Film about homosexuality in movies is condescending

June 20, 1998|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

Did you ever wonder about Edward Everett Horton? Ever think Walter Brennan was just a tad too devoted to Gary Cooper and Jimmy Stewart in those Westerns? And what was the real deal with Crosby and Hope, not to mention Lewis and Martin?

These are the questions posed, none too gracefully, by "The Silver Screen/Color Me Lavender," a tedious, condescending and smug Ph.D. dissertation disguised as a movie. Mark Rappaport, who directed such acclaimed films as "The Home Movies of Rock Hudson" (an underground classic) and "From the Journals of Jean Seberg," delivers his latest "cinema essay" with a thud, combining sophomoric observation with shallow explication and a long, uncomfortable elbow in the filmgoer's ribs.

Telling us very little that we don't know, endlessly pointing out the obvious, Rappaport doubtless has good points to make, but they're lost in an argument that is by turns heavy-handed and ridiculously cursory.

Rappaport contends that the Hollywood films of the 1930s portrayed homosexuality as an acceptable, even sophisticated preference through the prissy butlers and factotums played by Horton, Eric Blore, Franklin Pangborn and Eric Rhodes. "They were vain. They dished. They fumed. They fussed. They fidgeted. And they were gay," explains narrator Dan Butler ("Frasier") during the film's tacky-looking connective passages. "No one seemed to know, to notice, or, more importantly, to care."

But after that relatively more enlightened -- or at least laissez faire -- time, during World War II, the clamp came down. As the sex roles became more ambiguous, it became even more important for men to be more manly, especially in the films that purveyed the common values of the culture. Homosexuality went underground, usually in the form of winking, innuendo-laden humor.

All well and good. But "The Silver Screen/Color Me Lavender" drives its point home with endless sequences of clips, most of them from the Bob Hope-Bing Crosby "road" pictures and those Westerns in which Brennan served as part nanny, part nursemaid and part -- as Rappaport sees it -- boy-toy collector.

Rappaport has a convincing case. So why does he insist on undermining it with gross assumptions, shabby logic and innuendo of his own? He never stops to consider whether the enduring humor of men dressing up in drag might have to do with politics -- the empowered group purposefully becoming disempowered -- rather than the inevitable homoerotic impulse at work. He never explains why the George Sanders character in "All About Eve" wasn't really gay (unlike Clifton Webb in "Laura").

Although "The Silver Screen/Color Me Lavender" is putatively about Hollywood's "Golden Age" between the 1930s and the 1960s, even such an obvious text as "Some Like It Hot" is inexplicably left un-read (as the semioticians would say).

But that's all to the good. At least Billy Wilder was spared Rappaport's interpretive mischief, which is more than can be said of such 19th-century film pioneers as the Lumiere brothers and George Melies, whose film depicting an eclipse is subjected to an especially absurd moment of scrutiny.

These days, apparently, even the Man on the Moon isn't safe from leering speculation.

The Silver Screen/ Color Me Lavender

Starring Dan Butler

Directed by Mark Rappaport

Running time 101 minutes

Released by Planet Pictures

Rating Unrated

Sun Score: *

Pub Date: 6/20/98

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