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New HBO miniseries ‘Gentleman Jack’ explores life of ‘first modern lesbian’

Compelling, finely wrought tale brought roaring to life with great acting, period detail

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Gentleman Jack review, gay news, Washington Blade
Timothy West, Suranne Jones and Kelvin Cantwell in ‘Gentleman Jack.’ (Photo by Matt Squire for HBO)

“Gentleman Jack,” now playing on HBO, is a fascinating portrait of Anne Lister, an English landowner often descried as “the first modern lesbian.” The splendid eight-part series, a co-production of HBO and BBC One, is a rollicking portrait of life in Regency England, a time of great social, political and economic upheaval.

Set in Halifax in 1832, the series opens when Anne Lister (the delightfully swaggering Suranna Jones) returns to the family manse after foreign travel and a collapsed affair with Vere Hobart (Jodhi May) who has decided to marry a man (something that has happened to Lister before).

Lister is a complex and captivating bundle of contradictions and Jones captures them all with rakish charm. Lister caries a walking stick and dresses all in black, with a voluminous skirt without petticoats, a corset and a fitted bodice, a long coat and a top hat. (The witty title sequence shows her getting dressed which is a great introduction to the character.)

She’s a shrewd businesswoman, personally collecting the rents from her tenant farmers and negotiating business deals directly. She’s fiercely protective of her tenants but also fiercely protective of her bottom line. She personally (and awkwardly) tends to a boy who is injured, but refuses to renew the lease of any farmer who’s not measuring up.

She’s confident in her sexuality, but discreet enough to avoid open scandal (even though the local gossips do warn that she’s “not to be trusted in the company of other women”).

But while she claims the right to run her own business and sexual affairs, she’s also rather reactionary. She’s upset when a tradesman dares to court her sister Marion (Gemma Whalen, who’s also playing Yara Greyjoy on HBO’s “Game of Thrones”) and she’s obsessed with restoring the faded ancestral home Shibden Hall to its former glory.

And that’s what sets the story in motion. Like any cash-poor landowner, Lister decides that she needs to find a rich wife. She sets her sights on Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle), a local heiress who’s been dazzled by Lister’s charisma for years.

Lister also discovers there’s coal on her property and enters into a nasty business rivalry with the brutal Christopher Rawson (Vincent Franklin).

Series creator and screenwriter Sally Wainwright introduces both of these plot lines with a light touch, delighting in Lister’s playful seduction of Walker and her tough negotiations with Rawson. But over the course of the five episodes available for review, Wainwright slowly ratchets up the tension. Rawson becomes violent when his ambitions are thwarted and Walker and Lister are caught in flagrante delicto by a nosy neighbor.

The acting is first rate. Jones is a marvel as Anne Lister, effortlessly capturing every contradictory facet of this remarkable character. Rundle is captivating as the heiress who has a few secrets of her own and Franklin makes a fine villain. Whalen turns in a full-bodied performance as Anne’s exasperated sister Marian; she makes the character warm and believable while providing some much-needed common sense and humor to the proceedings.

Veteran British actors Gemma Whalen and Timothy West turn in fine performances as Aunt Anne Lister and Jeremy Lister, aunt and father to Anne and Marian. Neither character is quite as befuddled as their young relatives think they are, and their finely tuned observations are often amusing and quite biting.

Wainwright’s script is solid, with dialogue that sounds natural yet quite appropriate for the period. The directing (by Wainwright, Sarah Harding and Jennifer Perrott) is generally assured and well paced, although it’s difficult to see how the final three episodes can keep increasing the tension while resolving the main plots and the many subplots. The cinematography is stunning, a virtual Valentine to the lush West Yorkshire countryside.

Wainwright and her talented colleagues also create a powerful sense of period, While there are some delightful modern flourishes (especially in the lively score by Murray Gold), the series has an authentic feel. Everything feels lived in and the period details underscore the fact that the past is indeed a foreign country, recognizable yet distinctly different. 

This is especially true of discussions of Lister’s sexuality and gender non-conformity. Her same-sex desires and her unconventional clothing choices are freely discussed, but the script avoids the temptation to use modern terminology. For example, when discussing her romantic relationships with her family, Lister refers to her “companions.”

There’s also the delightful exchange where a young boy askes Lister, “Are you a man?” Flustered, Lister responds, “Well, that’s a question. So no, I am not a man. I’m a lady — woman. I’m a lady—woman. I’m a woman.”

The remarkable authenticity and detail of “Gentleman Jack” comes from Wainwright’s intimate knowledge of Lister’s diaries. Over the course of her life, Lister kept a four-million-word diary that recorded her daily life in astonishing detail. Much of the diary was written in a secret code that used algebraic symbols and letters of the Greek alphabet. Wainwright was granted extensive access to the diaries and learned how to decipher the code and more fully understand Lister’s rich inner life. Since then, Wainwright funded the restoration and digitization of  the diary; excerpts can be found here.

“Gentleman Jack” is a rare and genuine treat. It’s a full-blooded, full-bodied period piece with and vibrant and authentic inner life that is fully relatable yet true to its own time. Led by creator Sally Wainwright and the vivacious Suranna Jones, the series is a rousing tale that is also a rich contribution to our understanding of how same-sex desire and gender nonconformity are expressed in different times and places.

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Arts & Entertainment

Show must go on- Lil Nas X’s embarrassing wardrobe malfunction on SNL

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Lil Nas X performing on NBC's SNL May 22, 2021 (Screenshot via SNL YouTube channel)

NEW YORK – Montero Lamar Hill, known by his stage name Lil Nas X, was performing his latest hit single ‘Call Me By Your Name’ from his album MONTERO on NBC’s Saturday Night Live when his pants ripped at the crotch.

The openly out singer-songwriter- rapper glanced down then back up at the audience, covered the affected area with his hand and kept singing in what reviewers and commentators are calling “the gayest performance ever on national television” and “iconic.”

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Arts & Entertainment

Summer film and TV preview

The LGBTQ productions that will take you to the ‘Heights’

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Summer is coming, once again, and this time it feels like a pretty big deal. For the first time in more than a year, we can look forward (fingers crossed) to a return to semi-normalcy, and it’s reasonable to make plans for enjoying at least some of our time outside the socially distanced safety of our living rooms.

That said, the waning of COVID also means that the television and film industry has an embarrassment of accumulated riches ready to offer us – and even if we have binge-watched our way through the past 14 months, we say, “Bring it on!”
There’s so much queer-flavored entertainment on deck in the coming few weeks that it can be a bewildering task to keep track of it all. Fortunately, the Blade is here to help, with our list of the movies and shows that seem likely to represent the cream of the crop.

First, the television:

A scene from ‘PRIDE.’ (Screen capture via YouTube)

PRIDE (May 14, FX)

This six-part documentary series from VICE studios may have already started, but it’s a great kick off to Pride Season – and thanks to “FX on Hulu,” it’s easy to catch up at your leisure. Chronicling the struggle for LGBTQ+ civil rights in America from the 1950s through the 2000s, seven renowned LGBTQ+ directors explore stories of queer experience, from the FBI surveillance of homosexuals during the 1950s “Lavender Scare” to the “Culture Wars” of the 1990s and beyond, exploring the queer legacy of the Civil Rights movement and the battle over marriage equality. Offering profiles of familiar heroes like Bayard Rustin and Christine Jorgensen, as well as of lesser-known figures like Madeleine Tress and Nelson Sullivan, the show charts the evolution of LGBTQ+ rights and identities through interviews and archival footage to provide a valuable perspective on queer history, just in time for Pride month.

Max Jenkins and Ryan O’Connell in ‘Special.’ (Photo courtesy Netflix)

SPECIAL (May 20, Netflix)

Freshly dropped is the second and final season of this surprise hit series from Ryan O’Connell, a semi-autobiographical comedy about a writer with cerebral palsy (played by O’Connell himself) trying to navigate life in the Los Angeles “scene” as a gay man with a disability. The abbreviated (only four episodes) final arc follows Ryan as he tries to “get his shit together” after the disastrous events of season one – including a fight with his mother Karen (Jessica Hecht) that has left them estranged ever since – that have left him with a nasty case of writer’s block. New relationships are also on the horizon for both Ryan and BFF Kim (Punam Patel), and the journey toward self-discovery and self-actualization takes center stage as this disarmingly charming and refreshingly unsentimental comedy – currently the only show on television to feature a disabled LGBTQ person as its main character – comes to a close. Max Jenkins, Charlie Barnett, Ana Ortiz, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Lauren Weedman, and Leslie Jordan are among those joining the show for season two, alongside returning cast members Marla Mindelle, Gina Hughes, and Patrick Fabian.

Naomi Ackie and Lena Waithe in ‘Master of None.’ (Photo courtesy Netflix)

MASTER OF NONE (May 23, Netflix)

Returning for a much-anticipated season 3 is this acclaimed series, co-created by Aziz Ansari and Emmy-winner Alan Yang. Always strongly “queer-adjacent” thanks largely to the involvement of Lena Waithe, who played the lesbian character of Denise throughout the first two seasons and became the first Black woman to win a writing Emmy for the episode “Thanksgiving,” based partly on her own experience coming out to her mother. In its third installment, the show takes a radical departure from following Ansari’s lead character (struggling actor Dev Shah) and instead focuses all of its five-episode run on the relationship between Denise and partner Alicia (played by BAFTA-winner Naomi Ackie).

Directed by Ansari, who also co-wrote with Waithe, this new season touts itself as “a modern love story that intimately illustrates the ups and downs of marriage, struggles with fertility, and personal growth both together and apart.” Judging from its past excellence, this new installment is likely to be one of the summer’s best bets.

BALLERINA BOYS (June 4, PBS)

“American Masters” presents a portrait of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo (“The Trocks”), an all-male ballet company that has captivated audiences for over 45 years with their signature style – classical ballet en pointe and in drag, delivered with a blend of rigorous technique and satire that challenges the rigid gender norms of the art form – while also delivering a message of equality, inclusion and social justice. This profile from director Chana Gazit follows the legendary troupe as they tour the Carolinas, and culminates with their 2019 performance at the Stonewall 50th anniversary concert in NYC. The hour-long doc broadcasts on June 4 (check your local listings), but it will also be available via the PBS video app in honor of Pride Month.

George Sear and Michael Cimino in ‘Love, Victor.’ (Photo courtesy of Hulu)

LOVE, VICTOR (June 11, Hulu)

The popular teen dramedy, inspired by the hit LGBTQ teen romance “Love, Simon,” returns for season two as the newly out Victor (Michael Cimino) enters his junior year at Creekwood High. As his story continues, Victor faces challenges such as a family struggling with his revelation, his heartbroken ex-girlfriend Mia (Rachel Hilson), and the difficulties of being an openly gay star athlete – all while navigating the excitement of his relationship with new boyfriend Benji (George Sear). Odds are good that this continuation will deliver more of the same blend of heart, humor, and diversity that helped the first season become one of last summer’s must-see highlights. Anthony Turpel, Bebe Wood, Mason Gooding, Isabella Ferreira, Mateo Fernandez, James Martinez, and Ana Ortiz also star.

REUNION ROAD TRIP: QUEER EYE FOR THE STRAIGHT GUY (June 17, E! Entertainment)

As part of the network’s special event series, “Reunion Road Trip,” the original “Fab Five” – Thom Filicia, Ted Allen, Kyan Douglas, Carson Kressley and Jai Rodriguez – reassemble in Los Angeles to do a makeover for Jai on his 40th birthday. As the group works their magic, they think back to their most heartfelt, meaningful makeovers and the impact on the LGBTQ community then and now, delivering a satisfying (and long overdue) trip down memory lane for fans of one of the most important and influential queer shows in television history. Airs at 9pm PT/ET.

Now for the movies:

PINK – ALL I KNOW SO FAR (May 21, Amazon Prime)
Amazon Studios launches its summer with this intimate documentary about award-winning performer and musician Pink as she embarks on her record-breaking 2019 “Beautiful Trauma” world tour and welcomes audiences to join her chosen family while trying to balance being a mom, a wife, a boss, and a performer. Directed by Michael Gracey (“The Greatest Showman”), this look into the private and public sides of a trailblazing artist – who is also a fierce and vocal advocate for the LGBTQ community, where she has long been a fan favorite – mixes footage from the road with behind-the-scenes interviews and personal material, giving audiences a glimpse behind the curtain of “the circus that she calls life.”

Lucia Lucas in ‘The Sound of Identity.’ (Screen capture via YouTube)

THE SOUND OF IDENTITY (June 1, VOD)

This award-winning documentary from director James Kicklighter profiles international opera star Lucia Lucas as she becomes the first known transgender woman in opera history to perform a principal role. Capturing Lucas on the cusp of international stardom as she prepares for her historic performance at the Tulsa Opera, it showcases the collaborative process between Lucas and her mentor (renowned composer Tobias Picker), as they bring Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” to life – with Lucas, a world-renowned baritone, taking the spotlight and all the pressures that come with it. Along the way, Lucas provides fresh insights into her transition, the professional risk she is taking, and what it means for those who follow. A must-see exploration of the role played by identity in our personal and professional lives, as well as a portrait of an artist at the height of her career.

JULIA SCOTTI: FUNNY THAT WAY (June 1, VOD)

Another documentary profile of a pioneering trans artist, this Susan Sandler-directed film takes audiences on an entertaining but emotional roller coaster as it follows the comeback of Julia Scotti – formerly Rick Scotti, who appeared on bills with Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock – after her transition during “a time when the words gender dysphoria and gender reassignment surgery were rarely heard.” Shot over a period of five years, this inspirational doc tracks Julia’s triumphant comeback, the rough life on the road, and the complex process of reuniting with her children, as her comedy becomes a shared language of identity, healing, and joy.

John Benjamin Hickey in ‘Sublet.’ (Screen capture via YouTube)

SUBLET (June 11, VOD)

Fans of steamy international LGBTQ cinema can look forward to this film from Israeli director Eytan Fox, whose haunting gay military romance “Yossi & Jagger” broke ground in expanding support for LGBTQ movies in Israel when it was released in 2002. In his latest offering, 50-something American writer Michael (John Benjamin Hickey) travels to Tel Aviv on assignment, where he sublets an apartment from local student – and sexual free spirit – Tomer (Niv Nissim). The young man quickly becomes his tour guide, and as the two spend time together, they soon find themselves exploring more than just the city – despite the clash of generational attitudes between them. Slated to debut at the cancelled-due-to-COVID 2020 Tribeca Film Festival, it’s getting the release it deserves, as a reminder that Pride stretches across all borders.

RITA MORENO: JUST A GIRL WHO DECIDED TO GO FOR IT (June 18, in Theaters)

Directed by Mariem Pérez Riera, this documentary profiles its EGOT-winning subject with a look at her 70+ year career, following the beloved performer from her poverty-stricken youth in Puerto Rico, through her time as an all-purpose “ethnic stock player” in Hollywood (even after the triumph of becoming the first Latina actress to win an Oscar for her role in “West Side Story”), and her eventual rise to the iconic status she enjoys today. It also chronicles not only Hollywood’s not-so-hidden history of racism, sexism, and abuse, but Moreno’s personal struggles – including a toxic relationship with Marlon Brando and her own bout with serious depression – before her talent and resilience allowed her to triumph over adversity, break barriers, and forge a path for new generations of artists to come. The film features extensive interviews with Moreno, as well as George Chakiris, Héctor Elizondo, Gloria Estefan, Tom Fontana, Morgan Freeman, Mitzi Gaynor, Whoopi Goldberg, Norman Lear, Eva Longoria, Justina Machado, Terrence McNally, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Karen Olivo.

Anthony Ramos and Melissa Barrera in ‘In the Heights.’ (Photo courtesy Warner Brothers Pictures)

IN THE HEIGHTS (June 18, HBO Max and in Theaters)

Make no mistake, the long-awaited film adaptation of the 2005 Broadway musical by Lin-Manuel “Hamilton” Miranda and Quiara Alegria Hughes is sure to be the big-ticket movie of the summer. With charismatic bodega-owner Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) at its center, this sweeping musical portrait of Manhattan’s Washington Heights – a neighborhood mostly populated by immigrant people of color and their families – showcases a remarkable and 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.

The show was a Tony-winning smash onstage for its infectious celebration of community, as well as its uplifting message of following your dreams in the face of adversity. On film, as helmed by “Crazy Rich Asians” director Jon M. Chu, it’s a return to triumphant form for the Hollywood musical, executed with breathtaking cinematic vision and a healthy dose of “magical realism” that does nothing to undercut its streetwise swagger – and it’s probably something you should plan to see on the big screen.

After so many months of isolation, you deserve a special treat.

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‘Halston’ promises sumptuous look at rise and fall of a fashion icon

Gay designer defined women’s style for an era

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Ewan McGregor as Halston and Gian Franco Rodriguez as Halston’s sometime lover, Victor Hugo. (Photo courtesy Netflix)

When we hear the name “Halston,” our first thought is not likely to be of his status as an LGBTQ hero – except in the sense that he designed clothes for best friend Liza Minnelli.

Yet Roy Halston Frowick, who became the first “celebrity designer” in a career that defined women’s fashion for an era and paved the way for the age of influencers by making his identity synonymous with his brand, can be clearly seen today as a queer pioneer. A gay midwestern boy whose grandmother gave him a love of sewing, he rose to fame after designing the famed pillbox hat worn by Jacqueline Kennedy at her husband’s 1961 inauguration, and spent the next decade building a reputation fueled by the celebrity of a growing list of famous clients while honing a style that combined functionality, elegance and comfort in a way that seemed perfectly in tune with the rising women’s liberation movement.

The empowering ease and “effortless” sex appeal of his designs came to epitomize ‘70s style, a signature feature of the Disco Era that has cast its not-so-subtle influence on every generation since, and the fashion house he started became legendary in an industry that was still tightly controlled (like every other industry) by straight men. It was an accomplishment that might have gone unheralded by most at the time, but which historical perspective reveals as a groundbreaking moment in the LGBTQ community’s rise from the shadows.

Unfortunately, Halston’s fall from glory – marked by his loss of control over the company he started, through a series of corporate acquisitions that might fairly be described as nefarious – and subsequent 1990 death from AIDS-associated Kaposi’s sarcoma still largely overshadows his reputation (if not the fashions he created) in the popular imagination. But thanks to the arrival of the new Netflix limited series “Halston,” which drops on May 14, that is about to change.

Created and directed by Emmy-winner Daniel Minahan, the five-episode biographical portrait stars Ewan McGregor as Halston, and follows the legendary designer as he leverages his single, invented name into a worldwide fashion empire synonymous with luxury, sex, status, and fame, literally defining the ‘70s and ‘80s era New York in which he lives, before a hostile take-over forces him to battle for control of his most precious asset – the name Halston itself. McGregor is joined by a cast that includes Bill Pullman (as Halston’s business associate David Mahoney), Krysta Rodriguez (as Minnelli), Rebecca Dayan (as Elsa Peretti, another close Halston friend), Gian Franco Rodriguez (as Halston’s sometime lover, Victor Hugo), David Pittu (as Halston illustrator and creative director Joe Eula), Rory Culkin (as Joel Schumacher), Kelly Bishop, Sullivan Jones, and Vera Farmiga – and as even a quick look at the publicity shots of each of them in full costume for their roles is enough to verify that the series has gone out of its way to meticulously recreate the look and feel of Halston’s glamorous world.

The series found its way to the screen thanks to Minahan’s interest in “Simply Halston,” a bio penned by Vanity Fair writer Stephen Gaines. Working with producer Christine Vachon, he began work on adapting the book as a feature-length film, but the scope of the story made honing it into a two-hour-ish running time a daunting task, and the idea was shelved. The option on the book then passed through a series of other hands, but when the rights became available again, Vachon approached Minahan with the idea of revisiting the project as a mini-series, and, as Minagan says, “it just clicked.” It wasn’t long until Ryan Murphy reached out (through Alexis Martin Woodall, president of his production company) to express his interest, and things “started moving very quickly.”

“Working with Ryan is a unique experience,” says Minahan, who previously worked with the powerhouse producer on “The Assassination of Gianni Versace.” “He draws the best out of people, and he demands excellence from everyone who works with him. He has an uncanny sense for story, and I’ve been fascinated for years by the tone he’s able to strike in his work and the depth of emotion that he’s able to express.

He also says Murphy had “a unique relationship” with the material that helped inform the end product. “[He] grew up in Indiana […] then he worked building an empire as a gay man in a corporate world as Halston did, so he was really generous with his experience. A lot of that made it into our scripts. We were very lucky to have him be involved.”

As for McGregor, Minahan says that although he had considered a whole list of actors for the starring role, the “one and only meeting” he had was with the popular and prolific Scots actor. Though McGregor identifies as straight, he has long been an LGBTQ ally, with a history of sensitive and insightful performances in gay roles (most notably the fictionalized amalgam of Iggy Pop and Lou Reed he portrayed in Todd Haynes’ glam-era fantasy, “Velvet Goldmine”), and according to Minahan, his work as Halston is nothing short of immersive.

“Watching Ewan transform into Halston was fascinating,” he says. “When he arrived in New York, he asked for a room where he could work undisturbed with some props — True cigarettes, which are the same brand Halston smoked, cigarette holders, Flair pens like Halston used, scissors, fabric, a black turtleneck, a tape measure, and some yellow lined notepads.” The actor also worked with costume designer Jeriana San Juan, acquiring a detailed familiarity with the technical minutiae involved with designing and assembling clothes – even going so far, according to San Juan, as studying her eye movements while she worked “so he could better track his eyeline when he’s designing as Halston in the show.”

Of course, it’s one thing to capture the physical reality of a true-life character, and quite another to infuse that character with an inner life that honors their experience. From the fabulous ferocity he displays in the show’s trailer, the versatile star of movies as wide-ranging as “Trainspotting,” “Moulin Rouge,” and the middle “Star Wars” trilogy looks to have delivered a career-topping performance – and if there’s any doubt whether he can convey the authenticity required to illuminate the drive that took Halston to the pinnacle of the fashion world when it was still run by a conservative and closed-minded “boys’ club,” his delivery of the line, “I’ve been an outsider my entire life, till one day I just stopped giving a flying fuck,” should put it to rest.

With what could become one of the season’s most acclaimed performances at the center, and its sumptuous depiction of an iconic era through San Juan’s costumes and the world-building of production designer Mark Ricker, “Halston” looks to be a benchmark for “prestige” TV in 2021.

In any case, thanks to the enduring fascination its subject and his legacy still hold for millions of fans and admirers, queer and straight alike, it’s sure to be at the top of a lot of “must watch” lists when it debuts on May 14.

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