A Gay Celluloid Gem Not to Be Missed
College English professor George Falconer, the lead character in the poignant new film “A Single Man,” suffers from an all-too-common, devastating illness: a broken heart.
George had achieved something quite enviable at any time, let alone in the conformist years after World War II, when a snickering aside that someone was “light in his loafers” could torpedo a career. He’d settled down with the love of his life, blissfully becoming “George and Jim.”
As we see in a bittersweet flashback, the couple built an idyllic life in Southern California, so comfy that neither wants to get up from where they’re cuddled up reading—their sweet pups nearby—to change the music. The dogs are the smart ones, Jim observes, because they savor the now.
“What could be better than being tucked up here with you? If I died right now, it’d be OK,” Jim says.
“Well,” George responds, “it wouldn’t be OK with me.”
But, as anyone who’s lived long enough to fully appreciate this celluloid gem knows, life’s twists and turns include heartbreakers that, thank you very much, really aren’t OK with us.
George’s comes when Jim dies in a car crash on an icy road while visiting his parents. Drowning in grief, George, like a character out of the depressing novels he teaches, no longer believes there’s a point to living. We watch him for a day, the one he plans to be his last.
This film lover saw “A Single Man” twice over the holidays, reveling in the chance to see, yes, a “gay” film.
Both times, the theaters were packed with a gay and straight mix. I couldn’t help wondering why the film industry still resists telling good gay stories.
This one is based on Christopher Isherwood’s novel of the same title, a book I inhaled in my tumultuous early 20s, when I was struggling to mend my own heart and find my way as a suddenly single gay woman.
Mostly closeted but just brave enough to search for guideposts, I frequently found myself in a gay bookstore, looking for answers in the works of Isherwood, Truman Capote, E.M. Forster and Tennessee Williams. Just the act of reading something by someone known to be gay felt empowering. Somehow if Truman Capote could be gay in a very straight world, maybe I could, too.
In the 20-plus years since then, much has changed: George and Jim could have married in California during the brief window of possibility that voters shut in November 2008. But plenty hasn’t changed, including the film industry’s maddening reluctance to touch gay stories. “Brokeback Mountain” and “Milk” were precious—and all too rare.
Like those winners, “A Single Man” looks destined to nab an Oscar or two, with powerful performances by Colin Firth as the shattered George and Julianne Moore as Charlotte, his gin-soaked best friend, who yearns to be as close to someone as George was to Jim.
There are moments in the film where the singular hurts and indignities of being gay and “invisible” burst through: George isn’t allowed at Jim’s funeral because it’s “family” only.
And Charlotte can’t help throwing herself at George as she tries convince herself that gay relationships are inferior to “a real relationship with kids”—in other words, a heterosexual one. But George, his grief finally erupting, shouts back: “There is no substitute for Jim, anywhere. … Jim and I were together for 16 years. And if he hadn’t died we’d still be together.”
Who could not feel his pain?
Grief. Loss. Heartbreak. Fury at life’s injustices. The aching search for meaning when hurt seems all that’s still real. The sudden appearance of human “angels” to shepherd us through dangerous hours. These are universal themes, as “A Single Man” exquisitely shows.
Deb Price of The Detroit News writes the first nationally syndicated column on gay issues.