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Out actor Murray Bartlett relishes new ‘Tales of the City’ role

‘Looking’ vet says it’s time for new generation to discover Maupin classics

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Murray Bartlett, gay news, Washington Blade
Charlie Barnett and Murray Bartlett in ‘Tales of the City.’ (Photo by Alison Cohn Rosa, courtesy Netflix)

Out Australian actor Murray Bartlett really did leave his heart in San Francisco.

Starting in 2014, he starred in the short-lived HBO series “Looking,” which was set in the Golden Gate City. Bartlett played Dom Basaluzzo, a restaurateur who hung out with his friends Patrick (Jonathan Groff) and Agustin (Frankie J. Alvarez).

Now he’s starring as Michel “Mouse” Tolliver in the Netflix limited series “Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City.” The series is also set in San Francisco, which Bartlett says is one of the most gorgeous cities in the world.

“Tales of the City” started life as a newspaper serial by Maupin in 1974. The serial was later picked up by the San Francisco Chronicle and then published as a novel in 1978. In the intervening years, Maupin added eight books to the series; the ninth and final novel, “The Days of Anna Madrigal,” was published in 2014.

The wildly popular novels have been adapted into a variety of forms. The first three books were turned into three separate television series by PBS and Showtime. Jake Shears and John Garden of the rock band Scissor Sisters turned “Tales of the City” into a stage musical with a book by Jeff Whitty (“Avenue Q” and “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”). Working with a new libretto by Maupin, out composer Jake Heggie wrote “Anna Madrigal Remembers” for mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade and the choir Chanticleer.

In addition, Maupin, a talented raconteur, has performed excerpts from the books with symphony orchestras and LGBT choruses. 

Finally, as part of the “Letter Live” series, Ian McKellen performed “Dear Mama,” the coming-out letter that “Mouse” writes to his fundamentalist mother from his hospital bed.

As Bartlett explains, the new Netflix series picks up two decades after the previous “Tales of the City” miniseries and Mouse’s life has changed. 

“Michael is HIV-positive and he went through the AIDS crisis at its height,” Bartlett says. “He thought he was going to die and he lost a lot of friends. He was deeply affected by that; it was a transformative time.”

Despite his status as a long-term survivor, Bartlett says Michael has retained his natural charm and buoyancy.

“He’s got a very boyish spirit and that’s one of the things I love about him as a character,” the actor says. “He’s older and wiser and he’s definitely walked through fire, but he’s still managed to retain this beautiful kind of optimism.”

Michael has also acquired a much younger boyfriend named Ben (Charlie Barnett). For fans of the books, Bartlett warns that the character of Ben in the series is somewhat different than the character in the books. 

“The show is not strictly based on the books, but it is definitely inspired by them,” Bartlett says.

When the series opens, Michael and Ben are six months into their relationship. 

“The honeymoon isn’t over,” Bartlett says, “but they’re at a point in their relationship where they’re starting to look at some issues and notice their different ages. They have this deep love, but Michael is quite a bit older than Ben. We see a lot of intergenerational issues come up between them.”

The new series kicks off — and these issues get highlighted — when Michael’s friend Mary Ann Singleton (Laura Linney) suddenly returns to San Francisco. She’s reunited with her ex-husband Brian (Paul Gross) and her adopted daughter Shawna (Ellen Page), as well as Anna Madrigal (Olympia Dukakis), who gently presides over the lives of the residents of the legendary apartment house at 28 Barbary Lane.

Despite the pressure of playing such an iconic role, Bartlett did not do a lot of preparation before rehearsals started. 

“I didn’t go back and watch the previous shows. I did read the books and try to get the essence of Mouse off the page and let Armistead hand him to me. I thought I could come to him fresh and keep the essential boyishness of the character.”

Since the character of Mouse is somewhat autobiographical, Bartlett admits he feels a special duty to be faithful to Armistead Maupin and his vision.

“There’s a sense of responsibility,” he says, “but a wonderful sense of responsibility. I had first met Armistead on the set of ‘Looking. It’s always a joy being around him. I adore him and his books and he’s a kind of personification of his books. He’s an incredibly compassionate, loving, wonderful man with a deep understanding of human beings and what it is to be human.”

Now that work has wrapped on the Netflix adaptation of “Tales of the City,” Bartlett is quietly developing some new projects for himself. 

“I’m trying to drive my own ship a little bit.”

In the meantime, Bartlett feels the time is right for a new generation of fans to be introduced to the magic of “Tales of the City.” 

“I feel very excited about this show coming out when there’s a lot of divisive stuff going on. This show really speaks about family and understanding each other and having compassion. I hope people respond to that and run with it. I feel like we could use more of that.”

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‘And Just Like That’ is clunky, but shows promise

SATC reboot suffers without Samantha’s irreverence

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‘And Just Like That’ reunites three of the original four from ‘Sex and the City.’ (Screen capture via HBO Max)

Just in time for the holidays, “And Just Like That,” the 10-part “Sex and the City” (SATC) revival has premiered on HBO Max.

The first two episodes of “And Just Like That” aired on Dec. 9. One episode will air weekly until the show’s Feb. 3 season finale.

I have only seen the first two episodes of “And Just Like That.”

The reboot has its awkward, clunky, annoying moments, but shows glimmers of tenderness, wit, and promise.

It’s not a lump of coal in your stocking. Yet, it’s too soon to tell whether it’s a gift from your loving, but clueless aunt or an awesome present from your BFF.

But, it’s definitely worth putting under your tree.

How I miss “funky spunk” “Father Fuck” and “The Rabbit!”

If you’re an SATC aficionado, you’ll know that while Samantha couldn’t abide “funky spunk,” she longed to canoodle with a hot priest. (Naturally, he was “Father Fuck” in Samantha’s fantasies.) And, you’ll remember how much pleasure “the Rabbit” (a vibrator) gave Charlotte and Miranda.

Those are just a few moments that “Sex and The City” fans have missed since the arch, fashion-trend maker, sexual-taboo-breaker, HBO show’s 2004 finale.

What we’ve pined for wasn’t just the sex. It was the wit and friendship of the four bright, badass, professional, witty and, it can’t be denied, privileged women, who were the stars of SATC: writer and sex columnist Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker), lawyer Miranda Hobbes (Cynthia Nixon), art dealer Charlotte York (Kristin Davis) and public relations pro Samantha Jones (Kim Cattrall).

We missed hearing the ladies talk openly, and wittily, sometimes tenderly or thoughtfully, about everything from “funky spunk” to “shortcomings” to their affairs with married men to threesomes to their abortions.

After the SATC finale, there were two “Sex and the City” movies. The first, released in 2008, was mediocre. The second, released in 2010, was beyond horrible.

After all these years, it’s lovely to see Carrie, Miranda, and Charlotte (along with their husbands: Big, Steve and Harry respectively).

But, there’s a gaping hole! There’s no Samantha!

It’s no secret that Cattrall and Parker weren’t getting along off-screen. Cattrall didn’t want to be in “And Just Like That.”

You can’t blame the SATC folks for forging ahead with “And Just Like That.” Interest in the SATC characters has remained high, and shows with female characters in their 50s are few and far between.

Now that Miranda, Carrie and Charlotte are in their mid-fifties, “And Just Like That” could become “The Golden Girls” of our era.

But that’s not likely without Samantha, who was the essential queer sensibility of SATC.

Samantha’s irreverent, she loves sex, quiets babies down with vibrators, and though she’d never cop to it, has the proverbial heart of gold.

“And Just Like That” needs an infusion of irreverence.

SATC had problems of representation. Its characters were too white and too privileged. For its time, it had a queer quotient. Carrie’s best friend Stanford Blatch (the late Willie Garson) was gay, as was Charlotte’s best friend Anthony Marantino (Mario Cantone). But its depictions of bisexuals, lesbians, and trans people were stereotyped at best – bi and transphobic at worst.

“And Just Like That” works hard to correct those problems.

There are several characters who are people of color — from a law school professor to an upper-class mom.

Stanford and Anthony are now a bickering married couple. And there is Che Diaz (Sara Ramirez) a “queer, nonbinary, Mexican-Irish diva,” a podcaster, who is Carrie’s boss.

It’s great that the show is trying to do better with representation, but it’s trying too hard.

We face serious issues – from parenting to grief – as we age. But, as any “Golden Girls” disciple knows, you don’t lose your sense of humor or lustiness as you grow older.

If “And Just Like That,” learns that, then it’ll be a great show.

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Television

MTV ‘True Life Crime’ host reinvents genre

Dometi Pongo puts focus on victims of anti-LGBTQ violence

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Dometi Pongo hosts MTV’s ‘True Life Crime.’ (Photo courtesy MTV)

The last place most of us would expect to find a true crime show is on MTV. Yet that’s exactly where you’ll find “True Life Crime” and its host Dometi Pongo, who on Aug. 24 will take a journalistic deep dive into the Mississippi murder of trans teen Mercedes Williamson – just one of the brutal, tragic stories covered by the show since its debut in 2020.

They are the kinds of stories, of course, that make fans of the genre eagerly stay up late to binge watch old episodes of “Cold Case Files” or the latest Netflix serial murderer doc. But while those shows content themselves with being a guilty pleasure for their viewers, this one aims a little higher.

To begin with, it primarily covers violence against people from marginalized communities; and though it examines facts and evidence, those take a back seat to discussion of the social issues around the crimes. Instead of placing all the emphasis on the “how” and “who,” the show puts it on the “why,” taking the spotlight from the killer and shining it on the victim instead – a far cry from the kind of truncated treatment usually bestowed by mainstream news sources when covering crimes against marginalized people.

Pongo – a charismatic host whose passion for amplifying the stories of marginalized communities is tied to his roots in Chicago’s south side – spoke to the Blade about the intentions behind the show, and the need to include the stories of LGBTQ victims.

BLADE: Besides the upcoming episode about Mercedes, this season has already covered two other cases involving anti-LGBTQ violence: the murders of Britney Cosby and Crystal Jackson, who were a lesbian couple, and Muhlaysia Booker, a trans woman of color. Did you come into the show wanting to bring visibility to these kinds of cases?

DOMETI PONGO: It’s my connection to marginalized communities that made me want to do it, to talk about other marginalized communities that I’m not even a part of, but which deserve a voice as well. I’ll be honest with you, at a high level I understood the dangers of homophobia and transphobia in our communities, but I didn’t know the numbers. I didn’t know how often victims were dead-named, how under-reported anti-trans violence goes. I didn’t realize how deep this really got, until I was in the thick of it, reporting on these issues.

The first season we did the story of Kedarie Johnson, who was a gender-fluid teen that was killed in Iowa. That story really helped to open my eyes, and so for this season we wanted to double down.

BLADE: The show differs from other crime shows because it’s more concerned with exploring motives and issues around the cases than it is about the facts. Is that a conscious choice?

PONGO: There’s a conscious idea of either answering questions that the family never had answered, or looking at elements of the person’s identity, or the world around the crime, and figure out how we can tell a fuller story. You know, in some states they can secure a murder conviction without proving motive, so you can have a family go through the entire litigation process, all the way up to the killer being convicted, and they’ll never know why their loved one was killed. The pain that comes from that is gut-wrenching. So, aside from just taking you through the crime and how the person is caught, what can we add to the conversation that can give some solace to the families?

BLADE: As a host, you bring a lot to the show. You’re great on camera and your passion really shines through – but you always deflect the attention toward the family and the community around the victim.

PONGO: Thank you, I appreciate you noticing that. I’m the lens through which the subject gets to tell their story. If I share something about losses and experiences that I have, it’s because I know that human-to-human connection will help the subject open up. As journalists, we’re told never to become the story – and now we’re in this age where you have to have a social media presence, you have to have some charisma about you, you have to be a host of sorts. But I want to make sure that I’m a human first when I’m talking to these families, and I’m glad if that shines through.

BLADE: It does, and so does the fact that your show doesn’t sensationalize the way others do. There’s nothing tabloid about it.

PONGO: We do want to differentiate ourselves. Why would you come to MTV for a true crime story rather than other networks that have been doing them for years? We’ve got to put our bent on it. We’re focused on talking to young folks who live in the pop culture space, and the “True Life” franchise is the perfect avenue for that, because it’s all about the true lives of the subjects, and we wanted to be sure that that was highlighted.

BLADE: The focus on social justice issues certainly gives the show a youthful perspective.

PONGO: They say the young have the energy, and the elders have the wisdom, and we want to arm the energy of these young people – these bright, action-oriented young people who mobilized with the racial reckoning of 2020, who are leading the charge – we want to arm them with context and information about more stories, and how everything in our society kind of folds into what happens. Many of our episodes end with a call to action. Who do you call to change this law? Who do you email? As effective a tool social media is, so is voting, so is emailing legislators, so is getting involved in advocacy groups. We arm our audience with the information that they need to keep doing the great work they’re doing.

BLADE: It’s really activism taking the form of entertainment.

PONGO: That’s it, 100 percent. I started out at a Black-owned radio station on the South Side of Chicago. Al Sharpton held the afternoon slot for his show, each host was very community oriented, so I cut my teeth at that intersection of information and social justice – but I’m also a fan of hip-hop, I’m a fan of music, so when I’m not doing “True Life Crime” I’m doing MTV News interviews with my favorite artists. Investigating that intersection of social justice and pop culture is where I think a lot of our power lies. I think that’s where the young people are sitting right now.

BLADE: What do you hope they take away from these stories?

PONGO: If there’s anything that I want people to take away it’s this: After the show, whatever social justice issue we talk about, research it. Dig into it. That guilty pleasure feels a little bit less guilty if you do the work after that TV cuts off. 

“True Life Crime” airs on MTV at 9 p.m. on Tuesdays. All past episodes are available to watch on the MTV website.

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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.”

WATCH:

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