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‘Hamlet/Horatio’ queers the Bard

A contemporary take on classic play

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Andrew Burdette and Themo Melikidze in ‘Hamlet/Horatio.’ (Photo courtesy Glasshouse)

While it’s not exactly a pressing topic in most people’s lives, the subject of Shakespeare’s sexuality has been hotly debated by literary scholars, theater artists, and historians for centuries. After all, not only are his plays filled with gender-swapping characters and sexual confusion, he also wrote a series of sonnets, widely considered the most romantic poems ever composed in English, and dedicated them to a mysterious young nobleman. Even in the Renaissance, when the “cult of male friendship” was a real thing and male artists could create breathtakingly erotic depictions of young men to be displayed in a church, such a bold gesture of affection from one man to another must have raised at least a few eyebrows.

It’s a controversy that isn’t likely to go away, considering the fact that anyone who might give us first-hand knowledge on the subject has been dead for about 400 years. And while some contemporary artists, across various media, have been willing to explore the playwright’s work through the lens of his possible queerness, most cinematic interpretations – with a few notable exceptions, like Derek Jarman’s “The Tempest” – have kept things decidedly hetero-centric.

Paul Warner, director of the soon-to-be-released “Hamlet/Horatio,” which riffs on a central but often overlooked relationship in Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy, can’t imagine why. A graduate of both Harvard and the American Film Institute, Warner is currently a senior instructor of acting, directing, and producing at The New York Film Academy. He’s also a Shakespeare veteran, having been involved in many stage renditions of the Bard’s work (including a rock musical version of “Twelfth Night”) throughout his career – and as he tells the Blade, it’s obvious to him that the revered wordsmith was either gay or bisexual.

“There’s a tremendous amount of exploration of gender fluidity in his work,” he says. “There’s never a label on it, but it permeates Shakespeare. There are a lot of characters who fall in love with the soul of the person, rather than the gender.”

While these themes may run through comedies like “Twelfth Night” or “As You Like It,” they are considerably less obvious in Shakespeare’s tragedies – but that doesn’t mean they aren’t there, and Warner’s new film hinges on using them to illuminate one of the most iconic male friendships in literature.

For those unfamiliar, Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” is the tale of a Danish prince, who is visited by the ghost of his recently murdered father and told to seek revenge against the murderer – none other than Hamlet’s uncle Claudius, who has not only murdered the former king but taken both his throne and his queen, Gertrude, who is also Hamlet’s mother. Seeking confirmation of the crime, Hamlet engages in a game of cat-and-mouse with his uncle, in which both Hamlet’s presumed future bride Ophelia and her brother Laertes become unwitting pawns. It goes without saying that things don’t turn out well – but through it all, one steadfast and trusted figure stands at Hamlet’s side: his confidant and companion, Horatio.

“Hamlet/Horatio,” which Warner directed from a script by playwright (and frequent stage collaborator) David Vando, reimagines the original play through an unusual conceit. In his dying moments, Hamlet (Andrew Burdette) sees his life flashing before his eyes, unfolding through a film that Horatio (Themo Melikidze) directs to tell his story. By shuffling dialogue, resetting scenes, and leaning deeply into subtext, Warner reframes Hamlet’s experience into a story of spiritual and humanistic transcendence – and reveals a deeply intimate, loving bond between these two young men that has perhaps been “hiding in plain sight” all along.

Despite his interest in exploring the relationship between Hamlet and Horatio, Warner insists that he didn’t set out to make a “gay Shakespeare movie.” Indeed, he is adamant even now that the intention behind Vondo’s script (which he helped to adapt into a screenplay) was to “move past” that conception.

“Part of it was trying not to make things ‘gay’ or ‘straight,’ or ‘this’ or ‘that’ anymore, but really it’s about two people who are flip sides of each other,” he explains. “They are spiritually two sides of the same coin. And they’re in a relationship – it’s clear that there is a repressed love there. And there’s definitely an exploration of their homosexuality, but also of the fluidity of their sexuality.

“This is why the characters don’t wear their ‘identities’ on their sleeves. We wanted to show something more closely resembling a non-binary, gender-fluid vision of love and sexuality that is part of a bigger story about human truth.”

To that end, he envisioned a version of “Hamlet” in which the Denmark’s Elsinore castle bears a striking resemblance to the Trump White House. The usurping king is a despot posing as a benefactor, exerting an authoritarian rule and setting the people close to him against each other to prove their loyalty, while his queen turns a blind eye to his increasingly obvious misdeeds.

“Maybe I’m one-sided, but I tried to depict the ‘ickyness’ of that Melania-Donald dynamic between Claudius and Gertrude,” he says, not without a hint of relish. “I’ve made her trapped, like Melania, and she’s constantly drinking – she’s an immigrant, and she doesn’t speak up because she’s controlled by his finances.”

In this light, as Warner puts it, Hamlet becomes a hero of resistance, who rises to “slay” fascism, while Horatio is the filmmaker who documents it.

“It’s ultimately about Hamlet’s spiritual journey to fullness. It’s about him letting go of rage and embracing the light.”

Yet, when all is said and done, it’s the love between these two men that shines above all else.

“Hamlet eventually sacrifices his life to root out the corruption and to save those who are still alive – which is basically Horatio, his boyfriend, because everybody else is dead.”

“Hamlet/Horatio” has already played in front of audiences at a number of festivals, and has taken honors at several of them – including a Best Feature Film Jury Award at last year’s inaugural FFTG (Film Festivals to Go) Fest. The enthusiastic response has given Warner reason to hope that, despite his “queering of Shakespeare,” his film will find a “wider audience” when it debuts on digital platforms in June.

Of course, Warner fully expects to be raked across the coals for some of the liberties he has taken, such as the choice to cast transgender Native American actor Ty Defoe as the Player King and the inclusion of a scene where Hamlet and Horatio take a steam bath together – “which is not anywhere in ‘Hamlet,’ of course,” he says with a laugh.

Still, for him, his approach to the material rings true to the source.

“There’s a timelessness in the way Shakespeare deals with the danger of rage, and how that threatens spirituality. In his plays, you always have the autocrats, who want to control others, and then you have the purer people, usually younger characters, like Hamlet, who propose love, who pursue a humanitarian vision against them. That’s Shakespeare, who was, of course, writing under a monarchy.

“And after four years of authoritarian rule under Trump, I think he was way ahead of his time.”

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‘Being the Ricardos’ pops with excitement of 1950s TV

Acclaimed film is Sorkin at his best

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Nicole Kidman in 'Being the Ricardos.' (Screen capture via Amazon Prime Video)

If the cold and COVID have brought you down, check out “Being the Ricardos.” The entertaining film, written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, is streaming on Amazon Prime.

“Being the Ricardos” is the TikTok of a week in the McCarthy era that was a season in hell for gay icon Lucille Ball (Nicole Kidman) and her husband Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem).

Ball was a gay rights supporter. “Some of the most gifted people I’ve ever met or read about are homosexual,” she told People magazine in 1980.

“I Love Lucy,” the 1950s sitcom starring Ball, was the most-watched show on TV.

From 9 to 9:30 on Monday evenings, Americans watched Lucy and her bandleader husband Ricky (Arnaz) Ricardo and their best friends Ethel (Vivian Vance) and Fred (William “Bill” Frawley) Mertz. They laughed at Lucy’s antics – such as when she and Ethel can’t keep up on a chocolate factory assembly line. “I Love Lucy” is streaming now on Hulu, and clips of it are on YouTube. 

“Being the Ricardos” takes place during the filming (from the table read to performing it in front of a studio audience) of an “I Love Lucy” episode.

As work on the episode begins, Arnaz and Ball are distressed to hear a “blind” item on right-wing gossip-monger Walter Winchell’s popular radio show. In the heyday of McCarthyism, Winchell tells America that a “top” comedian has Communism connections.

Ball and Arnaz know that being labeled a Communist could ruin not only your career but that of anyone associated with you.

Ball, who lived from 1911 to 1989, had a rough childhood. After her father died when she was 10, Ball was raised by her grandparents. Her grandfather was a socialist. Out of respect for her grandfather, in 1936, Ball registered to vote as a Communist.

Previously, the House Un-American Activities Committee had compelled Ball to testify. After she testified, they told her that they had cleared her of suspicions of being a Communist.

Ball and Arnaz are gobsmacked to hear from Winchell that she’s under suspicion again. Other than once checking a box for the Communist Party in the 1930s, Ball hasn’t had anything to do with Communism. “My grandfather cared about the working man,” Ball tells the executives from CBS and Philip Morris (the program’s sponsor).

Much of the suspense of the movie lies in rooting for Ball to be cleared of HUAC’s baseless charges. But Sorkin, taking some liberties, has added on added layers of tension.

In real life, these events didn’t happen at the same time. But, in “Being the Ricardos,” while Ball is dealing with HUAC, she discovers that she’s pregnant with her second child.

The CBS and Philip Morris execs are freaked by this news. It’s the early 1950s, and people on TV (even if they’re as happily married as the Ricardos) sleep in twin beds. What will America do if they see a pregnant woman on TV? What do you mean, you’re 12 weeks pregnant, the suits ask Ball and Arnaz. “It means 12 weeks ago, I fucked my husband,” Ball says.

In yet another twist, Ball is dismayed when “Confidential,” the TMZ of its time, comes out with a story showing Arnaz with a sex worker.

There has been controversy about the casting of Kidman as Ball and Bardem as Arnaz. Because Kidman isn’t a comedian and Bardem is Spanish and Arnaz was Cuban.

Perhaps, because she’s not doing an impersonation, I think Kidman is terrific as Ball (as Ball off-screen and as Ball playing Lucy Ricardo). She won the Golden Globe this week for Best Actress in a Drama for the role.

As a white woman, I don’t feel comfortable weighing in on the controversy surrounding the casting of Bardem. But to me he nails it in his portrayal of Arnaz.

The other actors in the film are also terrific, especially, J. K. Simmons as William Frawley, Nina Arianda as Vivian Vance and Tony Hale as (showrunner) Jess Oppenheimer.

 “Being the Ricardos” is Sorkin at his best. It pops with screwball banter and the excitement of early 1950s TV. It’s not “Vertigo,” but you won’t want to take your eyes off the screen.

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‘Potato’ charms with tale of gay Russian immigrant and his mom

Awakening to queerness during collapse of the Soviet Union

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Luminous Pariah and Tyler Bocock in ‘Potato Dreams of America.’ (Photo courtesy Dark Star Pictures)

January can be a difficult month for film buffs. With so many awards contenders clamoring for your time and attention, there is certainly no shortage of titles among them to choose from, so it’s not a question of slim pickings. Sometimes, though, watching one “prestige” movie after another for an entire month can feel a little bit like being a student overloaded with homework; even if you’re studying a subject you like, you still need to take a break and do something just for fun every now and then.

Fortunately, in today’s ever-hungry market for fresh streaming content there are new choices to be had even in the middle of Awards Season, and this month’s pick of the crop is exactly the kind of fun, quirky, off-the-beaten-track queer story to provide the perfect palate cleanser when you’re feeling a little overwhelmed by the heavier fare queued up on your “watch next” list – though considering that it’s the tale of a gay Russian boy and his mother who flee a life of repression and hardship in their native country by emigrating to America, you might not expect it to be.

Set in the 1980s, “Potato Dreams of America” is an autobiographical offering from writer/director Wes Hurley. The “Potato” of the title is its lead character, a Vladivostok boy obsessed with American movies who is awakening to his queerness during the collapse of the Soviet Union. His mother Lena is raising him on her own, and as a prison doctor who is daily witness to the violence and hardship of being an adult male non-conformist in Russian society, she fears for his future safety. She decides to market herself as a mail order bride, and before long she and Potato are on their way to Seattle – where they will have to learn how to navigate life in America, a whole new culture with forms of oppression all its own.

Admittedly, it’s a synopsis that reads pretty bleak – but that’s precisely why “Potato Dreams of America” turns out to be such a delight. Rather than delivering the stark immigrant drama we’ve come to expect from stories such as this one, it turns those expectations upside down by offering twist after twist (along with a wry and consistent sense of humor) that keep it from becoming a predictable tale of woe and turn it instead into something much less dreary.

To begin with, there are the two central characters, a memorable pair of plucky souls who win our attention and our sympathies with their against-the-grain attitudes and refusal to give up on their dreams. They are surrounded by an ensemble largely made up of broadly drawn eccentrics; there’s Grandmother Tamara (Lea DeLaria), a no-nonsense traditionalist who lovingly doles out toxic cultural assumptions with her grandmotherly advice; there’s also John (Dan Lauria), Lena’s rigid and seemingly conservative American husband whose fundamentalist views might just be a smokescreen for a life he has always kept hidden. Characters such as these provide a layer of satire and social commentary but remain grounded enough in the emotional arc of the story to serve as believable characters, thereby investing them with enough humanity to soften the sharpness around their edges. This is even true of Jesus – or rather, the imaginary version of Jesus (Jonathan Bennett) Potato concocts as he struggles to come of age, whose serene aloofness is somehow made completely relatable by the good-natured gay insouciance with which he is played.

Likable characters are a big part of the movie’s charm, but the infectious sensibility that wins our hearts comes straight from the filmmaker himself. In telling the story of his own life – albeit a highly stylized version of it – he gives full rein to the love for cinema, and specifically American cinema, which fueled his own young dreams of America and ultimately led him to a career behind the camera that includes two seasons of the critically acclaimed comedy series “Capitol Hill” (starring Jinkx Monsoon, Ben DeLaCreme, Waxie Moon and Robbie Turner). 

His movie is full of cinematic flourish, indulging in bold strokes to help its narrative unfold. Most striking of these is the choice, midway through the film, to swap out both the leading players for different actors – Potato and Lena in Russia are played, respectively, by Hersh Powers and Sera Barbieri, and in America by Tyler Bocock and Marya Sea Kaminski. From a practical perspective, of course, the abrupt change aids in depicting Potato’s transition into gay life in America simply by introducing a significantly older actor who can appropriately appear in the scenes when things inevitably start to get sexy; but on a deeper level, this calculated recasting invites contemplation on the relationship between our environment and our identity, highlighting the filmmaker’s seeming assertion that changing the world you live in requires you to become a different person – or perhaps, in light of the film’s opening quote (“I’ve always been America in my heart,” from queer trailblazer Quentin Crisp), that becoming the person you are meant to be requires finding a world where it is possible to do so, even if you have to build it yourself.

Still, even if Hurley’s ambitious conceits bring a kind of aspirational magic realism to his film, they never become pretentious, nor do they derail for an instant the movie’s sense of fun. In this, the filmmaker is greatly aided by his talented cast, peppered with familiar faces like DeLaria, Lauria, and Bennett (all of whom do exceptional character work while giving a sly and ironic nod to their own familiar persona), but dominated by the masterful performances from the four actors playing his two leads. Both Barbieri and Kaminski are exceptional as Lena, making her the unorthodox and empowering heroine she deserves to be; as the two incarnations of Potato, both Powers and Bocock bring powerful charisma to the role – but the younger Powers deserves special kudos for a thoroughly mature and self-aware performance worthy of an actor twice his age or older.

“Potato Dreams of America” made a big splash at last year’s SXSW, as well as at Los Angeles’ Outfest, where it won Hurley the festival’s Grand Jury award for Best Screenplay because of its “unique non-traditional portrayal of a gay immigrant’s transition to America and his relationship to his mother.” It’s this quality that makes it a must-watch experience. As Hurley says in his official director’s statement for the film: “Despite the heavy subject matter, the story of my mom and I coming to America is not only very funny but also very inspiring, with an ending that will have to be seen to be believed. I believe this story of unconditional love, human resilience and the power of hope is what the world needs right now.”

After watching his truth-is-stranger-than-fiction story and thoroughly enjoying it, we can safely assure you that he’s not wrong.

“Potato Dreams of America” opens for a limited theatrical run on Jan. 14. It releases on VOD platforms Feb. 22.

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Looking ahead to a very queer year at the movies

A boost in trans representation and bi role for Harry Styles

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Dakota Johnson and Sonoya Mizuno in ‘Am I OK?’ (Photo courtesy Gloria Sanchez Productions)

It’s only the first week of the new year and awards season has barely begun – but before we dive headlong into the process of bestowing honors on the best movies of 2021, it seems like a good time to pause and take a look forward to the movies coming our way in 2022 – specifically those with LGBTQ appeal.

There are plenty of reasons to be excited. After a year with zero trans representation on the big screen, the next one promises several offerings that not only feature trans characters, but put them front-and-center – and that’s not even counting the remake of queer author Clive Barker’s “Hellraiser” with trans actress Jamie Clayton as Pinhead. There are also a plethora of same-sex romcoms, a notable increase in diversity among the leading players, and at least one high-profile title that hopes to help Hollywood make its tradition of bi-erasure a thing of the past.

SCREAM 

Horror fans are doubtless already aware of (and eagerly anticipating) the return of the “Scream” franchise to the big screen. Set to debut on Jan. 13, the fifth installment of the wildly popular 1990s slasher film series is a reboot in which a fresh crop of teens find themselves being stalked by a killer in a Ghostface mask. The new generation of potential victims – which includes Kyle Gallner, Mason Gooding, Mikey Madison, Dylan Minnette, Jenna Ortega, Jasmin Savoy Brown, Sonia Ammar, Jack Quaid and Melissa Barrera – are joined by returning veterans Neve Campbell, David Arquette, and Courtney Cox, when the emergence of a new killer prompts the return to Woodsboro of original final girl Sidney Prescott (Campbell). The iconic franchise has always had plenty of queer appeal – original screenwriter Kevin Williamson recently revealed in an interview with The Independent that it was inspired by the “gay survival” mindset he developed as an openly gay teen – but the upcoming film ups the ante by introducing an out queer character (played by Brown), and the trailer hints strongly toward a same-sex romance as part of the movie’s plot.

BROS

Possibly the biggest news in LGBTQ movies for 2022 is this hotly anticipated romantic comedy spearheaded by gay comedian and actor Billy Eichner — touted as the first gay romcom from a major Hollywood studio — which arrives in August. Co-written by Eichner and director Nicholas Stoller, there’s not a lot of detail about the plot besides the fact that it revolves around two men attempting a relationship despite their shared fear of commitment, but that’s enough to get us all on board considering that the two men are played by Eichner and hunky Luke Macfarlane. Better still, in a reversal of the usual Hollywood standard, all the roles in the film – even the straight ones – are played by LGBTQ performers, including Harvey Fierstein, Amanda Bearse, Guillermo Diaz, Jim Rash, and Bowen Yang. Let’s hope it’s the beginning of a new normal.

FIRE ISLAND

Speaking of Bowen Yang, the out “Saturday Night Live” star also heads to the big screen this year alongside fellow comedian Joel Kim Booster in this modern-day comedy of manners inspired by Jane Austen’s classic novel “Pride and Prejudice.” Written by Booster and directed by Andrew Ahn, it revolves around two gay besties who head to the titular New York queer retreat for a week of fun and frolic with an eclectic group of friends, setting the stage for a satirical observation of the social behavior and class hierarchies of gay men — not just around economic status, but around such manufactured dividing lines as body type and ethnic heritage. Also starring Margaret Cho, Conrad Ricamora, Zane Philips, and Nick Adams, there’s no release date slated yet for this one – but with a premise like that, it can’t come soon enough for us.

WHAT IF?

Billy Porter makes his directorial debut this year with this teen romance written by Ximena García Lecuona. A love story about a high school senior who must overcome his shyness in order to win the affections of the girl he’s been crushing on. It sounds like typical fare, but there’s a refreshing twist — his crush is trans. With Porter behind the camera, you know it’s not going to be dialing down any of the inherent queerness of that scenario, and with real-life trans actress Eva Reign as the star, it’s a sure bet that this sweet story of teenage love (based, incidentally, on a real-life Reddit post) is going to be a real ground-breaker. Release date TBA.

AM I OK?

Directed by the wife-and-wife team of Tig Notaro and Stephanie Allynne, this promising entry is the story of two best friends, Jane and Lucy, whose lives are thrown into chaos when them gets a promotion that requires a move to London and the other comes out as gay. Billed as “a relatable, poignant, and often humorous look at the transformative power of human vulnerability,” it stars Dakota Johnson and Sonoya Mizuno. With its debut slated for the Sundance Film Festival at the end of January, it’s likely to be coming our way for wide release later in 2022.

FRAMING AGNES

Also premiering at Sundance is this Chase Joynt-directed historical drama about a pioneering, pseudonymized transgender woman who participated in Harold Garfinkel’s gender health research at UCLA in the 1960s. Described as a “rigorous cinematic exercise that blends fiction and nonfiction” and “endeavors to widen the frame through which trans history is viewed,” it features an impressive lineup of trans stars – including Zackary Drucker, Angelica Ross, Jen Richards, Max Wolf Valerio, Silas Howard, and Stephen Ira – reenacting and bringing new perspective to an important chapter of trans history. Again, we can expect to see this one some months after its January debut at Sundance.

MY FAKE BOYFRIEND

Another romcom, this Gen-Z and Millennial-targeted offering stars actor/musician Keiynan Lionsdale (“Love, Simon”), Dylan Sprouse (“Riverdale”), and Sarah Hyland (“Modern Family”) in a story about a young man (Lonsdale) who, under the direction of his unconventional best friend creates a fake boyfriend on social media in order to keep his “awful ex-lover” from trying to come back into his life – only to have the plan backfire when he meets someone he thinks might be the real love of his life. Slated for release sometime around Pride month, this one will likely be popular on the strength of its attractive young stars alone.

MY POLICEMAN

As far as attractive young stars go, you can’t do much better than pop musician-turned-actor Harry Styles, who stars in this UK-set romantic drama from Michael Grandage and Greg Berlanti as a bisexual policeman who loves a man (David Dawson) but marries a woman (Emma Corrin) because same-sex relationships are illegal. Four decades later, his former lover re-enters his life, and his long-held secret might not be the only thing that comes out. Linus Roache, Gina McKee, and Rupert Everett portray the older versions of the three members of this star-crossed romantic triangle. No release date has yet been announced, but with the star power involved in this one we can be sure it will make a big splash when it lands later this year.

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