Sunday, September 08, 2013

Robert Altman's "bi" comedy about personals, "Beyond Therapy", doesn't predict his riveting films in the 90's; notes on 80's gay film

In the 1980’s, before and during the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, comedic and dramatic gay films were being made that tried to present urban gay life, even when in satire, in its normal degree of separation (variable at times) from the suburban and rural world of Reagan’s “Normal Rockwell” America – families with children.

Robert Atlman teased us with a little wobbly comedy, “Beyond Therapy” (1987, for New World Pictures and now Anchor Bay and Image), based on by the play by Christopher Durang (who adapted it to screen).  The basic setup is that Bruce (Jeff Goldblum) and Prudence (Julie Hagerty) meet on a blind date based on newspaper personals.  Yes, people really did that in print in the days long before Craigslist, and here they do it at the behest of their therapists.  Soon Prudence learns, with some shock, that Bruce is “bisexual”, and Bruce gives her a lecture on what he “has” that women don’t have:  a beard (maybe body hair), height, more muscle.  That invites a certain narcissism that infuses the rest of the characters, especially two jealous men chasing Bruce, that is Bob (Christopher Guest) and Stuart (Tom Conti). 
In Manhattan in those days, “therapy” was a trendy word:  the Ninth Street Center in the East Village still met, as did Identity House, probably.  People really did live their own lives, go to Fire Island, and have to deal with “so jealous” but not legally recognized lovers.  And they were just learning that they needed to stay safe.
George Gershwin's song “Someone to Watch Over Me” figures into the comedy, as does some Bach on a harpsichord. Can “women theoretically have a sense of humor”?  How about the line, "I am sick of talking about therapy; I hate therapy." 
I call this comedy.  I don't think that Piers Morgan would find the scene where Stuart shoots up a restaurant funny -- or did it really happen? Matt Damon's angelic character Loki does something similar in a corporate boardroom in "Dogma" (1999).
The film is set in Manhattan but everything indoors was filmed in Paris. 
I skipped this when I was living in Dallas, but rented it recently. 

Altman would do much more impressive work later, with “Vincent & Theo” (1990, MGM), about Vincent Van Gogh, “Short Cuts” (1992, which I got to in a snowstorm), and “The Player” (a 1992 Hollywood mystery about the politics of getting screenplays bought, and an eclectic masterpiece).

Two other important gay films that I remember well from the 80’s are:  “Making Love” (1982, Fox, by Arthur Hiller, where a young doctor (Michael Ontkean) falls for a writer (Harry Hamlin) who starts with an office visit (there’s an odd prescient reference to K.S.; the romantic scenes are very well handled and have a lot of buildup;  and “Parting Glances" (1986, Bill Sherwood, Cinecom and FRF) deals with the issue of a gay man’s taking a work assignment in the third world, and has a subordinate character with AIDS who never loses his energy. . 

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