Mar 2, 2013

Baretta: Robert Blake, Friendly Enemy

Maybe Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry series originated the fad of antihero cops or detectives, but it saw its peak on 1970s tv.  Suddenly you had to choose between a dozen cops or detectives who broke all of the rules and caused endless headaches to the guys who had to fill out the paperwork, but were tolerated because they got the job done.

There were so many that they had to be distinguished by cool catchphrases or personal quirks.

Kojak sucked a lollipop and said "Who loves ya, baby?"
Cannon was overweight and a gourmand.
James Rockford lived in a trailer with his Dad.

Baretta (1975-78) was distinguished by his massive biceps, his cockatoo named Fred, and his two catchphrases: "You can take that to the bank!" and "That's the name of that tune!"

I never saw it, but you could hardly miss the commercials that featured his the biceps.  Or the theme song:
"Keep your eye on the sparrow, when the going gets narrow."
Two Biblical references -- God keeps his eye on the sparrow, and the narrow road leads to salvation.
I didn't know what it meant, but it was catchy.

Surprising for someone over 40, Robert Blake got substantial attention from the teen magazines. Maybe it was the beefcake, unusual for a 1970s cop show.  In Sweden they even sold paper dolls for kids who wanted to play dress-up with Blake in underwear.

Apparently there was a gay-positive episode in 1977.  At least as gay-positive as tv got in the 1970s.   Baretta befriends a gay teen hustler (Brian Miller) who witnessed the murder of his coworker.

Robert Blake began his career as one of last of the Little Rascals in the 1940s before becoming Little Beaver in a series of films about a Native American kid. TV Westerns followed, including The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok, Roy Rogers, The Broken Arrow, and The Restless Gun.  Though he worked constantly as an adult, he never found a role that matched his childhood success, before or after Baretta.  

Not a lot of gay content in his movies.  Busting (1973) has a scene in a gay bar full of swishy stereotypes.

However, his autobiography, Tales of a Rascal, has many stories about befriending gays and bashing them, making homophobic slurs and speaking out against homophobia: "All of show business owes its entire life to the gay community.  What is that line from Boys in the Band? 'Why does it take a fairy to make something beautiful?'".  He got the quote wrong, but the sentiment resonates, along with the stereotype.

Robert Blake has had an interesting life.

The Blossoming of Maximo Olivares

The Philippines has produced a surprising number of gay-themed films, perhaps more than any other country outside the U.S.  The Internet Movie Database lists over 100, dating back to 1954.  Many are available in the U.S.: Macho Dancer (1988), Sibak (1994), Burlesk King (1999), The Blossoming of Maximo Olivares (2005), and Twilight Dancers (2006).

Maximo Olivares transcends the Euro-American model of gay teen movies, in which: 1. The teen believes that there are no other gay people in the universe; 2. Everyone is horrifically homophobic; 3. Everyone is horribly depressed.

Maxi (Nathan Lopez) is a 12-year old gay boy living in the slums of Manila with his father and brothers, who are thieves.  He actually behaves more like the Filipino third gender, bakla or "ladyboy": he has feminine mannerisms, wears makeup and jewelry, takes on feminine-coded jobs like cooking and childcare, and calls himself a "girl."  But who cares how he's defined when his family and friends are perfectly accepting, and Maxi is perfectly at home in his world?

When Maxi gets s a crush on Victor (J.R. Valentin), the police officer assigned to investigate his father, Victor responds as any adult would to a flirtatious 12-year old: he is flattered by the attention, and tries to nurture and big-brother the boy, but he resists or ignores Maxi's attempts to frame himself as a "girlfriend."

But then Maxi begins showing up at work, causing teasing and taunts from Victor's fellow officers, and Maxi's Dad (Ping Medina) thinks that Victor has been sleeping with him, so Victor backs off.  Maxi is devastated.

Events take a tragic turn when Victor's boss kills Maxi's Dad.  Later Victor tries to renew the friendship, but Maxi ignores him and walks off alone.

Nathan Lopez, who is actually heterosexual in real life, also played a gay teen in the Filipino soap opera Sana Maulit Muli (2007), and currently stars in the soap Be Careful with My Heart.  JR Valentin got his start as a model, and was named winner of the Bodyshots modeling competition in 2000.   He has appeared in several movies and tv programs in the Philippines.

The Blossoming of Maximo Olivares is #8 on my list of 10 Gay Movies I Loved.

Feb 28, 2013

Lost: Charlie's Three Boyfriends

When ABC’s Lost premiered on September 22, 2004, I calculated that of the 48 survivors of an airplane crash facing paranormal peril on a desert island, five must be gay. During an early episode, the main characters were strategizing about something or other when a pair of hunky extras, obviously lovers, ran joyfully with fishing poles toward the beach.  “We will see their home life soon,” I thought. But they never appeared again.

Early on, fans speculated that young surgeon Jack (Matthew Fox), the unofficial leader of the castaways, would be gay, but I knew that leaders on tv are never gay.  To be gay is to be an eternal sidekick.

I was rooting for Charlie (Dominic Monaghan of The Lord of the Rings), a has-been rock star and recovering heroin addict.  During flashbacks to their lives before the plane crash, each of the fourteen main characters revealed a heterosexual romance, with a single exception: Charlie’s flashbacks were always about his brother.

Nor did Charlie exhibit the slightest romantic interest in the female castaways – he bonded with the pregnant Claire (Emilie de Ravin), but they never kissed or cuddled.  Instead, he seemed thoroughly smitten with Locke (Terry O’Quinn), a bald, wiry wilderness expert who would not look out of place in a leather bar on Folsom Street.

I waited patiently for someone to mention Charlie’s gayness through all of the twenty-two episodes of the first season.  Nothing.

Early in the second season, executive producer Carlton Cuse responded to an inquiry on the internet fansite, The Fuselage: “When will a gay character appear?”  He answered: “To spill about whether a character currently on the island is gay would be at cross-purposes to our mission of keeping the characters' back stories shrouded in mystery.”   I thought he was merely expressing the myth that gay people must always live in shadows.  Instead, he was preparing for a monumental “correction.”

In November 2005, a newly introduced castaway, haunted cop Anna Lucia (Michelle Rodriguez), asks amiable con artist Sawyer (Josh Holloway) the standard heterosexual ice-breaker, “Are you married?”  He is not.  She then asks, “Are you gay?”  He responds, “Very funny!”

 It struck me as a legitimate question, to be answered “Yes” or “No.”  Why, I wondered, did Sawyer think she was joking?  Why did he find it ridiculous?  Because in the world of Lost, gay people are mythical creatures, denizens of fairy tales.  Sawyer, gay? Anna Lucia might as well have asked, “Are you a hobbit?”

Still hoping that Charlie would redeem Lost, I kept watching.  Another new castaway arrived, Mr. Eko (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje of Oz), a reformed drug runner with a bodybuilder’s physique.  His flashback was also about his brother rather than a heterosexual romance.  What could be a more perfect pair, I thought, than a reformed drug runner and a recovering drug addict?

And sure enough, Charlie instantly dumped Locke to chase Eko around the island.  The two were even shown sharing the same sleeping-mat.  One often sees same-sex desire or romance on television, but same-sex practices, never!  Charlie and Eko were living together, sleeping together, probably having sex – what more evidence was necessary?  It wasn’t even a subtext – they were a gay couple.

Then came the season finale, on May 24, 2006.  Eko abandons Charlie to pursue an odd spirit-quest on the other side of the island.  After whining “You’re breaking up with me?” and being despondent for awhile, Charlie returns to buddy Claire  – except now they share a brief, chaste kiss.

I could hear Carlton Cuse chuckling, “Fooled you!  Charlie is straight after all!  Gay people and hobbits do not exist!”

I tuned in occasionally during the later seasons.  Charlie finds a new boyfriend, muscular Aussie Desmond (Henry Ian Cusick), and finally sacrifices his life for him, an ultimate romantic gesture; but afterwards everyone consoles platonic pal Claire on “her” loss and ignores Desmond, believing same-sex bonds to be meaningless.

Eventually one of the hundred or so named characters on the island is“outed”: Tom Friendly (M. C. Gainey).  But, like Dumbledore in the Harry Potter books, there are layers of erasure:

Tom is one of the evil Others
He's outed long after his death, and without Saying the Word.

Lost tells us that the real people, the people we deal with in everyday life, are always straight or pretending to be.

See also: Twin Peaks

Feb 24, 2013

The Philippines

Before I started looking for a "good place" in Australia, or India, or ancient Greece, back when I was a toddler, there was the Philippines.  I saw it on the world globe that my uncle gave me when I was four or five, just barely able to decipher the name of the orange cluster of islands.

Who lived on these islands so far away, literally on the other side of the world?

Our heavy black-bound Collier's Encyclopedia offered some hints.  I couldn't read the words well, but there were pictures of heavily- muscled men wearing only loincloths.

And heavily-muscled headhunters, whose villages seemed occupied only by men.

And Lapu-Lapu, the native chief who defeated and killed Magellan during his round-the-world trip in 1521.  Apparently they wanted to be left alone.

When I was in grade school, I somehow found some comic books written in the Tagalog language.  I couldn't read them, but then I couldn't read much in those days.  One starred a muscular Tarzan named Toro.

And another Bernardo Carpio, who caused earthquakes.

There wasn't much to research in the grade school library -- just things like copra and tropical climates and Austronesian language.  No movies or tv programs or children's books were set in the Philippines  But still, in my earliest childhood, I idealized it as a place where muscular men lived together in tribal villages, with no adults asking "Do you like girls yet?" or grinning knowingly whenever they talked to a girl.  As a good place.

I've done research since.

Richard Benjamin: Not Just About Girls

Many Boomers think of Richard Benjamin as  the quintessential New Sensitive Man, slim, amiable, affluent, slightly befuddled, and utterly obsessed with women. And his career began with many roles as men  whose lives were informed by women: the sitcom He & She (1967-68); Goodbye Columbus (1969), an adaption of the Philip Roth classic novella about alienated young Jewish heterosexuals; Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970), about a housewife who has an affair with an abusive writer; Portnoy's Complaint (1972), about a young Jewish intellectual obsessed with women.

But he quickly broke away from type.  Even Goodbye Columbus had Richard's character bonding with the hunky ex-high school football star Ron Patimkin (Michael Meyers), his girlfriend's brother.

 In The Steagle (1971), Benjamin plays a disillusioned college professor  during the Cuban Missile Crisis who roams the country, adopting different personas and flirting with both men and women along the way, before he decides that there's No Place Like Home (a "steagle" is 1960s slang for a short-lived phenomenon).

In The Last of Sheila (1973), he plays a failed screenwriter invited, along with other tarnished souls, onto a yacht for a "murder mystery game." And the stinger-- one of them might be gay! Actually, most of them have gay "skeletons in the closet" to reveal as the game turns deadly.

Plus a number of comedies and dramas with little heterosexual content: Westworld (1973), Scavenger Hunt (1979), Saturday the 14th (1981), Deconstructing Harry (1997).

Add his total lack of self-consciousness about appearing nude, and you get a pleasantly positive star for gay boys of the Boomer generation.  In spite of the girls hanging around.

Robert Stack: Rock Hudson's Bodybuilder Buddy

Boomers remember Robert Stack as the host of the reality series Unsolved Mysteries, or if they're older, Elliot Ness, 1930s federal agent, on The Untouchables (1959-63).  

But during the 1940s and 1950s, he was a heartthrob, with chiseled features and a massive, sculpted chest.  He moved in same 1950s gay Hollywood scene that Tab Hunter, Anthony Perkins, and Rock Hudson belonged to, and in spite of his long marriage and reputed affair with Elizabeth Taylor, he was rumored to be gay.

In one of his first roles, Otto Von Ron in The Mortal Storm (1940), Stack plays a gay-vague young man who joins the Nazi party .

And during the 1950s he played several homoromantic parts, such as the noir House of Bamboo (1955).  His undercover cop Eddie Spanner goes to Japan, where he draws the attention of syndicate boss Sandy Dawson (Robert Ryan)

Or The Tarnished Angels (1957), about an intense, passionate friendship between pilot Roger Schuman (Stack) and journalist Burke Devlin (Rock Hudson, right)

The Untouchables led to a series of "tough guy" roles in dramas like Is Paris Burning (1966), Action Man (1967), The Name of the Game (1968-71), and Strike Force (1981-82)..  But he didn't skimp on the buddy-bonding roles, as in the "let's get the POWs out of Vietnam" movie Uncommon Valor (1983). Or the comedy: his self-paroding role in Airplane! (1981) became famous.

Or the gay-positive: in 1985 he played the Dad of the flamboyant Donald on the gay-themed sitcom Brothers.

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