My family and I spent the last two nights surrounded by hundreds of screaming gay men. No, we weren’t at a bar in West Hollywood, we were just out at the movies. Thursday night we went to the singalong “Dreamgirls” at the outdoor John Anson Ford Theatre in the Hollywood Hills. Writer/director Bill Condon introduced the film (which contained subtitles for all of the song lyrics—as if everyone in that audience didn’t know all the words by heart!) and brought out special guest Loretta Devine who was the original Lorell in the 1982 play (and was the only original cast member to have a brief cameo in the film version). The crowd went wild when Devine sang Lorell’s big number “Ain’t No Party,” a great song that was cut from the film.
Part of me loves the camaraderie and fun of these singalong movies we go to (we’ve been to a bunch of them over the years including “The Sound of Music,” “Mary Poppins,” and “Chicago”) but another part of me always wants to tell everyone to just shut up and listen to the real singers. Not the best attitude for a singalong, huh? Thursday night’s crowd was particularly boisterous, and since alcohol is allowed to flow freely at the John Anson Ford, some of the guys got progressively more wild as the evening wore on. By the time Jennifer Hudson nailed “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” there were shirtless men running up and down the aisles, fake microphones in hand, writhing in ecstasy to Effie White’s every gesture. At other movie singalongs, the crowd can be a little timid, reluctant to raise their voices for fear of drowning out the actors. No fears of this at the “Dreamgirls” celebration. The people behind us were singing so loudly that I could barely hear Eddie Murphy “steppin’ to the bad side.” The management responded to the din by raising the volume of the film to such a deafening level that my ears are still ringing 48 hours later. Leah was keeping tally of how many bottles of wine were being consumed by the pierced, tattooed man in front of us who was mirroring all of Beyoncé’s dance movements and at that point probably thought he was Beyoncé. Oy, I realize I’m painting the kind of stereotyped picture of gay events that feeds right into the agendas of right-wing homophobes who want everyone to believe that the gay lifestyle is one big debauchery fest. It’s not, of course, but let’s face it—a singalong screening of “Dreamgirls” is not the place where anyone is going to hide his inner flamboyancy under a bushel. The evening was a blast but by the time we streamed out of the theatre I felt like I needed to spend a week in a sensory deprivation tank.
But instead of immersing ourselves in quiet repose, last night found us at the Arclight Cinemas for the opening day screening of the frenetic “Hairspray,” the movie version of the Broadway musical that was based on the original 1988 John Waters film starring Ricki Lake as chubby Tracy Turnblad and the late crossdressing actor Divine as Tracy’s mother Edna. “Hairspray” was John Waters’ first foray into the mainstream, the first time one of his movies wasn’t Rated R or X. Although I think the Broadway musical and new film are great fun, each incarnation of this story loses some of the grittiness of the original. While all three ventures focus on race relations in the early 60s and the attempts by Tracy and others to integrate the all-white Corny Collins Show, an American Banstand-like teen dance show, the new film is a little too “nice.”
The only bona fide racists in the film are TV station manager Velma Von Tussle, played by Michelle Pfeiffer, resplendent in teased blond hair, blue eye shadow, and white lipstick, along with deeply repressed Prudy Pingleton, played by a twitching Allison Janney. The rest of Baltimore seems pretty far removed from the racial tensions of 1962 America. Sure, black children aren’t allowed to dance on the Corny Collin Show except for the once-a-month “Negro Day,” and true, the African-American kids at Tracy’s public high school seem to end up in detention quite a bit, but the stakes really don’t seem very high for anyone in this film. Okay, I get it, this is a musical depicting a fantasy cotton candy version of early 60s Baltimore, not a civil rights documentary. But here’s my beef. I truly believe they could have kept all the fun, great music, and parody while still conveying a more accurate picture of what the real struggle was like (as the original film did much more effectively). I worry that all the young kids flocking to this film to see teen idols Zac Efron (as Tracy’s hunky love interest Link Larkin) and Amanda Bynes (Tracy’s lollipop-sucking best friend Penny Pingleton who longs to have a black boyfriend and become a “checkerboard girl”) will leave the theatre with the terribly skewed impression that the civil rights movement was about a TV show, was led by a white girl, and came to a very happy non-violent conclusion in early 1962.
That said, the film is a joy to watch. Newcomer Nikki Blonsky is so appealing as Tracy Turnblad that I hope evil Michelle Pfeiffer’s predictions that Tracy’s size and weight will prevent her from a career in show business don’t prove to be true in real life. The teen cast is joined by such veterans as Christopher Walken (playing Tracy’s hapless dad), James Marsden (a pitch-perfect Corny Collins), and Queen Latifah (as Motormouth Maybelle, the host of Negro Day). The dancing and singing are superb throughout, so I was even more disappointed by the lack of historically accurate oomph. It’s one thing to have Tracy begin the fight for integration, but the way most of the town goes along with it so easily defies credulity and misses some great opportunities for lambasting the bigoted mobs of the time. In the early 60s, Baltimore’s anti-miscegenation laws were still in effect. So at the end of the film when Amanda Bynes’ Penny starts making out with her black boyfriend Seaweed (Elijah Kelley) on the air, the Corny Collins Show would not only have been shut down, the entire TV station probably would have been fire bombed! I’m not even sure that John Waters would have attempted such a kiss in his 1988 film. It’s great that times have changed to the point where today’s audiences don’t see an interracial kiss as a big deal, but this is supposed to be 1962!
“Dreamgirls” also begins in 1962 and depicts a far more realistic view of black-white relations even though that isn’t the central focus of the film. We told some of our friends at the singalong about our plans to see “Hairspray” on its opening day, expecting to hear that they’d be camping out in front of the theatre in anticipation of the film’s first showing. To our surprise, several people we spoke to said they were boycotting the film because of John Travolta’s starring role as Edna Turnblad. Travolta’s devotion to the anti-gay Scientologist movement, the constant speculation that he himself is a closeted gay, and his dogged insistence in recent interviews that “Hairspray” is not a “gay film,” has soured some gay people to the new version. As our friends said, ANY movie musical, even if it is about the New York Stock Exchange or fly fishing, is a gay movie!
Frankly, I don’t think any grass roots boycott is going to keep gay people away from “Hairspray” for long. Nor should it. As much as I am repulsed by everything I know about the Church of Scientology, I can’t condemn John Travolta or his performance even though I think it was a misfire. Travolta decided to play the character as a real woman. In interviews he compares his Edna to a fuller-figured Sophia Loren. But shying away from the obvious Drag Queen persona sort of misses the point, in my opinion. It was precisely because Divine and Harvey Fierstein (in the Broadway play) were so grotesque as Edna Turnblad, especially before Edna’s big makeover, that helped make the overall lessons of the film so poignant. By playing the part of Edna completely straight, Travolta did “de-gay” the movie to some extent, and that’s not a good thing.
“Dreamgirls” and “Hairspray” were both created by mostly gay white men, many of them Jewish. Both stories are about showbiz. And yet, there’s not a single gay character in either film. For that matter, you’d be hard pressed to find any Jews in these stories. No gays or Jews in showbiz? About as likely as a dearth of Catholics at the Vatican. Of course in both of these films I think you could say that the black/white issues also stand in for the even more taboo gay/straight ones that the creators endured growing up. Both films follow the struggles of characters who are not accepted into the mainstream, who try desperately to fit in, and who ultimately discover their own voice and learn to celebrate their uniqueness. When Queen Latifah sings that “there’s a dream in the future, there’s a struggle we have yet to win; and there's pride in my heart ‘cause I know where I'm going and I know where I’ve been,” she could just as easily be at a Gay Pride march as a civil rights protest. Tracy Turnblad says that she wishes every day were Negro Day. At least they got a day. Imagine a same-sex couple trying to integrate the Corny Collins Show!
Speaking of unlikely advocates of gay rights, I was very saddened to hear that Tammy Faye Messner died yesterday after a long struggle with cancer. By all rights, Tammy Faye should have remained a laughingstock in this country, and she was certainly made fun of before, during, and after the scandal that brought down the evangelical empire she created with her disgraced ex-husband Jim Bakker. But like Tracy Turnblad, Tammy Faye defied the odds. While never taking off her outrageous make-up or toning down her flamboyant wardrobe, Tammy Faye showed the world what a real Christian is, and to many people’s surprise, including my own, proved time and again that she was one of the most loving, accepting people on the planet. As I wrote last January, while this woman used to make me shriek in horror when I watched “The PTL Club” in the 1980s, I became a huge fan. Perhaps it was the Fall from Grace that had such a positive effect on Tammy Faye, but whatever it was, she showed as much courage as some of our country's biggest civil rights leaders when she defied her own church’s teachings and fully accepted gay people into her heart without a trace of cynicism. When a gravely ill Tammy Faye appeared on Larry King last week, weighing only 65 pounds, she said, “I believe when I leave this earth, because I love the Lord, I’m going straight to heaven.” I hope she enjoyed the ride.
In honor of Tammy Faye's love for people of all stripes and persuasions, here’s a brief look at the exuberance of John Waters’ original “Hairspray.”