DEEP INSIDE THE CASTRO: The Castro Theatre

By Josh Eliot

 

“Deep Inside” is a series in four parts that Will Seagers and myself are writing. The first in the series focuses on San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood, where Will and I both spent a lot of time during the 1980’s. Although Will Seagers and I have never met formally, I am convinced that he sold me my first VCR at Eber Electronics in 1984. I can’t say for sure, but that photo of him at Eber’s from his blog “The Stereo Maven of Castro Street” convinced me, because he looked very familiar. After purchasing the VCR on a payment plan I remember running across Market Street to Captain Video to rent a couple of VHS tapes, most likely a horror movie and a porn.

In 1984 my friends and I were incredibly lucky when we found and rented our flat at 629 Castro Street. It had three bedrooms, was located just above the corner of 19th and we paid $750 per month. Our landlord Marlene got sole ownership of the three level building and a nearby house in her divorce settlement. Our unit was located on the middle floor with an artist (painter) and his roommate above, and a leather couple below. The neighborhood had so much to offer with bars and restaurants on every block. 18th and Castro was the main intersection; to the right was your coin-operated laundry and Cala Foods Supermarket, to the left was The Midnight Sun video bar and Moby Dick (where Will Seagers was known to DJ).

 

Will Seagers and Eber Electronics

Will Seagers and Eber Electronics

 

Near the Corner of Castro and Market Street was The Castro Theatre, which is my focus for this blog as it was truly the heart and soul of the neighborhood. This landmark represented a place where the gay community could come together and show appreciation for their favorite films and icons. They hosted premieres like Milk, the story of Harvey Milk, and more recently The Matrix Resurrections, complete with cast and crew appearances. There was a constant array of new releases as well as classics that were shown, providing quite a wide variety of constant entertainment for the neighborhood. Inside this majestic palace the architecture was astounding and much was coated in gold leaf. There was a balcony, of course, and the main level consisted of three sections, the right side being the “smoking area.”

 

Milk and The Matrix Resurrections premieres at The Castro

Milk and The Matrix Resurrections premieres at The Castro

 

Suddenly Last Summer was the first movie I saw there. I was surprised and delighted when, prior to the beginning of the movie, the Mighty Wurlitzer Organ rose from the floor on a platform. The sound quality was amazing and when the player finished his performance with the song “San Francisco” (open your golden gate) the crowd sang along from the top of their lungs. What was this place? This experience was already so much more than just going to a movie house. Suddenly Last Summer was my first “real” introduction to Montgomery Clift and Katharine Hepburn, but it was Elizabeth Taylor with her 22” waist and pointy bra that stole the movie for me. I’d only ever seen her in films like Night Watch where she was, what?, late forties? Well in Suddenly she looked stunning from the moment she graced the screen in her insane asylum uniform. Even though the gay undertones in the movie were “way over my head,” just being in the packed house with a mostly gay audience was a thrill. The place exploded in applause when the real nut, Katharine Hepburn, rode up the private elevator in her gothic mansion at the movie's end. I’m sure they could hear the cheers and applause down the block!

 

Suddenly Last Summer and the Castro Theatre interior

Suddenly Last Summer and the Castro Theatre interior

 

There was always something going on at the Castro Theatre. We saw the premiere of Lust in the Dust with Divine and Lanie Kazan, and though the audience was every excited, the movie was a bit disappointing as we really expected a John Waters classic, but he didn’t direct it, Paul Bartel did. Joan Collins came there in person for An Evening with Joan Collins, a live on stage interactive event. I’m not sure if she was pushing a book or just riding the Dynasty wave, but it was incredible and we all thought that her head looked too big for her body. When her car drove off after the event, the street was so packed with queens screaming her name and banging on her car it could barely move down the road.

I even sat through four consecutive nights of Berlin Alexanderplatz (A 15 ½ hour , 14-part West German crime television miniseries, set in 1920s Berlin and adapted and directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder) with Fritz, my boyfriend at the time (though he never admitted it). I thought he would see how invested I was in our relationship by showing my commitment to his viewing choices, since none of his other friends would sit through 15 hours with him. It didn’t really work, as you might have read in my recent blog, “Everybody’s Free To Feel Good.” I actually was blown away by Fassbinder’s work and became a fan, seeing a lot of his movies.

The best time ever was seeing Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, it would play there a few times a year and we would always go again and again and again. All those classic lines, which of course the audience all knew and yelled out! And that face, those Bette Davis eyes surrounded by all that white make-up on that giant screen! Nothing could beat that movie with a live audience!

 

Lust in the Dust, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane & Berlin Alexanderplatz

Lust in the Dust, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane & Berlin Alexanderplatz

 

Today I just so happened to go to the Castro Theatre’s website to see if they are still going strong and I am happy to report that they are! It looks like APE (Another Planet Entertainment) was chosen to partner with the owners of the Castro Theatre to implement significant improvements to the sound, lighting, customer and artist experience. They acknowledge the Castro Theatre is an icon of the LGBTQ+ community and a treasured space for film, music and live performance. It looks like they’ve got An Evening with Elliott Gould, a screening of A Mighty Wind (got to love Catherine O’Hara and Parker Posey!) and a performance by Shangela, made famous from RuPaul's Drag Race. The diverse schedule of events is in full swing. It’s great to see some things never change, they only get better!

 

 

Bio of Josh Eliot:

At the age of 25 in 1987, Josh Eliot was hired by Catalina Video by John Travis (Brentwood Video) and Scott Masters (Nova Video). Travis trained Eliot on his style of videography and mentored him on the art of directing. Josh directed his first movie, Runaways, in 1987. By 2009 when Josh parted ways with Catalina Video, he'd produced and directed hundreds of features and won numerous awards for Best Screenplay, Videography, Editing, and Directing. He was entered into the GayVN Hall of fame in 2002. 

 

You can read Josh Eliot's previous blogs for Bijou here:

Coming out of my WET SHORTS
FRANK ROSS, The Boss
Our CALIGULA Moment
That BUTTHOLE Just Winked at Me!
DREAMLAND: The Other Place
A Salty Fuck in Saugatuck
Somebody, Call a FLUFFER!
The Late Great JOHN TRAVIS, My POWERTOOL Mentor
(Un)Easy Riders
7 Years with Colt Model MARK RUTTER
Super NOVA
Whatever Happened to NEELY O’HARA?
Is That AL PARKER In Your Photo?
DOWN BY LAW: My $1,000,000 Mistake
We Waited 8hrs for a Cum Shot... Is That a World Record?
Don't Wear "Short Shorts" on the #38 Geary to LANDS END
How Straight Are You Really?
BEHIND THE (not so) GREEN DOOR
The BOOM BOOM Room
CATCHING UP with Tom DeSimone
Everybody’s FREE to FEEL GOOD
SCANDAL at the Coral Sands Motel

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Whatever Happened to NEELY O’HARA?

By Josh Eliot

 

I have absolutely no idea if the Gen X or Millennials have icons that they worship. You know, the Baby Boomers – the Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland and Bette Davis obsessed group - they erected a fabulous 26 ft tall Marilyn Monroe statue in downtown Palm Springs, which is the new selfie spot for locals and tourists. It’s that great image from The Seven Year Itch where her billowing white dress blows up in the air from the subway grid below. There was a small delegation that picketed her installation (of course… so annoying) because her underwear-covered ass is facing the walkway leading from the museum. Whatever! Under her dress is the most popular selfie spot in town! Palm Springs also has an amazing show at The Purple Room Club starring impersonator Michael Holmes as Judy Garland - it’s called The Judy Show. In the show, Judy gets more and more “lit” as the night goes on, talks shit about her daughter Liza and has great guest stars like Bette Davis, Pearl Bailey and Carol Channing. If in town, it’s a “must-see” dinner theater experience.

 

Marilyn statue in Palm Springs

Marilyn statue in Palm Springs

 

I appreciate all of those fine women, but for me there is only one gal that is and has always been on the top of my “worship” list. She’s not an actress, but a character - the fabulously damaged NEELY O’HARA from Jacqueline Susann’s epic Valley of the Dolls. But my obsession undoubtedly is because the actress that gave her life, Patty Duke, nailed the role. I first saw a heavily edited version back in the 1970’s on TV, some random Saturday afternoon. There were a lot of “show-stopping” moments, but I couldn’t rewind the scenes or watch them on a VCR because it wasn’t invented yet (VCR - released by RCA in 1977). Maybe that’s why the experience really stuck with me; it wasn’t watered down by replaying it. Neely could sing and dance like the ladies above and ended up tortured, broken and ______? And what? Whatever happened to Neely O’Hara? When we left her at the end of the movie she was wasted, emotionally drained, near collapse and screaming her own name into the night sky of the New York City Theatre District. How could Jacqueline have left us hanging like that? I’ve often wondered, did she die there in that alley? We will never know. Or will we?

In 1993, I recreated Neely’s story as an adult bi-sexual movie called Valley of the Bi Dolls. The movie starred Sharon Kane as “Ceily Fontana” (the Neely character) and Gloria Leonard as ”Lana Dawson” (the Helen Lawson character). Originally played by Judy Garland, then replaced with Susan Hayward, Helen Lawson was the ultimate arch enemy to Neely. I also included Sharon Tate’s “Jennifer” character played by Leanna Foxxx. The character “Ann Wells” played by Barbara Parkins was just too boring to make the cut. The movie basically ends with the same fate for Ceily/Neely, but her story goes on from there. To take her journey a step further, in 1994 I released Revenge of the Bi Dolls, where Ceily/Neely sets in motion a series of events to shame and humiliate Lana Dawson, which seals both their fates in a gunfight that results in their deaths. Case closed. But was it?

 

Neily & Ceily

Neily & Ceily

 

Not according to the General Manager at Catalina Video. Because both movies won Best Bi-Sexual Picture, Director and Music for Kane, Non-Sexual for Leonard and Screenplay, he told me I needed to make a third installment, turning the series into a trilogy. I thought I had finally given Ceily/Neely a proper ending, but evidently not! I dragged my feet, but in 1997 I released Night of the Living Bi Dolls. I guess I was still in my rebellious stage. I had killed all the main characters in the sequel, and to me Ceily was larger than life, so I brought her back from the dead as a zombie in the midst of a zombie apocalypse. The movie won Best Bi-Sexual Picture and Director so I figured it was over and that was it! Or was it?

 

 

Bi Dolls Trilogy

Bi Dolls Trilogy

 

Not likely. Recently I released on my YouTube Channel (The Josh Eliot), in a PG rated version, Far Beyond the Valley: The Complete Bi-Dolls Trilogy. It’s all three movies edited together into a 95-minute PG rated feature. It includes the famous “pulling off the wig” scene, Ceily’s stint in the sanitarium, an original duet with Sharon and Chi Chi LaRue and even a Dynasty style fight in the lily pond scene thrown in for good measure. Chi Chi LaRue was in all three movies playing the character “Nurse Ratshitt,” whom Ceily meets in the nut-house. The nurse gives Ceily a taste of her own medicine before being crushed by a 1-ton sandbag on the movie set. Not to worry, she becomes a zombie in the tail end of the feature, which literally makes her lose her “head.”

 

Chi Chi in the recreated wig scene

Chi Chi in the recreated wig scene

 

This Trilogy, to me, reflects the best of the best of times during my 20+ year adventure working for Catalina Video. Easily the most fun you could ever have on a porn set without getting a load on your face. Heavily influenced by Russ Meyer, the campiness in this movie is next level. If you want to see Neely O’Hara turn the tables on Helen Lawson and go far beyond anything resembling sanity, then click the following link to see THE OFFICIAL TRAILER. Once on my channel, check out the FULL FEATURE as well as lots of fun trailers, interviews and music videos from some of my favorite Catalina movies of the past, and don’t forget the popcorn.

 

Trailer for the Bi Dolls Trilogy
Click here to watch the Official Trailer for the Bi Dolls Trilogy and click here for the Full Feature


Bio of Josh Eliot:

At the age of 25 in 1987, Josh Eliot was hired by Catalina Video by John Travis (Brentwood Video) and Scott Masters (Nova Video). Travis trained Eliot on his style of videography and mentored him on the art of directing. Josh directed his first movie, Runaways, in 1987. By 2009 when Josh parted ways with Catalina Video, he'd produced and directed hundreds of features and won numerous awards for Best Screenplay, Videography, Editing, and Directing. He was entered into the GayVN Hall of fame in 2002. 

 

You can read Josh Eliot's previous blogs for Bijou here:

Coming out of my WET SHORTS
FRANK ROSS, The Boss
Our CALIGULA Moment

That BUTTHOLE Just Winked at Me!
DREAMLAND: The Other Place
A Salty Fuck in Saugatuck
Somebody, Call a FLUFFER!
The Late Great JOHN TRAVIS, My POWERTOOL Mentor
(Un)Easy Riders
7 Years with Colt Model MARK RUTTER
Super NOVA

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Mad Scenes

Posted by Madam Bubby

 

Usually a “mad scene” specifically refers to a particular scene from an opera written by bel canto composers of the early 19th century, such as Donizetti and Bellini. A soprano, usually suffering from a romantic love crisis, goes insane, and expresses her insanity, paradoxically, in difficult, complicated coloratura passages that require great vocal control.

The most famous occurs in the opera Lucia di Lammermoor. Lucia, in love with the family enemy Edgardo, is forced to marry someone her brother chooses, Arturo. Lucia kills Arturo on her wedding night. I grew up hearing the gay icon Maria Callas singing this scene on record, and I was mesmerized that she was able to invest the scene with such drama and a dark, complex timbre. Here was no Snow White singing tra la la to the birds. But, interestingly enough, the opera does not end with the mad scene. Lucia dies offstage, and her lover, Edgardo, kills himself. He actually gets a kind of tenor mad scene. But it’s generally the ladies who go mad, which reflects quite blatantly the Victorian view that women, the weaker sex, were more prone to mental disturbance: potential hysterics.

 

Callas as Lucia

Callas as Lucia

 

The mad scene by the middle of the last century started moving to the end of movies, crystallizing to some extent in the grand dame guignol movies of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The end of Sunset Boulevard, the famous “I’m ready for my close up, Mr. DeMille,” scene of Norma Desmond, deconstructs the mad scenes of operas, because she thinks she is playing the necrophiliac Salome. One even hears a bit of music from the Strauss opera as she descends the staircase (that prop usually occurs in Lucia mad scenes). In fact, by the time Strauss wrote his opera Salome, one could even say the female protagonists of many operas written by that time were mad for the entire opera (or most of the time).

 

Noma Desmond at the end of Sunset Boulevard

Norma Desmond at the end of Sunset Boulevard, Source: https://icsfilm.org/essays/the- devil-is-a-woman-sunset-boulevard-norma-desmond-and-actress-noir/

 

Thus, Baby Jane Hudson in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? dancing on the beach with ice cream cones and others of her ilk come out of a rich tradition. The director Robert Aldrich really seemed to build his grande dame guignol films toward a final mad scene for the female protagonist, though in his underrated Autumn Leaves shows a male, played by Cliff Robertson, going mad, and he gets several scenes, but the most terrifying one occurs at about midpoint.

But it is also a scene of horrifying domestic violence (he throws a typewriter at his wife, played by Joan Crawford, after slapping her around). Like Edgardo in Lucia, he accuses her of treachery, but she is innocent. In reality, his father slept with his now former wife (she a willing accomplice), and discovering them together precipitated his descent into what, based on the movie, is paranoid schizophrenia.

 

Joan Crawford and Cliff Robertson in Autumn Leaves

Joan Crawford and Cliff Robertson in Autumn Leaves, Source: http://graham-russell.blogspot.com/2018/10/reflections-on-autumn-leaves-1956.html

 

Aldrich created another mad scene in The Killing of Sister George, a groundbreaking LGBTQ movie on so many levels, not only for its filming a scene in an actual lesbian bar, but, for the fact that the protagonist, June Buckridge played by Beryl Reid (known as George because of the character she plays in a soap opera, Sister George, a jovial country nurse in an English village) is out and proud as a lesbian. Many critics today tend to place this move in the “self-hating” LGBTQ subgrenre. Yes, George is certainly not the most stable person. She yells a lot, drinks a lot, and certainly, which one could argue isn’t really a character flaw in some of the situations she encounters, shows no compunction about telling some persons off in not the most dainty language.

Her relationship with Alice does not strike one as being the healthiest by today’s standards. I remember watching the scene where George, always jealous, punishes Alice for a supposed flirting (with a man) by making her kneel before her and eat her cigar. For the mid 1960s, this scene was risqué, and I perceived that perhaps there was some element of BDSM play involved, but it also seems to be moving into the realm of emotional abuse. And it’s not Alice as the victim of the “bull dyke” George. Alice is blatantly egging her on, and by pretending to enjoy eating the cigar; yes, she does take back control of the dynamic, knowing she is hurting George by, as George both yells and cries, “ruining” it.

Thus, one can see the characters aren’t camp caricatures. The character George plays gets killed off in the series (hence the title), and the fate of her career and relationship gets wound up in the machinations of the cliched reptilian predatory lesbian, played by Coral Browne.

Spoiler alert: she loses her job and her lover; the Coral Browne character in a scene of underhanded viciousness at George’s farewell party at the television studio suggests she get a job playing the voice of a cow in an animated puppets series for children. A gut-wrenching scene occurs when Alice leaves her. Reid masterfully plays it as both horribly hurt and horribly angry together, the emotion much like that of another spurned operatic character, Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana (from the time of whole “mad operas”). Shortly thereafter, George enters the empty studio, smashes the camera equipment, and beings mooing like a cow. She is wordless. No romantic words, no ecstatic high notes like Lucia sings, no cameras for a Norma Desmond close-up.

 

Beryl Reid as George in The Killing of Sister George

Beryl Reid as George in The Killing of Sister George, Source: https://thelastdrivein.com/category/1960s/the-killing-of- sister-george-1960/

 

But, is she really mad? Does she really enter another reality like Lucia and Norma Desmond and Baby Jane? She’s not fantasizing about a marriage that never took place, and she’s not retreating into memories of a forever lost stardom. It seems she’s justifiably enraged, but also, given her indomitable character, understanding that she will do that job. She knows she has lost. She knows it’s degrading.

And like many LGBTQ persons, she knows who she is, and because she knows, she can choose, or at least to try and choose, what happens in her life. What’s sad is that she feels like she can only choose her losses. I just wonder if she’s really at the same level of victimization and its sister, in those cases, madness as the Romantic heroines of opera or the characters like Baby Jane who are both torturer and victim in grande dame guignol cinema.

Similarly. the complex dynamic where the madness, or appearance of madness exists perhaps to crystallize at the highest level of tension the torturer/victim binary, appears in a retro gay porn movie, Drive, directed by Jack Deveau (which Bijou carries on DVD and streaming). The mad Arachne plots to kidnap a scientist and eliminate everyone’s sex drive.

 

Christopher Rage as Arachne in Drive

Christopher Rage as Arachne in Drive

 

Arachne (Christopher Rage aka Mary Jim Sstunning) certainly camps it up as she attempts to set her diabolical plot in motion. But the movie unveils at the end how the one who desires to castrate is actually ferociously repressing her own sexuality. She is last seen in a dungeon with the men she had imprisoned. Secret agent Clark liberates the prisoners, and Arachne is left alone. But this whole mad porn opera contains a moment of somber lucidity. Arachne holds a glass bottle with a severed penis. She knows she is forever trapped in a cycle of endless desire like a spider in a web, consuming its mates but never satiated:

“I hunted at night until it wasn’t enough to hunt only at night, and then I hunted during the day too. I couldn’t stop. I didn’t want to stop. My thoughts were only of hard bodies, rigid with the desire for me — beautiful men swollen with the need for me. They were all around me and I chose the ones who looked most eager.

“Until I saw a man who was so perfect, with a hunger in his eyes that reflected my own hunger — and I knew he was the one. I knew we could feed from each other, claw at each other with a need we didn’t care to understand.

“Drugged with desire for each other’s hot naked skin, tense muscles pushing — and then filling me with his need, white and hot. Crushing me with his strong arms, pressing down on me and into me, until I closed my eyes with the ecstasy and perfection of him, and I screamed for him — and I screamed for me. 

“And I opened my eyes and I was alone.

“And I vowed then that I would bring an end to it all. Man would have to search no more: Arachne would be the answer.”

She knows. She knows who she is, ultimately more frightening than the mad scene at the end, which usually ends in the liberation of death.

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Y M C A (with hand motions)

 

In the 1970s, a youngish housewife in the west suburbs of Chicago dances to this tune on the green shag carpet. She gets her toddler to do it, swinging him by the arms. Her high school age son looks on with a combination of horror and embarrassment.

More than 40 years later, at her grandson's bar mitzvah in Buffalo Grove, Illinois, Bubby Ruth Goldstein (known for her get up and go) takes over the dance floor from her hip hop loving grandson and his friends when the band, in an effort to get everyone involved (an exhausting but necessary requirement for such functions), tries the nostalgia trick. It works.

Has this song become only a nostalgic camp crowd pleaser? Perhaps. I know the current Village People perform primarily on the nostalgia circuit (I saw them at gay Halsted Market Days and at “straight” Taste of Chicago because these popular commercialized festivals attract multiple ages and they need the “older crowd” of boomers with the spending power these days).

But there's a history behind and after it which, despite the campy appeal of the piece, is quite interesting because what we normally seem to think is true about this song ain't necessarily so.

According to Felipe Rose, the group's founder in an interview with the Huffington Post, "I don't think Jacques' intent (Jacques Morali, the original producer of the group) was, 'Oh, I'm just going to put together a group for the gay audience,'" says group member Eric Anzalone (the biker). "He knew the music industry and he knew if he had a hit in the clubs -- which, in the '70s, the gay, the Latin clubs -- that was the place to be." Thus, perhaps, the gay subtext was not meant originally.

 

But then, also according to the Huffington Post, explaining to Rose that the controversy was actually about whether Victor Willis (one of the original members, no longer peforming with group, the leather guy) was against it being used as a gay rights anthem, and not about whether he was against Russia using it at the Sochi Olympics, Willis said, "To the band? Well first of all, the song was never written about anything to do with gay... "It was just a filler song, based on the ex-producer seeing the YMCA sign during lunch and asking us what it meant. Sure, there was ambiguity and they were using a double entendre, but it was really just supposed to be one more song to fill out the album."


From what I have heard (not seen) about many YMCAs in general (one friend told me all one had to do was leave your bedroom door open as a signal for sex), one could argue that there was no way getting around a gay subtext.

I also found out that the famous hand motions came from the kids on Dick Clark's famous American Bandstand, according to Ray Simpson, the cop in the group. He said, "The kids from Dick Clark's 'American Bandstand' actually started the hand motions because we weren't smart enough to come up with that...We decided that was good, let's put it in the show."

I think there's more to this song than camp and nostalgia. Gay sex at the Young Men's Christian, yes Christian Association? Enough said. I just find it interesting that in addition to this irony, the ladies love it too. I haven't yet told my mom (the woman I refer to the first paragraph) that she was dancing to what is now a gay anthem of liberation. Perhaps she needed to feel, however vicariously, liberation as well in those tumultuous seventies.

 

Now, one reader's amazing response to this bog post:

 

Enjoyed the YMCA feature. A few points though - Willis was the original cop (the much missed, gorgeous (& straight) Glenn Hughes was the Leatherman). Ray Simpson replaced Willis as cop when he left prior to Can't Stop The Music.  The "classic" VP lineup didn't come together until their second album, Macho Man.  Only Willis and Felipe Rose are on the first album.  As for them not being put together for a gay audience - that seems more than a little revisionist not to mention a tad disingenuous.  Check out the cover of the first album (attached) and see if you think there's anything remotely veiled about it!  The song list for the album was San Francisco ("Folsom Street on the way to Polk and Castro" - what were those famous for?), In Hollywood, Fire Island (who's favourite summer resort?) and Village People as in Greenwich Village, famous in the 70s because...?  Back in '77 I was a 16 year old disco boy and I well remember the way they not-so-subtley repositioned themselves when they gained mass fame and success. (I still have many of the cuttings from the UK press back then).

 

The second album, with Macho Man, I Am What I Am (not THAT version) and Key West was still pretty out there too!

 

As the other straight man in the group I guess Willis (who also wrote many of their lyrics) might feel embarassed about the gay aspect, though it clearly didn't concern him too much at the time.  Quite why Felipe Rose should come out with such nonsense is another matter.  Given how far the acceptance of gay people and their rights has come on since then it seems wierd to spout that garbage now. Ah well!

 

Fun to read nonetheless, just wanted to set the record straight (so to speak).

 
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I Love You, Joan Crawford: Gay Men and Their Big Ladies

 

Joan Crawford Illustration

The other day while on the subway, I heard two male high school students (not sure if they were gay) debate the respective virtues of Beyonce and Adele.

 

Diva worship is apparently still alive everywhere, not just in the gay community! 


But what's the real scoop on the cliched gay obsession with Joan Crawford and other dead or superannuated movie stars, or as movie mogul Jack Warner put it more bluntly, “old broads,” the language he used when referring to Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? 

 

These larger than life ladies, and others like them, have always enjoyed large gay male followings.  

So my question is: is the “big lady” and her gay entourage now a stereotype of a campy, closeted culture of the past, in which diva worship, according to many cultural critics, was an elaborate “covering” dynamic for gay men's profound social and psychological insecurities?   

The September/October 1977 issue of In Touch Magazine, in those early days when the magazine offered an array of cultural features, offers a tribute to Joan soon after her death, and, most significantly, before the now notorious book and camp cult classic Mommie Dearest came out.

 

This article pretty much rehashes many of the claims made about the late movie legend, such as director George Cukor's paean to her face, “that extraordinary sculptural construction of lines and planes,” her superlative (and some might argue, obsessive) projection of stardom, and her continual reinvention of her image.

 

She was the vibrant jazz baby; the assertive shopgirl who made good and got her man while fighting for her rights; the stylish, glamorous, yet suffering and vulnerable femme fatale; the Gothic horror queen.

 

Gay men found in these personas something they could identify with in their own struggles for individual identity and social respect. 

For gay men, Joan was the star and, for many, still is the star - that luminous, glamorous figure swathed in furs and jewels, kind of a fairy queen, remote but also approachable. Joan was approachable, even if she did supposedly get dressed up to go to the grocery store; she answered ever fan letter personally, sustained relationships with fans, and she would even thank you for a thank you note! "Goodbye, Joan" is the title of the article, and the author once again quotes the gay George Cukor, who expresses disbelief that the legend had actually died. 

Joan, of course, lives on in the movies and a caricature of her lives on, as well; the wire hanger and can of cleanser wielding monster of Mommie Dearest becoming one of the biggest gay camp icons ... ever. And a new generation can still see her (if they want to) on Turner Classic Movies, on DVD reissues, and on youtube.

 

But do the “old broad divas,” especially Crawford, with their larger than life personas, over the top (to many eyes and ears these days) characterization and dialogue, and often striking personal and professional flaws and vulnerabilities, really appeal to today's smoothly tech-savvy, more easily assimilated gay man? 

Yes, I love Joan Crawford, even if I can also also laugh at the melodramatic excesses. But how often in the life we live (as opposed perhaps to the life we dream), can we tell someone off like Joan does in Autumn Leaves, calling someone a slut twice in one harangue? (And not playing for the cameras on a reality TV show!).

 

Most people end up dying in sterile hospitals looking like a pincushion of tubes, or on the toilet; so who wouldn't want to drown on a gorgeous, moonlit beach with a violin playing theLiebestod in the background, like Joan does in Humoresque?

 

And Joan could laugh at herself, as she does in It's a Great Feeling, when she delivers a slap and says that she does that in all her movies. “Get out Veda! Get out before I throw your things into the street and you with them! Get out before I kill you!”

 

The point of this blog is not self-analysis, but if Joan Crawford worship is part of my gay unique sensibility, then so be it. Maybe I was born with it, or is it a social construct because of my generation? And of course, one can also mock the Joan Crawford obsession as a gay cliche, as Debbie Novatny in Queer as Folk says to her brother, when he asked her if she wanted to stay home and watch a Joan Crawford festival, “No one's that gay!” 
 

Divas


For a while, up to the early 90s, a new type of diva, like Streisand, Cher, Bette Midler, and Madonna, looked to replace, or perhaps supplement, the more traditional Barbra, Judy, Bette, and Joan as divas with that gay following, according to Michael Kearns in an article entitled “Heroine Worship” in the November 1984 issue of Male Review.

 

But in 2014, who is the new fairy queen or queen of the fairies (pun intended)? Is that image and its associations even relevant in this culture? 

The author Ethan Mordden, in a past issue of Opera News, focused on another type of diva with a gay following, the female opera singer (think Maria Callas, especially). He recounts that, at a recent dinner party, he deplored the type of gay man who mimics his diva of choice, sprinkling his conversation with “darlings,” pretending to be Auntie Mame. In other words, perhaps he is implicating the “older” gay men in the closet who identities with the diva in all her flaws (but also her assertiveness), taking on a mask to cover his feelings of oppression and discrimination. The younger gay men at the party did not know who Auntie Mame was. Gasp!

 

A younger employee of the Bijou confused Betty White with Bette Davis. Does he deserve the mockery his mistake created? Or are the older gay men, those “old queens,” the ones to be mocked and pitied for their now outdated diva worship that reeks, like Norma Desmond's tube rose perfume in Sunset Boulevard, of the pre-Stonewall closet? 

All cultures undergo transformations in response to a complex variety of factors. But I do wonder if the lack of the old variety of diva worship in gay culture is a simple either/or, now/then issue. Generation Y and  the Millenials may not subscribe to the same values as preceding generations, but I do find some fault with the “ahistoricism” of said group, that somehow they have outgrown the old gay icons or replaced them with others less gay orthodox campy.

 

Yet even if the whole culture sees something like Joan Crawford worship as camp or kitsch, or even if some gay “hipsters” appropriate such imagery inauthentically as only parody, to deny even a glimpse of the power and beauty that these women uniquely conveyed to previous generations is a sad loss. 

We are so afraid of the grand gesture, the big emotion that these big ladies could generate, somehow seeing it as false or hollow or silly or politically incorrect. Perhaps we have cheapened big emotions with reality TV, with American Idol and Dancing with the Stars, where everyone, not just the few larger than life stars, can groan and weep and spit out insults for the omnipresent cameras.

 

Does being liberated from social oppression mean a liberation from .... feeling? Perhaps we can't truly experience the high without experiencing the contrast of the low.

 

But as I see it, one of the great cultural enjoyments is to let yourself experience the campy pleasures of truly big, talented personalities. 
 

Joan Crawford

 

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