Saturday, May 16, 2020

Reverend's Reviews: Au Revoir, Hollywoodland

Once upon a time, there was a magical kingdom called Hollywoodland. It was a place where dreams came true... at least for some. The kingdom's name was later shortened to Hollywood but it continues to exist in Southern California today. There isn't a lot going on there right now though, so I recommend a trip back in time with the help of out megaproducer Ryan Murphy.

Murphy's stylish new historical fantasy Hollywood is now streaming on Netflix. It centers on an ethnically- and sexually-diverse group of actors and filmmakers trying to break into the film industry in the aftermath of World War II. This was the era when the world-famous Hollywood sign actually read "Hollywoodland" until 1949. While some of the series' characters are fictional or fictionalized, many players during the "golden age" of movies are included: closeted actor Rock Hudson; actresses Vivien Leigh, Anna May Wong and Tallulah Bankhead; gay director George Cukor; and African-American Oscar winner Hattie McDaniel (reincarnated here by Queen Latifah).

The show also draws considerable inspiration from the late Scotty Bowers' memoir "Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars". Bowers was a former Marine who ran a Los Angeles gas station that ended up as a front for celebrities (male and female) looking to hire young men for, shall we say, private entertainment. The leading men in Hollywood all start out working or connecting at the Golden Tip, a service station run by the Bowers-esque Ernie West (a dapper and funny Dylan McDermott).

All end up drawn to a biopic – written by a black and gay screenwriter played by the sexy Jeremy Pope – inspired by the real-life story of Peg Entwistle. The frustrated actress famously committed suicide at the age of 24 by jumping from the "H" of the old Hollywoodland sign. When the film's first-time director campaigns for his African-American girlfriend to play the title role in Peg, it sparks not only a dramatic metamorphosis of the project but the entire industry.

I've heard from some Hollywood viewers who have been confused by Murphy's approach in mixing the real and fictional here. “I wanted to do something where I gave some, if not all, of these people a happy ending,” Murphy recently told Time magazine. “How do I make a commentary on the power of Hollywood to change hearts and minds? I decided to put together a fictional alternative-universe Hollywood and then populated it with some real people, and other fictional characters loosely based on real people.” What most struck me about his series, though, is how it reveals the gay "power behind the throne" of the old studio system. Its mostly Jewish founders along with (albeit closeted) gay men truly made the film industry what it became.

The show's cast comprised of both seasoned veterans and talented newcomers is excellent. In addition to the previously mentioned Latifah and McDermott, there's Patti Lupone as a studio head's wife who unexpectedly ends up in charge, Jim Parsons as a viciously manipulative talent manager, Holland Taylor as a casting director, Darren Criss as Peg's bi-racial director, Mira Sorvino as an aging actress, Michelle Krusiec as the criminally neglected Anna May Wong and, best of all, stage actor-director Joe Mantello as a closeted studio exec. Jake Picking makes an impression as Rock Hudson despite looking and sounding little like him, but David Corenswet proves to be the real deal as fictional lead character Jack Castello.

Entertaining and sexy, Hollywood is also uneven in tone at times (like most of Murphy's oeuvre) and has some melodramatic elements that verge on camp. However, it ends on a powerfully retro-hopeful note. Women, gay men and people of color end up in power positions that are still denied to too many of us even today. It's sad that the series' vision remains more a fantasy than reality.

Speaking of melodramatic, the gay-themed 1967 movie Reflections in a Golden Eye has just been released on Blu-ray for the first time courtesy of the Warner Bros. Archive Collection. Although it is an adaptation of Southern writer Carson McCullers' 1947 novel about secret passions on a US Army base, the film plays more like Tennessee Williams. This is heightened by the presence of lead actors Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor, who previously headlined screen versions of several of Williams' famous plays including A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

In Reflections, Brando plays Major Weldon Penderton. The buttoned-up officer becomes smitten with handsome young Private Williams, who is given to nude horseback riding and sunbathing so who wouldn't become smitten? Williams is played by Robert Forster (who passed away last year) in his film debut. Meanwhile, Penderton's flamboyant, party-throwing wife Leonora (Taylor) is having an affair with another officer played by Brian Keith. I laughed out loud when I read the salacious copy on the Blu-ray's cover: "In the loosest sense he is her husband... and in the loosest way she is his wife!"

The movie was given prestige cred by the great director John Huston and renowned producer Ray Stark, who would later re-team, somewhat oddly, on the 1982 film version of Annie. Unfortunately, too much is left unexplained about Reflections' main characters for it to be satisfying, despite featuring what may be Brando's most vulnerable performance on screen; his Southern accent is sometimes unintelligible though. Another plus is the cinematography by Aldo Tonti and an uncredited Oswald Morris. Of note, the movie was initially released with a gold hue throughout, which Huston intended, but the studio replaced it with full color prints one week later. The Blu-ray includes remastered versions of both the golden and regular versions. Reflections in a Golden Eye is primarily worth watching today for this visual novelty.

Of course, Hollywood hasn't been the exclusive domain of filmmakers for some time now. Today marks the virtual theatrical opening in Los Angeles and elsewhere of New French Shorts 2020, the latest collection in an annual showcase of some of the most exciting new short films and cinematic voices from France. Online ticket purchases for this nearly 150-minute program will help support currently closed art house theaters across the US. For a full list of cities and theaters that will benefit, visit the KinoMarquee website.

These seven shorts run the gamut from animation to absurdist comedy with a substantial dose of queer romance, and include award winners from the Cannes Film Festival, Locarno, Palm Springs ShortFest and more. The program's two gay tales are well worth watching. The Distance Between Us and the Sky involves a meeting of two young men at a remote gas station in Greece. While one fills up his motorcycle, the other haggles provocatively for some euros so he can get home to Athens. While Vasilis Kekatos' film is sexually charged, it ends on a very sweet and romantic note. It won both the Short Film Palme d'Or and the Queer Palme at Cannes in 2019.

Marine Leveel's Magnetic Harvest (La traction de pĂ´les, which may serve as a double entendre) is the second gay short. Lonely farmer Mika is busily searching for a lost pig and trying to get his organic farming certification. The return of his longtime but platonic friend, Paul, might just provide Mika a respite from looking for love online. Time and circumstance will tell. Both lead actors as well as Mika's hookup are attractive in a refreshingly naturalistic way. This film is a charmer, but all of this year's French Shorts selections are well worth checking out.

Reverend's Ratings:
Hollywood: B+
Reflections in a Golden Eye: C
New French Shorts 2020: B+

Reviews by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film and stage critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.