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Thanks to Ryan Murphy, Netflix throws an inclusive ‘Prom’

A queer story with mainstream pop appeal

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The Prom, gay news, Washington Blade
The cast of ‘The Prom.’ (Photo courtesy Netflix)

According to Ryan Murphy, he wanted to make a film version of “The Prom” since the moment he saw it on Broadway.

Watching the new Netflix movie that resulted from that spark of inspiration, it’s not hard to see why. The musical, which found a hardcore fan audience despite a less-than-profitable Broadway run, is a piece that is a perfect match for the entertainment mogul’s brand, a frothy mix that exists on the thin line between camp and hokum, blending sharp-edged wit with inspirational sentiment and over-the-top farce with activism. It’s a queer story with mainstream pop appeal that leans heavily into a love of All Things Broadway. Unless there was also a serial killer thrown in somewhere, how could anything be more Ryan Murphy than that?

There was more behind Murphy’s enthusiasm for the piece than just a savvy selection of tailor-made grist for the entertainment mill that is his contract with Netflix, however. As an LGBTQ person who grew up in a small Indiana town himself, the show-biz powerhouse found a personal connection to its story of an Indiana teen who has to fight against the homophobia of her small town community in order to take her girlfriend to their high school prom. It spoke to his own memories and hopes – and as it turns out, that heart connection is the ingredient that makes his translated-to-film version of “The Prom” much better than it probably deserves to be.

Inspired by the real-life experience of Mississippi high schooler Constance McMillen, the story centers on Emma Nolan (Jo Ellen Pellman), an out lesbian senior whose plan to take her secret girlfriend Alyssa (Ariana DeBose) to the prom is thwarted by her school’s PTA-mandated no-same-sex-date policy. Her cause is taken up by a group of down-on-their-luck Broadway actors — including a famous but fading diva (Meryl Streep) and her GBF (James Corden) — whose co-starring turn in a musical based on the life of Eleanor Roosevelt has just closed after only a single performance. They hit upon the scheme of creating an activist cause around her in order to garner some career-boosting publicity.

Along with Emma’s supportive principal (Keegan-Michael Key), they succeed in forcing the school to hold an inclusive prom; but when the PTA president (Kerry Washington) uses a loophole to shut Emma out anyway, the cadre of showfolk will have to dive deeper than their own self-centered motivations if they are going to be able to make things right again and score a decisive win against homophobia in the heart of small-town America.

As written by Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin (with the latter providing lyrics to music by Matthew Sklar), the musical is unabashedly designed to be a crowd-pleaser, full of comedy and heart, with just enough drama to make it mean something and a message only a bigot could refute; the score, spiced up with youthful flourishes but nevertheless grounded in a stylistic base that is pure traditional Broadway, is exuberant and infectious, and allows plenty of opportunity for the kind of show-stopping dance numbers that make an evening of live musical theater an experience quite unlike any other.

Presumably out of a desire to maintain the integrity of the show’s original voice, producer-director Murphy enlisted the trio of original writers to adapt their work to the screen; the result is an expanded but mostly faithful reimagining that maintains the bones of its stage-bound architecture while also deepening some of its more sensitive moments with the kind of embellishment made possible by cinematic technique and a no-expense-spared budget.

That budget is also behind the film’s other biggest asset, a stellar dream cast headed by Streep and Corden, with Nicole Kidman and Andrew Rannells in close support – all in addition to the other talented stars mentioned above. It’s clear this high-profile ensemble is having a blast in their roles; Streep is in fine form, as always, and Corden is capable of charming us in anything (even, almost, the horror that was “Cats”), but everyone else performs at an equally high level; special mention should go to Kidman, though, for managing to take on the role of an aging chorus girl and making us believe that she’s been dancing in the background for 20 years without ever getting noticed – as if she weren’t, well, a superstar like Nicole Kidman.

These players are gifted enough to take the broadest, corniest, most cliched bits of the script – which, in truth, amounts to most of it, by design – and giving it not just the extra dimension it needs to be more than a goofy pastiche, but the enthusiasm and all-around show-biz moxie that keeps an audience engaged and entertained even when the story lags.

And it does lag, there is no denying it. As any aficionado of musical theater will surely tell you, all but the most remarkable of shows suffer from what’s often called the “second-act slump,” and “The Prom” is no exception. Indeed, it’s exacerbated here by the script’s reliance on the tried-and-true “beats” that have formed the core of the genre’s dramatic structure since the days when musicals made the transition from the era of Ziegfeld’s Follies to the age of “Oklahoma.” Onstage, this slavish adherence to traditional format is surely part of the show’s charm, another function of its lovingly self-mocking tone. But on film, without the in-person visceral excitement that comes from seeing those aforementioned dance numbers exploding before your eyes, it can be an obstacle to keeping the interest of audiences used to more sophisticated fare.

Thankfully, the film rendition of “The Prom” never lets its slow spots hold it back for long. Murphy the director relies on the strengths of his cast while filling the screen with the kind of artfully kitschy, colorful visual spectacle that makes even his pulpiest endeavors a feast for the eyes; and while his quick-edit cinematic style fails to capture the majesty of its dance sequences (choreographed with vigor and an aptly satirical touch by Casey Nicholaw) in the same way as the long takes of the classic Hollywood musicals that so clearly inform his palette here, the flash and movement with which he instills every moment of them is more than enough to keep us appropriately dazzled by them.

More importantly, though, he makes “The Prom” a success despite its flaws because of that heart connection that led him to make it in the first place; in the midst of all the larger-than-life “zazz” (to borrow a phrase from the film), he never lets us forget the importance of the human story underneath it, and the powerful message of acceptance that was intended to be the show’s reason all along.

It has to be acknowledged that Murphy’s track record is somewhat hit-or-miss for all but his most ardent fans, and that “The Prom” is the kind of bubbly, lightweight musical theater that you’re probably not going to like if you’re not a fan of that kind of material.

For everybody else though, it’s worth putting at the top of your Netflix queue when the streaming platform drops it on Dec. 11.

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Mayor’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs screens ‘Eat With Me’

David Au’s directorial debut presented

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In celebration of Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, The Mayor’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs, DC Public Library, and the Mayor’s Office on Asian and Pacific Islander Affairs host a screening of “Eat With Me” for May’s #DCQueerFlix on May 14, beginning at 6 p.m.

“Eat With Me,” David Au’s directorial debut, features the story of a mother and her gay son learning to reconnect while trying to keep their business afloat. The film offers a novel take on love, life, and food in the center of Los Angeles.

“Eat With Me” will be available on the Kanopy streaming service and is free for D.C. library patrons.

To register for this virtual event, visit the Eventbrite page.

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In diverse slate of winners, Oscar is the biggest loser

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Best Actor winner Anthony Hopkins (center) with co-star Olivia Colman in “The Father” (image courtesy Sony Pictures Classics)

We knew the Academy Awards were going to be different this year.

Forced by Covid to reimagine its traditional presentation format, the movie industry’s most prestigious awards show convened not at Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre — at least, not for most of it — and opted instead to broadcast the ceremony from the relative intimacy of Los Angeles’ historic Union Station, where a small audience of nominees, presenters and guests gathered under “live set” safety protocols while other participants connected from various remote hook-ups across the world. Instead of auditorium seating, tables; instead of an orchestra, Questlove. In addition, show producers Steven Soderbergh, Jesse Collins, and Stacy Sher chose to shoot the event cinematically, employing the tricks and techniques of film to transform the evening from the stodgy affair so many of us love to hate into something resembling a movie. As promised during the week ahead of the broadcast, the show was going to tell a “story.”

It was a gamble that didn’t pay off.

Things started out promisingly enough, it must be said, with an opening tracking shot that followed host Regina King from the bright L.A. sunshine into the cool darkness of Union Station. The motion, the music, and most of all King’s commanding presence, gave us the sense that something big was about to happen. Then, early in her opening comments to the audience, King brought substance to the weight by commenting that “if things had gone differently in Minneapolis this week, I might’ve traded in my heels for marching boots” — reminding us (as if it were needed) of the national focus on Black justice that hung alongside Oscar’s long-lamented struggle with diversity like a shadow over the evening. The central theme of this Oscar “movie,” it seemed, had been firmly established.

For awhile, it seemed to be working. The evening’s first winners were Emerald Fennell for Best Original Screenplay, for “Promising Young Woman,” and Florian Zeller for Best Adapted Screenplay, for “The Father,” appearing to set a tone for the ceremony in which recognition would be spread around to all — something very much in tune with the presumed subplot of the “story” we were being told, in which Oscar would redeem itself from the #OscarsSoWhite associations of its past and prove itself to be a champion for fair and equal diversity, after all.

Soon after, Daniel Kaluuya took the award for Best Supporting Actor – no surprise there, as his performance as slain Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in “Judas and the Black Messiah” had won the equivalent prize from every other major film awards so far — firmly establishing the “redemption” theme by celebrating the powerful work of a Black actor in a true-life story that addressed the corruption and tragedy of systemic racism in America. A pair of awards for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (Best Makeup and Styling, Best Costume Design), as well as a win for the police-violence-themed “Two Distant Strangers” as Best Live-Action Short, reinforced it even further. Better still, a shout-out to trans acceptance from “Ma Rainey” stylist Mia Neal in her speech, and a plea from “Strangers” writer/director Travon Free for audiences not to be “indifferent to our pain” in his, lent a powerful sense of earnestness that made the whole thing feel authentic. Maybe this year, Oscar was finally getting it right.

Unfortunately, the Oscar “story,” in its effort to be inclusive, allowed all the winners to talk until they were done. In other words, Questlove did not start playing anyone off when they had used up their time, and the ambitious “movie” of the Oscars soon began lose any momentum it had built. This is not to say that the winners don’t deserve their time in the spotlight, or that some of the things that were said were not worthy of being heard; but anyone in show business should know the importance of keeping your audience interested, and the Academy Awards have such a long history of running ponderously overtime that it seems some kind of middle ground might have been reached.

There were other familiar complaints, too. The annual “in memoriam” segment inevitably left out some important names (Ann Reinking, Jessica Walter, “Glee” star Naya Rivera, and former Oscar nominee songwriter Adam Schlesinger, to name just a few), and there was an awkward segment in which Questlove played “Oscar trivia” with audience members, who were asked to identify movie songs that did NOT win the Academy Award. The latter situation was almost saved by nominee Glenn Close, who did an “impromptu” rendition of “Da Butt” that was as goofily charming as it was obviously pre-planned.

As the show wore on, the cinematic conceit chosen to revitalize the proceedings became mostly irrelevant in the face of Oscar’s usual baggage. Further, the absence of any performances of the year’s nominated songs, typically a favorite feature of fans at home, meant there was little respite from the dullness, which was made all the more apparent by the increasingly bored faces of the onscreen audience. The omission may have been due to the difficult logistics of additional Covid protocols, but surely pre-taped performances might have helped to perk things up. For the record, Best Original Song went to “Fight For You,” from “Judas and the Black Messiah.”

Along the way, there were noteworthy wins. The much-loved Pixar-Disney film “Soul” took the award for Best Animated Feature, as well as winning Best Original Score for composers Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross, and Jon Batiste; the virally popular “My Octopus Teacher” won for Best Documentary Feature; David Fincher’s black-and-white old-Hollywood homage “Mank” took the prizes for Best Production Design and Best Cinematography, continuing the trend of spreading out the wealth among the front-running contenders; in presenting Best Film Editing to “The Sound of Metal,” still-hunky Hollywood curmudgeon Harrison Ford gave an amusing nod to “Blade Runner,” the revered 1982 sci-fi film in which he starred, by reading the scathingly negative studio notes from a pre-release screening; and Best Supporting Actress went to veteran performer Yuh-Jung Youn for her work in “Minari,” making her only the second woman of Asian heritage to win the award (the first was Miyoshi Umeki for 1957’s “Sayanora”) — and making Close, who was nominated for her role in “Hillbilly Elegy,” tied with Peter O’Toole as the actor with the most nods without a single win.

By the time we reached the presentation of the four top prizes, there was little left of whatever enthusiasm had been drummed up by the opening segment of the show. Chloe Zhao’s expected win as Best Director, for “Nomadland,” making her the first Asian-American woman (and only the second woman, period) to receive the award, was an appreciated high point for her enthusiastic gratitude alone, but at this point, things had become pretty much business as usual, despite the grand designs and cinematic flourishes of the producers.

Then, the big twist came. Best Picture, always the final award of the evening, was being announced before the Lead Acting awards. What was happening? Was the Oscar “movie” about to give us a surprise ending?

The winner, “Nomadland,” had been favored, and star Frances McDormand helped to make the moment a highlight with a “wolf” howl (dedicated to sound mixer Michael “Wolf” Snyder, who passed away last month) when she joined the film’s other producers at the podium, but surely neither of those things warranted switching the order. Perhaps a clue to what was really happening could be found in the choice of presenter – Hollywood icon Rita Moreno, still fabulous at 89, whose Best Supporting Actress win for 1961’s “West Side Story” happened to have made her the first Hispanic woman to win an Oscar. Was this reminder of diversity from the Academy’s past a sign that the “redemption” theme was about to pay off?

It suddenly became obvious. The Oscar “movie” was leading up to an emotional finale, a big and uplifting triumph that would not only be a celebration of diversity, but a tribute to a gifted young man whose talents had been taken away from us too soon. The story of Oscar’s redemption would culminate in the posthumous awarding of the Best Actor prize to Chadwick Boseman, whose nominated performance in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” was the last work he completed before losing his private battle with colon cancer and passing away at 43 last August. That would definitely be a “wow” finish.

Best Actress came first, accompanied by some suspense due to being one of the few categories without a clear front-runner. McDormand took the statue for “Nomadland,” joining a small handful of other performers as a three-time-winner and preventing “Ma Rainey” star Viola Davis from becoming the first Black actress to win twice. Her speech was refreshingly short and humble, a tribute to the joy of “the work” which included a quote from Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” (“My voice is in my sword”) – a play considered by actors worldwide to be “cursed,” which in retrospect casts an interesting light on what happened next.

To present the final award, last year’s Best Actor winner Joaquin Phoenix (looking exceptionally uncomfortable) came to the mike and, after a feeble joke about his reputation for method acting, read off the five nominees before opening the envelope to bring about the now much-anticipated denouement.

“And the Oscar goes to… Anthony Hopkins, ‘The Father.’”

It wasn’t quite “fade to black, roll credits” after that, but it might as well have been.

There was no uplifting finale, no redemption of the Academy as a reward for its show of diversity. There was only another in a long-running series of gaffes (remember the “La La Land” vs. “Moonlight” debacle from just a few years back?) that have made the Oscar show’s tendency to mess things up a running joke.

This one, however, was possibly the worst. In an arrogant attempt to shape a narrative out of real life events that hadn’t even happened yet, the Academy seems to have chosen to manipulate its audience into an emotional reaction — one that would have bolstered its own reputation and perhaps made up for some of its former perceived missteps — while exhibiting a cynical overconfidence in its own ability to predict the sentiments of its voters. As a result, its “wow” finish turned into an abrupt and uncomfortable faux pas, diminishing both Hopkins’ victory for a career-topping performance (which, at 83, makes him the oldest acting winner in Oscar history) and Boseman’s searingly powerful work by obscuring their accomplishments behind a colossal f*ck-up born of its own hubris.

It’s worth noting that a plan was (reportedly) in place in the supposedly “unlikely” event that Hopkins would win, in which “Father” co-star Colman – known for her disarming grace and humor in awards situations – would have accepted the award in his absence. As reported by The Guardian, Phoenix forgot to call her to the stage, resulting in the dull thud that was the end of the 93rd Academy Awards. Regardless, the Academy has only itself to blame. In its eagerness to tell the story it wanted to tell about itself, it appears to have forgotten that you have to know the ending first.

Ironically, when removed from all the drama, the list of winners does represent one of the most diverse and inclusive slates in Oscar history. It’s not enough, but it’s a start.

On that note, as a final observation, the LGBTQ community, despite recent strides in being acknowledged by Oscar, went largely unacknowledged at this year’s ceremony, with queer front-runners like “Two of Us” (a French contender for Best International Feature) and David France’s devastating “Welcome to Chechnya” (shortlisted for Best Documentary Feature) having been shut out of the nominations and no significant queer content among most of the nominated films. Apart from Neal’s aforementioned invocation of trans acceptance as part of a possible future in which the recognition of all women for their achievements would be “normal,” the only other time we came up was during Tyler Perry’s acceptance speech for the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.

Perry, whose highly popular films are frequently criticized for embracing borderline homophobic and transphobic humor and perpetuating problematic tropes about gender and sexuality, gave a speech calling for people to “refuse to hate” anyone “because they are Mexican, or because they are Black or White, or LBGTQ” or “because they are a police officer” or “because they are Asian.” Apart from the conflation of being a police officer (a choice) with being an LGBTQ person or a person of color (not a choice), the fact that he mixed up the “B” and the “G” is a clear indicator that, while he may refuse to hate us, he’s not exactly a committed ally, either.

If the LGBTQ angle seems like a footnote to the story, that’s because it is. Once more, the queer community is left feeling like an uninvited guest by the Academy.

If Oscar wants its story to be about diversity, it’s clear that next year’s “story” needs some better writers.

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This year’s Oscars might be historic — but does anyone care?

Diverse nominees lacking LGBTQ representation

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Oscar, gay news, Washington Blade

It’s Oscar weekend. Are you excited?

Unless you’re actually one of the nominees, odds are pretty good that you’re not – but the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which is geared up to present its prestigious annual film awards for the 93rd time on Sunday night, really, really wants you to be. Why else, a week ahead of the Big Night, would they roll out the show’s producers for a press conference to drop hints that the upcoming broadcast would “look like a movie” and incorporate satellite hookups from “multiple locations?” It was a clear bid to drum up excitement.

More details came Monday, when a letter from that same trio – producer Steven Soderbergh (himself an Oscar winner for directing “Traffic” in 2000) and co-producers Jesse Collins and Stacey Sher – went out to the nominees. As it turns out, the ceremony will be held at LA’s historic Union Station (site of Saturday’s press conference), which will be treated “as an active movie set” in terms of COVID-related safety protocols, with “additional elements” of the show being incorporated live from Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre via satellite hook-up.

More interestingly, the letter revealed, “The first—and most obvious—point we want to get across with this year’s show is STORIES MATTER.” In keeping with that theme, nominees are requested to submit to a brief interview to “tell the story of your path to April 25,” as part of an effort to “highlight the connections between all of us who work in the movies and show that the process is uniquely intimate, collaborative, and fun.” The emphasis on “story” was further reflected by instructions about messaging in the speeches (“If you’re thanking someone, say their name, not their title… make it PERSONAL”) and a dress code described as “a fusion of Inspirational and Aspirational.” Whatever Soderbergh and crew have planned for the show, their letter leaves little doubt they intend to tightly manage the narrative it presents.

That’s not surprising, of course; Hollywood is in the business of creating narratives, and the one it takes most seriously is the one it creates about itself. Nevertheless, it’s particularly telling that the story it is working so hard to tell seems designed to brush its problem with inclusion comfortably into the background.

This year, the organization might well feel that when it comes to diversity, the nominations speak for themselves. For a year in which tremendous social upheaval has brought Black experience in America to the forefront of the public conversation, the Oscars have chosen an impressive number of Black-led films and Black artists among an overall slate that offers the most diverse lineup of nominees in its history. Women are also represented, thanks to the inclusion of Emerald Fennell’s “Promising Young Woman” among the Best Picture contenders and the first-ever two nominations for women – Fennell and Chloé Zhao (“Nomadland”) – as Best Director. Additionally, Zhao, who is Chinese, is the first woman of color ever nominated in that category, Steven Yuen (“Minari”) became the first Asian-American to receive a Best Actor nod, and in the same category, Riz Ahmed (“The Sound of Metal”) became the first person of Pakistani descent to be nominated in any acting category.

In the midst of all this inclusion, however, the LGBTQ community – traditionally a stronghold for some of Oscar’s most ardent fans – has this year been largely left empty-handed, once again. Besides two Best Actress nods for women playing bisexual characters (Viola Davis and Andra Day, for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” respectively), there are no major nominations for films with significant LGBTQ content – though it’s worth noting that the aforementioned “Young Woman” features trans actress Laverne Cox in a prominent supporting role. While it’s not a problem for us to stand on the sidelines and cheer for the victories achieved by representatives of other marginalized communities, it’s becoming harder to ignore the nagging feeling that our willingness to forgive an institution that continues to disappoint and diminish us is really something akin to Stockholm Syndrome.

In any case, this year’s Academy Awards have the potential for making history. Nine of the 20 acting nominees are people of color, and at least two of them are considered frontrunners in their categories. Zhao could become the first woman of Asian descent to win the Best Director prize. And while the potential for those wins lends a kind of excitement to the proceedings, an inescapable feeling of “too little, too late” – coupled with a pandemic-induced awareness of the relative unimportance of awards like these in the greater scheme of things – makes it more difficult than ever, perhaps, to care.

With that in mind, here are the currently leading “official” predictions for the winners in the top six categories, based on a combination of Oscar history, industry buzz, review consensus, and plain old-fashioned gut instinct:

BEST PICTURE: “Nomadland” and “The Trial of the Chicago 7” are considered the front-runners, thanks to previous wins in the equivalent category at the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors’ Guild Awards, respectively. “Nomadland” is favored to win.

BEST DIRECTOR: Chloé Zhao, who has taken the directing prize at both the Globes and the BAFTAs, seems a sure bet for “Nomadland.”

BEST ACTOR: Chadwick Boseman, whose death in 2020 after a secret battle with colon cancer devastated fans and co-workers alike, would seem the inevitable winner for his performance in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” even without his already-racked-up wins at the Globes, Critics’ Choice, and SAG Awards. If he takes it – and it’s almost certain he will – it would make him only the second Best Actor winner to be awarded the prize posthumously (the first was Peter Finch, for 1976’s “Network”).

BEST ACTRESS: There are no clear front-runners here. With one high-profile win each under their belt Davis (SAGs), Day (Globes), Frances McDormand (BAFTAs for “Nomadland”) and Carey Mulligan (Critics’ Choice for “Promising Young Woman”) are all positioned as possible winners. However, with Davis already making history with this performance as Oscar’s most-nominated Black actress, the appeal of also making her the first to win in both Actress categories (her performance in 2016’s “Fences” earned her the Best Supporting prize) might just give her the edge.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Having won for his performance as slain Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in “Judas and the Black Messiah” at all the other major film awards, Daniel Kaluuya is the definition of a “shoo-in.”

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: As is often the case, this category might be the most wide-open. Buzz has favored both Yuh-Jung Youn (“Minari”) and Maria Bakalova (“Borat Subsequent Moviefilm”), but her win at the BAFTA Awards puts Youn in place as the probable frontrunner. If she wins, she will be only the second Asian actress to win an Oscar, after Miyoshi Umeki (1957’s “Sayonara”).

You can find out the winners when the Oscars air on ABC, Sunday April 25 at 5 p.m. PT/8 p.m. ET. But don’t worry – if you don’t care enough to watch, you can always Google it afterward.

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