Gay life and love have been filmed before, and better

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain has been hailed as a breakthrough film because of its tragic depiction of homosexual lovers. Chalk that acclaim up to its ranch-hand iconoclasm. If it didn't smash the traditional heterosexual imagery of the rugged Westerner, would it be considered a milestone at all? For decades, other mainstream moviemakers have been depicting gay life with sympathy equal to Brokeback Mountain's - and, for my money, a lot more entertainment value.

For example, in 1979, La Cage Aux Folles won over gay and straight audiences alike with its loving depiction of middle-class domesticity - in drag. And it managed to be moving and funny, too.

Seen today, La Cage Aux Folles offers a great argument for gay marriage. Ugo Tognazzi, as a nightclub impresario in St. Tropez, and Michel Serrault, as the reigning diva of his transvestite revue and his live-in mate for 20 years, cooked up marital farce worthy of Hepburn and Tracy at their best. Serrault, the flamboyant queen, with his fragile, jealous yearning and array of nervous, laugh-inducing yelps, and Tognazzi, the suave, aging dreamboat, with his looks of pained or amused acceptance, made their characters' coziness as hilarious as it was poignant. They're attentive parents to Tognazzi's son, and when the young man becomes engaged to the daughter of a government moralist, he asks both to tone down their act. But Tognazzi and Serrault are as faithful and settled as their future daughter-in-law's parents. There's nothing tortured or neurotic about their homosexuality. They know they were born into it. Audiences everywhere responded to their humor and devotion. In the United States alone, the film took in more than $20 million in 1979, making it the most successful French import until Amelie 22 years later.

Mike Nichols' 1995 American remake (a $123 million-grossing blockbuster), relocated to Miami's South Beach and renamed The Birdcage, hewed closely to the storyline, the set pieces, the shtick. Once again, the revue director (Robin Williams) learns that his son (Dan Futterman - in reality, the future writer of Capote!) is about to marry the daughter (Calista Flockhart) of a right-wing politician (Gene Hackman). Once again, the son's request for his dad to pose as a straight cultural diplomat throws his father and the diva (Nathan Lane) into a panic.

The Birdcage is just as good-natured and far more "professional" than the original; also far less magical. But some of its throwaway gags are delicious - such as a TV announcer saying that an episode of The Tonight Show will feature Jay's guests Yasser Arafat and Kate Moss. Lane triumphs in the climactic scene, when he dons a getup and attitude reminiscent of Barbara Bush and jollies along Hackman's robust fascist. And there are riotous ensemble bits, like all the major characters (including Hank Azaria's gaudy houseboy) chiming in on their favorite My Fair Lady show tune, "On the Street Where You Live" - proving that family values and gay culture intersect neatly on Broadway.

That same year, Canada's leading filmmaker, Denys Arcand, made the suspenseful and engaging Love and Human Remains: a blood-spattered, half-melancholy, half-hopeful comedy-drama. It follows a diverse group of relationship-seekers while a serial killer cuts a swath through a Canadian city.

The focus is David (Thomas Gibson), a former child TV star turned waiter. Unattached and gay, he lives with Candy (Ruth Marshall), the girlfriend he had when he thought he was straight. His friends include a besotted teenage busboy; his closest pal, a hard-drinking, skirt-chasing bureaucrat; and a psychic dominatrix. Candy's sometime sex-mates include a lesbian schoolteacher and a male bartender.

Each character - not just the ex-TV star - turns acting into a way of life, trying on identities like used clothing. Desperate for intimacy, they fall into bed too easily. For some, anger is the sole proof that their coupling means anything at all, just as murder is the one act that permits the serial killer to express his essential self. Love and Human Remains illuminates the challenge of behaving like an honorable sexual being in a world lacking shared values. The film is about the scariness of touching. At its best, it's both scary and touching.

Gus Van Sant (Drugstore Cowboy, Good Will Hunting) first made his mark in 1985, with his daring $25,000 indie, Mala Noche, about a Portland convenience-store operator with a yen for teenage Mexican street kids.

Walt (Tim Streeter, the one pro actor in the cast) is obsessed with Johnny (Doug Cooeyate), who scorns him. The closest Walt comes to having an affair with Johnny - who says he's 18 but looks 16 - is living with the boy's equally jejune best friend. The comedy in the movie comes from Walt's reconciliation with disappointment and from the way his fixation changes targets. When he's not near the young Mexican he loves, he loves the one he's near. The poetry comes from images that slip up on you unexpectedly, like Walt's face leaning into the light as his voice on the soundtrack croons that Johnny makes his heart throb. It's a remarkable little movie.

Still, my favorite gay-themed picture from that year has to be My Beautiful Laundrette, the first international sensation from Stephen Frears (Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters). Just as you didn't have to be Jewish to love Levy's kosher rye, you don't have to be Pakistani, English or gay to love My Beautiful Laundrette, which is about a young South Londoner who is all three.

Gordon Warnecke plays Omar, a cutthroat capitalist in training whose uncle unleashes him on a faltering laundromat. Daniel Day-Lewis plays a hoodlum named Johnny, who shuns his youth-gang buddies with their home-grown fascism and becomes the right-hand man and lover of Omar, his former schoolmate.

The thread that holds this back-alley tapestry together is the most universal of all modern quests: the urge of each character to achieve self-definition. No one's better at it than Day-Lewis' Johnny, who sports a double-decker hair-color (black on bottom, blonde on top) and seems hip to all the double-dealings going down around him. He's the prize of a film that unfolds like a Pakistani version of Chinese boxes. michael.sragow@baltsun.com

'Grandma's Boy'

Grandma's Boy, a gross-out comedy starring Shirley Jones, Doris Roberts and Allen Covert, was not screened for critics.

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