Essential: JONATHAN (2016)

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This German film is very different. The title character is played by Jannis Niewohner a relative newcomer to motion pictures. Niewohner does quite well given his lack of acting experience. He has the lead role, but he’s not playing a gay man. His character is not even questioning anything in life. He seems sure of everything– except his father.

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Jonathan’s father is dying of cancer. During these final days Jonathan learns his old man is closeted. At one point we learn the backstory– how the father had left Jonathan as a young boy to go off and be with his lover. But when Jonathan’s mother took ill a short time later the father left his lover to return home and care for the wife. Then he finished raising Jonathan. Jonathan grew up not knowing his father had this other secret life, even after the mother died.

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Now the father is dying and of course his ex-lover shows up and they reunite. This throws Jonathan into a tailspin. He can’t accept his dad being gay or having to share him with any other person during these last few weeks.

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There’s a secondary story which covers Jonathan’s own romantic life. His aunt shows up at the family’s farm to help with chores while Jonathan’s father gets sicker and goes into hospice. She is attracted to Jonathan, and Jonathan is attracted to her. They begin an incestuous affair. There is more than one sex scene between them and the first one is very explicit. This secondary “love” story is meant to comment on Jonathan’s inability to accept his father’s forbidden affair with the other man, the way Jonathan’s forbidden relationship with the aunt might not be accepted.

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The father dies near the end, after affirming his love to his partner. There is a scene afterward where Jonathan buries the urn on a piece of land at the farm. The farm has now been sold and Jonathan is leaving. The final shot has Jonathan and the aunt riding off together to some unknown destination. What I enjoyed was how complex the relationships were that develop in this story. The are no easy answers and things are not exactly resolved, yet life goes on for Jonathan after his huge loss.

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JONATHAN is directed by Piotr Lewandowski and can be streamed on Hulu.

Essential: MAURICE (1987)

This Merchant-Ivory production was part of a cycle of films based on the works of British author E.M. Forster. Producer Ismail Merchant and his partner James Ivory had already adapted other material by Forster. Their most recent effort was A ROOM WITH A VIEW which had earned raves from critics and was successful with audiences. This time, instead of a trip abroad, the main characters went on a more inward journey.

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The story was first published in 1971. Forster had written it as a short novel several decades earlier but decided it shouldn’t be made available until after his death. The socio-political climate in Britain was such that authors might see their literary careers destroyed if they found themselves persecuted, or in Oscar Wilde’s case prosecuted, because of “crimes” that were homosexual in nature.

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Forster based the idea on friends he knew. But one gets the impression the title character’s longings stemmed from the author’s own longings. College-aged Maurice Hall (James Wilby) and his friend Clive Durham (Hugh Grant) form a somewhat unorthodox bond. Clive is gay at this time and starts to show affection towards Maurice. Maurice has reservations about all this unexpected business but soon falls in love with Clive. Something has been awakened inside him.

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However, Clive then reverses himself, deciding he can no longer be gay and needs the love of a woman. While Clive goes straight, Maurice is stuck in a sort of limbo. Clive ends up marrying a socially acceptable woman and yet maintains ties with Maurice. Maurice, for his part, undergoes hypnosis to be cured of his same-sex attractions. But something more is awakened inside him when he meets a man (Rupert Graves) that works on Clive’s estate. To say it’s become a full-fledged quadrangle– a respectable one– is an understatement.

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The film captures the feelings of young love. Love that is repressed and yet erotic all in one unique set of circumstances. If you’ve ever fallen for someone you can’t have, or have had to deal with someone falling you that can’t have you, then you will relate to this story. You will relate to the kind of emotional quicksand these characters find themselves in with not much of a way out.

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Forster’s story and this film present a happy ending (for Maurice) and a somewhat unhappy ending (for Clive). They don’t end up together, obviously. But the journey they take in discovering what their limitations are and what can release them, is extraordinary.

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MAURICE is directed by James Ivory and airs on TCM occasionally.

 

Essential: VICTOR VICTORIA (1982)

Blake Edwards’ gender bending classic is a remake of the German film VIKTOR UND VIKTORIA. It’s actually the fourth remake. When the story was first told in 1934 another production was filmed in French at the same time– GEORGES ET GEORGETTE. The following year British movie makers turned out a version with Jessie Matthews called FIRST A GIRL. Then in 1957 the Germans redid it. Each time it was presented as a musical comedy; and of course, this is how Edwards presents it too.

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With Edwards it becomes more of a period piece. He’s cast his wife Julie Andrews in the lead, and again she is shedding the wholesome image she cultivated in the 1960s as Mary Poppins and Maria von Trapp. Andrews’ professionalism, her skill and her perfectionism give Edwards’ picture something extra; and she earned her third Oscar nomination as Best Actress. Edwards was also nominated for an Oscar, for his adaptation; plus costars Robert Preston and Lesley Ann Warren netted Oscar nominations in the supporting performer categories.

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Despite seven total nominations only one Academy Award was bestowed on the picture, for Best Original Song Score. Andrews did earn a Golden Globe for her work. There was no Best Picture nomination. The year’s Best Picture Winner was GANDHI. Professor Drew Casper at the USC School of Cinema-Television considered this a huge injustice, feeling VICTOR VICTORIA deserved a nomination and deserved to be named Best Picture. He felt GANDHI was the safer, more politically correct choice for 1982; and he was probably right.

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The cast includes a group of people who had worked together on previous projects. James Garner is on hand as a macho Chicago gangster who falls for Victor/Victoria. He had previously costarred with Julie Andrews in 1964’s THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY, where they played an entirely different couple. Meanwhile Robert Preston had acted with Andrews in Edwards’ S.O.B. a year earlier and they seem to enjoy their time together; especially during the famous cockroach scene in the restaurant. Oh, and I should also mention they both use the same costume in two separate musical numbers.

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Since it’s pride month, we might want to discuss the way Garner’s character finds out the object of his affections is really a female. Supposedly Edwards wanted the gangster to fall in love with the impersonator before knowing for sure what his/her gender was. But Edwards claimed he chickened out and inserted a scene where Garner sees Andrews bathing in a hotel bathtub and thus knows she is totally a woman. Without this scene, the plot still has to build to everyone finding out she’s not a man in drag, because fraud charges are filed later in the story.

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So eventually the gangster would have found out he was really in love with a female; and even if there had been no fraud charges, he still would have found out he was in love with a female when he went to bed with her for the first time. This was never going to be M BUTTERFLY where the true gender continued to be a mystery. In fact the only mystery is why TCM doesn’t air VICTOR VICTORIA more often.

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Essential: VICTIM (1961)

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I use creative ways to inventory my films. I had put this one on the same disc as a Jack Palance thriller called MAN IN THE ATTIC. I labeled it A Secret Life. Of course the secrets Palance keeps as Jack the Ripper are hardly like the secrets kept by Dirk Bogarde in VICTIM. Though you could say the lives of both men will unravel if certain indiscretions get ‘out.’

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VICTIM did not see a stateside release until 1962 but it premiered in Great Britain a year earlier. As expected the groundbreaking film faced censorship issues. It probably would not have been made if an “A” list actor hadn’t agreed to do it. Dirk Bogarde had been a huge star for over a decade, and this was a different kind of project for him. Risky in some ways because of the subject matter. Risky also because Bogarde was a closeted homosexual in real life. In those years it was still a criminal offense to be gay.

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Therefore Bogarde’s willingness to take on the lead role in this film is worth commending, even if he had to act “straight” while playing gay. The story’s quite simple. He plays a married man named Melville Farr who becomes linked with a known homosexual. Someone’s found out about it and they have begun to blackmail him. Eventually he realizes his wife must be told. Sylvia Syms is cast as Laura the wife; and she brings a very sympathetic understanding to her portrayal.

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The scene where he finally confesses the truth is expertly handled. Once everything is out in the open, the plot lends itself to a tidy resolution, where the character’s lust for other men is depicted more as a temporary aberration. Melville is not going to leave Laura at the end of the picture and live happily ever after with a lover, like we see in 1982’s MAKING LOVE. Instead he will remain faithful to their marriage and they will have changed and grown because of all this.

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During the early 1960s men found to be having sexual relations with other men could be prosecuted. This probably explains why the writers chose to have the character remain married to a woman, and thus he would not go on breaking the law. Homosexuality was not decriminalized in Britain until 1967.

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In the summer of 2017 the British soap opera EastEnders commemorated the occasion when Johnny Carter (Ted Reilly) put a banner up outside his parents’ pub to mark the 50th anniversary. Johnny was not compelled to do this until he had become friends with a retiring shop worker named Derek Harkinson (Ian Lavender) who described having been arrested in the 1960s before the law changed. It was a way for one generation of liberated gay men to remind another generation of the strides that had been made and to not take these strides for granted.

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VICTIM is directed by Basil Dearden; it’s on Criterion Collection DVD.