Wednesday, 20 January 2010

358: The Gay Deceivers

Original trailer: (since it refuses to bloody embed)

Tagline; Is he or isn’t he? Only his draftboard knows for sure

Released in 1969, this daring-for-its time comedy (it was immediately slapped with an X) starred boyish Kevin Coughlin as Danny a preppy 22 year-old with a steady girlfriend (Brooke Bundy) and handsome Larry Casey as Elliot a lady’s man and lifeguard who get drafted. To avoid being sent to Vietnam, the friends pretend to be gay lovers who desperately want to serve their country. The two are convincing enough to be deemed unfit for active duty but wary Colonel Dixon (Jack Starrett) questions the boys' true intentions and warns them that if at any point they are found to have misrepresented themselves, they will immediately be shipped to Vietnam. Celebrating their success, they panic when Danny notices that they are being spied on by the Colonel. The duo shack up in a one bedroom apartment decorated in pink with a heart-shaped bed in a swinging gay complex and try to convince their landlord Malcolm (Michael Greer), his partner Craig (Sebastian Brook), and the resident stud, Duane (Christopher Riordan) that they are homosexuals. Both Malcolm and Craig have penchants for unannounced visits, which complicates the task of deception for the boys. Lady friends are eager to visit the new digs, which could unravel the whole scheme if the neighbors discover the truth and alert the authorities. Visiting relatives, too, want to inspect the new premises, and need to be kept in the dark, ensuring they don’t mistake the elaborate charade for reality. At the landlord’s costume party, Elliott takes a woman to bed not realizing it’s a guy in drag. A frustrated drunken Elliot then starts a fight in a gay bar, which is witnessed by Danny and his unsuspecting girlfriend, leading to further complications. Their friends and relatives become convinced that the two are gay, which is when they begin finding out for themselves about the discrimination and social ostracism that the gay community faces in the America of 1969. When Elliot loses his job as a lifeguard (because he might “be a bad influence on kids”), Danny's fiancĂ© leaves him, and his family begins to look on them as mentally ill perverts, the boys decide that Vietnam might not be the worst case after all, and confess to the draft board, but by now, it could be too late. The twist is that even after the pair is caught, they aren't inducted. The Army investigators assigned to watch them are themselves gay and are trying to keep straight people out of the Army: “We don’t want their kind in the army, do we, Joe?”.

Really this is just a curio of gay cinematic history.
It’s an exploitation flick in several sense – both slightly raunchy and also exploiting topical social topics such as the Vietnam War and homosexuality. And so it gains retrospective attention as a forgotten trailblazer, and also for its exploration of various controversial themes. Of course, plotwise it’s basically a farce, with feigned homosexuality as its motor. It is not a forgotten treasure, but is about as good as its elements will allow. Productionwise its low budget origins are obvious. As various critics at the time pointed out, audiences will only enjoy it if they were “prepared to find homosexuals an endless source of humor”. And the film does stand out as being possibly the first comedy where homosexuality is the entire premise of the plot and humour. Other comedies during the sixties had their camp and faggy cameos, but here it is the main meal. Similarly, there are a growing cohort of dramatic films about homosexuality – although most of those finished with a dead homosexual protagonist. In summer of 1969 when this film was released, “Staircase” and “The Boys in the Band” were also appearing in cinemas. Unlike those two films, it’s homosexuals have satisfactorily accommodated their lives to their sexuality and a gay lifestyle. Also through the course of the film, the two straight men become friends with their landlord, who is in a genuine relationship, neither of whom are self-loathing. Likewise, admittedly for comic effect, it does make excursions into the gay bar scene and a drag party. The film-makers evidently realised that in presenting homosexuals, they stood a good chance of attracting an interested homosexual audience, and so they attempt to satisfy them with a number of flesh shots of the male leads
Even as the film was capitalising on the public’s willingness to be entertained by homosexuals (by the end of the 60s and beginning of the 70s there is a scattering of jokes about gay men having to explain their roommates to their family and butch up their apartments), it clashed with the new political confidence in the emergent gay community. When the film opened in San Francisco, just two weeks after Stonewall, it was picketed by a dozen members of the Committee for the Freedom of Homosexuals. However the film did prove to be relatively successful – a search of the newspapers shows that it had lengthy runs and was not merely a fly by night on the screens.

And then there’s Michael Greer as Malcolm “The Gay Landlord”. It is a very large extremely swishy queeny performance that probably makes slightly more sense in a theatre, seen from seat 78HH (apparently Greer had a long successful career in cabaret). It’s a far way away from the tortured characterisations of “The Boys in the Band” and “Staircase”. Quite a few reviewers felt he added interest and zest to an often lifeless film (supposedly Andrew Sarris suggested Greer should be nominated for an Oscar). There is the sense, however, of someone attempting to steal or dominate every scene, for good or bad. It’s not a particularly nuanced performance, but then it’s not supposed to be (and is probably not a million miles away from Tim Brooke-Taylor’s performance in the 1969 film “12+1”). It’s simply a matter of how can he get a laugh out of his characterisation without actually being offensive, since this is a gay man playing gay (which can often be slightly dangerous territory). Greer stated he wanted to be overt yet innocuous, to make an audience “think it is possible to like a fairy simply for himself”. It probably comes down to individual taste as to how well viewers feel he succeeds.

This scene seems to have stuck in quite a few veiwer’s memories. For good or ill, Greer certainly makes some sort of impression at the end.

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