright © 1996

As it lags behind in most issues, Hollywood has lagged behind public attitudes in admitting gays and lesbians into full participation in American life. Lately, that has changed significantly, but only after a lot of groundbreaking by overseas and independent filmmakers.

This is a short list of significant movies featuring gay and lesbian characters, not a list of "straight" films where gay or lesbian themes have been encoded. Nor is it a list of films by actors or actresses who happen to be gay.

"Maedchen in Uniform" (1931), directed by Leontine Sagan, is set in the hothouse environment of a repressive girls' boarding school, where a sensitive girl forms a bond with a teacher. It's not entirely a platonic bond.

"The Killing of Sister George" (1968), directed by Robert Aldrich, is a lesbian soap opera about a woman who is, uh, a soap opera actress. She's middle-aged and worried that losing her job will mean losing her lover. She has every right to be worried.

"The Fox" (1968), directed by Mark Rydell, gets all sweaty- palmed in bringing to the screen the D.H. Lawrence story about two emotionally unstable women living and loving in a remote cabin in Canada until a man comes along to upset the apple cart. It's an absorbing period piece despite a decidedly dated message.

"The Boys in the Band" (1970), directed by William Friedkin, looks more stagy and overwrought with each passing year in its account of an angst-ridden party attended by nine men who may or may not all be gay. You young 'uns may be interested in knowing this was once considered daringly sympathetic to gays. In any event, it's a cultural landmark.

"Taxi Zum Klo" (1981), directed by and starring Frank Ripploh, is the movie that gets the conservative yahoos' hair really standing on end with its celebration of a promiscuous (but pre-AIDS) gay male lifestyle. It's funny, touching and robustly candid.

"La Cage Aux Folles" (1978), directed by Edouard Molinaro, is an old-fashioned mistaken identity farce. The fact that the "identity" is gender pushes the movie past amusement to hysteria.

"Victor/Victoria" (1982), directed by Blake Edwards, is classic Edwards farce with elaborate set piece gags and musical numbers that just happen to be set in the cabarets of Paris, where people are not always what they seem. When the masks drop, the one dropped by Alex Karras is best of all.

"Lianna" (1983), directed by John Sayles, may be the first movie where things get better instead of worse for someone after coming out. In this case, a wife and mom in a university town discovers she's a lesbian, to the fascination and consternation of family and friends.

"Longtime Companion" (1990), directed by Norman Rene, follows the lives and deaths of a group of gays through the 1980s, when AIDS changed from a blip on the horizon to a looming, sobering presence. One can only hope the high spirits of gay life are not quenched by such melancholy.

"Daddy and the Muscle Academy" (1992), directed by Ilppo Pohjola, is a documentary portrait of an intriguing artist, Tom of Finland, whose homoerotic drawings have come to define the styles, poses and accoutrements of gay men. He was just, it seems, doing what came naturally.

"Rock Hudson's Home Movies" (1992), directed by Mark Rappaport, is a post-modern documentary that is convincing in its contention that there are plenty of hints in Rock Hudson's movies that he was gay. Indeed, the film suggests it may be impossible for a big-time movie star to keep his or her orientation entirely in the closet.

"The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" (1994), directed by Stephan Elliott, is daring in its presumption that a drag queen act touring the Australian outback could not only survive but prevail, making friends and influencing Crocodile Dundee's drinking buddies. Measure this against "The Boys in the Band" to see how attitudes have changed.

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