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Don't Kiss, Don't Tell

Objectively speaking, there isn't all that much to be said about Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss. Written and directed by Tommy O'Haver, this very low budget romantic comedy about gay photographer Billy (Sean P. Hayes) attracted to a model/actor/waiter (Brad Rowe) -- whose sexual orientation Billy can't quite fathom -- should please the crowd at the Alliance, but it isn't likely to attract much attention outside of other similar "niche" outlets in major urban centers.

In other words it's a "gay movie."
A ten-minute short taffy-pulled to feature length, the film's stretch marks don't show as badly as they might thanks to some sharp dialogue, neat guest-star turns (Paul Bartel, Holly Woodlawn), sumptuous supporting players (the babe-a-licious Armando Valdes-Kennedy), inventive production design (by Franco-Giacomo Carbone), and attractive CinemaScope lensing (the very talented Mark Mervis manning the camera). It's a perfect "date movie" for young same-sex-oriented moderns. So what's wrong with making that seemingly simple statement? According to one very prominent journalist, when it comes to "gay movies," critical objectivity is no longer tenable. Particularly when heterosexual reviewers are involved.

In a column published in New York's Newsday on June 14 ("When Straight Critics Write About Gay Love"), veteran industry scribe Jack Mathews laments the ever-increasing number of films about male-to-male attraction about which he's been forced (evidently very much against his will) to write. Unhinged by Jude Law's con brio convulsions in Wilde, and still smarting from the situation that arose last year when his favorable review of In & Out led two readers to assume that (the horror! the horror!) he was gay himself, Mathews finds his entire career trajectory going into an unwanted, same-sex-driven tailspin.

"You can barely mention the subject without being labeled either gay or homophobic," he wails, going on to wonder (in all seriousness): "Should straight critics who are made uncomfortable by homosexual passion in films avoid reviewing them?"

One almost wants to break into a hearty Seinfeldian "Not that there's anything wrong with that!"

"At the risk of being pulled over by the PC police," claims/slams Mathews (who plainly shredded every "citation" that has come his way), "I think it's fair to assume that straight men and women in general react differently to homosexual contact in films. Men begin to squirm when the camera moves in on a lip-smashing closeup of male lovers, while women can take it or leave it. But when it's women getting after each other, no problemo."

This is scarcely news. Why else can a lesbian love story such as High Art be advertised with an enticing image of nuzzling females accompanied by copy reading "Be seduced by the Summer's Sexiest Sirens!" while the Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss ad speaks of "camp" and plays its picture of commingling males for laughs. But Mathews' "assumption" about the heterosexes fails to account for such nonchalant exposure of his own critical shortcomings. Moreover, it belies a double standard he clearly wishes editors would maintain. For as Mathews is well aware, were a gay or lesbian critic to complain that they "just don't give a damn" about Rhett and Scarlett or any of their predecessors or derivatives, they wouldn't get a column to explain their distress. They'd be shown the door, pronto.

As a gay man who has written about film for upward of 30 years, I can testify that until very recent times nothing cleared an editorial conference room faster than the prospect of being assigned to review anything that even so much as tangentially deals with same-sex attraction. Sensing the delicate sensibilities of their ever-so-macho male scribes, editors would instantly fob the job off on a female staffer -- some going so far as to import one from another department ("What's the name of our dance reviewer here?") in order to keep the copy flowing smoothly. Gays hoping to keep their jobs held their tongues. But times have changed, and the number and variety of films dealing with gay men (and the willingness of gay reporters to write about them) has Mathews and his ilk backed into a corner. How, they wonder, can they write about "gay movies" and still be straight? It's as if a "gay movie" were an actual corporeal entity to be associated with at one's own risk.

Happily, several current first-rank opposite-sex-attracted filmmakers haven't evidenced Mathews-style skittishness. One of the best gay love stories to come along in years, Happy Together (1997), was written and directed by the straight Wong Kar-Wai. And in the grievously underrated Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997), Clint Eastwood (whose heterosexuality is scarcely in need of explication) did a more honest job of detailing the Jim Williams murder case than John Berendt, who wrote the book on which the film was based. But just try explaining the dynamics of the relationship between the coolly elegant Williams (the all-too-perfectly cast Kevin Spacey) and pushy, manipulative "bottom" Billy Hanson (Jude Law again) to supposedly sophisticated straight journalists still reeling from the film's first closeup of the Lady Chablis.

A modest proposal to all heterosexual film scribes (including the ones who write for this paper): Go to see Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss and write a review. Just for the exercise.

Come on now, guys, you can do it. It won't make you gay.
Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss.
Directed and written by Tommy O'Haver. Starring Sean P. Hayes and Brad Rowe.

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David Ehrenstein

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