Monday, August 5, 2013


In honor of marriage equality, and spurred on by the current Cabrillo Stage production of La Cage aux Folles,  I thought it would be fun to celebrate the (brief) history of same-sex domestic partnerships in the movies.

Not  passionate gay relationships; there are plenty worthy examples of those, the best being Brokeback Mountain. Longtime commitment is definitely a major factor in that relationship, but it's never domestic. In fact, the characters have to create faux domestic relationships with other people—wives—to conceal their clandestine romance with each other. And I was trying to avoid the self-loathing gay stereotypes of a movie like Staircase, in 1969, where Rex Harrison and Richard Burton struggle to act fruity and waspish, as a long-together couple who basically hate each other.

My criteria is positive images of gay partnerships and here, in ascending order, are my faves:

At # 4, a nod to the original French film, La Cage Aux Folles, which was adapted by screenwriter Jean Poiret from his own stage play. The lead couple are still very much in the gay comic stereotype mode (it was 1978, after all), as dapper and fastidious club owner, Renato (Ugo Tognazzi) labors valiantly to keep his flighty, flamboyant drag queen partner, Albin (Michel Serrault), more or less tethered to terra firma.

What was groundbreaking was the depiction of this couple in a long-term domestic relationship not only based unabashedly on love, but in which they had also raised a child together. Quelle horreur! And yet, (amazingly, perhaps, to the general public of the day), the young man has not only suffered no ill effects from this arrangement with the unorthodox parental units he loves, he's planning to marry a woman.

Waltzing in at #3 is My Best friend's Wedding. It's 20 years after La Cage; still, Rupert Everett's partner does not have a speaking part in the movie. He's never even seen, except in the background at dinner parties with friends from which Everett is constantly being called away to the phone to deal with best pal Julia Roberts' neurotic crises. But a clever arrangement of photographs shows the partners and their loved ones in a variety of perfectly ordinary domestic scenes and family events.

And why, exactly, is Roberts heaping all of her problems at his feet? Not simply because he's the best-looking man in the movie (fat lot of good it does her), or clearly the best dancer, but because Everett's character is stable, sensible, and way more experienced in domesticity. He, unlike Roberts, knows what's involved in a committed, long-term relationship, and is the voice of reason throughout, even as she tries to wreck other lives to get her own romantic way.

Antonio Banderas has more screen time as the lover/partner of Tom Hanks' terminal AIDS patient hero in my #2 pick, Philadelphia. True, their physical relationship is mostly kept offscreen, except for a romantic slow dance together at a costume party. But his character is a presence throughout this 1993 film, not only as lover and loyal caregiver, but also a source on incipient, highly relatable domestic friction when the stress occasionally becomes too much.

In the accepting world of Philadelphia, both Hanks and Banderas are beloved by Hanks' large extended family of cousins, nieces, nephews, and siblings, beginning with his indomitable mother, played by the great Joanne Woodward. This love-feast of tolerance may seem a trifle idealized, but it's all in keeping with director Jonathan Demme's subversive agenda of presenting gay couples and their families as, you know, just like everybody else.

 And finally, my vote for the best domestic partnerships in the movies (to date) goes to The Kids Are Alright. The sublime Annette Bening and Julianne Moore star as a devoted, long-married couple raising their two kids in the suburbs of Los Angeles. Their family has its quirks, but the kids respect their parents, each other, and themselves.

That this movie is NOT about the fact that they are a lesbian couple is just one of the things that make Lisa Cholodenko's comedy so fresh, fun, and appealing; you could substitute a straight, hetero couple into the plot and the story would play out exactly the same way. It's not a "lesbian comedy," it's a family comedy that resonates with everyone.

I was trying to go for a Top Five list, but these are the only qualifying examples I could think of. I'm sure I'm forgetting something obvious, or maybe there are other contenders out there in movies I haven't seen. If you have any suggestions, let me know, and I'll post an update.


  1. Hi Lisa: HEre are two of my faces.
    1. Miss Ceilie and Shug in THE COLOR PURPLE
    2. Idgie and Ruth in FRIED GREEN TOMATOES

    I love these two for the simplicity of them. There was no big deal in either one. Nobody felt a need to explain them. They just were.
    Take Care.

  2. Excellent choices! I knew I'd be forgetting something (or someone). Thanks, Fanne!

  3. Lisa, are you serious? How could you forget the very first authentic portrayal of a gay couple in the entire history of motion pictures? I am speaking, of course, of Roger Elizabeth De Bris and Carmen Ghia in Mel Brooks' 1967 ode to really rotten behavior, "The Producers." Marriage equality is where it is today because of the now-common use of gay characters in TV and movies, and it did not start, as conventional wisdom has it, with "Will and Grace." It began with, "White, white, white is the color of our carpet." I sincerely believe Mel Brooks is directly responsible for gay marriage. In fact, I'm going to write him a thank-you letter right now.

  4. Oh, the humanity! How COULD I forget? Thanks for the reminder!