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Take pride in great gay and lesbian films

They were more fun back when being gay meant being dangerous and cool. By Dave White
/ Source: contributor

It’s Gay Pride month. Exciting isn’t it? Yeah, I know, “gay” is boring already.  But it didn’t used to be that way. Once upon a time there were movies that made homosexuality look like the most excellently dangerous cool-kid party around. I mean, yeah, all the characters in these movies lived lives of misery or were criminals or possibly insane, and most of them died by the final reel, but they did so in style. And I’ll take them over the 1990s and ’00s onslaught of bland, queerly caucasian romantic comedies any day. So what follows is a too-brief, incomplete guide to homo-awesome…

“Cruising”Al Pacino is an undercover cop on the trail of a killer in the gay S&M scene. It was hugely controversial at the time of its release because gay audiences were flat-out tired — when they were discussed in films at all — of always being portrayed as the bad guys. But time has been kind to “Cruising” and now it’s pretty much a comedy. From the opening credits of a severed gay arm floating in the Hudson River, you know you’re in for a good time. Al Pacino dances, some biker/leather drag queens pop up, a giant African American cop wearing nothing but a jock strap beats Al senseless and, finally, Al turns into a leatherman just from having contact with other gays. It’s a wild party you wish would never end.

“Parting Glances”If you were queer and living in some small town in the 1980s, you could rent this movie at the video store and indulge in the fantasy that you were really in New York with a complicated boyfriend and lots of bohemian pals in the Village and you’d be cool and grown-up and going out to see Ann Magnuson perform somewhere every night. It wouldn’t even scare you that AIDS was decimating everyone. You just wanted to go there and soak up the low-rent Keith Haring T-shirted sophistication. This movie looks cheap now but it’s a fascinating time-capsule, full of ’80s ennui and irony. And you get the odd bonus of witnessing a young Steve Buscemi packaged as a rebellious almost-sex symbol.

“Fortune and Men’s Eyes”Prison has always been gay. Ask any straight guy what their worst nightmare is and they’ll joke about being sent to the pen and needing soap-on-a-rope. This early ’70s movie does nothing to alleviate those fears. An innocent boyish jailbird (Wendell Burton) finds himself in the wackiest go-go prison of all time. There he spends every moment fighting off sexual predators with the help of his cracked drag-queen cellmate Queenie, played with reckless abandon by gay actor Michael Greer. Not pornographic itself, it still set the template for every gay prison smut film made in its wake. And sadly, the late underappreciated Greer never got his due in queer film history because Hollywood’s rule was that you couldn’t be super-flaming and have a career unless you were Paul Lynde. Stupid Hollywood.

“Moulin Rouge!”It’s that exclamation point that tips the scale, really. Well, that and the non-stop singing and pretty-pretty of Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor amidst a barrage of retina-shredding lunacy from director Baz Luhrmann. Now, technically there’s nothing gay about this movie’s plot or execution. But practically speaking, every single second of it is like being on the loudest, perpetual-motion bathhouse-sponsored parade float at the Sydney Mardi Gras. I even interviewed Luhrmann once for “The Advocate” and the married-to-a-woman director refused to identify himself as ‘straight.’ That’s a dude who doesn’t care about your stinking rules. If you are a heterosexual and you watch this movie, it will turn you gay. This is a fact. They did a study. And it’s the only modern movie to make this little list. Because it’s that insane.

“Manji”Not seen much in the United States, this 1964 soapy Japanese housewife-gone-crazy-lesbo film is shot and presented like a Douglas Sirk movie up and plopped down in the middle of Tokyo. A dutiful, repressed married lady falls for the nude model in her art class and totally loses her frigging mind. What follows is a non-stop symphony of crying, shrieking, drug-overdosing, more crying, love declarations, suicide pacts and blood oaths. So yeah, a blast. And the recent arthouse hit “In The Mood For Love” owes its hair and outfits to this movie.

“Beyond The Valley of The Dolls”Sure, they talk a lot about “fags” in “Valley of The Dolls” but you never actually see one get wild in its entire running time. This story of a rock band’s instant fame, however — not a sequel at all, just cashing in on the title — has queer characters running amok at swinging Hollywood parties and getting into really far-out trouble, man. They do, in fact, all die by the time the movie’s over (in really unsettling and laughably hateful ways too) but that’s how it goes in the city of angels, baby.

“The Velvet Vampire”A foxy lesbian vampire (B-movie staple Celeste Yarnall) lives out in the sunny Mojave desert and lures sexy young couples into her lair of doom.  This makes perfect sense in a drug-baked Manson family way. It’s also a brilliant cover story, as in “Vampire? Little old me? Look where I live, silly! It’s Palm Springs!” But I’ve been to Palm Springs before and I know for a fact that there are plenty of vampires hanging out there year-round, so it’s not that far-fetched. This trashy piece of vintage 1971 Breck commercial has great clothes, furniture and deaths with a surprising Women’s Libber subtext. It’s what happens at the nexus of groovy and gruesome and it’s very worth hunting down from one of those bootleg-DVD sites that deal in obscure not-on-video titles.

“Some of My Best Friends Are”The most demented of them all. Logo, MTV’s gay and lesbian cable channel (gay pride!) has been showing this one a lot lately and it pops up at queer film festivals from time to time because no one can believe it actually existed. It’s a one-movie primer on self-hate, set in a gay bar on Christmas Eve. Apparently the password into this illicit den was “I’m going to be famous on TV soon” because it stars people like Fannie Flagg, Rue McClanahan, “WKRP’s” Gary Sandy and “Buck Rogers’s” Gil Gerrard, all of whom commiserate over how sad and alone they are, thanks to all that darn gay. You have to wonder how many suicides it caused among the people who saw it on its initial release but it’s fun holiday viewing if only for lines like, “When can’t live with yourself, you’re nowhere. Ya dig?” Never leaving my TiVo. Seriously. Never.

Dave White is the author of “Exile in Guyville.” He reviews films for