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Feel-good ‘Philomena’

Strong Dench performance anchors gay-themed dramedy

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Philomena, gay news, Washington Blade, Judy Dench, Steve Coogan
Philomena, gay news, Washington Blade, Judy Dench, Steve Coogan

Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in ‘Philomena.’ (Photo courtesy the Karpel Group)

With its winning combination of comedy, moral uplift and righteous indignation, and the surprisingly effective pairing of Dame Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, “Philomena” is an excellent addition to your holiday festivities.

The film is based on the true story of Philomena Lee (Dench), an unwed mother in Ireland who was forced to give her son up for adoption and to work in a convent laundry to atone for her sins and to reimburse the nuns for their obstetrical care. (The outrageous treatment of women like Philomena is explored in the award-winning 2002 documentary “The Magdalena Sisters.”)

With the help of former journalist and disgraced politician Martin Sixsmith (Coogan), she decides to track down her son. After being stonewalled by the nuns at the convent in Roscrea where Philomena was confined, the unlikely duo travel to Washington to follow up some promising leads.

Sixsmith discovers that Michael was adopted by wealthy American parents and ended up as a closeted advisor to President Ronald Reagan. Philomena is devastated to learn that her son died of AIDS, but the unlikely duo decide to track down Michael’s friends and family to find out more about the young man. Their road trip is both sad and funny, bringing together Philomena’s amusing observations of American life (she can’t wait to watch “Big Momma’s House” on the hotel TV) and the moving memories of Michael’s sister (who has been adopted from the same convent), female friend (and beard) and widower.

The screenplay by Coogan and Jeff Pope (based on Sixsmith’s memoir) deftly weaves together Philomena’s sexual indiscretion with her son’s repressive politics and closeted life, her unshaken faith in the Catholic Church against Sixsmith’s world-weary cynicism and atheism, and her belief in forgiveness versus the unyielding and unchanging judgments of the nuns. It leavens these serious themes with some delicious comic moments — Sixsmith’s interactions with his editor and former colleagues, Philomena’s delights at the perks of traveling on an expense account, and especially Philomena regaling the exasperated Sixsmith with the convoluted plot of one of her beloved romance novels.

But despite its many strengths, the screenplay does not fully manage to make the real-life story believable as a free-standing movie. For example, although we learn that Philomena has married and had children and moved to London, we never find out any details about her adult life. Likewise, we never learn in any detail about the scandal that has derailed Sixsmith’s high-flying career. These details could have amplified the powerful themes of redemption, betrayal and secrecy in powerful ways.

More seriously, though, the actions of the supporting characters are unmotivated. Michael’s widower, for example, goes to great lengths to avoid Martin and Philomena, but we never know why, and Michael himself remains a closeted but pleasant cipher.

Despite these flaws, the center of this thoroughly enjoyable movie is the stellar performance of Dame Judi Dench. She creates a richly multi-faceted character with great sensitivity and restraint. Her performance is ably echoed by the talented Sophie Kennedy Clark as the young Philomena in well-written flashback sequences. Both actresses bring to vivid life Philomena’s sensual delight in the fling that resulted in her pregnancy and the psychic and physical horrors of her cruel treatment by the avaricious nuns, as well the deep belief in the possibilities of human nature that brings about the powerful acts of forgiveness that cap the movie.

Dench is also well-supported by Coogan, who is best known for his comic turns in such movie as “Hamlet 2,” but shines in the more dramatic role of the disgraced politician Martin Sixsmith. As both writer and director, Coogan avoids the sentimental clichés that could have bogged the movie down and fully embraces the less savory aspects of Sixsmith’s character to make him a more effective foil to Philomena.

Both funny and inspirational, “Philomena” is satisfying holiday-season cinematic fare. It’s playing at Landmark E Street, Bethesda Row Cinemas and other area theaters.

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Music & Concerts

Janet Jackson doc premieres this weekend

Remembering 10 times iconic singer was there for LGBTQ community

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Janet Jackson’s two-part, four-hour documentary debuts this weekend. (File photo by Shilla Patel)

Iconic singer Janet Jackson, a longtime LGBTQ ally, unveils her long-awaited documentary simply titled “Janet” on Friday, Jan. 28. It concludes the following night; each installment is two hours long. 

Jackson has said she spent five years compiling footage and creating the documentary, which airs at 8 p.m. both nights on A&E and Lifetime networks. It was produced by Jackson and her brother Randy Jackson and it’s timed to commemorate the 40th anniversary of her 1982 debut album. 

An extended trailer for the film reveals Jackson will talk candidly about her brother Michael and the 2004 Super Bowl incident, including the news that Justin Timberlake reached out and asked her to join him during his widely panned 2018 Super Bowl return performance. 

Prior to the pandemic, Jackson announced a new studio album and tour titled “Black Diamond,” but both were postponed due to COVID. No official word about the status of either, but speculation is rampant that she will finally release the new album once the documentary airs.

“Musically, what I’ve done, like doing ‘Rhythm Nation’ or doing ‘New Agenda’ or doing ‘Skin Game,’ creating those bodies of work with Jimmy and Terry, I feel like I’ve laid a certain foundation,” Jackson tells Allure magazine in a new cover story this month. “I would hope that I’d be able to continue if I choose to. You know what I mean? But only time will tell.”

As Jackson’s legion of queer fans awaits this weekend’s premiere, the Blade takes a look back at 10 times Janet was there for the LGBTQ community. 

1. “The Velvet Rope” project. In 1997, Jackson released her critically acclaimed sixth studio album “The Velvet Rope,” an introspective and deeply personal collection of songs that touched on her depression, but also tackled LGBTQ issues. On the track “Free Xone,” she spoke out forcefully against anti-LGBT bias. She also covered Rod Stewart’s “Tonight’s the Night,” without changing the pronouns in the love song, prompting speculation about her sexual orientation. But it was her international No. 1 hit “Together Again” that continues to resonate with LGBTQ fans. An upbeat, joyful dance song, it was conceived as a tribute to Jackson’s friends who died of AIDS.

2. GLAAD award. In 2008, Ellen DeGeneres presented Jackson with the Vanguard Award at the 19th annual GLAAD Media Awards. GLAAD’s president said, “We are delighted to honor Janet Jackson at the 19th annual GLAAD Media Awards in Los Angeles as such a visible, welcoming and inclusive ally of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. Ms. Jackson has a tremendous following inside the LGBT community and out, and having her stand with us against the defamation that LGBT people still face in our country is extremely significant.”

3. Ebony magazine interview about her sexuality. In 2001, Jackson gave an interview to Ebony magazine in which she was asked about her sexual orientation. “I don’t mind people thinking that I’m gay or calling me gay,” she said. “People are going to believe whatever they want. Yes, I hang out at gay clubs … I go where the music is good. I love people regardless of sexual preference, regardless of race. No, I am not bisexual. I have been linked with dancers in our group because we are so close. I grew up in a big family. I love being affectionate. I love intimacy and I am not afraid to show it.”

4. Video support for It Gets Better, Trevor Project. In 2010, Jackson recorded a video for the Trevor Project and later appeared on CNN’s “Larry King Live” to promote awareness of youth suicide. “If you’re LGBT you’re probably thinking you’re all alone, but you’re not,” she said in the video. “I can relate because I was one of those kids who internalized everything.”

5. “State of the World Tour.” Jackson’s LGBTQ support continued in 2017. Her tour’s opening sequence highlighted a range of problems facing the world, from famine and war to police brutality and included a call for justice and for LGBTQ rights.

6. “The Kids.” Jackson has always employed a diverse crew of professional dancers for her videos and tours. Some of her closest friends and collaborators over the years have been prominent out gay and lesbian choreographers, singers, dancers, makeup artists and designers. She lovingly refers to her backup dancers as “the Kids.”

7. NYC Pride performance. In 2004, Jackson performed for a packed audience at Pride Dance NYC at Pier 54.

8. “Will & Grace” cameo. In 2004, Jackson made a memorable cameo on “Will & Grace,” judging a dance-off between Jack and another dancer.

9. HRC, AIDS Project Los Angeles awards. In 2005, Jackson was honored by both the Human Rights Campaign and AIDS Project Los Angeles for her work raising money for AIDS charities.

10. Janet’s Blade interview. In 2006, Jackson granted an exclusive interview to the Washington Blade. It was one of the rare times she touched on the Super Bowl controversy and her brother Michael’s acquittal on child molestation charges, telling Blade Editor Kevin Naff, “I got all of that out of my system, that’s not what I’m feeling right now. I wrote about [those controversies] but I didn’t choose to put it out there on the album.” In the interview, Jackson also reiterated her support for marriage equality, said she’d never had a sexual relationship with a woman and revealed that she’d never met Madonna.

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Out & About

International Women Club set for Jan. 24

Event at National Harbor

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International Women United Organizer will host “Multicultural International Women Club” on Monday, Jan. 24 at 7 p.m. at National Harbor.

The goal of this event is to bring together women from different countries and cultures for friendship, support and community. Guests will get to share interesting facts about their country, talk about their culture, values, styles, and differences with others while learning from others and making friends from all over the globe. Those who speak English as a second language are welcome to attend.

This event is free and more details are available on Eventbrite.

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Movies

SAG Award slate points to a not-very-queer Oscar night

‘Power of the Dog’ snubbed in Best Cast category

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Can Lady Gaga turn a SAG nomination into Oscar gold? (Photo courtesy of United Artists Releasing)

It’s mid-January, and pandemic or not, Hollywood’s “awards season” has kicked off in earnest.

The announcement last week of nominations for the 28th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards means that it’s now time for armchair pundits, bookmakers, and film journalists to start compiling their predictions for the Oscars, which everyone knows are the main event when it comes to Hollywood awards.

This should be a good-natured exercise in fun, driven by a love for the movies and a genuine appreciation of the artistry of the people who make them – but at a time when the film industry is under deep scrutiny for diversity and inclusion, things can get complicated. 

Since they are decided by members of a union that also makes up a substantial portion of the Academy’s voting body, the SAG Awards are considered a reliable bellwether for the Oscars race, though with fewer categories than the Academy, not to mention the complex interplay of personal loyalties and working relationships that undoubtedly influence their choices, they still leave room for a lot of speculation. Still, their record for aligning with the Academy’s eventual choices makes it worth factoring them in as we attempt to assess the chances for our favorite contenders to earn Oscar gold.

For Blade readers, of course, the key question is likely to be about which of the year’s LGBTQ movies are going to snag wins. Unfortunately, the answer to that question might be pretty bleak.

Of the 22 titles nominated within the SAG Awards’ six film categories, only one – “The Power of the Dog” – could be said to have any significant queer content. Others, like “West Side Story”, “tick, tick… BOOM!”, “The Eyes of Tammy Faye”, “Being the Ricardos”, or “House of Gucci”, have either LGBTQ-relevant elements in their narratives or obvious LGBTQ appeal in their subject matter, and some have both. But there is no “Moonlight” or “Call Me By Your Name” on which to hang the hope of a definitively queer winner in any category.

In the Best Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture race – which is essentially the SAG Awards’ equivalent of Best Picture – the biggest surprise is the omission of “Power of the Dog.” Filmmaker Jane Campion’s dark and subtle western about the toxic relationship between a domineering older rancher and his effeminate new nephew has been a fixture in the top categories at awards ceremonies so far, but despite earning nods in other categories, it was shut out of the competition for this one. That leaves little in the way of LGBTQ inclusion among the five nominees (“Belfast”, “CODA”, “Don’t Look Up”, “House of Gucci”, “King Richard”), but it doesn’t keep “Power” from being a front-runner at the Oscars, where the Best Picture category can include up to 10 contenders. Even if all five of the SAG choices make it into the Academy’s race, Campion’s movie is almost certainly going to be there, too. The same can probably be said of “West Side Story”, another presumptive front-runner, but given its track record of wins so far, “Power” still stands as our favorite to take the honor on Oscar night.

For Best Performance by a Female Actor in a Motion Picture, the lineup includes several films of LGBTQ interest. “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” which earned a nod for star Jessica Chastain, is a biopic that takes time to address its real-life protagonist’s surprising legacy as a queer ally; “Being the Ricardos,” though it contains no directly LGBTQ material, has the obvious appeal of focusing on Lucille Ball, a show biz icon beloved for decades by the gay community, who is portrayed with delicacy and respect by nominee Nicole Kidman; Jennifer Hudson’s star turn as Aretha Franklin – another legendary diva with queer appeal – snagged her a nomination for “Respect”; and finally, Ridley Scott’s “House of Gucci” grabbed another nod here for Lady Gaga, the only out member of the LGBTQ community in the running. It would be great to see Mother Monster take home this prize, but she’s got stiff competition; based on honors given out so far, she stands as a frontrunner, but with Hudson and Kidman in the mix, not to mention awards darling Olivia Colman (nominated for “The Lost Daughter”), it feels like anybody’s race. Win or lose at the SAGs, Gaga still has a strong chance of being included in Oscar’s Best Actress category – as does out actress Kristin Stewart, whose performance as Lady Diana in “Spencer” puts her solidly on the Oscar shortlist, despite being snubbed here.

Best Performance by a Male Actor in a Motion Picture might also be wide open. A few weeks ago, Benedict Cumberbatch would likely be the clear favorite to win for his towering performance as the closeted rancher in “Power of the Dog”, but after fellow nominee Will Smith’s win at the Golden Globes for “King Richard” his chances seem less sure. It’s a category that includes two Black actors – Smith and Denzel Washington (“The Tragedy of Macbeth”) – and on a slate that is otherwise dominated by white nominees it’s one of the few opportunities for the SAGs to diversify its winners’ circle. It’s also worth mentioning that Andrew Garfield, nominated for “tick, tick… BOOM!”, won the Globes prize for Best Actor in a Comedy or Musical, which combined with widespread acclaim for his performance makes him a strong contender to pull off an upset from either of the two frontrunners – a scenario likely to be repeated at the Academy Awards. In any case, Washington and Javier Bardem (nominated for playing Desi Arnaz in “Being the Ricardos”) are probably the dark horses here.

In the supporting categories, things look even less promising for LGBTQ inclusion. Nominated for “West Side Story” is Ariana DeBose, who is the clear favorite to win as Female Actor, though Kirsten Dunst’s quietly devastating performance in “Power of the Dog” has been accumulating considerable buzz, too. Both will likely be included at the Oscars as well. On the Male Actor side, the most clearly queer-friendly choice is Kodi Smit-McPhee, also for “Power of the Dog”; it’s a wild card category, skewed by the presence of big names (Ben Affleck and Bradley Cooper, nominated for “The Tender Bar” and “Licorice Pizza”, respectively) who might gain votes on the basis of star status alone, but Smit-McPhee has made a consistently strong showing throughout the awards race so far – and frankly, deserves to win just for his ability to hold his own opposite the charismatic Cumberbatch. He’s our favorite in the category not just here, but also on Oscar night.

The SAG Awards, of course, also present awards for television. Those don’t have much bearing on the Oscars, but it’s worth mentioning that the nominees there include LGBTQ-relevant favorites like “The Handmaid’s Tale”, “Succession”, “Hacks”, “The White Lotus”, and “Halston.” We’ll take a closer look at those when the Screen Actors Guild makes their presentation, which will air live on TNT and TBS, on Sunday, Feb. 27.

Meanwhile, it’s time to start working on those Oscar predictions. Ready, set… GO!

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