Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Reverend’s Reviews: Inspiring Figures Shine in New DVDs

Judge Vaughn Walker’s ruling overturning Proposition 8 is the latest historic step toward full equality for GLBT citizens of the US. It is important to note, though, that it wouldn’t have been possible without the courage and persistence of a number of gay men and lesbian women who have prepared the way.

One of these figures, Charlene Strong, is the subject of the acclaimed documentary For My Wife: The Making of an Activist for Marriage Equality. The film will be released August 31 on DVD courtesy of Cinema Libre Studio.

Strong’s partner of nine years, Kate Fleming, was the victim of a tragic flooding incident in their Seattle home. As Fleming lay dying in a local hospital, medical personnel refused to allow Strong to visit since she wasn’t legally her partner’s next-of-kin. Strong subsequently fought for the establishment of hospital visitation rights for same-sex partners, and was instrumental in the expansion of Washington state’s Domestic Partnership laws.

For My Wife seems like a promo for GLAAD (the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) when it showcases the organization’s training program, which Strong went through; this unfortunately distracts from Strong’s inspiring story. So long as the film’s focus is on her and her memories of Fleming — who is heard at one point, eerily, via a recorded birthday message to Strong — For My Wife is a powerful testament to how GLBT love can translate into political power.

Another new DVD release, Off and Running (out August 17), spotlights the joys and challenges experienced within a family raised by a same-sex couple (the movie is also scheduled for a September broadcast on PBS; check local listings). It’s not unlike a real-life The Kids Are All Right: lesbian couple Travis and Tovah Klein-Cloud adopted three children of different races/ethnicities over the course of several years. “Our family nickname is ‘the United Nations’,” their African-American middle daughter, Avery, writes in a letter to her birth mother. Her older brother is of mixed race and their younger brother is Korean.

As the film begins, Avery has just been informed of the identity of the woman who gave her up for adoption while she was an infant. The discovery and Avery’s subsequent identity crisis launches the whole family on a journey that threatens at times to tear them apart.

Travis and Tovah, who are Jewish and who met after each had adopted a child, deserve special commendation, as do all couples who have taken in children needing a loving and secure home. They are naturally confused and concerned as Avery grows increasingly distant from them, and watch helplessly as Avery’s performance at school also suffers. As Travis says of their troubled daughter, “She’s deep in her own dramas.”

Off and Running is an excellent, insightful exploration of a contemporary American family, and is unquestionably more true-to-life than a certain current movie starring Annette Bening and Julianne Moore.

Playwright Tennessee Williams may not be as contemporary but has left a significant imprint on GLBT progress. The author of such classic works as The Glass Menagerie, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and A Streetcar Named Desire was adept at creating sympathetic portrayals of characters on society’s margins, including prostitutes, addicts, the mentally ill and homosexuals. A gay man himself, Williams passed away in 1983.

After his death, a number of unproduced writings were discovered among Williams’ possessions. One of them was a screenplay entitled The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond. Written in 1957, it finally made its way to the big screen in 2009, albeit in limited release. It is set for release on DVD and Blu-ray on September 7.

The film boasts an impressive cast: Bryce Dallas Howard (daughter of director Ron Howard, most recently seen as the vengeful vampire, Victoria, in The Twilight Saga: Eclipse); Chris Evans (who made a very hot Human Torch in the Fantastic Four movies and will be seen next summer as Captain America); film vets Ellen Burstyn and Ann-Margret; and Mamie Gummer, who happens to be Meryl Streep’s daughter.

The central character in The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond is — true to Williams’ form — a disgraced young socialite, Fisher Willow (Howard). After happily living abroad in Europe for several years, Fisher is summoned home to Memphis, Tennessee by her imperious aunt (Ann-Margret) in the wake of a family scandal.

While the aunt connives to marry her niece off to a wealthy, respectable suitor, Fisher is drawn to Jimmy Dobine V (Evans). The handsome young man is penniless but is the grandson of a well-admired, former governor of Tennessee. Complications both dramatic and romantic ensue when Jimmy escorts Fisher to a Halloween party and the expensive bauble of the film’s title goes missing.

The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond is beautifully photographed (by Giles Nuttgens), and Williams’ script includes such quotable observations as “A person of my kind never has enough money” and “Propriety is a waste of time.” There is also a moment when a man overtly checks out Jimmy’s manhood in a restroom, as well as a scene wherein Jimmy strips “to the skin” (off camera, unfortunately) so two men can thoroughly search him for the lost earring.

Sadly, though, there isn’t much else to recommend The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond. Jodie Markell’s direction is stilted and the performances are disappointingly one-note, save Jessica Collins as a waitress yearning for “release” from her dead-end life. Still, it’s good to know that Williams’ pioneering spirit lives on.

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.

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