Legendary Oscar host of yore Bob Hope once joked the ceremony was known at his house as Passover. Many LGBT and black filmmakers could say the same this year.
Although 2015 was a great year for LGBT movies, when the nominations for the 88th annual Academy Awards were announced, queer films were more likely to be on the snubbed list than included among the nominees.
When the nominations were broadcast last week, movie audiences were surprised they were dominated by three spectacular but rather conventional genre movies: “The Revenant” with 12 nominations, “Mad Max: Fury Road” (10) and “The Martian” (seven). Like the Academy itself, the list of nominees is overwhelmingly straight, white and male.
Most notably, not one of the 20 nominations for acting went to people of color. In a rather bizarre scenario, Sylvester Stallone received a sentimental nomination for his supporting performance in “Creed,” the well-received “Rocky” sequel, although writer/director Ryan Coogler and lead actor Michael B. Jordan (both African American) were overlooked. Likewise, the only nomination for the Ice Cube biopic “Straight Outta Compton” was for its white screenwriters Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff. .
Most surprisingly, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” which smashed box office records, received strong reviews and featured excellent performances by a diverse cast, only received five nominations for design and technical awards. It was not nominated for Best Picture, Best Director or Best Original Screenplay or in any of the acting categories.
On the LGBT front, critical and audience favorite “Carol” received six nominations. Cate Blanchett was nominated for Leading Actress, although her co-star Rooney Mara was nominated in the Supporting Actress category (the result of a cynical but strategic Oscar campaign by the Weinstein Company). Other nominations went to Phyllis Nagy (Adapted Screenplay), Carter Burwell (Score), Ed Lachman (Cinematography) and Sandy Powell (Costume Design). In a surprising move, the lesbian romance did not receive a Best Picture nomination, even though the Academy only nominated eight movies for the 10 potential slots. Openly gay director Todd Haynes was also snubbed.
“The Danish Girl” received four nominations. Eddie Redmayne (who won the Oscar last year for his performance as Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything”) was nominated in the Leading Actor category, but his co-star Alicia Vikander was nominated for the Supporting Actress award (also the result of a studio campaign). Eve Stewart and Michael Standish were nominated for Production Design and Paco Delgado was nominated for Costume Design. Director Tom Hooper and Screenwriter Lucinda Coxon were not recognized and the film did not receive a Best Picture nomination.
Other LGBT movies fared even worse. Even though “Best of Enemies” was short-listed in the Best Documentary category, it did not receive a nomination. Likewise “Viva” and “The Club,” both of which were short-listed for Best Foreign Language Film, were shut out.
Even more disappointing, “Tangerine” failed to receive any nominations, even though it was included on more than 60 “top ten” lists by national critics, ranking higher on Metacritic’s summary list than “The Revenant” and “The Martian.” Direct Sean Baker and his talented production team were completely shut out, despite their innovative and highly praised use if iPhone video technology. Despite the buzz surrounding her breakout performance, trans performer Mya Tayler went unrecognized.
Other LGBT artists who went unnoticed by the Academy include Andrew Haigh (director of “45 Years”) and Lily Tomlin (“Grandma”).
There is, however, one category that is dominated by LGBT artists: Best Original Song. In a historic move for Oscar voters, transgender musician Antony Hegarty is nominated for her lyrics for “Manta Ray” from the little-known documentary “Racing Extinction,” about activists trying to save endangered species from extinction. Hegarty, lead singer for Antony and the Johnsons, is only the second known trans artist to be nominated for an Oscar. She follows in the footsteps of Angela Morley who was nominated for “The Slipper and the Rose” (1976) and “The Little Prince” (1974).
In addition, openly gay singer Jimmy Napes and his straight writing partner are nominated for “Writing’s On the Wall,” the theme song from the latest Bond flick “Spectre.” Lady Gaga and Diane Warren are also nominated for “Til It Happens to You” from “The Hunting Ground” the hard-hitting documentary about rape on college campuses.
Finally, “Spotlight,” which did feature a powerful performance by Michael Cyril Creighton as a gay survivor of clerical abuse, was nominated for six awards, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay.
While the disappointing lack of diversity among the nominees may take some of the luster away from the so-called gay high holy day, there are still some excellent LGBT films and nominees to cheer on when the Academy Awards are presented on Feb. 28 (while you tweet to #OscarsSoWhite).
Triumphant ‘In the Heights’ is the musical we need
An infectious celebration of community, driven by a Latin beat
As the long-awaited film version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights” hits the screen this weekend, it’s impossible not to reflect on the fate of the Hollywood musical.
Once one of the movie industry’s most popular genres, the musical has been an inseparable part of Hollywood history ever since sound first came to the silver screen in 1927, launching a “golden age” in which the genre ruled the box office for more than 30 years.
Then the ‘60s happened. A generation disillusioned and distrustful of the “American Dream” hungered for edgier material than the old-fashioned fare enjoyed by their parents. The old studio system was failing, and although it managed to score some hits with blockbuster adaptations of Broadway shows like “My Fair Lady” and “The Sound of Music,” by the end of the decade such movies felt incredibly tone-deaf in an American culture torn apart by turmoil. The country had lost its innocence, and despite occasional attempts to “reboot” the genre in the years ever since, the reign of the Hollywood musical was effectively over.
Until now, perhaps.
“In the Heights” arrives with a considerable amount of anticipation behind it. Adapted from the Tony-winning 2008 Broadway hit that brought Lin-Manuel Miranda into the limelight and paved the way for him to create “Hamilton” a few years later, it centers on a hard-working bodega owner named Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), who serves as our guide for a sweeping musical portrait of Manhattan’s Washington Heights – an area mostly populated by Latin people of color from immigrant families – that follows the stories of several interconnected characters as they pursue their hopes and dreams. With songs by Miranda and a script by Quiara Alegría Hudes (who also wrote the book for the stage production), it showcases a diverse cast that also includes Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Stephanie Beatriz, Gregory Diaz IV, Dascha Polanco, Jimmy Smits, Marc Anthony, and Olga Merediz, reprising her Broadway role as Abuela Claudia. Even Miranda himself shows up in the ensemble.
Needless to say, there was a lot of buzz around the film even before its release was postponed for a year due to COVID. If you’re wondering if it lives up to that buzz, the answer is a resounding “yes.” Onstage, “In the Heights” was an infectious celebration of community, driven by an irresistible Latin beat and infused with an uplifting message about following your dreams in the face of adversity. On film, as directed by John M. Chu (“Crazy Rich Asians”), it more than meets the challenge of translating all that energy to the screen – and in the process, it accomplishes a whole lot more.
First and foremost, it delivers the almost euphoric refreshment that comes from seeing a major Hollywood film populated almost entirely by people of color. In today’s cultural environment, the power of this cannot be overstated.
Yet “In the Heights” does not let itself get weighed down by any perceived importance. Instead, it wins us over with good-natured approachability, personified by the endearing and charismatic Ramos in what deserves to be a star-making performance. He is joined by an ensemble of co-stars whose talents are quickly proven to be a match for his own.
Chu leans into the strength of his players, but he also recognizes that the real star of “In the Heights” is its music, and unlike many modern musicals, his movie fully embraces its songs as its entire reason for being. Miranda’s extensive score is delivered largely intact, affording the composer’s signature blend of showtunes and rap the spotlight it deserves. Even more importantly, Chu (aided by gifted collaborators like cinematographer Alice Brooks and choreographer Christopher Scott) uses it as a platform on which to build something truly audacious and wholly unexpected – a triumphant return to form for the Hollywood musical.
There have been new entries in the genre in the years since its decline, and a few of them, like Bob Fosse’s “Cabaret,” have even been great films. Still, these and other such successful one-offs have bent the formula to meet the prevailing cynicism of the postmodern age, merging reality with fantasy in a way that minimizes the need for jaded contemporary audiences to suspend their disbelief when a character bursts into song. They succeed not because they embrace the traditional conceits of the art form, but because they reinvent them – and often, with a palpable sense of irony.
The old musicals required no such tactics. Rather than distancing audiences from the escapism of the format, they encouraged people to revel in it. There was a kind of magic being projected on the screen, and everybody in the theater was not only willing, but eager to believe in it. Moviegoers today are no longer able to accept that kind of artificiality – or at least, that’s become the conventional wisdom in Hollywood, which seems to have forgotten how to make a musical that doesn’t feel like it’s actually apologizing for being a musical.
“In the Heights” never apologizes. Executed with breathtaking cinematic vision and a healthy dose of “magical realism” that does nothing to undercut its streetwise swagger, “In the Heights” comes closer than any film in recent memory to recapturing the elusive charm that made the musical genre the pinnacle of cinematic excellence for so many decades. Filled with one dazzling musical number after another, it pays homage to its heritage – a swimming pool sequence suggests the intricate spectacles conceived by Busby Berkeley, a sublime pas de deux on a fire escape evokes MGM’s masterful technicolor dreamscapes of the 1950s, the film’s location cinematography invites associations with “West Side Story” — while audaciously asserting itself as a product of its own time. And though it acknowledges the hardships faced by its characters in a modern world – gentrification, threat of deportation, economic struggle, bigotry – it counters those realities with a generous spirit of empathy and inclusion (and yes, that includes LGBTQ people, too) and manages to elicit the kind of un-ironic hope that shone like a beacon in those glorious musicals of old. It makes us want to believe in the magic.
Whether or not that’s enough to revive the Hollywood musical, only time will tell. In the meantime, “In the Heights” is exactly what we need after enduring the long isolation of a pandemic – and although it’s being simultaneously released on HBO Max, it’s also the perfect excuse to venture into a theater once more.
It deserves to be seen on the big screen, and you deserve to see it there.
Legendary dance troupe takes spotlight in ‘Ballerina Boys’ doc
Challenging rigid gender norms entrenched in the art form and society
When we think of LGBTQ activism in the 1970s, we tend to think of picket signs, protest marches, and people carrying megaphones – but it also took other forms.
Back in the heady post-Stonewall days of what was then called the “Gay Liberation” movement, a different approach to the struggle for acceptance was taking seed at a run-down performance space in Manhattan’s Meat Packing District, where a group of classically trained dancers – all men – were performing drag versions of the great ballets. They called themselves Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, and nearly five decades later they have become a world-renowned dance company, known as much for carrying a message of equality, inclusion and social justice as they are for delivering classical ballet both en pointe and in drag.
If you’ve never heard of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo (lovingly known as “The Trocks” by their fans), it’s not a surprise. After all, ballet is something of a “niche” interest these days, particularly in American culture, and only those with a natural affinity for the art form are drawn to it – so anyone unfamiliar with the company can certainly be forgiven.
That is, until now.
In honor of Pride Month, PBS’s venerable “American Masters” is debuting a new documentary about the Trocks. “Ballerina Boys,” directed and produced by Chana Gazit and Martie Barylick, presents a portrait of the company as they tour the Carolinas and culminates with their 2019 performance at the Stonewall 50th anniversary concert in NYC’s Central Park. Along the way, it goes for a deep dive into the history of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, offering up plentiful rehearsal and performance footage, both from the company’s archives and from the tour, and weaving everything together with in-depth interviews from past and present members of the troupe.
What gives the film its greatest appeal, of course, is the chance it affords to see this legendary performance troupe in action. With generous amounts of screen time devoted to the dancers dancing, the audience is allowed to grasp something much closer to the full power of what they do than can be gleaned by a few brief snippets of footage. “Ballerina Boys” is as much about the art of dance itself, and the passion that drives its practitioners to devote their entire being to its service, as it is about the Trocks themselves; the troupe’s history may be the central focus of the film, but it’s their dancing that allows us to connect with them.
It also allows us to understand why this unique company has not only survived for 47 years, but established itself as an iconic presence in the world of dance, as well as helping us to grasp the importance of their use of that position in that world as a platform to promote acceptance. The Trocks have become beloved for their signature style, a blend of rigorous technique and satire that delights their audiences – while also challenging the rigid gender norms deeply entrenched not just in the art form, but in society itself.
In the words of Roy Fialkow, a former Trock interviewed extensively in the film, “We were pushing the limits of the definition of what men did. What Ballet Trockadero has done over the years has turned this notion of what is beautiful in ballet kind of on its head, and turned it upside down, so that there can be moments in this ballet, where you can just say, ‘Wow.’”
There are plenty of “wow” moments in “Ballerina Boys” that treat us to better-than-front-row views of these gifted, athletic, disciplined young bodies in motion – something that is impressive for all the reasons you would imagine – and they reveal the secret of Ballet Trockadero’s formula by reminding us that something can make us laugh and still be beautiful, too.
Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and the Trocks’ history – which unfolds largely through the reminiscences and comments of Fialkow, Company Founders Peter Anastos and Natch Taylor, and Artistic Director Tory Dobrin, supplemented with insights from LGBTQ historian Eric Marcus – has seen the troupe meet resistance from some who didn’t find its loving lampoon of the austerely traditional ballet form quite so beautiful. Perhaps unsurprisingly, much of that resistance came from within the dance world itself, and had more to do with breaking those austere traditions than with the politics of LGBTQ activism.
Still, the film makes clear that it is the troupe’s devotion to the art form and its traditions that makes their work so effective – something it illustrates, time and time again, with breathtaking moments in which gifted dancers take us from the absurd to the profound to the transcendent within a few short seconds of movement. It also lets us get to know a few of the current company members – such as Philip Martin-Nielson, whose autism has proven an asset both in the performance and teaching of his craft, and Duane Gosa, who has found in Ballet Trockadero a perfect haven to be truly himself while following his passion.
“Being in a company like this where I can freely be Black and gay and a dancer on stage and be good at it, is a great thing for younger people to see,” Gosa tells us. “I am fortunate enough to be able to show that this is possible.”
That, of course, is the ultimate importance of the Trocks, and one that perhaps lies at the heart of their concept even in their earliest days. Though they may not have been activists, they freely admit being inspired by the Stonewall Riots (the legendary kickline performed by some of the queens at the bar as they were rushed by the police gets a prominent mention) and fueled by the spirit of defiance and creative exuberance that the gay rights movement fostered within the queer community of the time. At the peak of their success in the 1980s, they had become international ambassadors not just for acceptance; watching them ride a tour bus through the South, still an epicenter in the struggle for LGBTQ rights, it’s clear that’s a role they are still fulfilling – and one that still has its dangers.
Still, the Trocks have gotten away with it for so long because the humor and the beauty they personify are able to reach across the barriers of intellect and identity and strike a universal chord with their audiences. In their ballets, they invite us into a world where gender is just another part of the costume, ultimately irrelevant to the humanity that we experience there – and once there, it just might become possible to remember that we already live there.
“American Masters: Ballerina Boys” premieres nationwide Friday, June 4 at 9 p.m. on PBS (check local listings), pbs.org/americanmasters and the PBS Video app in honor of Pride month.
Trans performers blend success, visibility in two new docs
Authenticity helps artists to excel in opera, comedy
As we roll into Pride month, there’s a lot of focus on LGBTQ history. That’s a great thing, since it’s a subject that has been woefully neglected for a long time – but it’s important to remember that the story of queer experience didn’t stop (or start) at Stonewall, nor with the AIDS crisis, nor even with the fight for marriage equality. It’s something that continues to be written, right up to this very day.
That’s why two new documentaries, both dropping on VOD platforms June 1, should be considered required viewing for anyone who understands that knowing history means staying informed about it even as it happens. That’s especially true when the history being told is trans history – something that, until recent years, has been swept into the background even within the scope of the larger chronicle of our LGBTQ+ community. In the case of both of these new films, that makes them an even more valuable addition to our watch lists. Each film provides a layered, up-close profile of a trans pioneer forging new pathways to acceptance within the rarified environment of an insular professional community where trans inclusion has been far from the norm.
In “The Sound of Identity,” the profession in question is one that is usually out of the question for all but a privileged few – but that privilege has little to do with either gender or sexuality, and everything to do with natural talent and ability. It focuses its lens on Lucia Lucas, an opera singer about to step into her first leading role after a decade of building a career and reputation for excellence. She’s confident, gifted, driven, and more than up to the challenge. She also happens to be the first known transgender woman to take on a principal role in the history of professional opera, and the role happens to be one of the most iconic of all time – that of the scheming, womanizing title character in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” in a production by the Tulsa Opera in 2019.
Directed by James Kicklighter, the film follows Lucas as she prepares for the historic performance while also negotiating the intense media spotlight that accompanies it. There’s extensive rehearsal footage, revealing the self-assured mastery she brings to her work as well as the respect with which she is treated by both fellow cast members and creative personnel – including Tulsa Opera’s Artistic Director, Tobias Picker, a renowned composer in his own right and Lucas’ longtime mentor. Picker, who has risked his position on choosing her for the role, clearly believes in her skill; he’s less sure, however, of her chances at drawing audiences, not just because she is trans but because of the outside-the-box casting of a female singer in a male role – even if she is a baritone.
For Lucas’ part, she is determined to prove his fears unfounded. She works as tirelessly in promoting the production as she does on her role, engaging with the community, singing at fundraisers, and waking up before dawn to do phone interviews with journalists many time zones away. The additional strain of all this activity takes its toll on the singer’s voice and stamina, causing concern that she may be undermining her own ability to perform at her best on opening night. This, combined with the Lucas’ impending reunion with long-estranged family members who are coming to see her perform, provides just enough drama to give the movie a touch of narrative.
More than any of that, though, Kicklighter’s movie dwells on the world of opera itself. On the job, Lucas’ identity as a trans woman takes a back seat to her work, and the director wisely chooses to devote much of his running time to the process of mounting “Don Giovanni” itself. Because of this, we get to see Lucas the way she sees herself – as an artist striving to be among the best in her field. If that means letting us see flashes of temperament, bouts of insecurity, or the occasional moment of unapologetic ego, so be it. After all, isn’t being a diva part of what being an opera star is all about?
On arguably the opposite end of the cultural spectrum is the subject of “Julia Scotti: Funny That Way.” Directed by Susan Sandler, this short but sweet documentary profiles a subject who had a successful career as a stand-up comic for many years before transitioning at 47. It made her the person she felt truly destined to be, but it also meant the end of both her personal and her professional life, as family, friends, and an entire professional community turned their backs on her. Scotti then spent a decade reinventing herself as Julia, teaching classes and finding opportunities to blend her truth into her work as a performer. Shot over a five-year period, the movie tracks her triumphant return to the comedy stage, as well as the rekindling of her relationship with her children, with whom she had lost contact 15 years before.
A seasoned pro, Scotti comes off well on camera. She knows how to work her vulnerabilities into her material and diffuse them though laughter, but she also knows when to let the truth shine through without self-deprecating irony. These qualities, which serve her well in her chosen field, undoubtedly helped her through the difficult years after her “disappearance” from the public eye. More to the point, here, is her willingness to use those gifts as a means to open eyes and minds to the experience of trans people, and Sandler crafts her movie to highlight that aspect of Scotti’s persona, creating a portrait of someone who has transcended personal struggles to become a beacon for empathy and understanding – without losing her sense of humor in the process.
What’s remarkable about both of these films is that, ultimately, the “transness” of the women at their centers has nothing to do with the work that they do – and yet, at the same time, it is essential. Her skills and her passion are unrelated to gender, but because she is trans, Lucia Lucas is able to find dimensions in Don Giovanni – a character almost synonymous with toxic masculinity – that no one else could see. In the same way, Scotti blends her trans experience with her seasoned understanding of comedy to craft a unique act that puts both trans and non-trans audiences at ease and helps them find the common ground of laughter. In each case, the point is not that they can do the work in spite of being trans – it’s that their trans identity helps them to excel at it.
In a culture still combatting the regressive attitudes of transphobic bigots and the lawmakers they elect to office, both Kicklighter and Sandler have given us films that not only provide much-needed trans visibility on our screens, but remind us of how much more we can all contribute to the world when we are allowed to bring our entire selves to the table.
You can’t ask for a better Pride month message than that.
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