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Queer romance on screen: from ‘Desert Hearts’ to ‘Brokeback Mountain’
by David-Elijah Nahmod
That Tender Touch (1969)
Just the Two of Us (1975)
Wolfe Video, a lesbian-owned label based in the San Jose, California, area, offers this pair of surprisingly sensitive, if slightly campy, lesbian melodramas. Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, exploitation filmmakers produced what were then called “hard R” movies. These tales of psychosexual love featured titillating ad campaigns that made the films seem much raunchier than they actually were. A lot of these films admittedly were drive-in sleaze, but there were a few hidden gems in the pack. • Barbara Peeters was a feminist filmmaker who worked in the exploitation genre at a time when mainstream Hollywood closed its doors to women directors. That Tender Touch, a “T & A” film that Peeters made for a straight-male viewership, is actually a sweet story about two unhappily married women, best friends, who are inspired to enter into a sexual relationship with each other after spotting a lesbian couple holding hands in an outdoor cafe. Through each other, they find true love. • Sure, the late ’60s hairdos and set designs are hilarious (remember muumuu dresses and shag carpets?), but the script touches upon many serious issues, including homophobia. This predecessor to Desert Hearts and The Kids Are All Right is well worth a look. • Just the Two of Us was produced in the mid-1970s as the market for these kinds of films was running dry. The film’s operatic theme song is a laugh-getter, but once again, viewers are treated to a sensitive tale of lesbian passion. Unrequited love is the theme here: think of Stephen Sondheim’s classic song “Not a Day Goes By.”
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Classic Oscar-winning tearjerker. Jake Gyllanhall and the late Heath Ledger are superb as a pair of closeted cowboys who fall in love in virulently homophobic Wyoming, circa 1963. The story follows their secret, forbidden relationship over the course of 20 years. There won’t be a dry eye in the house as these soulmates struggle to find ways to be together, even as they struggle with their sexual identities. • Brokeback Mountain is brilliantly acted and flawless. Ang Lee dedicated his Best Director Oscar to “all the gay men and women whose love is denied by society, and to the greatness of love itself.”
The Wedding Banquet (1993)
More than a decade before Brokeback, Ang Lee, who’s not gay, offered this sweet domestic drama. Wai-Tung and Simon (Winston Chao and Mitchell Lichtenstein) are an upscale gay couple in Brooklyn, New York. Wai-Tung’s parents are visiting from Tawain, with the intent of finding him a bride. The first half of the film plays like a screwball comedy as the couple’s attempts to hide the truth from Mom and Dad kick into high gear. • Wedding Banquet takes a more serious tone after Dad has a stroke. True love wins out in this delightful tale of Eastern and Western cultures meeting each other at the halfway point.
Desert Hearts (1986)
The ultimate lesbian classic, a film so shamelessly sweet and romantic that it enjoyed a crossover audience of gay men and even straights. Donna Deitch, perhaps the first out lesbian to score a box-office hit, directs to perfection. • Helen Shaver stars as Vivian, a repressed English professor who travels to 1959 Reno for a quickie divorce. While there she meets a hard-partying cowgirl named Cay (Patricia Charbonneau), who possesses the lust for life that Vivian lacks. It’s love at first sight, but first Vivian has to accept who she really is. • A fabulous period score helps to establish the time and place. Shaver and Charbonneau are sensational, offering the kind of romantic onscreen chemistry often associated with classic Hollywood. Audra Lindley, fondly remembered for her role as the frustrated Mrs. Roper on the classic sitcom Three’s Company, surprised many viewers with her intensely dramatic performance as Cay’s hard-talking but loving surrogate mom.
Soft Hearts (1998)
Here’s something we don’t get to see often: a heartwarming, uplifting gay love story from Thailand. This precursor to the recent TV series The New Normal features a loving gay couple having a baby: the birth mom is their best friend. It’s a new kind of family in this must-see tale of gay family values. In Tagalog, with English subtitles.
Brideshead Revisited (1981 and 2008)
Evelyn Waugh’s brilliant novel must have raised eyebrows when it was published in 1945. It follows Charles Ryder, an upper middle-class artist, and his 25-year obsession with Sebastian Flyte, scion to one of England’s wealthiest families. • The boys pretend to be best friends when they first meet at Oxford during the early 1920s. They’re actually deeply in love, which is plainly seen by all. When Lady Marchmain (Claire Bloom), Sebastian’s fanatically religious mother, drives him to acute alcoholism, Charles turns his attentions to sister Julia Flyte, though it remains apparent that this relationship is more about keeping a connection to Sebastian. • The book was filmed twice, first as an 11-part miniseries for television in 1981, and as a feature film in 2008. In episode two of the TV version, Sebastian and Charles visit Lord Marchmain and his mistress (Lord Laurence Olivier and Stephan Audran) in Venice, Italy. There’s much talk of “romantic love among young men” as the boys walk along the Venetian canals arm in arm. In other episodes, Charles and Sebastian lie in the English grass, drinking wine as they dangle strawberries above their mouths. A metaphor for the sex they might have been having? • The film version makes the characters’ homosexuality more obvious as Sebastian shamelessly kisses Charles on the lips several times. • Both versions were lushly shot on location in actual English manors and across Europe. Brideshead Revisited remains one of fiction’s all-time great love stories.
Films don’t get much sweeter than this. Trevor Wright stars as Zach, an aspiring artist in beachfront, blue-collar San Pedro, California. He’s forced to support his young nephew: his slacker sister might just be the decade’s worst mom. Zach’s life changes when he reconnects with surfer dude Shaun (Brad Rowe), whose brother is Zach’s best friend. Zach and Shaun fall deeply in love. • The most powerful scene in this GLAAD Media Award-winning film comes when Zach’s best bud tells him that “he knows.” “I don’t care at all,” says Gabe (Ross Thomas). “It’s a little weird that it’s with my brother, but I really don’t care at all.” • Sniff…
Latter Days (2003)
This lovely, if occasionally disturbing, story has become current and topical in the recent aftermath of a Utah judge’s tossing of the Mormon State’s gay-marriage ban. Wes Ramsey plays Christian, a hot West Hollywood party boy who reexamines his values when he meets Aaron (Steve Sandvoss), a closeted Mormon on a mission. • The film delves into the deep-rooted homophobia of Mormon culture, including a few harrowing scenes in which the church attempts to “cure” Aaron. • But mostly, Latter Days is a sweet love story about a Romeo-and-Juliet-inspired couple who manage to find their happy ending. Look for rising star Joseph Gordon-Levitt in a small role as a conservative Mormon missionary. 1970s superstar/sex symbol Jacqueline Bissett is on hand as Christian’s loving surrogate mom. Bissett, who recently won a Golden Globe Award, said that she agreed to do the low-budget independent film because she believed so strongly in the story. To that end, she waived her usual fees. A true ally.
When Night Is Falling (1995)
A visually dazzling love story and another gem from lesbian-owned Wolfe Video, this Canadian film’s atmospheric lighting makes it feel almost dreamlike. The distributor refused to release the film with the NC-17 rating it was given and sent it off to theaters unrated. • Another tale of religion versus homosexuality, Pascale Bussieres stars as Camille, a professor at a conservative religious college in a troubled relationship with a man. She finds true love, and her true self, when the circus comes to town. Camille and circus performer Petra are deeply drawn to each other. Thus begins Camille’s romantic, and erotic, journey into a world she never imagined.
Happy Valentine’s Day!
David-Elijah Nahmod lives in San Francisco. His eclectic writing career includes LGBT publications, monster magazines, and the Times of Israel.