Dec 21, 2012

Spotting Celebrities: Merritt Butrick

Someone asked for a complete list of all the celebrities I met in Los Angeles from 1985 to 1990.

It depends on who counts as a celebrity.  A lot of my friends in L.A. had done something, Teen #2 on Family Ties or Party Guest #1 in The Coca Cola Kid. 

And what counts as "met."  I saw Don Grady at Gay Pride, became a "bookstore friend" of Richard Dreyfuss, bought a love seat from Cesar Romero, worked out in the same gym as Max Gail, had lunch with Michael J. Fox, and talked to Nate Richert at the Gold Coast without realizing who he was.   Does that count?

But several celebrities made a lasting impression.  We dated, or they dated my friends, or we ran into each other a lot, or maybe we just walked together for a mile or so at an AIDS Walk.  We found points of common interest.  They became people, not just images on a screen.

I met Merritt Butrick in 1988, when he was playing a muscular hustler who wreaks havoc on an older man's life in the theatrical play Kingfish.

I didn't know at the time that Merritt was famous as gay-vague slacker Johnny Slash on the high school sitcom Square Pegs (1982-83).

And as Captain Kirk's son David in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1986). Or that he had a vast range of tv and movie roles, from cowboy to vampire.

I had  never seen any of them (I still haven't).  But I knew that Merritt was quiet, intelligent, driven, serious about his craft.  And that he wouldn't have time to reach his star potential.

He died on March 17th, 1989, of AIDS-related pneumonia.

Dec 19, 2012

Jonny Quest Gets a Girlfriend

An adventure series with distinctively realistic animation,Jonny Quest first appeared on prime time in 1965-65, and then on Saturday morning through the 1970s. Renowned scientist Dr. Benton Quest (Don Messick), with a reddish-brown beard and a white lab coat, and his white-haired, hard-muscled boyfriend Race Bannon, investigate weird mysteries in the Andes, the Artic, the Sargasso Sea, or most commonly in steamy jungles full of dragon-like lizards and headhunters.

 Tagging along, either to figure out the mystery or get abducted by bad guys, are Dr. Quest’s 11-year old son, Jonny (Tim Matheson) and his companion Hadji (Danny Bravo), who met them in Calcutta and then tagged along for no logical reason except that he rather liked Jonny.

Dr. Quest and Race Bannon were quite obviously gay partners, as modern "parodies" on the Cartoon Network have recognized. Neither displayed the slightest interest in women.

 Race was often drawn in a swimsuit so his massive muscles were visible.  Here he stains himself with purple berry juice to convince the savage Po-Po Indians that he is a god.

But I was more interested in Jonny and Hadji. Jonny, blond in a tough guy’s black turtleneck, rushes double-fisted into danger, while Hadji, slim and brown with petite hands, wearing a turban with a ruby in it all the time (even when swimming), is skittish and emotional, shouting “Be careful!” from the sidelines as he waits for an opportunity to assist with his mystical arts.

Hadji, by the way, was just one in a line of South Asian boy-adventurers such as Sabu, Kim in the Corentin series, Gunga Andy's Gangand Raji on  Maya .We see in him the feminization of the Colonial Other as dark, mysterious, intuitive, and sensual, and a none-too-subtle masculine-feminine dynamic in his interaction with Jonny. The intensity, physicality, and sheer heat of their interactions make them seem more lovers than foster brothers.  At playtime nobody wanted to be Hadji, but everyone wanted to rescue him from bad guys and carry him off in their arms. 

The comic book series wasn't successful, but there were novelizations, toys, and games, including a record, a version of Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

In 1996, a new series appeared, The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest.  Jonny and Hadji were now teenagers, considerably more buffed than in the original series.  Unfortunately, to address the strong homoerotic subtext of the original, they were heterosexualized.  Dr. Quest got a wife.  Race Bannon got a daughter, Jessie, who became Jonny's girlfriend.

No word on whether Hadji resented being replaced.

See also: The Venture Brothers.

Dec 18, 2012

Joe Mazzello and Friend

Joe Mazzello made a career out of playing lonely, abused, oddball, or outcast boys, or the boy who bonds with them.

In 1992, at the age of eight, he won critical acclaim in Radio Flier, about a boy (Elijah Wood) who discovers that his stepfather is abusing his younger brother (Joe), and develops an imaginative escape plan: they'll transform his toy wagon, a Radio Flier, into an airplane.

In The Cure (1995), jock Erik (Brad Renfro) befriends Dexter (Joe), who has AIDS.  His mother forbids the friendship, and the bigots at school call them homophobic names, but their bond transcends all obstacles.   When they discover that a doctor in New Orleans has discovered a cure, they raft down the Mississippi like Huck and Jim.

Joe took a break from the gravitas in Star Kid (1997), where he plays a kid who finds an alien warrior cybersuit, but in Simon Birch (1998), he takes on the jock role; his Joe Wentworth befriends Simon Birch (Ian Michael Smith), who is small and frail due to a hormonal condition.  Simon believes that God has a special purpose for him, and the two embark on a journey of self-discovery (I haven't actually seen this one).

Movies about intense friendships are harder to do with adults, since muscular physiques and the promise of sexual potency make it harder to ignore the homoerotic.  So as a young adult, Joe did some tv series (CSI, Without a Trace, Providence) and some independent movies, and had a starring role in The Pacific (2010), a miniseries about World War II (where his character has a homoromantic bond with James Badge Dale, right).

 In 2010, he starred in The Social Network as Dustin Moskovitz, who helped Mark Zuckerberg start the Facebook social network site.

No word on whether he's gay or a gay ally.

Dec 17, 2012

Sword and Sandal

Steve Reeves didn't invent the genre of Italian peplum ("toga")  or sword-and-sandal, about a toga-clad demigod fighting oppression in a vaguely ancient Greek or Roman setting.  But he introduced it to the world.  Between 1957 and 1967, peplum was the most popular Italian movie export, even more popular than the artistic masterworks of Fellini and Antonioni.  

The hero was always a legendary muscleman: Goliath and Samson from the Bible, Hercules from Greek myth; Maciste from ancient Rome; Ursus from the movie Quo Vadis (1951).  Alan Steel (right) played both Samson and Hercules. Samson Burke was a rare bodybuilder who played mostly villains.

  But the plots didn't worry about historical accuracy.  Hercules fought the Mongols; Maciste found his way to the 16th century Aztec Empire; another Hercules (Giuliano Gemma) visited the Incas; an Arabian Nights setting involved Samson, who was born 1500 years before Mohammed.  There were even science fiction and horror movies; the hero fought vampires and moon men.

Many Mr. Universes (such as Ed Fury, right) were hired to play the mythic hero, giving bodybuilders their first roles other than self-absorbed beach-bunnies, and giving millions of gay boys their first crushes.

Kirk Morris (left), discovered while working as a gondalier in Venice, played Hercules, Maciste, and Anthar.  His villains included headhunters and the Tzar of Russia.

The peplum hero was a man-mountain, able to destroy entire enemy armies by flexing his superheroic biceps.  He was usually tied up and tortured two or three times, so he could struggle, his muscles glistening in the firelight of the Tzar's dungeon.  Sometimes other parts were clearly visible, as when Gordon Scott, a future Tarzan, played Maciste.

But buddy-bonding was conspicuously absent.  Men were sometimes comrades, but more usually competitors and back-stabbers.  Plots rarely involved rescuing men or sailing into the sunset with men.  Instead, there were always two women: an evil brunette (whom the hero spurned) and a virtuous blonde (whom he fell in love with).

The heroes were nice to look at, but they offered no glimpse of a "good place."

The very informative Peplum blog gives a rundown of many of the movies.

Dec 16, 2012

Bless the Beasts and Children

When I was a kid, our church forbade going to movies, but a combination of factors (a babysitting uncle, an adventurous friend, increased freedom) led to me seeing a lot during the summer and fall of 1971: The Million Dollar Duck, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, The Omega Man, The Gang that Couldn't Shoot Straight, and Bless the Beasts and Children, an early example of the "shirtless teens working together" genre (others include Toy Soldiers, White Water Summer, and White Squall). But I found it painful to watch, and I haven't seen it since.

It stars a group of misfit teens at a summer camp, bullied by the others, ostracized as "The Bedwetters." They all have problems with distant, abusive, over-achieving, or absent parents (another of the establishment vs. youth plotlines of the hippie generation).
Counselor Cotton (Barry Robins, center)
Violent juvenile delinquent Teft (Billy Mumy of The Twilight Zone and Lost in Space).
Overweight Shecker (Miles Chapin, right)

The antisocial brothers Lally 1 (Marc Vahanian, right) and Lally 2 (Bob Kramer)
Shy, introverted Goodenow (Darel Glaser)

When they discover that a herd of buffalo at a nearby preserve will be hunted and killed, the Bedwetters decide to take action.  In 1971, during the heart of the Vietnam War, we couldn't miss the parallel between hunting buffalo and the parents' attempts to destroy the boys.

There is some buddy-bonding between Cotton and Teft, but usually the boys act as a group.

They even sleep together in a mass of entwined bodies.

The boys in Bless the Beasts and Children are not nearly as muscular as those in White Squall or Toy Soldiers; they are children, soft and vulnerable, in need of protection and nurturing, not objects of desire.

The many shirtless and semi-nude shots -- underwear so revealing that you literally see everything -- have been criticized as inappropriately erotic, but actually they add to the sadness of the movie. We see not only who the boys are now, but who they could become -- strong, powerful, potent -- endless human potential destroyed.

Only Bill Mumy and Marc Vahanian are still active in show business (Bill primarily as a singer). Barry Robins, who was gay in real life, died in 1986.  Miles Chapin is now an environmental activist and writer.

Sherlock Holmes, Gay Icon

As a kid I liked science fiction, fantasy, and jungle adventures, but not detective fiction, except for Michel (because he was cute, and in French), The Hardy Boys (because they were in love), and Sherlock Holmes: "The Red-Headed League", "The Five Orange Pips," "The Musgrave Ritual," and many other stories by Arthur Conan Doyle.

They were short enough to read quickly, exciting but not scary, mysterious but always realistic (no ghosts or monsters).  Sherlock Holmes' power of logical deduction was appealing to a boy just starting to tease out the patterns, conventions, and constraints of adult life.

And he was gay.

The original stories, published between 1881 and 1927, give Holmes a rather sexist disapproval of women's "weakness," and a dislike of heterosexual romance: "he never spoke of the softer passions, except for a gibe and a sneer."  He admires Irene Adler, the heroine of "A Scandal in Bohemia," but has no romantic interest in her.  However, he quite enjoys the company of men, especially his roommate, assistant, and life partner, Dr. Watson.

Watson did express heterosexual interest; in The Sign of Four (1890), he falls in love and marries.  But marriage always puts a damper on adventure, so soon Mrs. Watson was written out with a brief reference to her death, and Holmes and Watson were together again.

Many movie versions of Holmes appeared during my childhood and adolescence:
The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)
The Hound of the Baskervilles (1972)
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother (1975)
Sherlock Holmes in New York (1976)
The Seven Percent Solution (1976)
Murder by Decree (1979)

But none offered any beefcake -- Sherlock started displaying a bare chest only in the 2000s.

And only The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) openly alluded to the homoromantic relationship between Holmes and Watson, and then only as a joke.  Some kept the buddy-bonding, but most presented Holmes as avidly heterosexual, leering at women, dancing with them, falling in love with Irene Adler.

Another Hollywood attempt to erase the existence of gay people from the world.

Not to worry -- Jeremy Brett played him as rather more gay-vague in the late 1980s and 1990s.

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