Again Hollywood cheats on the issue of two men kissing – when are they going to get it right?
In the past few years, two distinct trends have dominated gay (male) cinema. First, and inevitably easier for mainstream audiences to handle, is the frothy, formulaic queer comedy a la In & Out or Kiss Me Guido. Then there are the dreaded “AIDS dramas” such as Love! Valor! Compassion! or Bent that usually drown in their own smarm. (There are also crude graftings of these two styles like the upcoming Unknown Cyclist, but the less said about that movie the better.) Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss, written and directed by Tommy O’Haver, is in the frothy comedy camp, with mixed results.
The filmmakers, no doubt egged on by positive response from a screening at Sundance, have higher-than-usual hopes for the crossover possibilities of this self-proclaimed “Sandra Dee”-style farce about one L.A. queen’s search for true love. The movie’s press notes border on the grandiloquent and deserve quoting: “It heralds a new age in gay cinema: the gay lead as Everyman. No big issues to tackle, no self-loathing, just a regular guy looking for love and longing to connect in this crazy mixed-up world, just as Sandra Dee or Doris Day did in those films of the fabulous fifties.” The idea that Billy’s is in some way progressive, not to mention “heralding a new age in gay cinema,” may surprise those who see this light, occasionally funny, intermittently inventive, but finally forgettable gay farce. Maybe the film’s sweet but not exactly compelling characters would benefit from having to deal with some “big issues” or experience a teensy bit of self-loathing.
Nicely shot in Cinemascope like the old musicals it apes, Billy’s opens very much in a fab-fifties style. The credits roll over a musical number by three homely drag queens dressed in period costumes who prance, push, and lip-synch their way across the wide screen. Using a group of trannies as a Greek chorus is hardly a novel idea at this point, and this particularly unappetizing trio gives the film an old-fashioned feel – intentional no doubt, but too hokey to be effective. These gals pop up repeatedly throughout the film to dreary effect, mouthing to such hoary “classics” as Petula Clark’s “This Is My Song.”
The “Sandra Dee” of the film is Billy (Sean P. Hayes), a cute photographer trying to arrange a project of gay versions of great screen kisses. Like the drag queens, his photos pop onto the screen throughout the film like an old Hollywood montage. They give Billy an excuse to talk – which he does directly to the audience – about his unromantic past and his possibly romantic future. His best friend is fag hag George (nee Georgianna), well played by Meredith Scott Lynn, and his elusive subject is Brad Pitt variant Gabriel (Brad Rowe), a naïve, sexy coffeehouse waiter who’s just breaking up with his girlfriend and seems unsure of his sexual identity. Billy successfully corrals Gabriel into the shoot and into his life, setting up a satirical version of the famous beach kiss in From Here to Eternity, though inexplicably he substitutes a drag queen instead of another man for the sexy Gabriel to practice his potential homosexuality on. This is not the kiss promised in the title.
Much of the story concerns Billy’s delicate dance around how to get Gabriel in bed without ruining what he imagines could be an ideal long-term romance. The film’s most successful scene – indeed, it could be snipped right out of the movie and marketed as a short – is Billy’s attempted seduction of Gabriel. When the two find themselves a little stoned in Billy’s apartment one night, Gabriel agrees to stay over if he can sleep on the couch. When that proves uncomfortable, he staggers into Billy’s bed. At this point the film seems far removed from the gimmicks of narrative ruptures, sudden drag queen entrees, and fantasy sequences that make up much of the story. This long scene – a delicate web of subtle glances, faltering movements, and finally, slow, painful realizations – has an emotional heft that the rest of the film lacks.
Director O’Haver tries to flesh out his otherwise lightweight story with numerous subplots and familiar queer icons. Paul Bartel weighs in as a jolly, sinister underwear photographer, and the glorious Holly Woodlawn is wasted in a party scene where for some unknown reason we barely see her face. There’s a sexy but annoyingly stereotyped Latin hunk named Fernando, no doubt inspired, to use the filmmakers’ analogy, by Fernando Lamas or Ricardo Montalban in any number of 1950sMGM tropical melodramas. And while Sean P. Hayes and especially Brad Rowe are easy on the eyes, the film’s inability to breathe life into them beyond the snappy dialogue and campy narrative intrusions eventually capsizes the film. Using Sandra Dee and Doris Day comedies as blueprints for a 1998 comedy can be diverting but has one fatal drawback; you may end up with characters as foolish and forgettable as they were.