An essential document for our collective queer history

Marsha P. Johnson was at the Stonewall Inn when the police raided the bar June 28, 1969, and she helped start the riots that mark the beginning of the modern gay rights movement. She was a beloved fixture in Greenwich Village for 30 years; she co-founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, modeled for Warhol, protested with ACT-UP and performed cabaret in a troupe of drag queens. Born Malcolm Michaels, she arrived in the Village in 1963, started going to drag balls, and took on the name Marsha; she said the Johnson was taken from Howard Johnson’s and the P was for “Pay it no mind!” Hilarious, generous, rebellious and erratic, Marsha’s body was found floating in the Hudson River in 1992. The circumstances of her death were extremely suspicious, but the New York police did little to investigate, even after her friends led a march to protest their inaction.

Twenty-five years later, the remarkable Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson tells much of Marsha’s story while it follows Victoria Cruz, a trans woman working at the Anti-Violence Project in New York, as she tries to reopen the case. Directed and co-written by David France, the film also examines, in almost as much detail, the life of Marsha’s close friend Sylvia Rivera, who was also at Stonewall and co-founded STAR while becoming a legendary gay and trans rights activist.

It’s not clear why France chose to change the title of the film from Sylvia and Marsha; when he was asked about it at Outfest this summer, he didn’t explain what happened. This somewhat confusing focus is my only qualm with the film, which like France’s Oscar-nominated How to Survive a Plague, combines rarely scene archival footage with insightful, sometimes disturbing new interviews. While it doesn’t end with the gut-wrenching reveal that Plague did, Marsha’s power also comes from the intimacy of long sequences of domesticity that France and his team suture between old news footage and video of protests. One clip shows a Marsha giddily trying on dresses in the apartment she shared for decades with Randy Wicker, while another shows a middle-aged Sylvia yelling at police trying to tear down the homeless encampment where she was living.

Cruz’s narrative connects Marsha and Sylvia’s complicated life stories to a present that is in many ways much less hostile to trans women and but in more ways still deeply trans- and homophobic. She hits road block after brick wall, but like Marsha and Sylvia, Cruz is resilient and righteous, even if her personality and methods are much more subdued. There’s a great deal that is upsetting in The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, from the daily physical and psychological violence to the injustice continuously perpetrated by the police. As importantly, there is also great inspiration in their heroic and brave determination.

Though their stories have been underemphasized when not being erased, trans women, especially trans women of color, were essential to Stonewall Riots and to the dynamic, messy, shockingly successful movement that came after. After Roland Emmerich’s Stonewall was rightly lambasted two years ago for focusing its story on a fictional middle-class white boy, I expressed hope that the film that would eventually become The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson would help correct the record. I think it does, becoming an essential document for our collective queer history.

The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson
Directed by David France
Written by David France and Mark Blane
Featuring Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera and Victoria Cruz
On Netflix

Originally published in LGBT Weekly

The match that became a circus

When I was coming out and learning about the various LGBT people who came before me, one of the images I saw repeated the most was the last shot of the absurdist tennis match called the Battle of the Sexes, when then-closeted Billie Jean King backhanded the ball past chauvinist huckster Bobby Riggs’s right and then he jumped over the net to shake her hand. Even though the whole event was clearly a money-making publicity stunt for Riggs, the result was an iconic moment for the women’s liberation movement in general and for women’s tennis in specific, and after King became the most famous lesbian in the world, for the gay and lesbian movement, too. Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ excellent, crowd-pleasing Battle of the Sexes explores the story’s historical importance, the players’ fraught emotional lives, and, yes, the ridiculousness of the whole thing.

The film starts in 1973, when Billie Jean King, played with typical depth and charisma by Emma Stone, is 29 and has already won literally more than two dozen Grand Slam events in singles and doubles. She is one of the most famous athletes in the United States of either gender. Her and other women’s matches are as well attended as any of the men’s, but women players on the tour were being paid a tiny percentage of what the men were. United States Lawn Tennis Association, represented by its wildly sexist head Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), refuses to increase the winnings; she and several other players form the Women’s Tennis Association and start a new, much better paid, tour sponsored by Virginia Slims.

While this is all going on, Billie somewhat reluctantly falls in love with Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough), a hairdresser who had done the WTA player’s hair for their first news conference. Of the many beautifully shot scenes is Barnett giving an agonizingly sensual haircut to King; it made me, a gay man, hot under the collar. But King is still married to Larry (Austin Stowell), and 44 years ago, lesbian athletes could not compete, let alone get endorsements. (King lost all of her endorsements when she was outed in 1981 by Barnett’s palimony lawsuit, though this is never mentioned.)

Steve Carell is perfectly cast as Bobby Riggs, one of the world’s top players of the 1940s now playing and winning on the seniors tour. A famous jokester and huckster, he has a gambling addiction, which is causing great strife in his marriage to Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue). Watching King complain about pay and form the WTA, Riggs decides that he can make a lot of money by declaring himself a male chauvinist pig and challenging famous feminist Billie Jean King to a match. She refuses, and he challenges King’s closest competitor and noted homophobe Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee). Court chokes and loses terribly. Now feeling that she has no choice but to play him, King agrees to a match that becomes a circus and is eventually watched by 90 million people.

Dayton and Faris made Little Miss Sunshine, one of the great feel-good movies of the last 20 years, and they create a similar thrill with Battle of the Sexes. They are replacing a child’s beauty pageant with a sports spectacle, but they retain the humanity even on the massive canvas. With Oscar-winner Simon Beaufoy’s script, they’ve crafted a film that mixes the tropes (sometimes clichés) of the standard sports movie (challenge, training, setback, thrilling conclusion) with those of a civil rights “issue” movie (injustice, fight, success) and a star-crossed love story (seduction, reluctance, resolution). We are so well trained by these tropes to love and support King that people in the audience I saw it with actually cheered during the recreation of the match – even though the result was a given. Even though Dayton, Faris and Beaufoy are working with obvious themes, they resist going too far. Riggs is not demonized; he is a struggling clown, not a supervillain. King knew this. They were close friends until he died in 1995.

Battles of the Sexes
Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
Written by Simon Beaufoy
Starring Emma Stone, Steve Carell and Andrea Riseborough
Rated PG-13
Opens at your local multiplex Sept. 29

Originally published in LGBT Weekly

Jane Campion gets weird(er)

I could watch Elisabeth Moss do anything. A few years ago, at the height of her fame as proto-feminist Peggy on Mad Men, Excedrin started rerunning an old commercial she did for them, and it’s utterly unlike anything else you might see on TV selling something; she could be doing a monologue from A Doll’s House about aspirin. This summer, her turn as Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale was exceptional, a performance of every emotion available, of a prototypical modern feminist who is trapped as a chattel in a misogynistic dystopia. Weeks after that show’s season finale, she has returned as the determined and deeply damaged Detective Robin Griffin in Top of the Lake, Jane Campion’s unnerving, disturbing, and gorgeous Australian police procedural. And, of course, Moss is amazing. She’s having a year as good as Laura Dern and Nicole Kidman are; coincidentally Kidman is in Top of the Lake and is, also, amazing.

The new season took four years to show up, and it takes place not too long after the events in the first, when Robin broke up a pedophilia ring in New Zealand after various physical and psychological traumas. Robin wasn’t whole in New Zealand, and back in Australia, the mess of that case and her messy past are haunting her, subtly in her waking life and violently in her sleep. Her fuse is short and her tolerance for bull very low. Her response to the casual sexism of the men in the police department is a seething restraint, and she relies on outbursts and beer to deal with it all

To Robin’s annoyance, a needy fan in the department, played with sly comedic brilliance by Gwendolyn Christie, is assigned as her mentee and partner. Miranda is the near opposite of Christie’s iconic Brienne of Tarth from Game of Thrones; Miranda is clumsy and unsure and undisciplined, and her lightness allows us respite from Robin’s almost relentless agony. When they are assigned to deal with a horrific crime – a suitcase full of the ravaged body of an Asian prostitute washes up on Bondi Beach – Robin is drawn to the horror, and Miranda is horrified, if dutybound.

Meanwhile, a middle class 17-year-old Australian white girl named Mary (Alice Englert) is in love with an older, and very creepy, German man named Puss (David Dencik), who taught the victim and her friends English. At first Mary seems to be rebellious, acting out because her mother Julia (Kidman) has left her father Pyke (Ewen Leslie) for another woman. But then it becomes clear that Mary is more than just contrary; Julia, enraged and upset recognizes this, but Pyke, pretending to be OK with everything, denies Mary’s deeper problems. And then we discover that Mary and Robin (and in turn, Robin and Julia and Pyke and Puss) are connected, and it’s both narratively hard to believe and emotionally inevitable. Kidman, dotted with freckles and her front teeth given a wide gap, makes Julia unsettling to watch; she’s angry and terrified and jealous and confused.

Campion, who won an Oscar for writing The Piano, writes troubled women better than anyone else alive, and Robin, Mary, Miranda and Julia are indelible and difficult and entrancing. They’re so real as to almost be terrifying, but Campion seems to be doing more than showing the sad, agonizing result of violence, poverty and misogyny. She is showing us how they all survive, some better than others, sometimes with great struggle. Moss, who has created a body of work on TV in the last decade depicting how women can maneuver, escape, and even excel in terrible situations, is the perfect vessel for Campion’s vision.

Top of the Lake: China Girl
Directed by Jane Campion
Written by Jane Campion and Gerard Lee
Starring Elisabeth Moss, Alice Englert and Nicole Kidman
On Sundance TV and Hulu

Originally published in LGBT Weekly

‘Atomic Blonde’ is super queer

Twenty years ago, Rupert Everett, fresh off his star making turn in My Best Friend’s Wedding, lobbied to become the star of a gay superspy franchise. It never happened despite Everett seemingly being born to play such a role. Neither Hollywood financiers nor the action film ticket-buyers were quite ready for such a character, or at least not ready enough to support a big budget tentpole film a la James Bond.

Nowadays, it’d be possible to do such a thing on Netflix or Amazon – the super-queer sci-fi action show Sense8 lasted two seasons, and something much less expensive could last longer – but it’s still hard to imagine a queer Jason Bourne being made. But a queer Lara Croft? Yes. Women who have sex with women, especially cisgender and bisexual ones, are a much easier sell for multiplexes, the audience for which is largely young and male. And the folks who gave Atomic Blonde its $30 million budget, much of it for Charlize Theron as the lead, probably had them in mind. Atomic Blonde is a landmark as a super-queer action film, but it’s also a perfectly fine action film.

Charlize Theron and Sofia Boutella in Atomic Blonde

The film takes place in Berlin in the days leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall. A Soviet spy killed a British spy, stole the list of every clandestine agent alive, and then went rogue, looking to sell the list on the Black Market. MI6 sends Lorraine Broughton (Theron) to Berlin to help their station chief David Percival (James McAvoy) get the list, which is also being pursued by the Soviets and the French. Immediately, things go awry, and she is forced to fight her way through West and East Berlin while having a very James Bondian romance with a French agent named Delphine (Sofia Boutella) and figuring out which of her various allies is betraying her.

The plot is overly, sometimes hilariously, complex, but we’re not in the theater for spy games. We’re there to watch Charlize Theron beat people up. David Leitch, who directed John Wick, directs and choreographs fight scenes as well as any living director, and Theron and her stunt double earn their salaries pounding the bad guys into a pulp and getting their faces pummeled. (Theron chipped a number of teeth during filming). The fights and much of the dramatic action are highly stylized, with searing colors and plenty of chiaroscuro, nodding both to film noir and the film’s source material The Coldest City.

It’s strongly implied that the British agent killed in the film’s first scene was once Lorraine’s lover, but the film’s only sex scenes are between Lorraine and Delphine. And their relationship is the only one in the film that has any kind of emotional resonance. With everyone else, Lorraine lies, manipulates, interrogates and demands; with Delphine, it is said, she tells the truth. Lorraine’s only authentic connection is with a woman, and for a film with Atomic Blonde’s visibility and genre, that’s a radical thing. And the publicity campaign doesn’t shy from this, giving Lorraine and Delphine’s sex scene prominent placement in the widely watched trailer.

Unfortunately, Atomic Blonde relies on a few deeply un-radical tropes of queer films, particularly those about women. And the script for the film doesn’t utilize the film’s extraordinary cast well enough. Theron is as gorgeous and charismatic as ever, but Lorraine needed a more variable affect and maybe a believable back story. McAvoy’s Percival is a fun, ribald and amoral agent, but he’s never given any motivation to explain his behavior. Similarly, both John Goodman and Toby Jones have rather thankless roles.

Each character propels the plot, but they provide us with no reason to care much about the list, the Berlin Wall or who will win in the end. An action film lacking depth of meaning and emotion isn’t all that surprising, and I had a great time nonetheless. I do hope there will be a sequel. I want to learn more about Lorraine, and I want to watch her kick a lot of ass and then get the girl in the end.

Atomic Blonde
Directed by David Leitch
Written by Kurt Johnstad
Starring Charlize Theron, James McAvoy and Sofia Boutella
Rated R

Originally published in LGBT Weekly

Please watch me

Thomas Ward, Caitlin Stasey, Josh Thomas and Debra Lawrance in Please Like Me

In October, the little watched cable channel Pivot shut down. Few people noticed, and even though this is the sort of thing I do notice, I didn’t find out until one of its shows, the Australian import Please Like Me, debuted its new season on Hulu. At first I was happy, because I don’t get Pivot but I do have Hulu, and Please Like Me is my favorite TV show. I’ve called it the gay love child of Girls and Louie, as frank and maybe more funny in its examinations of gay sex, chronic depression and the agonies of adulthood. It is a masterpiece of the New Golden Era of TV, but it is criminally under-watched. Hulu could change that! Then I found out the problem. Without Pivot, Please Like Me doesn’t have funding for another season. This may change, but the comments the show’s creator and star Josh Thomas has been making do not express much optimism. Season Four may be Please Like Me’s last. [Update: It’s over, per Josh Thomas. Sad face.] And among its six episodes are some of the best half hours of television of the last several years.

Please Like Me is a half-hour, single-camera comedy that revolves around Josh, a wise-cracking gay twentysomething living in Melbourne. He shares a small house with his dog John and straight, long-time best friend Tom. John is played by Josh Thomas’ dog John, and Tom is played by Thomas Ward, Thomas’ long-time best friend. Josh’s flighty, sweet Mum, played by Debra Lawrance, is bipolar and attempted suicide in the series’ first episode; Josh comes out, to one’s surprise, to his girlfriend Claire (Caitlin Stasey) and to Tom in that episode, too. Also around is Josh’s gruff but loving father Alan (David Roberts), who has a baby with his much younger Thai girlfriend Mae (Renee Lim). Aside from Claire, who ends up dating Tom as well, Josh and Tom’s various relationships have major roles, the most important being Josh’s neurotic boyfriend Arnold (Keegan Joyce) and Tom’s sweet and quirky girlfriend Ella (Emily Barclay).

Over the first three seasons, Josh has grown up considerably, fully embracing his sexuality, managing his mother’s mental illness, and settling into a job running his own gourmet food cart. He’s also still occasionally selfish and foolish and his reliance on jokes gets him in trouble with just about everyone. Tom, meanwhile, is still a man-child with no direction and fickle morality. The beginning of the fourth season has Josh tentatively settled into his relationship with Arnold, and Tom is planning to move in with Ella. Alan and Mae have repaired their relationship, and Josh’s mother seems to be stable living with her friend Hannah (Hannah Gadsby), who she met while in a psychiatric hospital. Things start going awry on a camping trip for Hannah’s birthday, and by the end of the season, Josh, Tom, Mum, Hannah and Alan are put through the ringer on their way to epiphanies of various sizes.

Thomas, who writes or co-writes every episode, is particularly adept at what is known as a “bottle episode,” which usually focuses on one setting and only regular characters. Season Two’s brilliant Scroggin focuses solely on Josh and Mum as they hike a park in Tasmania; I put it on the same artistic level as Mad Men’s Nixon vs. Kennedy and The Suitcase or Seinfeld’s The Contest. Season Four has two bottle episodes. The camping trip for Hannah’s birthday is the setting for Porridge, and Thomas and Ward weave old and new threads into a hilarious and sad ode to misplaced expectations. Josh takes his parents to an expensive and pretentious dinner in Degustation, partly to cheer up Mum, and almost the entire episode takes place at the table as the three share stories, reveal secrets, make jokes and get angry. I laughed so loudly while watching it my neighbor knocked on my door to ask if I was OK. The fifth episode of the season starts out as a typically silly sex-and-neuroses story and then the second half is a bottle focused on shocking grief.

Josh Thomas and Debra Lawrance in Please Like Me

While much is resolved by the end of the season, and I’ve read some critics say that it would be a fine place to end the show, there is too much undone and unsaid to satisfy me. Of course, I can’t stand to lose characters that I’ve grown to love. I’m still not over the last episodes of Six Feet Under, Lost, or Mad Men. With Please Like Me, however, if enough people watch it on Hulu, it might return. Hulu’s head of content Craig Erwich has left the door open: “We’ll have to see. I wouldn’t rule it out. Let’s see how Season Four goes, what the fans think of it and how it is, and then also where the producers [want it to go], but it’s certainly always an option.”


Please Like Me

Created by Josh Thomas

Starring Josh Thomas, Thomas Ward and Debra Lawrance

On Hulu

Originally published in LGBT Weekly