Author Emanuel Levy is a wealth of delightful anecdotes and insightful analysis about the movie industry. His ninth and latest book, which he describes as both his most ambitious and personal to date, examines the careers of five openly gay male directors.
“Gay Directors, Gay Films?,” slated for release on Tuesday, Aug. 25 from Columbia University Press, combines Levy’s close readings of about 70 movies with detailed examinations of the directors’ careers and his personal interviews with the filmmakers to create a compelling group portrait of five of the most influential directors working today.
Levy says his life has been dominated by a passion for film. He has had a long and distinguished career as both a film professor and film critic, which, he writes, has “been a way of anchoring myself in both the reel and the real world.” Levy has taught at Wellesley College, Columbia University and University of California-Los Angeles. He has been the chief film critic for Variety and Screen International. He’s also programmed a number of film festivals and served on juries at a number of prestigious international competitions, including Cannes and Sundance.
Among his books are biographies of George Cukor and Vincente Minnelli, two prominent Hollywood directors who were both marginalized and celebrated for their work on “women’s films” and musicals. Levy says, “They were quite a contrast. Cukor was openly gay; Minnelli was not. But both of their careers were negatively impacted by their sexuality.”
After writing about auteurs who were not able to explore explicitly gay material in their movies, Levy says it was a relief to look at the careers of five present-day directors. “It’s a different kind of research and excitement when you deal with contemporary directors whose careers are still evolving,” he says.
They were the first generation of gay directors who were able to live openly gay lives and deal with explicit LGBT material in their movies. All were born after World War II (they now range in age from 53-69) and began their careers in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Their careers were shaped by the rise of the LGBT rights movement as well as the reactionary response to increasing gay visibility and the devastating impact of the AIDS epidemic.
The five directors Levy writes about offer a rich picture of contemporary international queer cinema. They are:
- The prolific Spanish writer and director Pedro Almodóvar, best known for vibrant farces like “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” and moody melodramas like “All About My Mother.” He helped launch the careers of Antonio Banderas, Carmen Maura and Penelope Cruz. As Levy notes, his work is known for breaking down traditional film genres as well as “contesting the supposedly stable relationship among sex, gender, desire and sexual practice.”
- British director Terence Davies, praised for his distinctive visual style, whether in films inspired by his tough working-class childhood in Liverpool or in his adaptations of literary classics. His most accessible work, an adaptation of Edith Wharton’s “The House of Mirth,” helped star Gillian Anderson break out of her “X-Files” mold.
- American Todd Haynes, best known for “Velvet Goldmine” and “Far From Heaven”; his early movies “Poison” and “Safe” helped launch the career of Julianne Moore. According to Levy, his movies explore the fragile stability of middle-class suburbia and characters that cannot be constrained by rigid social structures.
- American Gus Van Sant, known for a diverse body of work that shines a spotlight on outsiders who have been marginalized by mainstream society. His best-known films include “Drugstore Cowboy,” “My Own Private Idaho,” “To Die For,” “Good Will Hunting” and “Milk.”
- Renegade filmmaker and Baltimore native John Waters, who describes himself as the “Prince of Puke.” His collaborations with Divine ranged from the gross-out masterpiece “Pink Flamingos” to the more mainstream “Hairspray,” which has ironically become the basis for a hit Broadway musical. Waters elevated trashy films to art-house status.
Levy draws some fascinating parallels between the careers and works of these five disparate directors. Not surprisingly, each of them examines people who have been marginalized by mainstream society and look at the social, political and economic forces that have shaped these outsiders. Because of this, their work is implicitly political. As Levy writes, “by turning their cameras on marginalized figures, they subvert the normal social hierarchy.” Collectively, they made gay cinema “more explicit, accessible and acceptable.”
And just as each has been shaped by changing social norms about homosexuality, each has been shaped by changes in the economics of the film industry. All of them have been able to move between the artistic freedom of small-budget independent releases and the larger budgets and audiences of mainstream releases.
Levy has dedicated the book to his late partner Rob Remley, who died of cancer in 2011. This is the first book he has written since Remley’s death and Levy has missed his partner’s support. “He was a very good editor,” Levy says. “He paid excellent attention to detail, which I’m not always good at.”
The two met in 1981 (the year that Almodóvar started his career, Levy notes) and their first date was seeing the John Waters movie “Polyester” (Levy says Waters still “gets a kick out of that.”).
While Levy’s thoughtful discussions of the films and filmmakers are deeply informed by his academic training, the book is lively and entertaining. It’s likely to spark heated debates between LGBT cinephiles and will encourage audiences to watch old favorites with a fresh eye and to seek out titles they missed.
Like everyone else in the film industry, Levy is hoping for a sequel.
“It will be nice to update it three or four years from now,” he says.
He hopes the revised book will include a new chapter on French director François Ozon (“8 Women”) and upcoming works by four of the directors in the current book. “Carol” by Todd Haynes received cheers at the recent Cannes Film Festival, where “A Sea of Trees” by Gus Van Sant was loudly jeered. “Sunset Song” by Terence Davies will premiere at the Toronto Film Festival this fall and Almodóvar’s “Silencio” will be featured at Cannes next year.
Levy is thrilled that the official book launch for “Gay Directors, Gay Films?” will be at the iconic Provincetown Book Store in the famous LGBT resort town.
“John Waters used to work there in the 1960s,” Levy says. “He still remembers handing out fliers for ‘Mondo Trasho’ there. I hope he’s able to make it to the book launch.”