'Philadelphia' hardly a Hollywood breakthrough

January 28, 1994|By Glenn Lovell | Glenn Lovell,Knight-Ridder News Service

Jonathan Demme's AIDS drama, "Philadelphia," is but the latest film to be heralded as a "breakthrough" by mainstream Hollywood. But placed beside earlier films to deal with gay issues, it looks positively archaic, skittish.

Ditto some scenes in John Guare's current "Six Degrees of Separation," with Stockard Channing and Will Smith. This otherwise smart new satire includes the most timid gay kiss since Christopher ("Superman") Reeve bussed Michael Caine in "Deathtrap."

The trailblazers? Andy Warhol, Gus Van Sant, Derek Jarman and Terence Davies. Among the villains (for their career-long gay-bashing): Otto Preminger, Alfred Hitchcock, Robert Aldrich, William Friedkin.

Here's a rundown of some real breakthrough titles.

* "The Strange One" (1957). The title tells all about this brooding little drama (by Calder Willingham) about an "outsider" (Ben Gazzara) in a Southern military academy.

* "The Children's Hour" (1962).

The second stab at the Lillian Hellman play starred Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine as private-school teachers undone by a vengeful student. Ads asked: "What made these women different? Did nature play them an ugly trick and endow them with emotions contrary to those of normal young women?"

* "The Fox" (1968). Sandy Dennis and Anne Heywood as D. H. Lawrence's lovers-turned-antagonists upon the arrival of a handsome young interloper (Keir Dullea). Could such a triangle end any way but tragically with Hollywood doing the geometry?

* "The Killing of Sister George" (1968). Even the ads had to be airbrushed for Mr. Aldrich's typically garish treatment of the Frank Marcus play about lesbians and the cutthroat world of daytime (BBC) soaps. Originally rated X for a then-shocking love scene between Coral Browne and Susannah York.

* "The Boys in the Band" (1970). Mart Crowley's off-Broadway play, adapted by Friedkin as a pre-"Exorcist" exorcism of gay guilt. Less reprehensible than Mr. Friedkin's later leather-trade thriller, "Cruising," but still politically backward.

* "Sunday, Bloody Sunday" (1971). Another triangle, this one featuring a bisexual Murray Head, Glenda Jackson and Peter Finch. Beautifully played, especially by Mr. Finch as a middle-age closeted gay. Definitely a groundbreaker.

* "Death in Venice" (1971). Gay guilt played full-tilt, in this gorgeous Luchino Visconti period piece, awash in the music of Gustav Mahler. Dirk Bogarde starred as Thomas Mann's ill-fated artist.

* "Dog Day Afternoon" (1975). Finally! A strong, multi-faceted gay hero -- compliments of Al Pacino, director Sidney Lumet and writer Frank Pierson.

* "La Cage aux Folles" (1978). This French farce about a gay couple attempting to hide homosexuality inspired last year's "The Wedding Banquet" and broke all kinds of art-house records.

* "Lianna" -- "Desert Hearts" (1983 and 1985, respectively). Two well-done dramas about basically hetero heroines who find direction and self-worth through flirtatious lesbian affairs. Would be dismissed as cop-outs now.

* "Prick Up Your Ears" (1987). This Joe Orton bio-pic featured some of the most graphic peeks into the gay demimonde. It starred Gary Oldman as the happily promiscuous playwright and Alfred Molina as his jealous lover. Stephen Frears directed.

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