Sep 15, 2012


Slow, moody, but beautifully shot in and around a huge white-marble mausoleum, Phantasm (1979) begins on a depressing note: a man having sex  in a graveyard with a sinister Lady in Lavender. After flashing her breasts, the woman flashes a knife and stabs him to death. At his funeral, we meet his friends: Reggie (Reggie Bannister), a chunky nerd, bald with a pony tail, who drives an ice cream truck; and Jody (Bill Thornbury), a hard drinkin’, guitar-playin’ slacker who doesn’t seem to work, but still manages to live in a huge house with guns and stuffed carnivores, and drive a fancy “Triple Black Hemicuda Convertible."

Jody’s kid brother Mike (15-year old A. Michael Baldwin), who follows him around like a forlorn puppy dog, becomes the protagonist, sneaking into the labyrinthine mausoleum and discovering that the mortician, called only the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm), has been squashing the newly-deceased into gibbering dwarfs and transporting them to another planet (I don’t know why). When corpses don’t appear quickly enough through natural causes, he is not averse to harvesting the living. For some reason, he is especially interested in Mike; he sends dwarfs, regular-sized henchmen, and flying silver golf balls to fetch him, or goes himself, either in his ordinary costume or in drag as the breast-baring Lady in Lavender. Toward the end of the movie keeps popping up at unsuspected moments to shout “Boy-y-y-y!”

The Tall Man is not the only one with an interest in Mike: the camera loves him, lingering on his face in tight closeups and constantly flashing butt and crotch shots, even though he is soft, androgynous, and amazingly girlish. Director Don Coscarelli makes increasingly desperate attempts to portray Mike as macho, making him shoot guns, cuss, drink beer, and work on cars. Two different teenage girls try to flirt with him, but he staunchly refuses to give them a second glance; when the Lady in Lavender arrives, he whispers “Don’t fear” and rushes away. Finally Coscarelli gives up and lets Mike remain that rarity in the horror genre, an (almost) openly gay protagonist.


Like Leif Garrett, Mike is unable to play a scene with a male actor without imbuing it with a palpably erotic yearning. Maybe the scenes with older brother Jody as the easy intimacy of siblings, but what about scenes with Reggie? Mike is constantly touching him, grabbing him, hugging him. He goes out of his way to hitch rides on the ice cream truck when he is not at all interested in ice cream. When Reggie seems dead, it is Mike, not Jody, who is disconsolate, crying “What are we gonna do without him?”

Reggie is usually oblivious to Mike’s affection, but in one very enigmatic scene near the end of the movie, they are sitting crosslegged on the living room floor, discussing a plan to fight the Tall Man. While Jody is talking in the foreground, Reggie in the background quite blatantly places his hand on Mike’s upper thigh, only an inch or two from his crotch. He squeezes for a long moment. Mike flashes a quick, dreamy smile, and Reggie takes his hand away. 

 Perhaps Reggie was “supposed to” be comforting Mike in the face of a crisis, but surely it would be more appropriate to squeeze his shoulder or arm; the upper thigh is reserved for expressions of erotic interest. Instead, they seem to be acknowledging, briefly and tentatively, a romantic undertow in their relationship. As the movie ends, Jody has died, and Reggie and Mike are planning to go away together. They stay together through three sequels, with rarely a brother or girlfriend to intrude.

A. Michael Baldwin retired from acting to pursue his studies of Eastern mysticism.  Today he teaches acting in Austin, Texas.

Buy it on Amazon

Sep 14, 2012

Randolph Mantooth

Randolph Mantooth has had the honor of being lambasted on both Mystery Science Theater 3000 and Talk Soup, due to his appearances in a few less-than-stellar movies.  I can still hear the fake horror in the voices of Joel and the bots as they yell "It stars Ran-dolph Man-tooth!"

But he has been a good sport, even, on occasion, joining in on the spoofing, because he know the jokes are latching onto the few rough patches in an otherwise stellar career.

Tall but not gawky, earnest without being cloying, Randolph Mantooth was born in 1945, a boomer kid of Seminole Indian ancestry.  He hit Hollywood in 1970, and played lots of earnest, taciturn characters in dramas and Westerns, before his big break.

In 1972 he was cast in the action-medical drama Emergency!, about the adventures of paramedics John Gage (Mantooth) and Roy DeSoto (Kevin Tighe).

The paramedic was a new profession -- in 1972 there were just 6 paramedic units in the U.S.  Emergency! was instrumental in popularizing its combination of medical drama and fire/police action.  By the time the show ended in 1979, everyone knew what a paramedic was, and thousands of kids had been inspired to study EMS (Emergency Medical Services).

Paramedics Gage and DeSoto performed their first aid so accurately that some viewers were able to save lives based on what they had learned on the show, and real-life hospitals started offering first aid and CPR programs.  Training in CPR is now commonplace for many helping professions.

With such a praiseworthy resume, Randolph Mantooth can probably take the ribbing over his few bad moves.

By the way, he also supports many gay causes.

Alias Smith and Jones

The buddy movie is a venerable American institution, about two guys, cops, detectives, or outlaws, who may enjoy the company of the other sex but live only for each other.  But it hasn't transferred to television well.  So obsessed are tv producers with promoting heterosexual romance that only a few examples of buddy tv shows can be found.

Alias Smith and Jones (1971-73) was one.

Betting on the popularity of Butch Cassdy and the Sundance Kid the year before, Alias starred Robert Redford lookalike Ben Murphy, who had been making the rounds of tv dramas, usually in roles that required his shirt to come off.  He played Kid Curry, the muscular one.

Round-faced Pete Duel was cast as Hannibal Heyes.  He had starred as Rod Taylor's buddy-boyfriend in The Hell with Heroes (1968), and he was also been making the rounds of tv dramas, as well as doing a few comedies (such as Gidget).

Outlaws trying to go straight, they criss-cross the Old West, getting involved with people's problems along the way.  Thankfully, few of those problems involved old girlfriends or current flames, and many involved rescuing each other from cliffhanging danger.

But they only filmed 18 episodes together.  On December 31, 1971, Pete Duel, who had been depressed and drinking heavily, committed suicide.

Instead of cancelling the program or giving Kid Curry a new buddy to work with, the network immediately hired Roger Davis, previously Vickie's boyfriend on Dark Shadows as Hannibal #2.  Gay fans were outraged -- how could they replace a boyfriend so cavalierly?

But the program managed to keep going on through the end of the 1971-72 season and halfway through the 1972-73 before being cancelled.

Sep 13, 2012

Tunnel in the Sky

Later in life, Robert Heinlein (1907-1988) was well known as the cranky, conservative, racist, sexist "old man" of science fiction, who wrote weird, turgid, overlong, and heterosexist novels, but between 1948 and 1963, he produced 18 juveniles, about teenage boys involved in interstellar intrigue, with same-sex bonds often intense and intimate, and hardly any heterosexual dating or romance.

Tunnel in the Sky (1955) was my favorite, perhaps because its protagonist, Rod,  never displays the slightest interest in a girl.

The plot: for a high school class in this rip-roaring frontier future. Rod and hundreds of other students are zapped through a space-portal to an alien planet for survival training: "any climate, any terrain.”
They find themselves in a tropical paradise, plagued only by bloodthirsty carnivorous rabbits.

The ten days of the test pass, and then twenty, and thirty, and no time-space portal opens to zap them home. But the castaways don't devolve into Lord of the Flies savagery; they build a no-nonsense libertarian community, Cowperstown, with farming and metallurgy and square dances every weekend. Rod is elected mayor.

Not much of gay interest so far: in fact, the first thing on everyone’s mind is marriage and children.  A former pre-law student even puts out a shingle as a divorce lawyer.

But, oddly, Rod fails to marry, or date, or even flirt. When challenged, he protests that he does indeed like girls, but heterosexual romance would compromise his effectiveness as a political leader.

Such an argument makes little sense, and is based on no real life model; in fact, few men are ever elected to high political office without sporting a wife on their arm. Perhaps Rod comes up with this lame excuse to hide his actual lack of interest in girls.

Early in the survival test, Rod briefly teams up with Jack, a student from another school. They hunt, cook, and seek shelter together, and develop a chummy friendship until Rod discovers that Jack is really Jacqueline, a girl!

It is unclear why she would need to hide her gender, since girls and boys both participate in the test. But the girl pretending to be a boy is a standard plot device.  A male friend finds “him” attractive and has a bout of homophobic panic. Then he discovers that “he” is really a “she,” that is instincts were right all along, thereby “proving” that heterosexual desire is innate and natural, foolproof even when the object is disguised.

Rod, however, does not feel confused or conflicted about his feelings for Jack. When he discovers that Jack is a girl, he is surprised but not relieved, and the two do not subsequently begin a romance. Instead, he has to defend himself from the jeers of his friends, who claim that they are so competent at their heterosexuality that they realized right away that Jack was a girl. 

Eventually the rescue portal opens, but even then, Rod does not return home to a heteronormative future.  Cowperstown is home, and he is staying put.
Heinlein no doubt omitted hetero-romance from his novels because he believed his target audience of teenage boys would not be interested.  But the gay boys who stumbled upon them twenty years later found a strong validation of the legitimacy of "not liking girls."

Sep 10, 2012

The Blue Hawk

What gay boy could resist buying Peter Dickinson's The Blue Hawk (1976): the cover displayed a gorgeous young man with olive skin and black curly hair, his muscles visible beneath his a blue robe.

The British edition was almost as good.

He is Tron, a teenager of humble parentage in a nameless Egypt-like kingdom, who has been raised to become a priest.  In the midst of a turgid plot involving palace intrigues and invasions from without, Tron meets the young King, who is quite obviously taken with him, inviting him to dinner and to go hawking, and asking “where will you sleep tonight?”

Neither the King nor Tron has ever been in a non-coercive relationship, so they grope their way toward love with many hesitations and missteps.  Tron vows to “serve” the King, who obligingly sends him off on a secret mission.  He gets lost, and everyone thinks that he is dead.

When he returns, the King  comes “striding forth with outstretched arms, his whole being seeming to pulse with pleasure in the living instant,” but instead of telling Tron how much he loves him, he hides (barely) behind metaphor: he whispers that losing Tron was like “the emptiness when you lose a favorite hawk, but worse, far worse.”  His master’s pet: close, but not close enough.

When they are back in the palace, the King insists that Tron not leave his side; their arms are linked or his hand is on Tron’s shoulder or he is stroking Tron’s hair even at the most important of council meetings.  But if Tron is merely a favored pet, why does the King constantly seek his advice on complex matters of state?  On a second secret assignment, Tron is wounded, and the King rushes to his side.  But again, neither overtly declares his love:

The King came in.  He looked very tired. . .but the air around around him seemed to tingle with excitement and happiness.  He stretched his arm down in a gesture that would have become a hug of joy in their meeting if Tron had not been wounded; life and warmth seemed to flow from his fingertips.

One can admire and respect a subordinate, but one can only love an equal.  At the end of the novel, he is on his way to ask the King if they can become – not master and servant or king and faithful subject, but something else that Dickinsen does not and perhaps cannot describe, not in 1976, a same-sex love that is exclusive and permanent.

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