C’mon off it, Sky, the movie Notes On A Scandal isn’t homophobic (Notes On Another Scandal by Sky Gilbert in Jan 18 Xtra). It’s just dated, though I must admit it’s dated in spectacularly weird way.
For those of you not in the loop, Notes On A Scandal is the tale of female friendship that’s generated big buzz for its racy content and Oscar nods for its leads, Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett. In it, Dench plays a lonely repressed lesbian who sets her sights on a comely, married bohemian and sees her chance for a little emotional blackmail when she discovers the Blanchett character having an affair with a 15-year-old boy. Yes, there you have it, kiddie-sex and repressed lesbianism in one movie. It must have seemed like box office gold to somebody. My question is who?
I know actresses of a certain age are desperate for meaty parts and Judi Dench bites into this one with ferocity, tenacity and zeal. In fact she’s almost too good for the role. Her eyes glint with a steely self-awareness the character isn’t supposed to possess.
For the flick to work, after all, you’ve got to believe that this otherwise bright, sensible and frighteningly witty woman is so repressed that she can’t see her own desperate behaviour for the stalker-style stuff it is.
More to the point, you’ve got to believe that she exists in the present when the whole character seems to have been lifted out the past, created holus bolus out of a much earlier set of psychosexual fears. She comes straight from a 1950s shrink fest, with a little Douglas Sirk and a lot of the Bates Motel thrown in for good measure. With her squinty eyes and cruel calculations, she’s a 1950s nightmare come to life: The return of the repressed.
Even weirder (or “better,” if you like camp), she’s a bizarre embodiment of that old bogeyman, the Lonely Homosexual. For decades, queers were kept in line by the fear that they’d end up alone. “Turn straight or you’ll end up alone” was the message. Same-sex marriage and multiple high-profile queer couplings were supposed to put an end to that idea, but it seems to be alive and well.
In Scandal, the Dench character complains about the “arctic” wilderness of her social calendar and the pain of planning an entire weekend around a visit to the launderette. In fact, she almost writhes with loneliness (a state which, considering the fried-toast state of her hair, seems almost self-imposed). In this however, she is not alone. In fact, she’s very much on trend.
From the Stanley Tucci character in The Devil Wears Prada to the flamer fashionista on Ugly Betty, today’s homos exist in a sexual vacuum that suggests loneliness and a long-term visit to the social scrapheap. It’s an embarrassingly old-school idea but for some reason it’s back in vogue this year.
You see it in the season’s other big homo pic, The History Boys. For most of its length this tale of two teachers prepping a half-dozen hard-working students for their university entrance exams is charming and pleasantly unrealistic. The kids accept their one gay colleague with supernatural tolerance and endure the gropings of their repressed gay teacher with wry good humour. It’s charming and funny and touching, especially the scene where the gay kid sings “Bewitched, Bothered And Bewildered” to an unrequited love across a crowded classroom — until you get to the end and you realize that the message they’re selling is repression.
In the end (beware: plot spoiler ahead), none of the three major gay characters finds love and one of them is summarily bumped off. Even the adorable gay kid who becomes a teacher himself and who seems the perfect, well-adjusted candidate for a long-term relationship ends up alone and quietly simpering. His triumph, he tells us in a flash-forward, is not to touch the pupils he teaches. It’s a constant struggle, he says, and that’s what makes him a great teacher.
Now there’s a creepy message: joy in repression. Or if not joy exactly, then not unhappiness because, as he tells us, he’s not either happy or unhappy. It’s great that’s he’s a upstanding citizen but what about his love life? Does he have any connection outside the classroom?
When it comes to fulfilling gay romance, the big studios continue to disappoint. The last great gay movie I saw was the Mexican flick Broken Sky and I haven’t seen hide nor hair of it — not even a review — since I first saw it at last year’s Inside Out film festival. Cute leads, fab cinematography, an intense operatic story and it still goes nowhere. Go figure. Maybe there weren’t enough dead bodies.
At any rate it’s one more reason to look forward to this year’s Inside Out (Thu, May 17 to 27 at a fine cinema near you). It’s the only way you’re going to see a good gay story.