Jun 25, 2016

"The Bicycle Man": A Very Special Episode of "Diff'rent Strokes"

Diff'rent Strokes (1978-86) is one of those iconic 1980s tv series that everyone knew about but no one watched (at least no one I knew watched).  Everybody could quote Gary Coleman's incredulous catchphrase, "What you talkin' bout?"

The plot was standard "fish out of water": old, rich white guy, Mr. Drummond (Conrad Bain) adpots the two poor African-American kids of his recently deceased housekeeper (hey, Rich White Guy, if you had paid her a living wage, or offered life insurance, maybe her kids wouldn't be poor).

The teenage Willis (Todd Bridges) is suspicious and surely, but the chipmunk-cheeked preteen Arnold (Gary Coleman) is adorable.

The cast was filled out by Drummond's teenage daughter Kimberly (Dana Plato) and current housekeeper Mrs. Garrett (Charlotte Rae).  Later there were other housekeepers, Willis's role was minimized, Kimberly was written out altogether, and Drummond married a woman with a cute preteen son (Danny Cooksey) to bond with Arnold.

 Early episodes involved various friends, relatives, classmates, and social service personnel being shocked by the arrangement.

I didn't watch many later episodes.  Not enough beefcake, not enough gay subtexts, and it aired either opposite my favorite programs, Taxi and Barney Miller, or during the date-and-outing time of  Saturday night.

But I heard about its string of Very Special (that is, very depressing) episodes, apparently meant to impress upon kids the dangers of life in the 1980s:

First Lady Nancy Reagan stops by to give her famous advice on drug prevention: "Just say no."

While hitchhiking, Kimberly and Arnold are kidnapped.  Arnold escapes and rushes to fetch the police, arriving just in time to save Kimberly from being raped.

Danny (shown here with the Dukes of Hazzard) is kidnapped, too, by a grieving mother and father who want him to replace their own dead son.  Arnold rushes to the rescue.

The only Very Special Episode I watched was "The Bicycle Man," which aired on February 5th and 12th, 1983.

Arnold and his friend Dudley (Shavar Ross) befriend bicycle shop owner Mr. Horton (Gordon Jump) who cagily flirts with them:

Horton [Giving Arnold a radio for his bike]:  I scratch your back, you scratch mine.
Arnold: You give me this present, you can scratch me all over.

After advising him to keep their relationship a secret, Horton plies them with wine and X-rated cartoons, and talks Dudley into posing for shirtless photos.  Arnold finally gets uncomfortable and bails, but Dudley stays.

Mr. Drummond and Dudley's Dad finally figure out that something is wrong, and rush to get the police.  They arrive just in time to rescue the dazed, "goofy" Dudley, who says that Horton gave him a pill and tried to "touch him."

They then sit around for five minutes discussing what parents should do in such a situation: don't blame the child, call the police rather than confronting the guy yourself, etc.

Willis says:  "I never would have guessed that Mr. Horton was...you know...gay."  The word is so distasteful to him that he has a hard time saying it.

Detective Simpson corrects him:  "He's not, Willis.  That's the common fallacy about child molesters.  They're not gay, they're only interested in little boys or little girls, not adults."

Arnold: "Look, I'm only eleven years old!  Should I be hearing all of this?"

Arnold has kept quiet or cracked jokes through the conversation about child molesting, but when it turns to gay people, he objects.

That's the only time gay people were mentioned in eight seasons.  I'm guessing the theme song was talking about something else:

Now the world don't move to the beat of just one drum.
What might be right for you, may not be right for some.

Grease Live: Still No Gay People at Rydell High

Grease (1978) was my coming-out movie, mostly because of the theme song, with lines I misheard::

The adults are lying, only real is real.
We stop the fight right now, we got to be what we feel. 

The movie itself was unremittingly hetero-horny heterosexist: boys and girls circle each other, preen, posture, try to hook up, and finally succeed, with some uncomfortable gender politics.

No gay content except for a couple of homophobic jokes.

I just saw Grease Live (2016), a live version that aired on Fox.  Nostalgia about nostalgia, a 2016 broadcast adapting a 1978 movie which was itself an adaption of a 1971 musical set in the year 1959.

Got all that?

The plot stays the same: at Rydell High in 1959, Danny, leader of the T-Birds, and Sandy, member of the Pink Ladies, play a game of desire and rejection, "cool" greaser vs. "good girl" amid such nostalgic settings as a malt shop,a sleepover, and a drag race.  In the end, Sandy abandons the good girl act and pretends to be sexually voracious, thus driving Danny wild and winning his heart.

Meanwhile, each of the other T-Birds hooks up with one of the Pink Ladies.

The T-Birds are:

Danny: Aaron Tveit (top photo)
Kenicke: Carlos Pena Vega (left)

Doody: Jordan Fisher (left)
Putzie: David Del Rio (below)
Sonny: Andrew Call

How did they update the 1970's classic?

1. The cast is multi-ethnic, with plenty of interracial couples.
2. Sandy is from Salt Lake City, Utah, not Australia.
3. Danny defends Eugene the Nerd, and eventually invites him to join the gang.  Eugene also gets a girlfriend, a female nerd, and shows killer moves at the dance contest.
4. Pink Lady Jan, previously ridiculed for being fat, is now ridiculed for being weird.
5. There are male and female cheerleaders, but the dialogue, oddly, assumes that they're all female.
6. They changed some of the dirty lyrics, but they kept the rape-promoting "Did she put up a fight?" from "Summer Nights"

Gay Changes
1. During the dance contest, the coach reads the rules: in 1978, "male-female couples only," followed by a homophobic joke against Eugene.  In 2016, the line was changed to "couples only, no singles, no triples."  Which would have been great if there were same-sex couples, but there were none.  As the scene stands, it completely erases even the awareness that gay people exist.

2.  In 1978, Kenicke asks Danny to be his "second" in the drag race at Thunder Road; they hug, then jump apart in homophobic panic.  In 2016, they see the other guys staring before jumping apart. Kenicke asks "What are you looking at?"  Seems more homophobic.

3. In "We Belong Together" in 1978, each T-Bird is paired with his respective Pink Lady, except for Sonny, who looks shocked when he is paired with a dog instead of Marty.  This shot was cut in 2016.

I looked carefully, and couldn't see anyone who looked like a same-sex couple in any of the crowd scenes, at all.  In "We Belong Together," everyone pairs off into male-female couples.  Even the curtain calls are male -female couples.

If director Thomas Kail could introduce interracial pairings as unremarkable and commonplace in the 1950s, when they were anything but, then surely he could have introduced a gay couple or two into the dance contest or the final carnival scene.

But he didn't.  38 years later, gay people are still not welcome in the world of Rydell High.

See also: Grease 2: The Gay Connection; I Lost It at the Movies.

Jun 20, 2016

Anton Yelchin

I was saddened to learn of the death of 27-year old Anton Yelchin in a tragic accident Sunday morning. Best known for playing Chekhov in the new Star Trek movie series, Yelchin was a rising star adept at comedy, horror, and drama.

Born in Leningrad in 1989, Yelchin moved to the U.S. with his parents and began acting professionally at age 10, in the tv series ER. 

On a 2003 episode of Without a Trace, he plays a shy, gay-coded boy who is kidnapped along with his classmates.

Starring roles in Jack, Fierce People, and Alpha Dog followed, plus a tv series, Huff.

As a teenager, Yelchin did his share of hetero-horny "Girl Walking in Slow Motion Across Her Yard" roles, but he also did some homoerotic buddy-bonding, notably in House of D (2004), where an adult Tom (David Duchovny) recalls his adolescent friendship with the mentally challenged Pappas (Robin Williams), and in Terminator Salvation (2009), where Marcus (Sam Worthington) goes back to the past to stop Skynet from taking over the world, and bonds with the teenage Kyle (Yelchin).

The Star Trek reboots with Kirk and company just out of Star Fleet Academy, have occupied Yelchin's time for the past several years.  When I was a kid, I thought that Chekhov and Sulu were a romantic couple.

Yelchin still managed to find some independent vehicles, such as a remake of Fright Night, the heterosexist paranormal saga Odd Thomas and the spy caper Dying of the Light (where he buddy-bonds with Nicholas Cage)

See also: Star Trek

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