Feb 22, 2013

Head of the Class

Head of the Class (1986-1991) was Welcome Back, Kotter in reverse, about a class of mismatched overachievers, all brilliant, but with different personalities and academic interests.  Their mentor (not really a teacher, since they far surpassed him in knowledge of every subject) was Charlie Moore (Howard Hesseman, Dr. Johnny Fever on WKRP in Cincinnati).

Plots involved anxieties over their Harvard applications, competitions for prestigious awards, and trying to fit in with the cool kids, plus a memorable story arc set in the Soviet Union (the first American tv series ever filmed there).  No gay content, but not a lot of the hetero-horniness otherwise endemic among 1980s tv teens, plus some buddy-bonding, and several of the anti-slackers have moved on to gay-friendly projects.

1. Brian Robbins as Eric Mardian, the Vinnie Barbarino of the group, a surly leather-clad "bad boy" with a puppy-dog smile and an athlete's physique.  Unfortunately, he was also the most aggressively girl-crazy.   Brian has moved into production, and is responsible for some of the best gay-subtext teencoms on Nickelodeon, including Keenan and Kel and Supah Ninjas. 

2. Tony O'Dell as Alan Pinkard, a conservative Republican Michael J. Fox clone.  Not nearly as girl-crazy; most of his episodes focused on being competitive and snobbish, not on liking a girl.  Tony O'Dell had a long list of credits before Head of the Class, including Dynasty and Karate Kid.  Today he is an acting coach, and reputedly gay, thought I don't really see any confirmation on his twitter posts. 
We need another photo of heartthrob Tony O'Dell.  This one emphasizes the tight jeans.

3.  Dan Frischman as Arvid Engen, a stereotypic bespectacled nerd.  He had some "crush on a girl" episodes, but mostly he buddy-bonded with fellow nerd, the portly Davis Blunden (Dan Schneider).  Today he is an actor, writer, and magician.  His first novel, Jackson and Jenks, is about two teenage boys who are best buddies and magicians.  (Dan Schneider, by the way, produces some more of the best gay-subtext teencoms on Nickelodeon, such as Drake and Josh and ICarly).

Feb 21, 2013

Waltons: The Gay Connection

It's been off the air for 30 years (20, if you count
 the tv movies), but people still point to The Waltons (1972-81) as "good tv" about "family values," by which they mean it had no bad words, parental disrespect, or gay people.  As late as 1990, President Bush told People magazine that "we need more families like The Waltons."

So we should all live in rural North Carolina during the Depression, have no money but an enormous house and chicken for dinner every night, have enormous numbers of children, and all go to bed at the same time, shouting "Good night" to each other across the darkened rooms?

I hate to be the bearer of "bad news," but even The Waltons had a gay connection.  

1. The central character, aspiring writer John-Boy Walton, was played by Richard Thomas, who starred in Last Summer (1969), about a three-way romance in the gay mecca of Fire Island, and Fifth of July (1982), about a gay paraplegic Vietnam veteran.

2. Will Geer, Grandpa Walton, was gay.  His lover, Harry Hay, founded the Mattachine Society, the first gay rights organization in the U.S., in 1950. 

3. Ralph Waite, John Walton, is heterosexual, but during the 1980s he ran for Congress, primarily due to the incumbent's lack of support for AIDS research and gay issues. 

4. Eric Scott, left (Ben Walton), has starred in two gay-themed movies, Defying Gravity (1997) and Never Again (2001).

5. I've never seen an episode all the way through, but I understand that there was a parade of hunky guys, sometimes shirtless.

6. And frequent buddy-bonding.

7. The John-Boy doll didn't look much like him (it was a blond GI Joe in overalls) but it had a massive chest.

8. John-Boy had an almost total lack of heterosexual interest (before his wedding in a 1995 movie).

See also: My Crush on Richard Thomas

Feb 20, 2013

12 Things I Love and Hate about Seinfeld

I had a love-hate relationship with Seinfeld (1989-1998), the sitcom about four friends having coffee and kvetching in a surreal, absurdist small-town Manhattan: comedian Jerry Seinfeld (playing himself); nebbish George Costanza (Jason Alexander); failed book editor Elaine Benes (Julia-Louise Dreyfus); and hipster doofus Kramer (Michael Richards).

I've seen every episode a dozen times.  I have huge portions memorized.  I recognize actors who appeared just once when they star in something else.  There are lots of things to love about it:

Grandmother's House: Gay Kid Saves The Day

Threatened gay-vague kids were surprisingly popular during the 1980s.  Lee H. Montgomery in Night Shadows, Harley Cross in The Believers, Jeb Adams in Flowers in the Attic, the kids of Clownhouse.   But no one was more threatened, or more gay-vague, than Eric Foster:

1. Death House (1987), aka Zombie Death House, directed by action star John Saxon: the inmates at a federal prison go zombie, break out, and terrorize Luke Hagen (Eric).

2. Cry Wilderness (1987): a Bigfoot kidnaps Paul Cooper (Eric), but turns out to be nice.  He's really terrorized by an escaped tiger.

3. Dark Room (1988): Abused Perry (Eric) grows up to be a psycho-killer (played by Aarin Teich).

4. Grandmother's House (1989).  After their Dad dies, David (Eric) and his older brother Lynn (Kim Valentine) must live with their grandparents.  Grandpa is played with threatening intensity by Len Lesser, Uncle Leo on Seinfeld, left.  Grandma is played by Ida Lee.

During the 1980s Satanic ritual abuse panic, even relatives had hidden secrets and malicious motives, and David soon realizes that something is wrong.  Bodies are found in the neighborhood.

By this point, Eric was fourteen or fifteen, with feminine mannerisms that marked him as gay, especially when David hangs out at a public pool, grooving on the teenage boys.  He buddy-bonds with a teenage hunk named Raymond.

They see Grandpa carrying a body into the basement.  They catch glimpses of a lady with a butcher knife and a crazy smile.  David calls the police, but no one believes him.  Then the lady traps them in the house.

Guess what?  It's not Grandma.

Let's review: nuclear families are evil and threatening.  But the gay-vague kid saves the day.

 Eric was having a pubescent growth spurt, so in some scenes the actor is an inch taller and his voice has deepened.

Apparently four movies were enough.  After a few episodes as a high school kid on The Wonder Years, he retired from show business.

Feb 19, 2013

Heintje: A Boy to Introduce to Your Grandma

 Heintje Simons (or just Heintje) became famous at age 11 for his syrupy, sentimental, soprano recording of "Mama" (1967).

Mama, you shouldn't weep for your boy
Mama, the fates will unite us once again

More hits followed, in Dutch, German, French, and English:
"Du sollst nicht weinen" ("Don't Cry," 1968)
"Ich bau' dir ein Schloss" ("I'll Build You a Castle," 1969)
"Ik hou van Holland" ("I Love Holland," 1970)
"I'm Your Little Boy" (1970)
"Jij bent der allerbest" ("You're the Best", 1971).

Just as syrupy, sentimental, and soprano.

This type of music is called schlager in German and levenslied in Dutch -- slow, sentimental, mostly about being homesick and missing Mom (other schlager artists include Hans-Jurgen Baumler.  Heintje was singing to parents, or maybe to grandparents, the type who pinched his cheek and exclaimed  "What a nice boy! Not like those dreadful hippies!"  He was the anti-hippie, offering a conformist alternative to the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead.

And therefore a remedy to the heterosexism of most 1960s music.

At the same time Heintje started on a film career, mostly tearjerkers with his name in the title
Heintje -- A Heart Goes on a Journey (1969)
Heintje -- My Best Friend (1970); his best friend is a dog who dies.
Heintje -- Someday the Sun will Shine Again (1970)

To bring in the kid and teen audience, he also played schoolboys who reject the conformity of the establishment:
To Hell with School (1968)
Hurray, the School is Burning! (1970)
Tomorrow the School will Fall (1971)

I've only see clips, but they seem to displace heterosexual intrigues onto the adult performers, leaving Heintje and his friends in a homoromantic Arcadia.

When he was 16 and his voice changed, Heintje' attraction to grandmothers and nuns faded.  Taking on an adult name, Heintje Simons, he continued to record and perform in Dutch, German, French, Japanese, and Afrikaans, but with nothing like the fervor of the 1960s.   Today he lives on a horse farm in Belgium with his wife and three kids.

Sam Jones as Flesh/Flash Gordon

During the early 1980s, movie producers were just beginning to realize that man-mountains like Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Swarzenegger sold tickets, but they didn't know exactly why.  Maybe women were having romantic fantasies about them?  So they hired a cadre of musclemen to play iconic heroes who eventually save the day, but mostly stand around getting looked at by a woman.

Christopher Reeves as Superman. 
Miles O'Keeffee as Tarzan.

And Sam J. Jones in a rather peculiar choice,  Flash Gordon.  

In the 1930s comic strip, Flash Gordon was an American polo player who crash-landed on the planet Mongo, along with his love interest Dale Arden and the know-it-all scientist Dr. Zarkov.  They explore the planet, solving the problems of many local potentates, while trying to keep the main bad guy, Emperor Ming the Merciless, from conquering or destroying the universe. It was still running in the 1980s, but only in a few newspapers, and the radio series, comic books, Big-Little books, and cereal premiums were long forgotten.

The 1980 film version was jokingly called Flesh Gordon (coincidentally, there really was an X-rated Flesh Gordon in 1974).  The star, Sam J. Jones, had posed nude for Playgirl, so his penis was nearly as familiar to audiences as his biceps.  Playgirl reran his pictures, retro-dying his hair blond to look more like Flash.

The movie was played for naughtiness and camp, sort of like Buck Rogers on tv, so the beefcake was nonstop.

And everyone Flash encounters, without exception, wants to tie him up, rip his shirt off, and have sex with him: Dale Arden, Princess Aura, Prince Barin (Timothy Dalton), Prince Vultan (Brian Blessed),  even Ming himself (Max Von Sydow).

The gay subtexts completely overwhelm the hetero romance, and Flash doesn't fall in love with anyone (Barin and Aura provide the fade-out kiss.)

Gay audiences were astounded.  Heterosexuals, not so much.  The film wasn't a big box office success in the U.S., maybe because no one knew who Flash Gordon was, but it became a cult classic, propelling Sam Jones into a career as an action hero:

Code Red (1981-82): a family of firefighters.
Jungle Heat (1985): a man-mountain saving people in Vietnam
The Spirit (1987): the comic book hero of the 1940s.
The Highwayman (1987-88): a trucker solves crimes.
Jane and the Lost City (1987): Indiana Jones meets Tarzan
L.A. Takedown (1989): things explode
75 movies and tv series to date.

And when he's tired of jumping out of burning cop cars and having women comment on the size of his...um, gun, Sam and his wife Ramona run a side business in hostage negotiation.

Feb 18, 2013

Jake Thomas in the House

The Disney Channel teencom Lizzie McGuire (2001-2004) had the usual gay subtext, between Lizzie (Hilary Duff) and her best friend Miranda (LaLaine).  10-year old Jake Thomas was underutilized as the usual teencom little brother, manipulative, worldly, and mercenary.

Jake has been utilized since.  During his teens he was cast primarily on kid oriented vehicles like Soccer Dog (2004), Monster Night (2006), and the Disney Channel's Cory in the House (2007-2008), where he played the evil antagonist to Cory (Kyle Massie) and Newt (Jason Dolley).  But as he grew tall, slim, handsome, and intense, he recognized a talent for serious dramatic roles.

The first: on Without a Trace (2004): his Eric was subjected to a savage bullying, and attempted suicide.

Since Cory ended, Jake has avoided sitcoms to play teens who are sick, troubled, or dying on Cold Case (2008), ER (2008), Lie to Me (2009), Eleventh Hour (2009), and many other series.

Sometimes Jake's characters are blatantly heterosexual -- he plays a teenage rapist on Criminal Minds (2010) and a high schooler who gets his girlfriend pregnant on Locked Away (2010).

But more often they don't express any heterosexual interest, which leaves open a space to interpret them as gay:

A teenager accused of murdering his parents in  The Whole Truth (2010).

The flamboyant best buddy of an adopted girl searching for her birth parents on The Assignment (2010).

A teenage drug addict in Betrayed at 17 (2011).

No word on whether Jake is gay in real life, but the "Question and Answer" section of his website is awfully coy:

Q: "Do you have a girlfriend?"
A: "I have lots of girls who are great friends."

Q: "Are you looking for a girlfriend?"
A: "I think we're all looking for somebody."


Sonny Malone (Michael Beck), a thin, long-haired 1980s hippie who likes to roller skate everywhere, wants to be a great painter, but he's stymied by his job reproducing rock album covers.

Kira (Olivia Newton-John), who is really Terpsichore, the Muse of Dancing inspires him to pursue his dream.  She inspired Michelangelo, Shakespeare, and Beethoven, so she knows talent.

Wait -- why would the Muse of Dancing inspire painters, sculptors, playwrights, and composers?

 While wandering on the beach, Sonny hooks up with retired jazz musician Danny McGuire (dance legend Gene Kelly), who has also abandoned his dream of opening a jazz club (ok, well, he had one, inspired by Kira, in 1945). 

 Danny openly, obviously courts Sonny, who obviously relishes the attention of a potential sugar daddy.  It becomes most blatant when Danny invites him home to his palatial mansion (apparently being a failed jazz musician pays very well), gives him "the tour," and looks just about to lead him into the bedroom, when Sonny inexplicably leaves.  With a look of consternation ("Darn! I thought for sure I was going to get laid!"), Danny sits down and fantasizes about Kira (apparently the next best thing).

 Sonny and Danny decide to pursue their dreams together.  But what sort of dream can be pursued by a painter and a jazz musician (played by a famous dancer)?

The answer is obvious: they open a roller disco!

Somebody didn't think this through.

Meanwhile Kira falls in love with Sonny -- chastely, with no sex, but still against Muse rules.  She has to return to Olympus, but the gods grant her one last night on Earth. She spends it singing.  But not to worry,  Sonny immediately latches onto a waitress at the club who looks like her. Or maybe she's a reincarnation.  Or maybe. . .

While watching, one continually thinks, who wrote this?  Who thought it was a good idea to put Gene Kelly on roller skates?  Who didn't shoot a retake when Kira calls Sonny Danny?  

Nothing about this movie makes a bit of sense.  Maybe that's why it was popular with gay audiences.  It was one big raspberry at the conventions of heterosexual romance.

Feb 17, 2013

Blue Velvet: Slow, Depressing, Homophobic

Blue Velvet (1986) was the first "mainstream" success of surrealist director David Lynch, whose sci-fi epic Dune flopped two years before.  It borrows its title from a slow, depressing song from the 1950s that apparently Lynch liked.

She wore blu....u....e. . . .vel....vet

The plot is convoluted, the story sordid and unpleasant.  College student Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) finds a severed ear crawling with bugs in a field near his small town of Lumberton.  Investigation leads him to the Slow Club (naturally), where a dazed, depressed singer named Dorothy (Isabella Rossilini) performs "Blue Velvet" while sobbing quietly.

Becoming obsessed, Jeffrey hides in her closet and spies on her, but unfortunately she is already spoken for.  She is the sex slave of the violent psychopath Frank Booth (Davis Hopper), who likes to get high on noxious fumes, chew on blue velvet, and beat her up.  Frank, in turn, is the sex slave of flamboyantly feminine Ben (Dean Stockwell), who likes to lip-synch the slow, depressing Roy Orbison song "In Dreams" to get him hopped up.

In dre...ams....I walk....with....you...u....u

Oh, plot point: to keep everyone in line, Ben is holding Dorothy's husband and son hostage (the ear belongs to one of them).

Eventually all of the baddies get shot through the head (Lynch has a thing for massive head trauma), Dorothy and her son leave town, and Jeffrey settles down to a nice "normal" relationship with girl-next-door Sandy (Laura Dern).  Pleased that the natural order of things has been restored, two robins appear, and eat some bugs (see, love triumphs over evil!).

I hated this movie.  I wanted to take a shower afterwards.  But there were three things for gay people to like, in spite of the incessant homophobia (which, to be fair, you have to expect in David Lynch's movies.  He's never tried to hide his hatred of gay people.)

1. If you can overlook the many, many shots of Dorothy nude and abused, you can find some some beefcake.  Kyle MacLachlan had an adequately muscular physique, and in one scene there's frontal nudity.

2. David Lynch hates sexually active heterosexuals as much as gay people.  Their acts come off looking incredibly vile.  Heteros have sex because they have guns pointed at them or because they're suffering from weird fixations, while all the time they're struggling desperately not to.  There's no such thing as  a positive sexual experience, gay or not.

3. In the 1980s, the Moral Majority, Ronald Reagan, and The Waltons had us believe that big cities were cesspools of dcadence, small towns havens of "family values."  Guess what -- even Lumberton has a seedy underbelly.  A nice movie to show your various relatives who bemoan the social decay of your West Hollywood home.

See also: Twin Peaks: the owls are not what they seem.

Alan E. Nourse: The Universe Between

In the September 1951 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, Alan E. Nourse published “The Universe Between,” about a parallel dimension so unimaginable that anyone “crossing over” goes crazy, except for seventeen-year old Robert Benedict.  He began crossing over shortly after his birth, and he always emerges unscathed, though he can’t explain anything he experiences on the other side.

When the inhabitants of the parallel dimension suddenly begin slicing off large pieces of the Earth, like the lower third of Manhattan, only Robert can try to communicate with them and figure out what’s going on.  But crossing over is becoming increasingly unpredictable, disturbing, and dangerous; he returns screaming.

The gruff elder scientist in charge of the project treats Robert as a laboratory animal, ignoring his needs and safety, but assistant Dr. Merry takes a personal interest in him.  Not much older than Robert himself  – usually called “Hank,” and first introduced oversleeping and missing his college math class – the young engineer seems quite taken with the handsome teenager.  They smile at each other, joke, and enjoy a physical intimacy, with many touches of arm or shoulder.  When a crossover goes wrong, Hank rushes to Robert’s side much faster than his parents:

[Robert] stood shivering, literally blue with cold, gasping for air and looking so ill and exhausted that [his mother] stifled a cry and Hank leaped across to catch his arm before he fell. “Robert!  What happened?  What did they do to you?”  The boy shook his head numbly as Hank eased him to the floor and loosened his jacket. “Easy, fella,” Hank said softly.  “Just get your breath and rest a minute.”

So far this is a classic gay romance, requiring only a coda that shows the permanence of Robert and Hank’s relationship.  But when Nourse revised several of the parallel dimension stories into a novel, The Universe Between (1965), he added another sort of coda: many years later, Robert and Hank are business partners, transporting people across the galaxy via interdimensional shortcuts (it is perfectly safe as long as they wear blindfolds to avoid going crazy).

And the reader finally discovers, in a last-paragraph “tomato surprise,” that the parallel dimension is really our own world; Robert is the one who lives in a parallel world, where America never broke away from Britain, there were no Presidents Lincoln or Kennedy, and democracy was never invented, nor capitalism, nor freedom  On one of his crossing-over expeditions, Robert falls in love with someone from our democratic, capitalist, free United States, a girl named Sharnan, “beautiful, with violet eyes.”

He decides to cross over permanently to be with her.  He tells Hank “I’ll be in touch,” but no doubt he means that he will send an occasional postcard.  Hank has no place on the other side; only Robert has the capacity to look at the intertwining of democracy and heterosexual destiny without a blindfold. So he must reject his  buddy for the girl: “Sharnan was waiting for him there.  As he had known she would be.”


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