The 2nd Annual Rockers!

Screen shot 2013-12-29 at 1.06.20 PMThis is not a BEST OF  list.   It’s about impact, surprise and lingering effect.  As a lifelong culture vulture, creative person and relentless observer of waaay too much, I have the greatest respect for anything out there that stays with me – particularly in a good way.   Mostly because it’s so tough to break through all the noise these days.   Or perhaps it’s just that lately I have the attention span of a gnat.

Of course, starting any project with the goal of making a huge and lasting splash is a sure recipe for disaster.  Much as I hate to admit, this has happened to me several times over the years.  However, when people hunker down and “do their own thing” (as they used to say back in the day) the result can sometimes be, for lack of a better word – sublime.

sub·lime

1. Characterized by nobility; majestic.

2. a. Of high spiritual, moral, or intellectual worth.

b. Not to be excelled; supreme.

3. Inspiring awe; impressive.

Did someone say Supreme?

Did someone say Supreme?

Any one of those could earn you a Rocker and, let’s face it, who among us wouldn’t want to be awarded a photo of a red mid-century style chair.  (Note: Chair – Rocker, get it?).  Though perhaps using the term nobility is a bit much. Definition #3 – impressive, inspiring awe – isn’t that enough?  Yes, I think so.  And these, in no particular order other than the one that we chose, are my OUR awards.

BEST ROCKIN’ INDIE DARLINGS

Short Term 12; Fruitvale Station; The Spectacular Now

Indie, dahling

Indie, dahling

These three movies, all low budget independent films, have more to say in 5 minutes than do most of their budget-bloated major studio brethren manage to serve up in two three hours.  Of course, their combined box-office grosses are not equivalent to the opening weekend of, say – Ironman 3; Thor 2; or even Jack the Giant Slayer.

What this confirms once more is that fine dramatic storytelling is not the goal of the major studios anymore.  Though if it manages to happen on one of their releases amid a large profit and even larger chance to cash in via future ancillary markets and/or rights, they’ll take it.

Do not write in and call me a snob or say that this has been so in the film biz for one or two decades.  I, and even we, know that.  But it’s getting worse.  Can’t we retain even a small sliver?  Well, in their own awe-inspiring, impressive ways all three of the above did that and more.

Short Term 12:  Bravura performances all around in a deceptively multi-layered and tight original screenplay from first time writer-director Destin Cretton – whose next announced project is the film adaptation of the bestselling book The Glass Castle, starring Jennifer Lawrence.  If there is any justice Mr. Cretton will be Oscar and WGA nominated for his story of juvenile outcasts and the young people who try to help them at a “short term” facility – but there likely isn’t.  Still – now he’s got JLaw so it’s a win-win.

The Spectacular Now: A throwback to the small romantic dramas of decades ago where two mismatched, oddball young people fall in love in a most uncomfortable way.  It’s not perfect but it has so much heart that it wins you over.  This is in part due to actors Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller and to an even greater extent as a result of the adaptation of the book by 500 Days of Summer writers Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber, and the precise, sensitive work of director James Ponsoldt.  The script lingered for years before Ms. Woodley, a hot commodity after starring as George Clooney’s troubled daughter in The Descendants, became its champion.  Lesson here:  Create great roles for actors.

Fruitvale Station: Finally caught up with it last night at home and am still foaming at the mouth with rage at the murder six years ago of Oscar Grant III, a 22-year old African American male who was finally about to get his life together for the sake of his daughter, his family and himself.  The choice of writer-director and USC film school grad Ryan Coogler to tell this real life story in an unembellished pseudo-documentary style is what’s most impressive here.  The film was developed through Sundance and won best dramatic feature.   Yes, there are those who like to dismiss Sundance these days as pretentious and elitist.  Watch this movie before you go there.   In fact, just don’t go there anymore.

STEFON’S FAREWELL!

Bill Hader left the cast of Saturday Night Live at the end of the season this year and along with that went the departure of Stefon – his beloved club kid correspondent for Weekend Update.  Since goodbyes are often an inevitable and dreaded part of life – especially when it comes to the mercurial television landscape – it was at least nice to see that he was sent off with love and style and his own sort of gay wedding.

What can you say about a segment that featured Furbies, the real DJ Baby Bok Choy and an Anderson Cooper-Seth Meyers fist fight?  Only that it was a perfect homage and finale to one of SNL’s most original and beloved characters.

(Note:  For everything you ever wanted to know about the 38 seasons of SNL check out the funny, brand new and exhaustively researched book, Saturday Night Live FAQ: Everything Left to Know About Television’s Longest-Running ComedyThe author is Stephen Tropiano and he’s the Seth to my inner Stefon)

Note: Hader created Stefon with the very talented comedian-writer John Mulaney.  His standup act is hilarious and he is doing a new TV comedy for Fox next year in which he’ll star as the young, struggling comedian he once was.  Co-starring will be Martin Short.  Must see TV?  We think so.

ROCKIN’ NEWS MOMENT OF THE YEAR 

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US Supreme Court Pro Gay Marriage Ruling.

Starring:  Rob Reiner, David Boies, Ted Olson, Edie Windsor, Kristin Perry & Sandra Stier, Paul Katami & Jeffrey Zarrillo – and President Barack Obama.

There has not been a film or television movie about it – yet.  But this year’s landmark US Supreme Court rulings that officially legalized gay marriage on a federal level is a landmark case that will have positive civil rights repercussions for generations.

Not to be partisan – but I will be – the reasoning behind this decision was foreshadowed in Pres. Obama’s 2013 inauguration speech where he talked about the journey “through Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall.”  Translation:  the struggle for women’s rights, civil rights, and LGBT rights are all one in the same and if the US stands for anything it means we progress towards freedoms for not some but all Americans.    Here is his exact quote:

We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths—that all of us are created equal—is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on earth.

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Arguing the case were lawyers Boies and Olson – adversaries in another famous US Supreme Court case, Bush v. Gore, for the courageous LGBT defendants Windsor, Perry, Stier, Katami and Zarrillo.  Oh, and if you don’t think it takes courage to be the public face in a civil rights case in terms of time, attention and vociferous hate mail – try it some time.  Or better yet, just post a comment to any random website where you disagree with an extreme right wing position – as I did this weekend about A & E’s reversing its decision to reinstate Duck Dynasty’s hate-speaking Phil Robertson – and note the number of truly savage, hate-filled responses you get.  It ain’t pretty.

A meathead no more!

A meathead no more!

Finally, you can dislike whatever Rob Reiner films you choose to but you cannot be disagreeable about his overwhelming commitment of time and energy to both raise money and personally finance the fight for gay marriage through it’s case origins in California right up through to the US Supreme Court.  There are political activists in the industry but few with Mr. Reiner’s reach, fervor or unwavering determination.  And, uh – p.s. – he’s not even g-a-y.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

BREAKING BAD – THE FINALE SEASON

Tear.

Tear.

There are so few moments in pop culture that live up to the hype.  But the phenomenon that was Breaking Bad was one of them.  I was admittedly late to the game in catching up with all seven seasons but given the national cultural hysteria I finally gave in, knowing full well that I would inevitably be disappointed.

Okay, well, so I don’t know everything.

I chronicled my eight days of binge-watching all 52 BB episodes here in time to join the real world in real time for the finale.  It might make my life seem small and insignificant to note that it is one of the few experiences I will never forget – but only if you have never tuned in and checked out the show itself.

Why does it work?   There are so many obvious reasons – great writing, acting, directing and across-the-board terrific technical talents.  But it was also a perfect reflection of our times in telling the story of an extremely smart but downtrodden everyman – nee a financially struggling high school chemistry teacher who is suddenly diagnosed with terminal cancer– who will do anything to provide not only for his family but for himself before he dies.  And anything means – A-N-Y-T-H-I-N-G. If you want to know more than that, borrow some DVDs or hack into someone else’s Netflix account.

Finales are tricky but this one proved every bit as powerful as each and every episode before it.  Sadly, this was not the case with another departing hit show fave of mine – Dexter.  Yes, endings are tough.   But ending well and going out the way you came in (Note:  Yes, that’s an unintentional quote from the 1967 camp classic Valley of the Dolls) – that’s the toughest.

ROCKIN’ THE WOOL OVER THE AUDIENCE’S EYES  — IT’S A TIE!!!

HBO’S Behind the Candelabra  &  NBC’s The Sound of Music – LIVE

Help!

Help!

Popularity doesn’t mean you rock.  It just means you’re popular.  I mean, did Paris Hilton rock?  Does (or did?)  Kim Kardashian?  Or, to put it another way, did Crash deserve to win the best picture Oscar over Brokeback Mountain? (Note: Watch them again and then compare and report back).

What popularity does account for are bodies taking notice of you or your deeds or your product.  That does not mean you’re good or even well done.  It just means you are and that you got A LOT of attention.

Therefore, by any objective standards the Liberace movie called Behind the Candelabra and the NBC live three-hour broadcast of the beloved musical The Sound of Music starring country singer Carrie Underwood were phenomenal hits.  But to my mind, not in a good way.  Carrie Underwood has a pleasant voice but cannot act.  I mean, I could’ve played a better Maria – especially if I got to do some of those lines next to Audra MacDonald.

As for story of closeted gay icon pianist Liberace – it was not the true story – that would have been far more salacious since Liberace’s real life lover Scott Thorson was 16 years old when they first met and couldn’t have been played by Matt Damon.  Had the real story been told – and not just the gay men as spectacle taleit would have had to be shown as the telefilm version of NBC’s To Catch A Predator.

In conclusion, and put it in high school terms – which often works in all things Hollywood – there is no way to argue with popularity.  It either is or it isn’t and you either are or you’re not.  But remember – the Emperor’s New Clothes were once popular, too.   Just sayin’.

ROCKIN’ SENTIMENTAL MOVIE OF THE YEAR

Saving Mr. Banks

Believe the hype.

Believe the hype.

No, I’m not going to defend myself.  I loved it — and not just because I loved Mary Poppins as a kid. The film is being sold as a comedy but it’s really about how writers (or any artists) try to survive the painful moments of childhood by weaving its high and low points into some sort of creative expression that can correct and/or save you or your loved ones from the situation.  As a writer who has done just that – and speaking for anyone else who hopes to do just that – you can keep all of your snide, snickering bah humbug remarks to yourself.

Plus – there’s Emma Thompson.  She’s not only sad, touching and irascibly funny in the movie, she gives the most hilarious press interviews you’ll ever want to see.  Case closed.

ROCKIN’ MALE PERFORMANCE OF THE YEAR:

Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis

Me-Ow

Me-Ow

The guy can act AND sing.  No, seriously – he can really, really sing.  You can’t fake that when you’re playing the lead role of a folk singer in 1961 Greenwich Village in a Coen Bros. movie and a good part of the film is you, in five feet of close-up, chirping unadorned for the entire international world to see.

Also when the moments that you are singing onstage are the only ones where the audience can truly sympathize with your character’s plight, it is an enormous acting challenge.  Therefore, it didn’t surprise me or anyone else to hear the filmmakers admit publicly on a panel after an early screening of their film that had Mr. Isaac not walked in and nailed his audition very late in the casting process they were not sure if they would be able to make their movie at all.

The film as a whole is to a taste.  Okay, it’s odd.  But it’s also a rare opportunity to watch someone you’ve probably never seen onscreen before totally morph into an unforgettable character you’re unlikely to see onscreen again at any time soon.  If ever.

ROCKIN’ FEMALE PERFORMANCE OF THE YEAR IN TECH ACHIEVEMENT OF THE YEAR:

Sandra Bullock, Gravity

Floating towards.. Oscar?

Floating towards.. Oscar?

Oh, hiss and boo your own selves, as Bette Midler so aptly put it in her 1985 comedy album Mud Will Be Flung, Tonight!  I thought Sandy (yeah, that’s what everyone in the biz calls her) was pretty great in the movie….actually, quite great.

Fine – you try acting to nothing for most of your time on camera.  And when I say nothing I mean – nada.  There’s a green screen behind you.  You’re suspended in the air in a heavy faux astronaut’s uniform.  And you’re shooting on and off for years on end, trying to maintain some continuity of your character’s emotional state while the technical team behind your film tries over and over again to get the special effects just right.

Yeah, yeah, I know Cate Blanchett was terrific in Blue Jasmine.  But why does digging into the emotional life of a Ruth Madoff meets Blanche DuBois character have to trump the acting skill it takes to survive the contemporary vagaries of big major studio, SFX ridden contemporary Hollywood while simultaneously delivering an against-the-odds truly convincing performance that literally carries the film?  It doesn’t.  Sorry.  Sandy wins.

PS – Yes, her body looked good in those shorts.  So what??!!!

PPS – The movie was a huge leap in what we can do in SFX – not that you care!!

ROCKIN’ ACCLAIMED NOVEL I STARTED THREE TIMES BUT CAN’T YET CRACK: 

The Goldfinch By Donna Tart

This is thoroughly unfair but why can’t I read past pg. 20 of 761 pages no matter how many times I read those 20 pages over? I know the book is acclaimed but why, why, why is its prose so dry, dry, dry and leaving me so parched, parched, parched?  Too much TV?

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(Note: Before judging me you should know I read every wet word of both Jonathon Franzen’s The Corrections AND Freedom and always wanted more).

ROCKIN’ UNACCLAIMED MEMOIR I LIKE TO READ ESSAYS FROM:

Beautifully Unique Sparkleponies, By Chris Kluwe

Also.. best hair!

Also.. best hair!

Funny, snide, smart, scrappy, funny, fun, fun.

And it’s not only because he’s hot and spoke up for the gays.  And…personally answered one of my tweets.  On Twitter.  In a direct message.  Okay, maybe that’s part of it.  But it’s not…everything.

ROCKIN(EST) SCARY VERSION OF THE FUTURE THAT MIGHT ALREADY BE THE PRESENT:

Spike Jonze’s Her

Falling in love... no buffering

Falling in love… no buffering

This is a world where a lonely fella can fall in love with his operating system (OS).  Yes, the OS is voiced brilliantly by Scarlett Johansson, who strangely enough gives what, oddly, is her best screen performance.  The sexy rasp and all…

Still, there is something significant happening here that goes well beyond Simone, the interesting but long forgotten 2002 film where a man concocts the ideal virtual female.  What’s going on is also significantly depressing if you think about it for too long or in the wrong way.  What is the right way to consider a world in the not so distant future where many of us are so incapable of relationships that we turn to our computers or mobile devices for our primary emotional attachments?  To admit that it is really happening right now?  Or to dismiss that notion as some sort of superficial movie industry take on New Media for Dummies?  Hmm, maybe neither.

None of this would work at all were it not for Joaquin Phoenix’s extremely committed performance.  But none of it would even be possible at all without the originality Spike Jonze brings to a subject matter so easy to present in a hackneyed way.

Wait – originality?  Yeah, I said it – you didn’t have to.  So, maybe 2013 leaves us with some hope after all?  Well, we can all rock to… this:

Quacks

christmas09_large

Happy Holidays Everyone!

Notice I did NOT say MERRY CHRISTMAS or BELATED HAPPY CHANUKAH.  This is because I’m done being religiously correct.  You heard me – RELIGIOUSLY CORRECT.  Bah humbug.  I am so done.  No, actually…I am just beginning.

I just read this to my partner of 26 years and he said – Here we go – did you get to the part about Jesus being Black yet?

No, not yet.  Wait…you mean Jesus was as Black as….Santa Claus?

So much ground to cover here.  And we’ll get to Phil Robertson – that hate-spouting Fool from Duck Dynasty, who happens to also be religious, in a moment.  I promise.  But first, a story.

Many years ago in the 1970s I was minding my own business on the campus of Queens College.  I was 18 years old and a junior (yeah, I was smart for my age, so what – does that mean anyone listens to me any more than they do you?  Uh, no).  In any event, there I was minding my own beeswax when these Jewish guys dressed in full garb – you know the way that I mean – beards, long coats, big black hates – I meant hats! –  and ringlets of hair flowing down past their ears called payot (look it up) – urgently approached me and asked in very relentless and very accented loud whispers:  Are you Jewish?  Are you Jewish?

I could have been Mr. November

I could have been Mr. November

Sensing something was wrong – I mean, duh, my last name is Ginsberg, I’m 5’7” tall, wear glasses and read books, did you think I wasn’t a Yid – I reflexively answered yes.  I mean, what if someone was in danger?  The entire fate of my tribe could hang in the balance.

Boy, was that the wrong response.

Suddenly, these guys shoved me into this large van decorated with religious symbols and Hebrew scripture, shut the door and backed me into a seat.  All around me – and I mean everywhere – walls, ceiling and on TV screens – where images of Jews being tortured or persecuted.  Jewish fundamentalist music played.  Prayer books were put in my hands.  More religious guys paced around and began shooting questions at me about Jewish history.  Another guy offered me a yarmulke and prayer shawl and still another urged me to roll up my sleeves and put on these leather straps called tefillen and said he would pray with me (or was it us, perhaps there were a few others, I can’t recall) – for Us.

Never a shrinking violet and always with a strong survival streak given some earlier childhood traumas that involved bullies on the playground and various screwed up family dynamics, I pushed the guy out of the way, said something like, Uh, no and ran out of the van.  Well, at least I attempted to.  Because being just your average Jew I couldn’t figure out how to open the latch on the van door.  Little did I know that decades later I’d become quite familiar with these things and learn those vans are really trailers which the film industry would rename Honey wagons and they would be the spot where I’d spend endless hours with other regular Jews (as well as people of other religions and even atheists) who star in and make Hollywood movies about still other people whose actions my ultra religious captors would  certainly disapprove of.  Yes, they often do disapprove – even now – along with all the other fundamentalist nutbags from all of the other religions all over the world –and that includes the United States – of anyone who does not fit into their own tightly constructed beliefs.

But back to this story:

Somehow I did get out of that van (did I break the latch?  I was never sure) and survived, perhaps in order to tell this tale to you more than 35 years later.  The lesson?  Well, there are many.  But the primary one is this:  Never get into a van – or really anything – with a religious fundamentalist.   No good will come of it.  It is a sure recipe for disaster and the only way you’ll win is to escape with your life.

Another reason to never get in an unfamiliar van

Another reason to never get in an unfamiliar van

Years later I learned that this van I was shoved into was called a Mitzvah Mobile and was started by the ultra orthodox Jewish sect called the Chabad Lubavitch Hassidism to persuade (nee intimidate) American Jews to adhere to the more stringent religious beliefs that group espoused.  The good news: this didn’t work on me.  (In fact, it produced the opposite result).  The bad news: there are now Mitzvah Mobiles all over the world.

Just one example...

Just one example…

How this vehicle got onto the Queens College campus of the 1970s, I will never know.  (Note:  Well, our film society did have a midnight showing of the X-rated classic Devil in Miss Jones on campus, so there was that).  But what I do know is that those Mitzvah Mobile fellas are no different from Duck Dynasty figurehead Phil Robertson.  Who is no different from Pat Robertson or the late Jerry Falwell.  Who are all only several steps away from the Taliban.  Who is a mere one step away from the Westboro Baptist Church.  Who are only several steps away from the Muslim fundamentalists who hijacked the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center. Who bear some resemblance to the Ayatolloah Khomeini.  Who is not that far removed  Reverend Louis Farrakhan or the present radical Chabbad sect in Brooklyn.  It’s all the same snake pit.  Which in no way, shape or form resembles the Garden of Eden.

One might argue this is not the correct statement to make Christmas week, or during the time of Kwanza, or even a month after Chanukah.  However, I would say this is precisely the moment for us all to reflect on this:

Any single religious person who tries to persuade you that their way is the high way using any means they deem fair and moral based on their own individual religious dogma is no different than the most radically violent one.

It all leads to the same place.  Eventually.  The Crusades.  The Third Reich.  Osama Bin Laden’s Jihad.  No, this is not an overstatement.  It simply is – fact.

Now, don’t get all fire and brimstone or your tribal equivalent on me.  This by no means disqualifies anyone of faith from speaking his or her mind.  However, it does disqualify them from public insults, intimidations, racist rants and other forms of emotional and or physical discrimination without outcry and consequences.  That is the price for living in a free and civil society.   And it’s a very small one.   Hiding behind a “God” of your own choosing does not exempt you from the rules of a still secular society.

Simpsons+on+Religion.+seems+legit_69dc80_4449964

Which brings us to the charming Phil Robertson, head of the family on A & E’s most highly rated reality show (14 million viewers and counting backwards) – Duck Dynasty.  Here are some of the lovely statements Mr. Robertson made in GQ magazine last week that has gotten him into hot water and, in turn, suspended from his show.

Sorry buddy, but you don't exactly blend in

Sorry buddy, but you don’t exactly blend in

On sinful behavior:

Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there.  Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men…Don’t be deceived….Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers – they won’t inherit the kingdom of God.  Don’t deceive yourself.  It’s not right.

Or on his experiences working alongside Black people picking cotton in the pre-Civil rights era.

I never with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person…They’re singing and happy.  I never heard one of them, one black person, say, “I tell you what:  These doggone white people” – not a word!  Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy?  They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.

Or this excerpt from a sermon in a Pennsylvania church in 2002:

Women with women. Men with men.  They committed indecent acts with each other.  They are heartless.  They are faceless.  They are senseless.  They are ruthless.  They invent ways of doing evil.

Makes you want to have him over for meal, doesn’t it?  Well, that is as long as he doesn’t turn around and try to place your evil head on a platter and announce dinner is served.

Well, unless it's this head, in which case.. i'm in!

Well, unless it’s this head, in which case.. i’m in!

Oh, of course Phil has every right to say whatever he wants.  That’s what free speech is about.  But the first amendment allows freedom of speech, religion, assembly and the press.  It does not guarantee others can’t object to what you are saying or that there cannot be consequences to your actions.  Meaning just as we don’t require a fundamentalist church to marry a gay couple if it chooses not to, a religious fundamentalist whose

  1. dogma equates gay people with bestiality and evil and
  2. suggests Black people (whose ancestors were dragged to the US in chains and forced into centuries of slavery), were always singing and happy…

..IS. NOT. ENTITLED. TO. HIS. OWN. REALITY.   (TELEVISION SHOW, that is).

Because — as Sir Isaac Newton taught us science-believing heathens long ago –

To every action there is always an equal, opposite reaction.

Stocking stuffer?

What is scarier than the news articles on the Duck Dynasty Debacle are the thousands of virulent comments from other fundamentalist supporters who somehow have adopted a dogma so stringent that it leaves no room for anyone that does not adhere to their own rigid, born again rule book.  We Jews don’t really have a hell so their comments that non-believers will burn don’t really rankle me.  But the threats of violence to us sinners (Note: I’m in double trouble being gay AND a non-Christian), not to mention the virulence with which they are written, is a tough road to hoe.

Fringe, you say?  Well, perhaps right now.  But I don’t think so.  The 14 million viewers of DD, a one-hour A & E basic cable show, are nothing to sneeze at.  That’s far more than the number of people who read the NY Times or any other newspaper on any given day.  Though nowhere near as many (41 million) who tune in to view just one hour of Fox News on any average month.

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Of course, there were other stories of intolerance last week.  For example:

  • In Pennsylvania, Methodist Minister Franklin Schaefer was officially defrocked for having the temerity to officiate over the marriage of his gay son and his partner.

Yes it’s true – this week gay marriage was a hot button thorn in the side of the religiously superior.  But make no mistake about it, next week it could and probably will be a woman’s right to choose.  Just as in some Middle Eastern countries it will simply be about the right for a young woman to be educated.  While in still others it can all boil down to being born with the right color skin or in the more advantageous economic class.

Of course, here in Hollywood it’s merely a battle to look young and stay relevant in a business that is as unforgiving of those sins as the Duck Dynasty family is of alternate lifestyles.  Perhaps even more so.  But I’m not going to get into that.

Oh — fun fact: did you know that the creator of Duck Dynasty is a guy named Scott Gurney and that just 12 years ago this very handsome fellow starred shirtless – and often naked – in a movie about the gay male porn industry called The Fluffer? Oh yeah, he so did.  He played an X-rated actor who was “gay” for “pay” AND was a meth addict. 

Uh oh - someone's been a bad boy!

Uh oh – someone’s been a bad boy!

Hmm, but apparently, Scott isn’t taking phone calls these days..  And he also doesn’t answer emails from journalists.  Nor does he speak live in person to anyone asking questions unless presumably they’re, well – members of his own tribe.  Which might not only be optimal but usual.  How are we (I?) to know the truth when we can’t ask?

I’ve been thinking all day about what I would say if I actually did get a chance to talk to him.  Like all writers, my thoughts were many – in fact all over the place.  But like all the mentors before me have taught me I edited and boiled them down to just three words.  These are the words I’d use to describe him and all others who choose to be profiteers on the backs of hate spewing religious zealots hiding behind their own version of God – as well as a way to categorize the zealots themselves.  And all of the zealots the came before them or will follow after.  And those words are:  QUACK, QUACK, QUACK.

QUACK. QUACK. QUACK.

And did I mention – happy holidays?

Future Perfect

fortuneteller-animation-dre

If there were a sheet of paper you could take a peek at that would tell you the future, what would you do?  Oh, of course you’d take a peek.  You couldn’t help yourself.  Don’t say you wouldn’t.  You would.

The future is on the minds of college students at this time of year – the end of a semester – especially those about to graduate.  Smart or lazy (which is the opposite of smart), mellow or tightly wound, they often wonder one basic question – WHAT. WILL. BECOME. OF. ME??????

Of course, this is a question many of us all ask ourselves periodically – as if a single answer exists or one answer would ever be adequate.  We don’t know what the years will bring and, aside from being scary, that’s the great thing about it.  Literally anything can and will happen – and often hanging on the slightest moment.  Which is what makes the future something not to dread but to embrace.  Especially since there is no way to forestall getting some horrible disease or being hit dead by a drunk driver if you happen to be walking or even standing in the wrong place at the right time.  Yes, I went there.

Since life is a big question mark in general, one’s career and creative existence should certainly follow suit.  Yet many of us, myself included, often don’t see it this way.  We act as though there should be some guarantees – or that we are at least owed or entitled to them.   Something along the lines of Apple Care in case things go terribly wrong.

And then some things are beyond Apple Care

And then some things are beyond Apple Care

Students are terrified to take the wrong step, accept the wrong opportunity, write about the wrong thing – not make the wisest choice that will get them the farthest.  I suffered from this myself until I grew weary of worrying and, well, just got too mature (old?) to spend as much time worrying anymore.  I mean, at some point, if you’re very lucky, you get to the place where the amount of time ahead of you is less than the amount of time behind you – and you realize – there is no point in beating myself or anyone else up about the small stuff.  There is only time to embrace the future and the unknowns – both good and bad – that it holds.

And yet – who doesn’t worry?  These students, me, you, our friends?  One dear diehard movie fan friend of mine truly worries if The Wolf on Wall Street will live up to the hype, and even fears backlash against the already award-winning American Hustle. Personally, I just don’t want to be disappointed by Saving Mr. Banks even though I know it can’t live up to the expectations of this lifelong Mary Poppins fan (yes, I did sit with my Dad at the movies in the Bronx as a little boy, riveted to the screen as I watched MP in wonderment, and then went home and played the record over and over again in my room as I sang along to every song – get over it!!!).

I'm counting on you Tommy!

I’m counting on you Tommy!

I’m also concerned for Jon Hamm not ever winning an Emmy award for being Mad Men’s Don Draper (and not even being nominated for a Golden Globe this past week).  Truly.  Not in the same fashion I fear a loved one of mine could get a cancer recurrence or that I myself will have to one day go through the tooth extraction I managed to dodge last week when only a mere root canal and crown were in order.  Of course, there are even far deeper levels of concern.  We are only beginning to scratch my surface here.  No use continuing on into a downward dog from which I can’t guarantee we will ever emerge – especially in L.A.

Still – and to look on the bright side – I (and hopefully you) don’t worry anymore that Pres. Obama will be shot or that either Michelle Bachmann or Sarah Palin will assume any real leadership role in our country’s foreseeable future.  Those ships have sailed.   Though do not take this to mean I am not also sure that the world has gone crazy and that one day I will be only one of the handful of sane people engaged in pubic discourse left standing…and that, quite quickly, I will become overrun.  Long ago I realized there is a difference between worrying about the future and simply accepting a certain fatalism in life.

I attempted to explain a toned down version of all of this recently to one angst-ridden student in my office. This young person is non-white and couldn’t help but fear racial discrimination in the future from the Hollywood establishment based on some dealings they had observed in various workplaces over the past four months.   I listened. Nothing exactly solid had happened but enough had occurred not to be discounted.  To boil it all down, this student’s question eventually became this:  How does one avoid being treated as “the other” when, in some people’s minds, one is, and will always be, the other?  Or, to put it another way – An Outsider?

Not just a kitschy SJP 80s sitcom

Not just a kitschy SJP 80s sitcom

Hmmm.  Excellent question.  And certainly one for the ages.  Especially our ages.

I tried to take the adult line and explain that progress in these areas happen at a snail’s pace but, eventually, does occur for the better.   And that you can’t worry about stuff that can happen, only deal with things as they do happen.

For instance, I argued, as a young gay man I couldn’t even conceive of a future with gay marriage.  I mean, there wasn’t even a word for what is occurring now in the not so distant era I grew up in.  Also, the fact that I, a teacher, could even be open with a student about my life in this way these days was certainly progress.  But then I remembered and shared what happened more than 25 years ago on a movie I worked on in the late eighties.  And, as we know, movie stories are so much more resonant to people than any real life experience or observation.

I was employed as a publicist on a film that was produced by a very large company headed by a very-well known producer in Hollywood  – someone who is still quite well known and who very publicly campaigned for and supported the then very conservative U.S. Pres. Ronald Reagan.  The production coordinator of this movie, a Mercedes-driving middle-aged woman who came to work each day wearing very expensive jewelry and an extremely superior attitude – saw me in the office one Monday with a tan and personage that, I can only assume, was reeking of homosexuality.  Because looking at my tan and somehow knowing that the Annual Gay Pride Parade had been held outside the day before in the very hot West Hollywood sun, I caught this woman snidely winking at her friend and then nodding in my direction, as she bellowed from her desk across the room, sweet as pie but in a somewhat accusatory manner to me and my overly suntanned face:

“SO…STEVE….where were YOU this weekend.  I’ll bet it was at some sort of (another wink wink to her friend) ….PARADE?????”

Say what now?

Say what now?

Trust me, I am no Martin Luther Queen.  But this was the eighties, I had just received news that a dear friend of mine in NY had AIDS and my face was on fire because, as you may or may not know, I have a very, very pale Jewish complexion that does not do well in the harsh daylight and my skin was beginning to blister. In short, this was no time for Diamond Lil to fuck with me.

Uh, yes, I was at the parade this weekend, I bellowed back.  Is there a problem with that? Or, more specifically– do you have a problem with that?

I was steely outside but inside was shaking with fear and rage.  What was I thinking?  As much as I found this woman and everything and everyone in this office at the moment sickening and disgusting, I needed this job. But then — suddenly, the office got very quiet.  The friend she winked at turned away.  Copy machines stopped. Overweight teamsters, some of whom I found out later had borne the wrath of Diamond L’il herself, stood stationary.  I spied from the side a quite young gay intern who, I was quite sure, had just turned pink.

No, DL said in a clipped tone, I just don’t see why THEY  (or was it THOSE PEOPLE) need to be treated special.  They’re not anything special.  Why do they (or did she mean ME?) get a parade??

I will spare you Gay 101 from 1987. And my telling her I was one of Them (like she didn’t know).  Needless to say, the farthest I got with her was some continued grumbling that they still don’t deserve to be treated special and be a spectacle.   Along with some very nasty glares.   At which point she averted her eyes away from me – then and forever more.

Move along, lady

Move along, lady

Some days went by and, as I suspected, I was reported for insubordination to all of my bosses and she attempted to get me fired.  But my direct female superior had a gay best friend and mentor ten years older than me who at the time was actually dying of AIDS – so that didn’t get her very far.  Though I did get a thank you from the gay intern who said he admired how I handled Diamond L’il  (not her real name).  Plus the bonus reward of a smile from almost everyone I greeted in the production office for the rest of the shoot of one of the dumbest 1980s studio movies ever made.

These types of altercations still do occur today in some places but it is highly unlikely anyone will ever encounter them again in the production office of a major studio film. Nor the remarks I once heard in the later eighties in the offices at another major studio.  This time from a development executive with a Mexican last name who informed me in front of his staff at a meeting that the Mexican families living in the poor neighborhood I wrote about in a spec script he liked were just plain stupid people who didn’t have the brains to get organized in the way I had written about even though the events in my script were based on real individuals in an actual Mexican neighborhood in Los Angeles.

Yes, one could argue a few ignoramuses continue to think this way but they are quite rare and, most certainly, they would not feel safe to act out in this fashion in today’s Hollywood.   Which, one supposes, is some progress in itself.  In any event, certainly both stories were enough to make my student smile just a bit and then proceed out of my office and into the world with the notion that the future can hold all kinds of unforeseen changes for the better and shifts in opportunities one could not have imagined.

How the student left my office... I imagine.

How the student left my office… I imagine.

Speaking of the future, I’m reminded of one last story of a wonderful young woman I met some years after Diamond L’il – someone who is now a quite famous producer on her own but at the time was a junior executive at a major company who set up a meeting with me through my agent because she was a fan of my writing work.  (Note: It was a good meeting though it was more of a general meeting – the kind I later realized that you go on with either new material in mind or a carefully honed pitch rather than with the agenda of getting your ego stroked by people who like your work and who you perceive will then automatically give you a job).

In any event, this woman and I had a great talk – actually a fantastic talk about a script of mine she really liked – and about movies, her company’s films, and the state of the biz in the nineties.  She shared honestly about her company and the Oscar winning producer/director she worked for while I asked her questions about several movies they had produced that I admired.  One film, in particular, was my style and something akin to what I’d like to write.  At this point this woman turned to me and told me something I never did quite forget.

I’m going to be honest with you and say something that you probably don’t want to hear,” she said.

Okay, I replied, go ahead – I can take it.  Honestly.

It’s just that – the film you mentioned, and the kind of script it was – the kind of scripts that you want to do – nobody cares about that kind of writing anymore.

Oh, you mean those small, sensitive, coming of age, love/friendship stories, I thought.  But I said nothing and sat there in stunned silence.

I don’t mean to say I don’t admire and appreciate them, she continued. I’m just being brutally honest about where the business is going.  Where the studios are.  And if you tell anybody I said this, I’d probably deny it publicly. I just wanted to tell you.

Sort of tongue-tied I looked at her and lied – Well, I really appreciate your honesty.

Don't mind the clothespins!

Don’t mind the clothespins!

I couldn’t tell you what happened at any point after she said that because for all intents and purposes the meeting was over.  I blanketly rejected in my mind what she was saying about the future.  Surely, studios and everyone else will always find a place for sensitive, well-written scripts, I reasoned.  She’s just been burned – or is getting burnt out.  I know that doesn’t apply to me and the kind of work that I want to do.

Well, who knew I was in a meeting with an Oracle who would turn out to be so right – though not entirely correct.  She left out the future world of cable television, independent movies and the emergence of the Internet and social media.  Still, she saw the writing on the wall and I didn’t want (refused?) to believe her future.  I feared it and tried to deny it, rather than embrace and accept it.

I didn’t share this last story with my student because I didn’t remember it until the student had left.  And there is no use scaring someone so young with a brutalized version of the truth when merely an evenhanded version of its entirety will more than adequately do.

But that evenhanded version it’s always worth knowing, considering and recognizing.   Regardless of age, point of view or position in life.

Thirtysomething for Twentysomethings

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Fame is fleeting.

Someone first coined that phrase but I’m not sure whom.

What I do know is that it has been repeated enough to become a cliché.  And that it’s what people in the biz tell you, or their therapists tell them, or perhaps you tell yourself when you receive no resounding public recognition for what you perceive to be your outstanding achievements.

Oh, don’t feel bad, even if you became famous it wouldn’t last.  I mean, even the mega millions you would have been bound to make probably wouldn’t last.  Not to mention all the good will – and jealousy. Uh, yeah, that’s true.  Think of it this way – since it looks like you’ll never be famous, chances are no will ever be that jealous of you and you’ll be free to live your life away from intense public scrutiny.  That’s something, isn’t it?

Well, one supposes it is a sort of bad form to not be thankful for even the smallest of life’s blessings these days.  Still, the above logic is more than a bit challenging.  For example, should we all be grateful not to be Carrie Underwood this week after the fairly scathing reviews she received from the media as Maria Von Trapp in NBC’s live three hour broadcast of The Sound of Music? Certainly, no one wants to be called: A snow globe with scarcely any flakes or Swiss Miss Maria. Or to have their work critiqued with phrases like: To say that Underwood was no Julie Andrews is one of life’s greatest certainties or…It was the speaking that did her in. 

Snark 101

Snark 101

On the other hand, SofM was a ratings bonanza for NBC that provided the network its best Thursday night numbers in almost 10 years.  Not to mention, Ms. Underwood is an internationally known, multi-platinum recording star with many buckets of millions and a seemingly quite happy marriage to a very, very good-looking hockey player (Note: Yes, nobody knows these things for sure – and the latter can be either a blessing or a curse — but still…look for yourself).

Ugh.. seriously?

Ugh.. seriously?

The cynical among us, and I might detect a few in the room – certainly in the room I am now alone writing in – might easily prefer the one authentic quote I was able to dig up about fame.  That one comes from that well-known lover of humanity, the diminutive and dead French dictator of more than three centuries ago– Napoleon Bonaparte.  Quote:

Glory is fleeting…but obscurity…is forever.

Wow, that’s a bitter pill to swallow, isn’t it?  Or it would be — if it were true.

Last week, I attended a sort of public writer’s salon. It wasn’t exactly like what you read happened at Gertrude Stein’s house on the Left Bank of Paris almost a century ago.  But it did take place in L.A. at the Writers Guild of America’s multi-purpose room. So there is at least, on a sliding scale, some small smidgen of street cred.

Mr. Thirtysomething

Mr. Thirtysomething

Richard Kramer, one of the original and lead writers on the seminal 1980s TV drama thirtysomething – a one time renowned TV series that was about nothing other than the behavior of a group of friends long before Seinfeld, Dawson’s Creek and Gossip Girl took that type of low concept idea and ran it through the post-modern, too hip for the room, Snidely McSnide, comic/soap opera blender – was on hand to read from and talk about his recent novel, These Things Happen.  He also brought along three very well-known actors from thirtysomething – Melanie Mayron, David Marshall Grant and Peter Frechette – to sit beside him, reminisce and read other various parts of the book, now in development to be a cable series at HBO.

Melanie (second from right).

Melanie (second from right).

David and Peter (and the famous morning after scene)

David and Peter (and the famous morning after scene)

It is interesting to note that when I spoke about some of the evening to my students – all juniors and seniors in college – none were familiar with this once quite famous television show (Note: didn’t their parents watch the tube?  Did not one of them ever Google the phrase 30something or even 20something  to see where they came from instead of just being annoyed by them?).  Well, perhaps none of this is surprising.  But what also momentarily took me aback was that not one (that’s zero) of them had even heard of Ms. Mayron, Mr. Grant or Mr. Frechette.

That is, until I mentioned …

Mr. Grant was a writer on both Brothers and Sisters and Smash and is the showrunner for the new upcoming HBO comedy series about three young gay men living in San Francisco.

… and that Ms. Mayron is the prolific television director of such ABC Family shows as Pretty Little Liars, The Fosters and Switched At Birth.

(Note: Mr. Frechette, over the years a favorite actor of mine who earned two Tony nominations since thirtysomething for such plays as Eastern Standard and Our Country’s Good, is still quite well known in the theatre but, times being what they are, doesn’t quite register on the faces of young, aspiring TV and screenwriters.  Still, two out of three ain’t bad).

David, Melanie & Peter... or who?

David, Melanie & Peter… or better know as: who?

What does all this tell us?  That fame is fleeting but at least none of the four artists onstage has faded into total obscurity?  Well, not exactly.

After the actors read aloud from Mr. Kramer’s novel it couldn’t help but strike the audience just how good they all still were at the craft of acting – even when they were sitting in chairs reading from a book – and how infrequently audiences are ever given the chance to see them perform their craft on film or in television.  When they were asked if they missed acting both Mr. Grant and Ms. Mayron nodded yes even before the question fully landed.  Mr. Grant willingly shared that it was only when he realized he couldn’t get arrested as an actor anymore that he began writing full time and though he thoroughly enjoys being a working writer and running a show, his ideal job in old age would be to be a journeyman actor – “to just come, do the job that I love, and leave.”

Ms. Mayron mentioned being lucky enough as a young actor to study with Lee Strasberg and offered how often her acting skills come in handy when she’s on the set as a director “moving actors around — I guess that’s what I do now.” To illustrate her point, she and Mr. Kramer spoke of her days before the camera and how in her Emmy-winning role on thirtysomething she always had to be doing something in a scene in addition to saying her lines even if it meant unbagging groceries or pouring numerous packs of sugar into a cup of coffee in a particularly emotional moment. I love good writing, she noted, but the truth is – it’s equally about behavior.

This made me smile as both a writer and writing teacher because it is one of the basics I try to teach my students and stay true to myself in my own work as a screenwriter – and even in my own life.  The idea that it’s not so much what is being said but what is not being said – and that what someone does is much more meaningful than what they intended to do or even say that they will do.  And it was also not lost of me where I first learned all of this — acting class. (Note: These principles were later reinforced during years of psychotherapy, but that’s the subject of another discussion entirely).

Aha moment!

Aha moment!

Additionally, it should not be lost on anyone that fame and recognition can have something to do with great art but they needn’t necessarily.  Ms. Mayron, Mr. Grant and Mr. Frechette, who is still a working actor – are as good or better than they ever were as performers, even if they are not receiving the kind of recognition or opportunities to show their craft that they once did.  One could argue that they should but one could also argue for world peace, an end to Congressional gridlock or for NBC to stop doing live musicals with leads from other mediums who don’t have the chops to pull it off.  But none of those are likely to happen either.

Towards the end of this evening a friend a few years older than me who knew quite well of all the people onstage turned to me and whispered, It’s hard for everyone. isn’t it?  It was really a rhetorical question because, at this point in time and after decades in and around the business, we both knew the answer.  And sure, it’s a resounding YES.

Keep on pushing!

Keep on pushing!

But hard doesn’t mean impossible.  It only means difficult or challenging.  Well, is anything worth having not some of those at various points in time?

To put it another way, all of the people onstage that night figured out ways to be new, creative versions of themselves without falling into a pit of despair over the fact that they couldn’t keep doing exactly what they always did in exactly the same way and expect the same result decades later. That’s not about striving for fame or lamenting obscurity but merely taking stock and doing the work in any form that you can.   Aside from watching an ill-advised network redo of a beloved movie and stage musical and dishing about it with friends, there are so few guaranteed pleasures in life.  But this, it seems, is one of them.  Despite the number of people you have watching you do it, or anything else, on any given night.

Surviving the Plague… with Matthew McConaughey

Dallas-Buyers-Club-Poster-Header

I went with my longtime partner to see Dallas Buyers Club this weekend at the local movie theatre. This was not an easy feat.   The mere image of a very gaunt Matthew McConaughey on the movie poster stabbed me in the gut with a generalized feeling of terror and nausea that brought me back to what I imagine will be the most horrible times of life I will ever barely live through.  That would be AIDS in the 1980s

Posting a blog thirty years later on a date that also happens to be World AIDS Day is an odd proposition.   Seared in my mind forever are the faces of living and dying people I knew well, knew slightly, or only knew of as I passed by them at a party or a business meeting – people who wasted away dead or killed themselves before the inevitable ravaged outcome of AIDS happened to them.   That I survived at all is a matter of luck, timing and, well…luck.  Not to degenerate into pop culture references, but to the gay community in particular this was a kind of real-life Hunger Games where many, many more than one person per district had to fight something quite insidious, evil and amorphous in order to survive.  The primary culprit was a lethal and mysterious virus.  The secondary enemies were ignorance, prejudice, our own government and, in some cases, our own friends, neighbors and loved ones.

more than just a ribbon

more than just a ribbon

But simply remembering one’s own story discounts the power and effect of something so massive.  The story of AIDS, like the story of any worldwide plague, cannot be summed up through the experience of a single individual or even group.  I might get cards and letters for this but it would be akin to saying that The Diary of Anne Frank told the story of the Holocaust better than Elie Wiesel’s Night or William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice.  Or that somehow Gone With The Wind covered the Civil War era in a more realistic way than 12 Years a Slave or Glory  or even vice-versa.  The larger and more tragic the event, the more stories there are to tell.  It all depends on where you were and who you were at the time– your perspective and your point of view.

There is a short remembrance in this week’s New Yorker by a reporter named Michael Specter.  He writes about a  photo that was given to him by a friend of two dying men in the Castro district in 1980s San Francisco – one confined to a wheelchair and another, tall and gaunt, bending down to help him – so he can be reminded of the actual story of those days as he wrote about the plague and gay history in the future.  He references this photo as he tells us of the current skyrocketing rates of new HIV infection in the gay community due to resumed risky sexual practices on the part of young people who were not around to see the ravages that came from the disease at a time when there were no or few effective drugs to ensure long term survival.  He also touches on the fact that by the end of this year AIDS will have killed FORTY MILLION people in total, many of them heterosexual and living in Africa.

powerful reminder

powerful reminder

Once again, who died and why and who lived and how is only part of a much larger story.  This is a medical story, a sociological story, a political story and a human story of the world community and, in no less of a meaningful way, individual lives.  That I know a few wonderful guys who continue to survive the plague 2-3 DECADES later is another story in the mix of all the others previously alluded to.   Where we get into trouble is trying to compare, quantify and draw definitive conclusions as to what is most meaningful or even noteworthy.  How do you qualify survival?  Or quantify death?  There is no way to do it and to truthfully bear witness to the actuality of the worst of what occurred.  There is, only — what occurred.

Which brings us back to Dallas Buyers Club.  This is the story of an admittedly racist, homophobic, white trash talkin’ Texas bull rider and electrician named Ron Woodruff who was diagnosed with AIDS in 1984 and given one month to live.  Mr. Woodruff was a real person and, by all accounts, not a particularly pleasant one.  But like many unpleasant individuals, he is not without his charms.  The latter qualities are brought out with the sort of bold verve and definitive eye twinkle that plays perfectly into the talents of an actor like Mr. McConaughey.  He does a lot more than lose 50 pounds from his normally tan, muscular frame and paste on a bushy moustache to bring us back to the skin and bones Russian roulette days of the 1980s.  He actually manages to bring to life the kind of guy that would repulse you if it weren’t for the fact that he was sick and dying.  In all honesty, he might repulse you still.

Despicable Ron?

Despicable Ron?

At one point early on in Mr. Woodruff’s company I, a gay man, turned to my partner of 26 years and sarcastically whispered:  Why can’t they just make a film about all of this for us?  Not surprising on my part.  For all the tragic dramatic stories about AIDS that could be tackled by major or mini-major studios in the last 30 years, the only one that comes to mind that had a gay protagonist was 1989’s Longtime Companion.  Tom Hanks won an Oscar for Philadelphia but the protagonist in that movie was Denzel Washington, the straight African American lawyer who defended the dying gay man in a lawsuit.  And The Band Played On was an HBO movie that chose, among all of its many characters, to star Matthew Modine as a straight white doctor fighting the good fight against the disease in San Francisco while numerous gay men stressed and played all around him.  Several years ago I Love You, Phillip Morris treated AIDS as the punch line to a sociopathic joke of a con artist we presume to be a bisexual man in the body of Jim Carrey but are never quite sure of on any level.

Among many others...

Among many others…

Owning a story, even one that you have lived through, is a very slippery slope that I began to slowly tumble down into as Dallas Buyers Club continued.  The character of Mr. Woodruff, who I do recall hearing about in real life, was bold enough to go against the accepted medical science at the time and travel down to Mexico where he found alternative drug treatments dispensed by a disbarred American doctor that, unbeknownst to him, would prolong his life for many years.  He then chose to circumvent the laws at the time, illegally transport the drugs back to Texas, and open up his own “club” to dispense these medications to members who would pay a $400 per head, per month membership fee.  Never mind that he was making out like a bandit – he was also temporarily enabling many other people to save their own lives for significant amounts of time using a model that he mentions in the film was really created by homos in New York, San Francisco and other big cities across the country.

Hmmm – in a normal movie this kind of talk would not redeem Mr. Woodruff’s character in my eyes.  But those were not normal times.  Somehow, as the movie progressed this asshole became a bit of a hero if only because he managed to take away the profound suffering of what stood in for the many young men that I knew personally at the time who would, in the end, have no such relief at all.   Well, extreme circumstances do call for extreme reactions – both in life, movie fantasy and upon reflection.  Never mind that Mr. Woodruff briefly made a personal fortune and the massive nationwide fight gay men were waging on every front, including the ones Mr. Woodruff trod in, were mostly ignored here. Despite my great reticence, as I watched the film, I found myself rooting for this egocentric ignoramus – a guy who wound up being far smarter and eventually, but not totally, a lot more enlightened than I had previously seen as being possible.

(Side note:  The movie also co-stars Jared Leto as one of the few straight actors I’ve ever seen pull off a believable drag queen on film.  Forget William Hurt’s best actor Oscar in 1985 for Kiss of the Spider Woman.  As most gay guys will tell you, that was mostly about a straight guy showing us drag and flamboyance in a film made in the early days of AIDS rather than a straight male actor being a real character in a movie that takes place during the early days of AIDS).

Make room on your awards shelf, Jared.

Make room on your awards shelf, Jared.

I’m assuming that like all real-life movie heroes and anti-heroes in recent years – from Johnny Cash to Richard Nixon – Mr. Woodruff’s true edges have been softened and hardened to meet the filmmakers’ dramatic needs.  This is how it is and will always be in the creative arts.  Even documentaries are not totally real depictions of what actually happens.  They can’t help but be influenced, if only slightly, by the filmmaker’s own interpretation of the events.  Ask D.A. Pennebaker. Or even that master of restraint – Michael Moore. (Note: I love MM and the latter is, um, a joke). (Note #2 – And yes, since memory is at the very least selective, even How to Survive a Plague probably missed a few things).

As for Dallas Buyers Club it might be at turns clunky, thinly developed, or lacking in an overall broad historical perspective. Most movies are, or do, in parts.  But what it does extremely well is evoke an important era and tell yet another story about a human plague that seems to have no end for those of us lucky enough to have survived it.  It will also do this for others new to the fight who will now, and in the foreseeable future, find themselves navigating the waters if the gasps I overheard from several young people around me in the movie theatre are any indication.  And, additionally and in particular, it might slightly sway one or two or more of those others who don’t really care about this fight at all.

If Mr. McConaughey’s portrait of the sometimes off-putting Ron Woodruff enlightens even one small-minded jerk about all of this it will have been more than worth the effort.  And even if it doesn’t, it has every right to stand along all of the stories of that time.  No one owns The Plague Years – even those of us who were fortunate enough to live through them and bear witness to our own individual stories of hell from that time.