Today I look at two films about gay panic. The family in The Twilight of the Golds is told an unborn baby has gay genes. The townsfolk in It’s in the Water are told that something in their drinking water is “turning” people gay. Both films could have been camp comedies but aim for a blander Lifetime movie tone. They’re both meant to provoke conversation. Do they succeed?
Let’s have a look in some spoiler filled recaps.
When a genetic test tells Jennifer Beals that her child will be gay, her husband pressures her to abort it. Can her estranged gay brother (Brendan Fraser) change their minds? The overwrought dialogue reveals that this Showtime film was based on a play. The specifics don’t hold up to scrutiny but they allows for a broader discussion of the limits of family acceptance.
It’s heavy-handed, dogmatic stuff, intellectually gripping and simultaneously woefully dull. ~ Austin Chronicle
It’s pacey and watchable. ~ Variety
Scene One: Baby
JENNIFER BEALS: I’m pregnant!
MOM & DAD (Rob Marshall and Faye Dunaway): Mazel tov!
DOCTOR HUSBAND: Let’s not tell people just yet. We ran a test in my sci fi lab and…
JENNIFER BEALS: He’s going to be… like my brother.
BRENDAN FRASER (Her gay brother): And?
BRENDAN FRASER: Oh, come on. This is the plot? You’re going to abort your gay baby?
JENNIFER BEALS: I don’t know yet. It’s a “problem play.” The gay baby is my “problem.”
Scene Two: Debate
JENNIFER BEALS: What should I do?
FATHER-IN-LAW: Keep him. We Jews remember what happens when Doctors play God.
CO-WORKER (Rosie O’Donnell): Keep him. You’re lucky. Some of us can’t have kids.
MOM & DAD: It’s your decision. We’ll just say that we think our gay son Brendan Fraser is “sick and diseased” and leave it at that.
BRENDAN FRASER: Thanks. Keep him. You wanted a baby and he’s a healthy baby.
DOCTOR HUSBAND: Don’t keep him. I don’t want him. Gays are icky.
JENNIFER BEALS: Doctor husband, why are you naked in this scene? I mean you look great but it’s distracting.
DOCTOR HUSBAND: It’s so I can show my… vulnerability!
JENNIFER BEALS: Everyone shut up! I’ve made a decision.
Scene Three: Decision
BRENDAN FRASER: Hello audience. I break the fourth wall occasionally to narrate. The film and the play have different endings so we’re going to hide them behind a spoiler tag.
JENNIFER BEALS: On stage I abort the baby. You never speak to me, or our family, again.
BRENDAN FRASER: And on film?
JENNIFER BEALS: I nearly lose the baby in an accident. My husband’s relieved. So, I keep the baby and divorce him.
BRENDAN FRASER: This film’s going to seem awfully dated in a few years.
JENNIFER BEALS: Yes and no.
Dean Hamer’s report on a “gay gene” had started debates when the play premiered in 1993. Some activists thought that it would secure LGB rights by proving we were “born this way.” Others thought it would be used to target LGB folk, as is done here. Interestingly, there’s little discussion of the politics of abortion. One could argue that this is a more contentious issue in America today than genetic research or homosexuality.
Brendan Fraser’s character is directing a production of the Wagner operas in The Ring Cycle. He says his sister’s test of character is like Wagner’s hero walking through fire. Perhaps the stage production was meant to hit operatic heights of passion. You’d never know that from the subdued performances here.
Fraser’s boyfriend, unseen in the play, provides some emotional labor near the end of the film. He charms Fraser’s parents and brings them to his opera for a late film reconciliation. It’s almost too peaceful given the ugliness of their arguments. For those who are curious, the boyfriend (Sean O’Bryan) gives Fraser two kisses on the cheek, one hug, and one kiss on the mouth. We get more eroticism from Jon Tenny’s doctor husband who provides a gratuitous shower scene.
Playwright Jonathan Tolins is better known today for the 2013 play Buyer & Cellar in which a gay man takes an unusual job at the home of Barbra Streisand.
A timid housewife volunteers for an AIDS hospice. When conservative townsfolk protest the organization, she’ll be forced to pick a side. Meanwhile, a reporter investigates a hoax that the towns drinking water can “turn” people gay. There’s more comedy here than The Twilight of the Golds but the punch lines don’t land. The lesbian drama and the small-town nonsense war for screen time and never reconcile.
Works nicely as romantic comedy, as farce, and as an ultimately good-natured assault on prejudice. ~ Variety
The film is cheesy but enjoyable.~ After Ellen
Scene One: An AIDS Hospice in Azalea Springs, Texas
GRACE (a nurse): Alex? I haven’t seen you since high school!
ALEX (a confused housewife): I’m volunteering with the Junior League. You look… great!
GOSSIP: Alex, it’s not safe here. Where did these all gay people even come from?
SASSY GAY FRIEND (drunk): Well honey there’s something in the town’s drinking water!
GOSSIP: Gadzooks! I must spread the news across the land!
Scene Two: Ex-Gay Meeting
MARK (The news publishers’ son): I wish my father wouldn’t print this nonsense. Now everyone’s importing bottled water.
EX-GAY PREACHER: We’ve got bigger problems. We need to shut down that awful AIDS hospice.
TOMAS (A painter): Ex- Gay? I thought this was AA!
(Sexy Latin guitars play.)
TOMAS: Why are there sexy Latin guitars playing?
MARK: Because you’re Latino and… sexy.
Scene Three: AIDS Hospice
ALEX: I quit the junior league to work here full time. Why did you get divorced?
GRACE: Because I’m a lesbian.
ALEX: Gosh. Umm… How would someone even know if they were… like that?
(Alex kisses Grace.)
GOSSIP: I just came by to… Gadzooks they’re kissing! I must spread the news across the land!
ALEX’s HUSBAND: We’re done. I’m taking your car and shutting down your bank account.
Scene Four: Gay Club
ALEX: I’m dating Grace now. And have switched from dresses to pants.
MARK: I hooked up with Tomas. Then I published a study proving there’s nothing in the town’s drinking water. Wait… is that?
EX-GAY PREACHER: Gadzooks! I’ve been discovered!
(Mark photographs the Ex-Gay Preacher wearing a leather harness.)
MARK: I’m going to out you and shut down your organization!
ALEX: Wow. You have a lot of more agency than I do. And I’m the protagonist.
TOMAS: You both have more agency than any person of color does in this script.
(Sexy Latin guitars play.)
The film ends with a black choir singing at a funeral. The only black characters with lines are a drag queen in the club and a housekeeper who brings Alex a sandwich. It’s an awkward juxtaposition.
The townsfolk subplot reminds me, vaguely, of 1997’s In & Out. But writer Paul Rudnick allowed every character to go to extremes. Alex is sleep walking through her life, and barely wakes up when she kisses Grace.
Have you seen these films? Did you like them more than I did? For an old LGBT comedy that holds up I’d recommend 1982’s Victor Victoria or 1995’s Jeffrey. Next week Kevin Bishop wrestles with an American accent in 2002’s Food of Love. For more reviews of LGBT media click here.