For me, seeing "Milk" was a transformative experience because:
-It restored my belief that Hollywood can make quality pictures that have broad appeal.
-It reminded me how powerful an actor Sean Penn can be when given a role worthy of his talents- his performance here is nuanced, fearless and undeniably Oscar-worthy.
-It depicted with enormous impact what it meant to be gay 30-plus years ago, the progress we've made since in terms of society's openness towards homosexuality, and the painful, courageous steps through which it was all achieved.
I'm certainly old enough to recall the Harvey Milk/George Moscone assassinations, but predictably my memories of the incident had faded over time. Not only did this film bring it all back to me in one potent rush, but I discovered that my grown kids had absolutely no awareness of Harvey Milk, and knew precious little of his groundbreaking crusade.
Thus I realized that I not only loved this movie, I felt grateful for it.
It also put me in mind to examine outstanding gay-themed films beyond the more evident mainstream titles: "Philadelphia" (1993), "Brokeback Mountain" (2005), and from TV, "Angels In America" (2003).
Here in chronological order are just a few of my personal favorites (excluding lesbian-themed titles, due to space constraints):
Fox And His Friends (1976)- Gay carnival worker Franz "Fox" Biberkopf (Rainer Werner Fassbinder) loses his job when the police arrest his lover and close up the fairground show that employs him. Strapped for cash, Fox picks up Max (Karlheinz Böhm), an older, cultured man who helps him out. Soon, Fox is introduced to all of Max's classy friends, including one scheming fellow who sets out to seduce and fleece him. One of writer-director Fassbinder's most affecting entries, "Fox" considers the class struggle in terms of the exploitative relationship between a naive, blue-collar outsider and his predatory bourgeois lover. Fassbinder himself delivers a tragic, moving performance as a gay man swindled out of his winnings and self-esteem, a scenario partly based on the director's own experiences. Over three decades after its initial release, "Fox" remains a bold, compelling work.
La Cage Aux Folles (1979)- Nightclub owner Renato (Ugo Tognazzi) and his long-time lover, Albin (Michel Serrault), a female impersonator, live a fabulous life in the sunny island paradise of St. Tropez. But when Laurent (Remy Laurent), Renato's son from a previous relationship, announces he's engaged to be married, Renato agrees to pretend he and Albin are a straight, heterosexual couple, so as not to frighten off the future in-laws, who are planning a visit. Only problem is, old habits die hard. Campy and outrageously off-kilter in the tradition of the best Hollywood comedies, "La Cage" thrives on the credibly affectionate performances of Tognazzi and Serrault, brilliant as the flamboyant Albin and his drag-queen alter ego, ZaZa. Adding to the fun is Michel Galabru, playing the stiff father-in-law-to-be who heads an organization called the Union of Moral Order!
Victor/Victoria (1982)- In 1930's Paris, struggling chanteuse Victoria (Julie Andrews) teams up with gay colleague Toddy (Robert Preston) to execute a daring masquerade: Victoria will become Victor (offstage), and then will cross-dress for her onstage act. In effect, she'll be a woman playing a man playing a woman. Victoria/Victor pulls it off, and his/her act captivates the City of Lights. When American King Marchand (James Garner) comes on the scene, he finds himself drawn to Victor, which distresses him greatly. Blake Edwards's musical triumph and a late-career showcase for real-life wife Andrews, this dazzling picture employs the venerable talents of tunesmiths Henry Mancini and Leslie Bricusse, not to mention reuniting Garner and Andrews almost twenty years after they made "The Americanization of Emily". The late, great Robert Preston nearly steals the film as Toddy. Now, that's entertainment.
My Beautiful Laundrette (1986)- Omar (Gordon Warnecke) is a young Pakistani Londoner who gets a shot at living the capitalist dream when his mob-connected Uncle Nasser (Saeed Jaffrey) asks him to manage a ramshackle laundromat. Soon after taking over, Omar runs into old school chum Johnny (Daniel Day-Lewis), now a working-class thug affiliated with the fascist National Front. Omar hires him despite his odious ideology, and the two become partners, and lovers. Stephen Frears's endearing, intelligent "Laundrette" is a dramatic, often humorous study of bigotry, sexuality, and social mobility in Thatcher-era Britain. Warnecke and Day-Lewis are convincing as distinct social types in eighties London-the striving immigrant under pressure to acculturate on one hand and marry a family acquaintance on the other; and the skinhead who turns on his mates to pursue a friendship with a loathsome "Paki." Coaxing fine support from his multiracial cast, Frears handles it all with tenderness and insight.
The Adventures Of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert (1994)- Invited to perform at a casino in the Australian outback, aging transsexual Bernadette (Terence Stamp)-still grieving for a recently deceased lover-reluctantly hops aboard a lavender school bus (dubbed "Priscilla") with drag artists Mitzi (Hugo Weaving) and Adam/Felicia (Guy Pearce). As they make the long trip to tiny, remote Alice Springs, the unusual, cross-dressing trio encounters a variety of bizarre characters, as well as open hostility. This campy, madcap road trip through the Aussie frontier was a huge hit in the U.S., loved for its cheeky humor and absurd scenarios-most involving awestruck locals encountering the gaudily clad men. Stamp delivers an aching, funny performance as a weathered transsexual who has begun to question his life's path. Weaving and Pearce are equally watchable as flamboyant drag queens with a gift for lip-synching show tunes. For a quirky, comic drama about lovable fringe types, hop aboard "Priscilla"!
Gods and Monsters (1998)- Still mentally spry but not in the best of health, elderly gay movie director James Whale (Sir Ian McKellen) strikes up a unique friendship with his new gardener, Clayton Boone (Brendan Fraser), whose hunky, youthful frame cheers the aging man's aesthetic sensibilities. Under the watchful eye of cheerless Hungarian housekeeper Hanna (Lynn Redgrave), Whale draws Boone into his artistic orbit, while the easygoing young man indulges his employer's remembrance of things past. The magnificent, under-exposed "Monsters" is a moving, elegiac twist on the last days of Whale, the real-life director of "Frankenstein." McKellen offers an elegantly witty, finely graded performance as the white-haired Whale, who obviously delights in teasing Fraser's Clayton, a straight ex-Marine who agrees to pose nude for the lonely old man. The movie's flashbacks to the set of Whale's "Bride of Frankenstein" are especially rewarding for their fealty both to the original material and to the neglected artistry of the film's creator. The magic of "Monsters" is subtle, but wholly effective.
L.I.E. (2001)- Howie (Paul Dano) is an adolescent Long Islander whose mother's death and father's neglect leave him open to a variety of perverse possibilities. At first, he falls in with a group of delinquents, befriending young tough Gary (Billie Kay), who sidelines as a male hustler. Still longing for a father figure, Howie eventually finds solace and support in Big John (Brian Cox), a back-slapping former Marine who takes more than a paternal interest in young boys. A gritty, take-no-prisoners yarn, "L.I.E" offers no easy answers or resolutions to Howie's plight, and its willingness to paint life's roadblocks in shades of gray is precisely what makes it work. While certainly not for every taste, "L.I.E" is a startlingly original, credible glimpse into humanity's underbelly and the rough and tumble ways of the street. Veteran player Brian Cox is fabulous as usual, as is Dano, who injects considerable pathos into a demanding role.
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