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No Gaydar Required
I RECENTLY re-watched The Celluloid Closet, a documentary co-written(with Sharon Wood) and directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman from the writings of Vito Russo. The film, which first appeared in 1995, was released on DVD in 2001. Packed with lots of intriguing clips, as well as interviews with stars, writers, producers, directors, and social critics, the film details very well the troubled history of the homosexual character in Hollywood films.
For me, the saddest thing about watching The Celluloid Closet is not revisiting images of the pathetic "sissies" of the fifties, or the gay monsters and victims of the movies of the seventies and eighties. Nor is it being reminded of all the gay characters and content that have been rewritten as straight or edited out of feature films over the last hundred years. For me, the most depressing thing about the documentary was its deliberately upbeat ending which managed to imply that things were changing, strides toward equality in cultural depictions were being made, and that we were on the brink of seeing gay characters more fully integrated into major motion pictures.
Perhaps in 1995 they had good reasons to be hopeful, but here in the end of 2007, I don't see a lot of cinematic diversity: not for people of color, and certainly not for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people.
Outside of the fairly frequent use of gays as minor support characters (who are identified as homosexual but appear to be celibate, and exist only to provide a sympathetic ear or buffoonish comic relief), major-studio mall-cineplex Hollywood films are not substantively better than they were seventeen years ago. (If the last "gay" movie you saw on the local marquee was the Adam Sandler straight--guys-in-a-benefits-scam comedy, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, you know what I mean.)
You could argue that the small screen has done a better job than the big screen. Without a doubt, premium cable channels have made strides. On the traditional networks, the picture is less rosy. Certainly in campy comedies like the ABC telenovela, Ugly Betty, gay and transgendered characters are an essential part of the mix. Are the gay characters neurotic and ridiculous? Usually. But no more so than the wacky straights in the series. Comedy (like fantasy) makes things safer, of course. And television allows the offended viewer to flip the channel. And yet, even on network TV, gay characters are few and far between—and in each of the last few years they have actually decreased in numbers, as a yearly analysis by GLAAD has documented. (The end of Will & Grace really put a dent in the gay TV populace!)
But Hollywood movies are even more resistant to change. Is it because they live in fear of their perceived key demographic—the straight, white, adolescent male? Is it because of the massive investment and elusive payback of people willing to invest ten dollars cash for a ticket or twenty-five dollars for a DVD?
You may be asking yourself: "Why has the bloody woman gone off on this singularly inappropriate rant?" If so, Gentle Reader, let me explain. The reason I am ruminating on filmic gay invisibility is because I have just come back from a screening of the film, Martian Child, which was adapted from a very autobiographical novelet and novel by David Gerrold.
For those of you more familiar with Mr. Gerrold's Star Trek work and the War Against the Chtorr series than with the title in question, this particular work is a roman à clef about the adoption process. It details a couple of years in the life of the author, as he built a family with an abused and neglected young boy he rescued from years in the foster care system. He went through this process as a single father and a gay man.
With an eye toward full disclosure, let me remind you that the original story first appeared in these pages in September of 1994. After finding it difficult to place his single father adoption story about a little lad who self-identifies as a Martian, the author found an eventual home for it through the good judgment of our former editor, Kristine Kathryn Rusch. (What can I say, all of our editors and publishers have always shown impeccable taste!) The rest, as they say, is history. The story went on to win the Nebula, the Hugo, and the Locus Award.
Mr. Gerrold later expanded the story into a full-length novel. And when you read both versions of the story, it is interesting how the author added depth and human drama to his tale of the difficult bonding process between "David" and little Dennis. The fear and disquiet of a new parent dealing with a troubled eight-year-old who had already seen too much of the negative attributes of the human adult world is keenly felt and clearly documented. He expands the details of both the tenderness and turmoil of the relationship. And he weaves throughout his very realistic story/memoir the fictional elements of a gnawing fear: If a child says he is Martian implanted into a human host, what if he is telling the truth?
Among the other aspects to the story the author further elucidates upon and makes completely unambiguous is his identity as a gay man. This open acknowledgment adds much to the story. It adds to the protagonist's fear that he will be judged not "good enough" to be a father. And it also adds to the profound connection he feels with his new son, who has been so imprinted with a sense of being alien and "other" in society, that he can only explain it away by identifying himself as a creature from another world.
It's a poignant story, to be sure. Heart-warming, dramatic—it even includes the Northridge earthquake!—and with just enough of a tease of spooky fantasy elements (especially coming from this author) to add another layer to the story-telling. How could such a tale not be adapted for the screen?
And so it was. After the normal amount of time in development hell, Martian Child finally made it to theaters, adapted by screenwriting partners Seth E. Bass (Twilight of the Golds) and Jonathan Tolins (Twilight of the Golds, Queer as Folk), with an assist from director Menno Meyjes (The Color Purple, Max).
As an intimate family drama, the film rests heavily on the shoulders of its two central characters. In the case of new father, David, it is well-served by the casting of John Cusack in the role. Cusack has never been particularly handsome or dashing. And as he slouches toward middle-age, he is even less so. But like Tom Hanks, he has always possessed a regular joe quality—albeit with a bit more of an alienated edge than dear Tom can manage—that makes him believable in the role of a straight widower who is drawn to adopt.
In the difficult role of the troubled young boy, the film was even more lucky. Young Bobby Coleman shows all the intuitive natural acting chops that we so often see in children who have not yet been ruined by the sophistication of show biz. In addition, with his big eyes, raspy voice, and unusual verbal cadence, he does have the eerie affect of a changeling. Throw a heavy coating of sunblock on his face—as a Martian, he fears the Earthly rays of the sun—and you definitely get the sense of a ghostly extraterrestrial who may simply be a frightened and unhappy little boy.
To add a dose of parental caution and common sense, the cast includes Joan Cusack in the not-exactly-a-stretch role of David's sister. But nepotism be damned! Joan Cusack is a national treasure and she is always so much fun to watch on screen that I am always happy when she is in one of her brother's movies. Or any other, for that matter.
Less effective are Oliver Platt as David's literary agent, and Anjelica Huston as his publisher. Their roles are underwritten and seem to exist on screen only to provide (not very funny) comic relief and to play the bad guys in the movie's semi-heavy-handed message. To wit, even adult writers are pushed to conform and be what other, more powerful people want them to be.
I enjoyed the fact that the filmmakers tied in the author's science fiction background. David is shown visiting the set of a rather cheesy adaptation of his "Dracoban" interplanetary war novel and he is under constant pressure by his agent and publisher to deliver the sequel. Gerrold's story and book have many more self-referential asides and inside jokes for the sf fan to enjoy, but more in the movie would not have been practical.
I do, however, wish that the film had made more of the growing anxiety of the new dad regarding the possible alien origins of his new son. Despite the fact that little Dennis seems to be able to "Martian wish" a lackluster baseball team into getting a home run or a red traffic light into turning prematurely green, you never really get the sense that Cusack's David fears that the little boy might really be from Mars. He doesn't talk to friends, comb through his journals, or make plaintive queries in internet forums looking for evidence of Martian children. And it is this content that specifically introduces a possible sf (that is, fictional) element to a story that is otherwise simply a heartwarming memoir.
And what's with teaching a little boy that you have unconditional love for him by encouraging him to trash your house and smear you with condiments? Although this scene is one of the more dramatic moments in the movie, I can't say that I found it particularly believable. As Gerrold's novel aptly illustrates, troubled children find defiance and destruction very easy, indeed. (It's self-control and a concerned empathy for others and their property with which they often struggle.) The final big emotional climax was also more overwrought than it needed to be, replete with dark shadows, flashing helicopter lights, and a somewhat labored string-ridden score.
As wonderful as it is to see a movie (any movie!) about the growing love between an adult and child as they struggle to make a family and forge a parent-child bond, I must admit that Martian Child often felt like it had been made for Lifetime Television or as one of the better holiday installments of the Hallmark Hall of Fame. (Not that there's anything wrong with that, as the Seinfeld cast might have said.) The film didn't always have the substance and/or entertainment value that we would expect in a feature film, despite the lovely performances by Bobby Coleman and John Cusack.
But as my lead rant would suggest, my biggest disappointment is the film's cowardice in not bringing David's gayness into the story. You might ask, Gentle Reader, why it matters whether they portray David as gay. To that, my first response is, if it doesn't matter, why not allow him to be what he is?
Moreover, don't we need to see gay characters in stories that aren't about their homosexuality, but simply about their humanity? Don't gay characters deserve to be fully visible, wholly sympathetic, and the stars of their own life stories?
Do we need to rewrite them as straight and then bring in Amanda Peet to play the dead wife's best friend turned bohemian love interest? Believe me, Amanda Peet is a very agreeable film presence, and her Harlie (there's one inside joke, anyway!) isn't objectionable in any way. Except that she's a beard.
I've heard that David Gerrold is generally pleased with the adaptation of his fictionalized memoir. And in an entry I spotted in his blog, he seems unfazed by the change, observing that "straight men can be just as good at being dads as gay men." Good point. The thing is everyone knows that straight men can be good fathers. (Just think of all the heartwarming straight single dads you've seen in the culture, from oldies like Andy Griffith to Steve Carell's recent devoted papa and lovelorn widower in Dan in Real Life.) But does everyone also know that gay men can be phenomenal, loving dads?
I'd like to think so, but I live in the bluest state, Massachusetts—the only one that allows gay people to actually marry. And I can testify that even in Massachusetts there are plenty of people who have very rigid definitions of family and marriage, and who still too easily confuse homosexuality with pedophilia. These are the people who need to see positive images of a gay father and his son.
Still, I grant you, if John Cusack's David had been depicted as gay those people wouldn't have gone near the movie. But other people, including gay people still hungry to see themselves portrayed as positive loving parents, or as the brave space heroes in an episode of Star Trek, those people would have gone to see the movie and would have rejoiced.
The same week that I went to see the screening of Martian Child, J. K. Rowling made the offhand admission at a speaking gig that she always thought Dumbledore was gay. I was happy to hear it. I was less happy to hear that fine upstanding citizen groups thereafter demanded—not for the first time—that the Potter books be pulled from library shelves. Nor did I enjoy hearing Bill O'Reilly blast Rowling for being a "provocateur" performing an "indoctrination thing" aimed at the public. He was, it appears, outraged that she might be inciting the public toward feelings of "tolerance" and "parity."
Parity! Tolerance! That does sound dangerous! I only wish Martian Child could have delivered that kind of a truth-telling "indoctrination thing" to the multiplex.
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