Notes on a Scandal and The History Boys provide higher learning.
Notes on a Scandal swings like the pendulum do
By Nancy Ford
Life, she’s a pendulum. For decades, cinematic and literary representation of homosexuality almost always ended badly: The story’s finale found the hero/ine either swinging at the business end of a noose, or, perhaps even more damaging, switching teams to live happily ever after with the opposite-sex co-star.
After GLAAD raged at the producers of 1992’s Basic Instinct in which Sharon Stone played a bi bad guy, the pendulum swung to the other side: Priscilla was queen of the desert, Billy got his Hollywood screen kiss, and Andrew Beckett won his lawsuit in Philadelphia (not to mention an Oscar for Tom Hanks).
These days the pendulum swings both ways, you should pardon the expression. While Brokeback broke our hearts, neither of the protagonists was the villain nor the good guy… per se.
And now on DVD comes Notes on a Scandal, Zoe Heller’s brilliant story of obsession and loneliness, a toxic combination that here blurs the line between hero and villain.
As Sheba, Cate Blanchett is a capable yet unfulfilled wife, mother, and art teacher at a private and proper London school, preoccupied with “minding the gap”—that gap being the distance between life as one dreams it and life as it is.
The impeccable Dame Judi Dench, portraying Sheba’s spinster colleague Barbara, does her best to fill Sheba’s gap. After witnessing her friend indulging in an unspeakable LeTourneau-type act, Barbara schemes to elevate the women’s friendship to something more substantial.
Spoiler alert: It doesn’t end well for either woman. But clearly, the villain here is neither the lonely Sheba nor the even lonelier Barbara, but the closet. Perhaps that’s why Notes, despite its unflattering portrayal of same-sex attraction, elicited nary a peep of derision from GLAAD.
Swing on, big pendulum, swing on.
2006. Directed by Richard Eyre (Stage Beauty). From Fox Home Entertainment (www.foxhome.com).
It’s all just a little bit of History Boys repeating
by John Stiles
The History Boys is smart, funny, touching, sensitive, sweet, and subversive.
Eight of the brightest boys this working class school has ever produced are vying for entry into England’s version of Harvard and Yale—Oxford and Cambridge. The school’s headmaster (Clive Merrison), a smarmy old twit, brings in a consultant (Stephen Campbell Moore) to hone the boys and give them the “edge” they’ll need. The sharpener is a slick young fellow keen on the fresh approach, the odd angle, the alternative view that will distinguish his charges from the mass of boys jockeying for position.
His method stands in contrast to their “General Studies” teacher, Hector (Richard Griffiths, whose Broadway role as Hector won him a Tony last year). Hector is an aging, rotund, throwback more interested in kindling the boys interest in learning than pumping their scores on an entrance exam. His interest in the boys extends well south of their fertile minds as he occasionally gives them a lift on the back of his motorbike. His ineffectual fumbling is tolerated by the boys as they each take their turn on Hector’s hot seat.
These are some world-weary boys, to be sure, but they never lose their charm and we never cease to be entertained. (The boys are played by James Corden, Andrew Knott, Russell Tovey, Jamie Parker, Samuel Anderson, Sacha Dhawan, Samuel Barnett, and Dominic Cooper.)
Originally a multiple British Tony award winner, the play’s author (openly gay Alan Bennett) also wrote the screenplay. The theater cast appears en masse in the film (shot in an amazingly brief six weeks) and their comfort with each other and the material shows through. In the words of two English beermakers, “…use the stage actors in the film? Brilliant!” The History Boys is brilliant indeed.
2006. Directed by openly gay Nicholas Hyt ner (The Object of My Affection). From Fox
Home Entertainment (www.foxhome.com).