Jul 12, 2013

Fifty Ways of Saying Fabulous: A Gay Kiwi Boyhood

The gay-themed New Zealand movie Kawa (2010) was terrible, all about closets and angst and parents who fall to the ground screaming when they discover that their kid is gay.  But Fifty Ways of Saying Fabulous (2005), based on the novel by Graeme Aitkin, gets it nearly right.  It won't make my list of 10 Gay Movies I Loved, but it was pleasant.

The summer of 1975, in a small farming community on the vast plains of Otago, South Island, a place isolated from the rest of the world yet immersed in global pop culture.  Billy (Andrew Patterson, right) is 12-years old, overweight, feminine.

He hates farming and rugby, the two passions of everybody else in town, but he loves teen idol music and sci-fi tv, especially the glamorous space-explorer Lana (Judy from Lost in Space in the original novel).  So naturally he dons a black wig to become Lana, and his tomboy cousin Lou becomes her partner Brad, to act out interstellar adventures.

Billy's parents are nonchalant about his forays into drag, but at school it's downright savage, with bullying, bashing, and cries of "poof!"

He knows what a "poof" is: a man who wears dresses and knows "fifty ways of saying fabulous."  But he doesn't know what "gay" means.  Never once, in his twelve years of homophobic harassment, has anyone told him that same-sex desire or romance exist.  And maybe they don't know.  That was possible in Otago, New Zealand in 1975.  It was possible in my home town of Rock Island, Illinois; I didn't find out until 1976.

Then, as is the custom in movies, two things happen that change Billy's life forever.

1. Golden boy farm hand Jamie (Michael Dorman) arrives and begins strutting around with his shirt off or taking showers in the shed (in the book he bears a striking resemblance to David Cassidy).  Billy gets an intense, obsessive, undeniably homoerotic crush.  Same-sex desire most definitely exists.

2. Skinny, unpopular class nerd Roy (Jay Collins) starts putting the moves on Billy, who is surprised and hesitant ("Why do you like me?"), but soon warms up to his first boyfriend, complete with kisses and hugs and  theatrics.

Under Roy's tutelage, Billy come to understand what "gay" means.  His epiphany is not the least angst-ridden, and the reactions of the heterosexuals are not as homophobic as they would be in Kawa, set thirty years in the future.

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