A Very Natural Thing (1974)
Eyebrows were raised back in 1974 when this tale of a gay man searching for love played in mainstream movie theaters. Though the fight for gay rights was already underway, no equality laws had been passed, and most straight people of that era had a uniformly negative view of homosexuality. It was therefore an act of courage to make “A Very Natural Thing,” to appear in it, even to go see it.
David (Robert Joel) is an ex-monk and a schoolteacher. He meets Mark (Curt Gareth) in a bar and the two move in together. They quickly learn that they're not looking for the same things: David wants a monogamous relationship, while Mark continues to sleep around. He even goes so far as to try to involve David in his activities. This leads to their breakup.
Now alone, David attends the 1973 gay pride parade in New York City. There he meets the handsome Jason (Bo White), who shares his values. Will the two find happiness together?
The parade sequence was shot at that year's actual parade. Director Christopher Larkin breaks the fourth wall, interviewing parade attendees who speak on camera about what being gay means to them.
“A Very Natural Thing” is a film that was years ahead of its time. Shot on a low budget, it might very well be the first film to feature gay characters who were comfortable and happy with who they were. David is a likable character and Robert Joel, who had few acting credits, is quite good in the role.
In our era or marriage equality and Will and Grace, it's fascinating to look back upon a groundbreaking production like “A Very Natural Thing,” which was made by a hearty band of folks who dared to kick the closet door open more than a generation ago. They're all people we can be proud of.
“A Very Natural Thing” is streaming at Amazon Prime, YouTube and Google Play. The DVD is out of print but can be purchased at Amazon for over $300.
Pedro recalls the life of Pedro Zamora (1972-1994), one of our more extraordinary gay activists. Zamora, a refugee from Cuba, was one of the stars of the hit MTV reality series “The Real World: San Francisco.” When he auditioned for the series, Zamora was quite honest with the producers about being gay, and about his AIDS diagnosis. He was cast.
The film, written by the openly gay Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (Milk), underscores the magnitude of Zamora's courage. He talks about being gay and having AIDS in front of the Real World cameras — keep in mind that this was 25 years ago. In one memorable episode Zamora marries his boyfriend Sean.
At the time The Real World had a huge audience. Millions were educated about HIV and about homosexuality thanks to Zamora's efforts.
Sadly, Zamora never got to enjoy his fame. He became very ill while his episodes were airing and passed away soon after at the age of 22.
Alex Loynaz offers a wonderful performance as Zamora. The actor paints a vivid portrait of Zamora's determination to make his mark upon the world in a positive way, even though he must have known that his time on earth would be short. And Zamora indeed made quite an impact: his efforts attracted the attention of then-President Bill Clinton, who participated in the making of the film.
Pedro is a haunting story that viewers won't soon forget.
Pedro is streaming at Vimeo. The DVD is available at Amazon.
Desert Hearts (1985)
“Desert Hearts” captured the imagination of LGBT people when it was first released in 1985. At the time queer films were rarely produced, yet here, bucking the norm, was a lesbian love story directed by a lesbian filmmaker.
The film beautifully captures the ambiance of its setting: Reno Nevada in 1959. It tells the story of Vivian (Helen Shaver), an emotionally repressed, straight (so it seems) woman who comes to Reno for a quickie divorce from an empty marriage. While there, she meets the much younger Cay (Patricia Charbonneau), a free-spirited gal who flaunts her lesbianism and doesn't care what anyone thinks of it. Cay takes one look at Vivian and is instantly smitten.
Vivian accepts Cay's friendship, but at first she rejects the other woman's sexual advances. It soon becomes apparent that Vivian's long-suppressed attraction to women is coming to the surface. The two women make love in a scene that's both tender and quite erotic.
"Desert Hearts” remains a groundbreaking film some 35 years after its initial release. As one of the first positive portrayals of lesbian love in the movies it was years ahead of its time. Today, it's considered historic: a print of the film has been donated to the Outfest Legacy Project for LGBTQ film preservation.
As a love story, “Desert Hearts” is sweet, tender and uplifting. A must-see for women — but this male viewer was also captivated by the timeless love story of Vivian and Cay.
In addition to being available on DVD and Blu Ray, “Desert Hearts” is streaming at Amazon Prime, Hulu, and HBO Max.
Before Stonewall (1985)
“Before Stonewall.” Credit: Greta Schiller & Robert Rosenberg
This riveting documentary tells the story of the LGBT community from the 1920s up to the time of the Stonewall Riots. The filmmakers interviewed numerous "old timers" who recall the 1920s and 30s — this film was their last chance to share their memories. They remember a time when being gay or lesbian was forbidden by society — they speak of the coded language they would use to find each other. But even then a courageous few stepped out of the closet, like Gladys Bentley, an African American lesbian who performed in Harlem's jazz clubs. Bentley dressed like a man and ran off to Atlantic City to marry her girlfriend.
The film continues through the World War II era, a time when many gay men and lesbians heeded the call to serve their country. In the 1950s the McCarthy witch hunts affected LGBT people. During those years the first gay and lesbian organizations were formed and the first gay magazines were published. As early as 1965 LGBT people marched for employment rights for the first time.
“Before Stonewall” is an important film, one which preserves a part of LGBT history which should not be forgotten. Not only does the film feature a plethora of interviews, it includes archival footage which takes the viewer back to that bygone era.
Before Stonewall is history written with lightning.
After Stonewall (1999)
After Stonewall tells the story of the LGBT community during the three decades which followed the Stonewall Riots. After the riots, the very first Pride parades were organized and the first out community emerged. The film recalls what was probably the community's very first victory: in 1973 the American Psychiatric Association declared that homosexuality would no longer be considered a "psychiatric disorder."
With narration by lesbian rock star Melissa Etheridge, After Stonewall follows the movement through the 70s, 80s and 90s as the community battles the religious right (a battle which continues today), the AIDS crisis (the film beautifully documents the rise of the AIDS activist organization ACT UP), and the many setbacks and victories that the community lived through during those years. Included are interviews with important figures who are no longer with us, such as early lesbian organizer Barbara Gittings, the recently departed AIDS activist Larry Kramer, and Craig Rodwell, who founded the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop — the first gay bookstore — in New York City.
The film also reminds us that President Bill Clinton was not always an LGBT ally. After courting the gay vote, Clinton betrayed the community by signing the discriminatory Don't Ask Don't Tell bill.
Like “Before Stonewall,”“After Stonewall” offers a breathtaking scope and preserves important histories that should not be forgotten. Both films are must-see viewing during this Pride season. As both films illustrate, we have much to be proud of.
Both films are available on a double feature DVD and both are streaming at Amazon Prime.