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Interviews & Reviews

The Queen: AWFJ review of a documentary essential to queer history

So proud to have posted this review of documentary The Queen on the anniversary of Stonewall. It is absolutely required viewing for those interested in both queer history and film history.

See the trailer here:

“Before queer was cool, or even fully legal, first-time director Frank Simon created The Queen, a 1968 groundbreaking documentary chronicling one of the original and quintessential competitive drag events in history, the 1967 Miss All-American Camp Beauty Pageant. Featuring iconic queen Flawless Sabrina aka LGBTQ activist Jack Doroshow as narrator, and a must-see jaw-dropping bitch-fest scene courtesy of Crystal LaBeija, who was later indelibly captured in 1990’s Paris is Burning, this film is truly a priceless cinematic artifact of LGBTQ and film history.”

Click on the link below to read the rest of the review:

and because it’s fascinating, here is a review from the New York Times in 1968:

“THE QUEEN” is an extraordinary documentary about the Miss All-America Camp Beauty Pageant held at Town Hall in 1967. The contestants were transvestites from all over the country—some of them winners in regional contests—judged for walking, talking, bathing suit, makeup, hairdo and, of course, beauty. The star and the winner was Harlow, a frail, blond, pouting young man, formerly Miss Philadelphia. The director was Frank Simon (his first feature film), and the movie itself is funny—not tactless—and inspired the way “The Endless Summer,” of surfing, was inspired. It shows us another America.It is good to watch for about an hour these colorful human beings whose entire self-image is a put-on, in their Atlantic City of Genet, in their Forest Hills of drag. The drag queens are, of course, perfectly aware that they are not women, and even their mannerisms—the flatted vowels, the relaxed wrist, the gait of the homosexual who wants it known—are not female imitations at all, but parodies. Very witty, detailed parodies at that. The question of invasion of privacy does not arise; one is watching actors, very conscious actors, at work. They may be absolutely miserable (like others) in their private lives, but in their costumed appearances they enrich the landscape enormously.At times, Miss Sabrina, Miss Crystal and Miss Harlow and the rest seem to have taken Hollywood’s old message very much to heart: Both the two-fisted gunfighter and the sex queen could find stardom, but the sex queen really had all the lines. The cosmetic idea was bound to spill over a bit. So here are all these gentlemen in bras, diaphanous gowns, lipstick, hairfalls and huffs—discussing their husbands in the military in Japan, or describing their own problems with the draft. One grows fond of all of them. They are much more entertaining than the conventional Miss This or Miss That.Two shorts opened at the Kips Bay Theater yesterday with “The Queen.” One, French, about a factory where plaster mannequins are molded, filed, hammered and repaired, is about the most extreme, laconic anti-female movie since Dean Martin last starred in anything, and the other, called “2” and spoken in American-accented Italian, is hilarious.Written by Renee Taylor, it is about a couple of people about to make love on the beach, who start confessing to each other. He tells the most outrageous things. She pardons him. She tells the most outraegous things. He pardons her. (“I have been with all your friends, Irving, Lewis . . .” she begins. “So have I,” he says.) It is a fine program altogether.

You can read the rest of that review HERE.

Interviews & Reviews

Tell it to the Bees: AWFJ review

Tell it to the Bees, an independent British drama released in 2018, is finally having its release in American art house cinemas, though it reaches theaters in the UK in June. The film is adapted by director Annabel Jankel (co-creator of Max Headroom) from the novel of the same name by Fiona Shaw (the writer, not the actor), with a screenplay by sisters Henrietta and Jessica Ashworth (Dixi, Killing Eve). This love story, which happens in a small town, in post-war Scotland, speaks to the judgement and fear of imprisonment same-sex couples had at the time, since homosexuality was only decriminalized in England in 1967. It also exposes the lack of agency, and often suffocating restrictions and expectations set for women, while showing that love, and the falling into it, is always beautiful.

For the rest of the review, please go to AWFJ.org.

Interviews & Reviews

Mapplethorpe Movie Review: Matt Smith Makes Art

Whether you know his work or not, Robert Mapplethorpe remains an important, iconoclastic figure in the histories of both LGBTQ rights and contemporary art. So much so, in fact, that in 2017, Belgian designer Raf Simons built a couture collection, in collaboration with the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, around the famous photographer’s images. Now in theaters, when art in our country is more and more subject to censorship, Mapplethorpe, directed and co-written by female filmmaker Ondi Timoner, examines the artist’s life, with Matt Smith starring as the mercurial, brooding genius.

Actress Eliza Dushku and her brother Nate had been fascinated by the artist and his life since learning of him early on from their mother. They began working to get a narrative film made about him in 2002, and spent over a dozen years committed to getting it to theaters. Timoner herself had known Mapplethorpe’s work since her youth, and vividly remembers having a calendar with his flower photography as a twelve-year-old.

I lived in the Washington DC area during the controversial cancellation of “The Perfect Moment”, Mapplethorpe’s retrospective planned for exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery. For those of us in and around the DC art scene, it ignited our passion about guarding against censorship, and guarding the art and artists most vulnerable to it. Mapplethorpe sexualized his images of flowers and created gorgeous, sculptural, and artistically compelling images of sexuality representing gay sex, BDSM, and other experiences seen as taboo by the general public. I was a fan from the time I was a teenager, and his art fascinates and draws me in to this day. I’m not alone. For example, in 2018, auction prices for purchases of his art were above 3.5 million dollars.

The film Mapplethorpe works best as art when viewed as a platform for actor Matt Smith’s talent. His mesmerizing portrayal of the complicated, often unlikeable personality comes closest to embodying the work of the artist himself. He is all sharp shadows, showing the audience glimpses of emotion, and blunt outbursts meant to keep imperfections hidden. In Mapplethorpe’s photographs, there is often this compelling balance of in-your-face fearlessness and insecurity hidden behind bombast. Smith captures that dichotomy so well that we find the all-too-straightforward biopic storytelling more palatable. I was expecting a film with a far less traditional way of revealing his life, more experimental like Kenneth Anger (now that would have been SOMETHING!) and less like James Marsh of The Theory of Everything. For those who already know about the chronology of his life and the many relationships, especially those with women, that were integral to his success, there are few revelations beyond Smith’s performance, which is nearly as provocative as Robert Mapplethorpe’s famous Calla Lily.

Still, longtime fans of Mapplethorpe’s work will appreciate how much the making of his art is woven into the story, while those new to the artist will get a good first sense of the deeply flawed, inspired artist, and his continued importance to art history. He was and is essential to expanding acceptance of both photography as a collective art form, and gay love and sexuality as beautiful. Though it reveals that in ways that play it a lot safer than it could have, as a narrative film, Mapplethorpe ably brings that truth to the screen.

3 out of 5 stars

Interviews & Reviews

Boy Erased Review: This New Drama Highlights the Hell of Conversion Therapy

Written for the screen, directed by, and co-starring Joel Edgerton, Boy Erased tackles the subject of conversion therapy camps and in-patient clinics that attempt to alter sexual orientation and gender identity.  Starring Lucas Hedges as Jared Eamons, the son of Baptist preacher Marshall (Russell Crowe) and his stay-at-home mom Nancy (Nicole Kidman), the film follows Jared as he navigates the Christian-based program run by Victor Sykes (Edgerton).  Sykes and his colleagues attempt to retrain the brains of the teenaged and adult subjects in the program, sometimes to disastrous results.

Garrard Conley’s 2016 book Boy Erased: A Memoir, brought further attention to what is still a widespread problem.  LGBTQ children and adults, generally from religious families who believe all but heterosexual monogamous relationships are a sin, are being subjected to conversion therapy across the country.  It is illegal to conduct these programs in DC and only 11 states, and in those, the laws only protect minors. The film touches on the experience of one victim who experienced conversion therapy, and how it impacted his life and his relationship with his family.

Lucas Hedges already proved his talent with his Oscar-nominated performance in Manchester By the Sea. As Jared, he shows his acting skills continue to expand, holding his own in scenes with Edgerton, Kidman, and Crowe. The story of his character is both heartbreaking and inspiring, and he brings us along as he struggles with his own identity, experiences confusion about his faith, and finds determination in the face of the bullying and abuse so prevalent in conversion therapy.

The film doesn’t shy away from showing the kinds of damage often done by these therapies, but it doesn’t condemn religion as it examines these methods.  Edgerton believed it was important to portray these characters as loving each other, even as that love leads to bad choices.  Russell Crowe’s Marshall Eamons really does believe he is saving his son from the fires of hell.  What Boy Erased shows, through the lens of one family’s experience, is how universally dangerous and ill-conceived these camps are.  It is a delicate balance, entertaining while educating an audience, and without the story devolving into a Movie of The Week or feeling like one of those Saturday Afternoon Specials of the 70s.  It is to the cast’s credit that it never goes there, probably for the very reason that these characters are anchored in real people.

One of my friends said they weren’t interested in seeing Boy Erased, because they didn’t think it would get much buzz, and the subject matter didn’t seem important.  I beg to differ.  It’s quite possible Joel Edgerton will get an Oscar nomination for his screenplay, and the portrayals by two Oscar winners (Kidman and Crowe) and Hedges, who will have an Oscar in his hands sooner or later, should make any number of film fans curious to see it.  Beyond that, the issue at its core is very important.  Many people don’t realize this sort of mental, emotional, and even sometimes physical torture is still going on in this country.  Both as an emotional family drama as well as an education to those who know little about conversion therapy, Boy Erased succeeds.

4 out of 5 stars

Interviews & Reviews

The Miseducation of Cameron Post Review and Interviews: Real Life Horror with a Splash of John Hughes

The Miseducation of Cameron Post, a film based on the 2012 novel of the same name by Emily Danforth, is directed and co-written by queer American-Iranian filmmaker Desiree Akhavan.  This Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning indie tells a story that takes place in 1993 chronicling the misadventures of Cameron (Chloe Grace Moretz), a teen placed in a gay conversion camp called “God’s Promise” by her born-again Christian extended family, with the hopes of curing her of SSA, or “same sex attraction”.

Cameron is caught getting hot and heavy in the back seat of a car with her first love and prom queen Coley Taylor (Quinn Shepard) and gets whisked away to a camp.  There she and fellow campers are guided by therapist Dr. Lydia March (Jennifer Ehle) and advised by her brother, Reverend Rick (John Gallagher Jr), who believes he’s been cured of the sin of same sex attraction.  Cameron finds like-minds in fellow campers, or inmates depending on the perspective.  Jane Fonda (Sasha Lane) and Adam (Forrest Goodluck) are just playing the game of getting through the experience so they can continue with their lives. She starts sneaking into the woods to smoke joints and figure out ways to seem believably changed and contrite for what none of them believe is wrong.  It’s like she’s found her soulmates.

What makes The Miseducation of Cameron Post, or TMOCP, so powerful? They found the perfect actress to play the lead with Chloe Grace Moretz.  At only 20 she is a veteran of the film industry, and Akhavan was lucky Moretz was actively looking for work with deeper meaning and more social resonance.  The actress has a genius for conveying emotion without speech, and Cameron as a character is an observer, and considers her place, though she knows she isn’t sinful, in a world where being gay is often seen as wrong. Akhavan said she had almost given up the project for fear of never finding their Cameron, until one day she got a Post-It that said “Cameron wants to meet”.  She now has the Post-It framed on her wall.

The co-stars are all beautifully cast, so much so that the film really feels like an ensemble piece.  Even those who don’t have as much screen time, like Ehle as the staunch Christian who believes she is doing god’s work realigning these kids to their Christian path, make an indelible mark on the story’s authenticity.  Gallagher’s Reverend Rick has more interaction with his charges shown on film, and his is a heartbreaking portrayal of vacillating commitment and confusion.  As Jane and Adam, Lane and Goodluck allow the audience to lean into the relief of found tribe, which is an aspect of the story that lifts an otherwise dark story with moments of sweetness and shared teen struggle reminiscent of 80s era John Hughes.

I spoke to both Chloe Grace Moretz and Desiree Akhavan about found tribe, their own experience of it, and how it influenced their experience of making The Miseducation of Cameron Post.

Said Akhavan, “It was always one of the main stories of the film, but I also think it’s heightened in the queer community.  I also felt that it’s in every teen film. You find your allies, and that’s one of the best things about getting older. You start to speak the same language with people. You stop trying to imitate, It happens at different ages for everyone. For me, it didn’t happen until I was 21. You stop regurgitating what you see around you, and you start imitating what you aspire to be. I discovered it for myself when I met Cecilia, the co-writer and producer of this film. We met at around 20 or 21, and we just spoke the same language. There was no effort. She believed in me, and I believed in her. We enabled each other to make our first films, first shorts, first features, and now TMOCP. It was just…someone sees me, and I know she felt the same way about seeing her. It was just the best…I mean, I wouldn’t be making movies if it weren’t for her. I wouldn’t be anything. Like, she’s my life partner, not romantically, but as a creator. She enables me and I enable her. Meeting her completely changed my life. I moved to London to be close to her and write this film. Her belief in me gave me belief in myself.

Her telling me, you know this is really early on and before I came out to my family. She drowned out the crazy in my head. She drowned out the voices that were like, “You should hang yourself!” And she was like, “No! You’re cool! It’s really cool that you’re queer! It’s really cool that you’re this thing that you have a lot of shame about. It’s so cool that you’re Iranian, tell me about your culture. Talk about where you’re from.” And so now I write to make her laugh. And that relationship is the thing that enabled and allowed my adult life to begin. That was one of the things that, when we were writing this, was so important to us.”

Moretz had her own experience with found tribe, which was in part informed by having two of her four brothers come out as gay.  “I think I was really lucky that the family I grew up in was really wonderful, but that changed. You are born with people that are supposed to be your family. And, you either choose to grow up into adults who are also friends, or you just stay family members who only see each other at functions. I remember there was a massive choice that happened, and it came through honesty. You know, there’s a lot of things you hide from your siblings, there was a big turning point, when I was 19, where I came clean with a lot of things in my life to my family. And through that and through my mother, I think when my father left when I was 13, things kind of compacted themselves and everyone became real quiet. You just don’t want to add fuel to a fire, and you kinda separate a little bit. There was a big shift when I was like, “I can’t do it anymore. I gotta talk to everyone. I gotta talk. We’re not talking, we’re just existing around each other.” And we chose to be honest with each other, and through that, we chose to be a tribe, we chose to be friends. And they’re my best friends that I choose above anyone that I know. Like, the first people I want to go to dinner with, or go to a concert, or something simple, or just call when something happens,  is them. Not just because we were born together, but because we choose to be there for each other at another level.”

One of the frightening aspects of the film is the truthful way it portrays gay conversion.  There are only 12 states in the US that have outlawed therapy for what is called “same sex attraction”, a therapy which denies biology, research, and to this day uses techniques that leverage shame, guilt, and fear to warp the minds of LGBTQIA kids and adults.  The statistics are terrifying,  especially as they relate to the longterm damage done to those who have gone through it.  Both depression and even suicide are common by-products.  Mathew Shurka,  of #BornPerfect, the National Center for Lesbian Rights Campaign to end conversion therapy, was subjected to gay conversion therapy before he started working to end it.  When I asked him one of the tactics he most remembers that he saw reflected in the film, he said, “Lydia’s character says, “Would you give a drug addict a parade?” And I remember specifically in conversion therapy how we were taught the ridiculousness of us celebrating pride. I had never celebrated pride, yet, I went into conversion therapy at 16, so I hadn’t had a pride celebration event yet. But, you know, I can’t avoid it. I’d hear about pride celebrations, I hear about gay people in pop culture. This was in 2004 at the time, so it wasn’t as visible as it is today. They would come up in conversation with the therapist, and it was always talked about as, “You’re basically not well and you’re celebrating that and you’re fighting for the rights it. It’s like their comparison was sick people were fighting for the right to be sick.” And it’s like, “Do you want to be a part of that or do you want to live,” what they called, “a healthy life? To have healthy relationships in a healthy life.” And at 16, of course I want to live a healthy life. 

The best aspect of The Miseducation of Cameron Post, is the balance director Akhavan finds between telling what is essentially a horror story of mistreatment and manipulation, and a charming, hopeful tale of coming of age. Audiences will see these kids embracing like-minded people as a support and a safe place from which to approach their futures. If anyone needs another answer as to why we need more diverse voices making films, here it is. 

A