If you have twenty-two minutes to spare, you should consider reading Alan Bennett’s new novella The Uncommon Reader, published last week, which imagines Queen Elizabeth becoming a total bookworm. It’s charming but when you might reasonably fear it turning twee, it goes smart or sly or sweetly sad. The Queen realizes she inhibits people, makes them shy, and that virtually no one behaves like themselves in her presence, so she’s grateful to befriend Norman, a red-headed gay teenager from the kitchen staff whom she promotes to choose her books for her. Unaware that he only knows books by gay authors, the Queen delights in a wide range of styles from E.M. Forster and J.R. Ackerley to Mary Renault and Jean Genet. Predictably, her closest advisers loathe Norman and plot to be rid of him. Insightful about the gulf between writers and their writing, Bennett is also wonderful at capturing both sides of minor, telling misunderstandings, as when the Queen is exasperated by reading Henry James and says, “Oh do get on,” causing her dusting maid to flee in terror. FSG has wisely priced the 120pp hardcover at $15, making it the perfect year-round stocking stuffer for any reader.
Scott Heim grew up in a tiny town in Kansas and gave up junior high school football tryouts on the second day, after the coach made the 13-year-old boys run 100-yard dashes with their mouths full of raw liver. He spent the rest of his teens listening to alt bands, dyeing his hair, getting unrequited crushes, trying goth eyeliner, getting a death threat, and, out of ten guys in his senior class, being elected prom king. When he was twenty-eight, he published his first novel, the brilliant, painfully disturbing exploration of childhood trauma called Mysterious Skin. It got rapturous reviews (as did Gregg Araki’s movie version in 2005), but it didn’t get him health insurance, and after falling on ice in Central Park and breaking his right arm, his medical bills cost him almost half his advance. Two years later, in 1997, Harper published his second novel, In Awe, to mixed reviews. It is out of print. Later in 1997 he began work on his third novel, We Disappear, about a group of teen boys who were murdered in Kansas and their bodies discovered but never identified. It will be published as a paperback original in February 2008.
Click yes or no on twenty-three issues and rate their importance to you (high, medium, or low), then see which candidates most closely match your views. (Hello, Dennis. Hey there... Mike? Mike Gravel?) Do it now.
The son of an adoring mother and a barely literate father who hauled wine by mule in a small town in La Mancha, Pedro Almodovar was sent to Catholic boarding school when he was eight, attended a good college, worked as an assistant in the Spanish telephone company for twelve years, and did not make his first movie until 1980, when he was thirty-one. In the twenty-seven years since Pepi, Luci, Bom, he has made sixteen other features and is universally considered a master of contemporary cinema. (Time magazine called Talk to Her the best film of the past decade, and it won the Oscar for best original screenplay despite not being in English, a great rarity for the academy.) Almodovar’s vision is unique. No one working in any media has been able to corral so many incongruous moods—from bathetic despair to camp hilarity, mixing trashy telenovas with an austere sorrow in what’s been called “screwball tragedy”—to create such profoundly affecting art, even across cultural and linguistic chasms. He writes his own screenplays, balancing complicated, almost absurdist plots with complex thematic symmetries, and, like many gay directors, he excels at showing strong women in tough circumstances, yet he’s equally at ease with the twisted tough guys of noir. Similarly, he overpacks his images with obsessive visual splendor. His movies are instantly recognizable by their saturated colors and bold compositions: like his stories, they have wacky, dazzling patterns. (You could write a book on his use of red, below.) The same attention to detail is evident from the opening credits, usually by the graphic genius Juan Gatti (farther below), to the haunting closing music, usually by Alberto Iglesias. Almodovar’s brother Augustin produces all of his films. His next, again with Penelope Cruz, is called La Piel Que Habito, “in which an unhinged plastic surgeon exacts terrifying revenge on the men who raped his beloved daughter.”
Of all of Australia’s arts awards, the most prominent is the Archibald Prize for portraiture, and William Dobell, the youngest of six children of a working-class builder, won it three times. His first win, in 1944 when he was 45, was for his painting of Joshua Smith and gave rise to the prize’s greatest controversy. Dobell’s detractors brought a lawsuit claiming the painting was caricature, not portraiture, and thus ineligible. The public debate rampaged through every aspect of the portrait, including the artist’s relationship to the sitter. Dobell, intensely private and deeply closeted, was nearly destroyed by the case, which the Supreme Court of New South Wales found in his favor. He fled to his sister’s home in Wangi Wangi and painted landscapes, though he returned to portraiture and won the Archibald again in 1948 for his painting of Margaret Olley. Dobell won it yet again in 1959 for Dr. E.G. MacMahon. The Queen awarded him an OBE in 1965 and he was knighted in 1966. Sir William Dobell died in 1970 at Wangi.
Colm Toibin, who won the IMPAC Dublin Prize for his novel The Master about the complicated, contradictory interior life of Henry James has written a long review in the LRB of a memoir by Rupert Everett about the exhausting, exhilarating challenges of being Rupert Everett. Despite his decades of movie stardom and celebrity palhood--Bowie, Andy Warhol, Halston, Bianca, Versace, Madonna--Rupert remains enough of an outsider to be an excellent observer, as when wondering why very successful actresses end up dating their personal trainers, as Julia Roberts was when she was giving Rupert frequent rides home on the Sony jet. Yet Rupert is more than a gorgeous sidekick. He's difficult. He amuses himself by making prank phone calls to famous people while pretending to be from the U.K. Water Board and gives return phone numbers of other famous people. He's a diva. Lauren Bacall told him he was "the wickedest woman in Paris." He's worse. But he's not the very worst. The very worst would be the MGM suits who responded to NBF Sharon Stone's suggestion that Rupert play the male lead in Basic Instinct 2 by telling her that "the American people would never accept a homosexual as anything other than a pervert" so neither would MGM. The whole memoir might be a tad tiring, but Toibin's essay is worth your time.
Leslie Cheung was a pop superstar, a movie idol, and he had a loving boyfriend, a banker named Hok-Tak Tong, so when he jumped off a twenty-fourth floor balcony of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Hong Kong on April 1, 2003, his millions of fans were stunned. His suicide dominated the headlines of Asian tabloids for more than a month, searching every aspect of his life for clues. The youngest of ten children of a Hong Kong tailor, he was educated in England, and returned to Hong Kong to sing. He released more than twenty-five very successful albums and his hit “Monica” was named Song of the Century. As an actor he worked with many of the best directors in Asia, including John Woo, Kaige Chen, and Wong Kar-Wai. Unlike many closeted actors in America, Cheung enthusiastically played gay characters, notably in two of his most famous films, Farewell, My Concubine and Happy Together. He came out in 1997 and his career thrived. His albums from that year onward were extremely popular, as were his concerts, and many of his movies. He tried to kill himself in 2002 and succeeded the next year, leaving a suicide note that read, "Depression! Many thanks to all my friends. Many thanks to Professor Felice Lieh-Mak [his psychiatrist]. This year has been so tough. I can't stand it anymore. Many thanks to Mr. Tong. Many thanks to my family. Many thanks to Fei-Fei. In my life I did nothing bad. Why does it have to be like this?"
Whether or not you've followed Alison Bechdel's wild comic strip Dykes To Watch Out For during the past twenty-five years, you should read her tragicomic memoir Fun Home, which explores her coming of age and coming out, her father's closeted life and early death after being struck by a truck, and their shared love of literature, particularly Proust, whose work this memoir intentionally mirrors. Written in cartoon panels like a graphic novel, Fun Home was a surprise critical hit, a New York Times bestseller for two weeks, and was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award. Bechdel's next graphic memoir will be Love Life: A Case History, perhaps detailing her fourteen year relationship with Amy Rubin, whom she married in California in 2004 and separated from in 2006.
In 1889, two years after seeing Toynbee Hall, an East End settlement house in London, Jane Addams founded Hull House in Chicago with Ellen Gates Starr. Hull House aided more than two thousand people a week and its nighttime adult education courses paved the way for continuing education programs nationwide. Forty-two years later, after publishing eight books on social reform and feminism, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Never married, Addams had two longterm relationships with women, first with Ellen Starr, then, for more than thirty years, with Mary Rozet Smith.
Whose band has spent more weeks on the UK album charts than any other musical act, meaning more than the Beatles, Pink Floyd, or the Rolling Stones? Who wrote the song chosen by the Guinness Book of Records poll as the greatest song of all time? Who wrote a different song chosen as the best ever by another major poll conducted by Sony? That’s right, Farrokh Bulsara, born on Zanzibar, and later founder and frontman for Queen and composer of most of their hits including those two greatest, Bohemian Rhapsody and We Are the Champions. The band is said to have sold more than 300 million albums worldwide. Never a darling of the critical press, Queen was universally considered to be electrifying in concert, in part because of their high camp and theatrics, but also because of Mercury’s mighty four-octave range and mesmerizing flair. They were the first band ever to play South American stadiums and the first to play behind the Iron Curtain (in Budapest), yet they also played Sun City, which put them on the United Nations’ blacklist. Their gig at Live Aid 1985 was later voted by music industry honchos to be the greatest live performance in the history of rock. Watch one gay man—in complete clone gear, ultra tight jeans, tank top, and studded armband proudly signaling that the pop charts are the only thing he’ll top—as he transfixes 72,000 people and gets all of them waving and singing in unison. YouTube has the complete performance in four parts. Below are a highlights clip with commentary and a 90-second blast .
Exuberantly gay in everything his band did from its name onward, Mercury was not out offstage. He also tried to hide his one-hundred-percent Indian ethnicity—both his parents were Parsis from India—even from his bandmates, and he denied having HIV, for which he tested positive in 1987—until the day before his death on November 24, 1991, when he was 45.
The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert for Aids Awareness, performed at Wembley Stadium on Easter Monday, April 20, 1992, starred everyone from Elizabeth Taylor, Annie Lennox, Elton John and George Michael to Metallica, Def Leppard, Guns n Roses, and David Bowie. It was seen on television by 1 billion people, which in 1992 was just under twenty percent of the planet’s population.
March 2: Disney's Buena Vista releases Wild Hogs in which Tim Allen, William H. Macy, and John Travolta's attempt at male bonding is continually mistaken as gay! But they're so Not Gay! (Read A.O. Scott below.) Makes $168.2 million.
The main thing about these guys — the main source of the movie’s fumbling attempts at humor — is that they’re not gay. Really. Seriously. No way. They may worry about people thinking that they’re gay, and they may do things that might make people think that they’re gay — dance, touch one another, take off their clothes, express emotion — but they’re absolutely 100 percent not gay. No no no no no no. No sir, I mean, no ma’am. That’s what makes it funny, see.
After camping out one night, for example, they have a conversation that’s overheard by a highway patrolman (John C. McGinley) who decides, based on his misunderstanding of the perfectly innocent things they’re saying, that they must be gay. But the thing is — get this — he’s the one who’s gay! You think he’s a stereotypical homophobe, but he turns out to be a homophobic stereotype. It’s magic!
March 9: Warner Bros. releases 300, in which the impossibly ripped Chippendale Spartans, wearing black leather Speedos, red capes, boots, and eyeliner, swear that they, unlike the Athenians, are so Not Gay! despite the fact that the real Spartan warriors, just like the Athenians, were gay. Earns $210.6 million.
July 20: Universal releases I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry in which two firefighters pretend to be gay to get domestic partner benefits for their kids. But they're completely Not Gay! $116.6 million so far. See how "normal" they are in their jeans and tshirts, whereas the real gays all have feather boas?
August 28: Senator Craig "explains" his lewd conduct arrest by unconvincingly claiming, "I am Not Gay. Never have been gay," ending his career four days later.
August 31: Regent Releasing unleashes the teen comedy Freshman Orientation, in which a straight 18-year-old boy pretends to be gay to get with a cute girl (whose evil sorority is making her find a "fag" to bring to their "freak fest"). But, get this, he's like Not Gay at all! Trailer below proves it.
Given America's addiction to the "not gay" trope this year, could someone please splice a fake trailer for I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry Craig? But, for a change, make it funny.
After receiving her degree from Oxford in 1928, Mary Renault became a nurse in Bristol, aiding soldiers injured at Dunkirk and later assisting in the brain surgery ward, leading to her first novel, Purposes of Love (1939), set in a contemporary hospital. She knew the subject well, having fallen in love with another nurse, Julie Mullard, who would be her life partner for fifty years. Renault’s first five novels each had contemporary settings and vaguely or overtly lesbian themes, the strongest are in her third novel, The Friendly Young Ladies (1943). Her fourth won her $150,000 from MGM, which Renault and Mullard used to leave the repressive, post-war, antigay atmosphere of England for the relative freedom of South Africa. (They participated in many Black Sash events, for white women against apartheid, begun in 1955.) Established there, Renault wrote The Charioteer (1953), her first novel with a male protagonist, a gay WWII soldier who discovers that his hidden love for an older former schoolmate is returned. Her artistic breakthrough came with her next novel, again with a gay male protagonist, but set in the more open world of Ancient Greece, which would be her hallmark for the rest of her writing career, in seven additional novels, a biography, and a study of the Persian Wars. Two of those novels tell the life story of Theseus, who in Greek mythology killed the Minotaur thanks to Ariadne’s help, and three other novels cover the life of Alexander the Great, including one narrated by his lover Bagoas, The Persian Boy (1972), the most praised of all her works. It ranks 32nd on the Publishing Triangle list of the best lesbian and gay novels of all time.