Playwright Oliver Mayer may not be gay, but he’s an LGBTQ pioneer, nonetheless.
His play “Blade to the Heat,” which debuted in 1994 at Joseph Papp’s New York Public Theatre before its sold-out Los Angeles run at the Mark Taper Forum two years later, was a watershed moment in queer theatre; centered on a closeted Latino boxer in the late 1950s, it was a story about the struggle of being gay not only within a hyper-masculine and homophobic environment, but also as a person of color. It was controversial, but it was also a hit. Even Madonna wanted the rights to it.
Now, over 20 years later, Mayer – who is an associate professor at the USC School of Dramatic Arts – has returned to the world of his groundbreaking play with a sequel, “Members Only.” Produced by the Latino Theater Company at Los Angeles Theatre Center, it begins its World Premiere run on Oct. 25.
“Members Only” continues the story of protagonist Pedro Quinn, who will be played by Ray Oriel – the same actor who portrayed the role in the Mark Taper production 22 years ago. He will be joined by Jon Huertas from the TV hit, “This Is Us,” along with Gabriela Ortega, Darrin Henson, Ron Alvarez, Hansford Prince and Geoff Rivas – as well as Marlene Forte, the playwright’s wife of 12 years, who had wanted to be in the original show but, having no agent at the time, couldn’t get an audition.
The new work picks up with Quinn after two decades in the ring, still closeted and still fighting – despite the ravages of age and the ghosts of his past. It’s the dawn of a new era in America, where people of color are beginning to find equal footing, where sexual behavior and identity have become more open-ended, and where women are pursuing goals previously denied them because of their gender – such as a young female boxer whom Quinn has taken on as his protégé.
It’s also a world on the brink of a plague.
“When I wrote ‘Heat’ in the ‘90s,” Mayer says, “I deliberately set it in 1959-1960 to make things harder on the characters. And even though it took place in the past, people saw it as an ‘AIDS’ play, because it was about a certain kind of mystery and violence around the sexual coming-together of men – and I think they were right.”
He hadn’t intended it, but he recognized that there was, as he puts it, a “seed” in what he had written that could be viewed in the context of the then-current culture.
“With ‘Members Only,’” he says, “I wanted to take that seed and let it bloom – to deal with that actual moment in time with the surviving characters from the original play.”
There were other compelling reasons to revisit his previous work.
“It was important to me when I wrote ‘Blade’ that Quinn was not going to be a victim. He was not going to come out dead – it was one of the first plays with a gay lead that didn’t die at the end. Yet I thought that the guilt, the regret – the need for absolution – would have only grown in 20 years.”
He reflects, “Maybe it says something about me, too – about how I feel some level of regret for being unable to do anything, except just love people, about some of the terrible things that have happened in my lifetime. So, I thought if I moved Quinn up into a moment when there was this crisis – that was global but that you could still feel, person to person – maybe this character, who has not lived an ‘out’ lifestyle, could have a chance to come into the light.”
Mayer, who is Latino, is also still exploring the relationship between sexuality and ethnicity.
“A big part of both these plays,” he says, “is that I’m dealing primarily with communities of color – black and brown, specifically – and these communities have a history of cruelty and fear, of a lack of understanding around non-binary sexuality.”
He adds, “It’s important to me for an audience – particularly an audience of color – to check itself, to see these things onstage and realize, ‘Yeah, we could do a lot better.’”
There’s also the experience of women.
“One of the big relationships in this play is between Quinn and the female boxer,” he points out. “This piece takes place before women were welcomed into boxing gyms. There were women in the sport, but they were considered freaks – they were certainly abused, in various ways, and not taken seriously. This young woman is trying to break into this world, and there’s a real threat of physical violence against her in this gym, because it’s so macho – she could be raped.”
It’s a situation that resonates in our current cultural climate, but as Mayer explains, there are parallels to be found throughout “Members Only.”
“Unfortunately, I think we have the same problems that we had back then,” he says, “and in some ways it’s because we feel we’ve advanced. We have to be careful of backsliding, and to be aware of the complexities of living an adult, sexual life in this country.”
It’s the reason, he says, that he felt the need to elaborate on the resonance with AIDS that was found in the earlier play.
“I set this play right before the disease was named – when it was still called ‘GRID,’ when it was this mysterious thing that people didn’t know much about. These characters are on the front lines, they’re all in danger and don’t know it.”
As someone who came into adulthood during this exact time, his own memories informed his writing.
“In 1982 I was 17,” he remembers. “I lived in LA, and my mother worked at County General. I was about to leave for Cornell, and I was really a virgin – I had some sexual experience but never all the way – and I didn’t know a damn thing. And she stopped me and she said, ‘There’s something out there, wear a condom.’ It went right through me, because she’d never spoken to me like that and never has again.”
“I’m a mama’s boy,” he continues. “I did what she told me, and all these years later I tend to think she may have saved my life. I was an activist in school, and I went to a lot of meetings for Latino students, and a lot of our LGBT brothers and sisters were there – and I think about them, because they were also in this moment, ’82-’86 or thereabouts, when it was still very shadowy and full of misinformation – of fear that any particular sexual experience might be the one that brands you forever.”
Reflecting, he adds, “I think about our own moment, and I realize that AIDS is back, and I’m also afraid of the next scourge. I don’t want to live in fear, but as someone who’s lived on the planet for over fifty years I know that the next ‘unknown’ is coming that’s going to change everything. It’s important to brace yourself, even if you don’t know what that is going to be.”
It’s for this reason the playwright thinks it’s important for people to be able to recognize their own world in his material.
“It’s essential for an audience to be able to see itself on stage,” he says, “and the great news, the thing that has changed in 20 years, is that there’s a broader canvas of diversity among characters and the actors playing them. That includes ethnicity and race as well as sexual behavior and other kinds of identifiers – and you don’t have to be of those particular categories to see yourself. Hopefully, we’ve been working on ourselves as humans enough that our compassion for each other is a little more defined.”
Even so, he acknowledges that the current state of discourse in our country is strained.
“There’s unbelievable levels of tribalism,” he says, “ but I do think that’s the reason why the theatre means more now than ever. People who might feel tribal by day come together in a dark room in the evening and they have to deal with a storyline that they have to figure out on the other end, hopefully as human beings, over a drink. Maybe they can realize that they are no longer quite as tribal – quite as binary – as they were before.”
He goes on, “I think that’s why, even though the theatre is always tottering, the actual need for plays is actually keeping it alive. Especially with companies that represent certain community bodies, like the Latino Theatre Company – even though they’re broker than a joke, they’ve got a reason to produce like they’ve never had. That makes me hopeful.”
It also makes him proud to be part of the local LA theatre community.
“I’ve put more than 30 years of my life into this community of artists,” he says, “and it’s no coincidence. I think we’re really great. I don’t want to oversell us, but it’s been enough to keep me here, and to make me want to continue.”
While that explains why Mayer remains a fixture of the local theatre scene, it doesn’t answer the question of why this straight-identifying playwright keeps returning to plays that explore gay subject matter.
He laughs about that.
“It’s funny,” he says. “I’ve written gay characters, or at least non-binary characters, throughout my entire 33-year career.” Chuckling, he adds “I guess I’m a little bit gay.”
More seriously, he continues. “I write about it because it’s hot – and I mean that in more ways than one.”
“As a dramatist,” he explains, “my sense tells me to go after stories that are edgy and difficult – like a boxer who might be coming out as a gay man.”
He goes on, “In my personal experience, and especially by my mother, I have been educated and relaxed into knowing that love is love – people come together, and they find happiness, and that is completely comfortable to me.”
“But even so,” he concludes, “I’ve trained myself to look for the drama in a story. In our American story, gay sensibility goes hand in hand with discomfort, with a threat of violence – and that’s the stuff of drama.”
Mayer’s latest drama promises to be a must-see milestone for all fans of provocative, challenging theatre – not just the LGBTQ ones – and it runs at LATC Oct. 25-Nov. 18. For tickets and more information, visit www.thelatc.org.
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Charles Busch reflects on the paths he didn’t take in new book
‘Leading Lady’ a riveting memoir from legendary entertainer
“Charles, I’m telling you, I go to plays in rat-infested basements where I’m the only one who shows up,” the late queer icon Joan Rivers once told the queer, legendary playwright, actor, director, novelist, cabaret performer and drag icon, Charles Busch. “I can see the actors peeking through the curtain and groaning, ‘Oh God, that old bitch in the fur coat is here. Does that mean we’ve gotta go on?’”
Busch reminded Rivers that she’d seen him perform in a rat-infested basement.
This is just one of the many stories that Busch, born in 1954, tells in his riveting memoir, “Leading Lady: A Memoir of a Most Unusual Boy,” which comes out on Sept. 12.
“Leading Lady” is a page-turner. Some of its tales of Busch’s life and career, such as his account of a Christmas party with Rivers as a guest, are dishy. Others, like his memories of trying to care for his beloved Aunt Lil, when he knew she was dying, would make even the Wicked Witch in Oz tear up.
The memoir, is, as Busch says on his website (charlesbusch.com), the story of “a talented artist’s Oz-like journey.”
“Leading Lady” isn’t linear. This isn’t a detriment. Busch deftly intertwines memories of his life and career from his mom dying when he was seven to being raised by his loving Aunt Lil to being the author and star of the cult classic “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom” to watching Kim Novak handle fans to being the Tony-nominated writer of “Tales of the Allergist’s Wife” to being creative during the pandemic.
“Storytelling is a huge part of my life,” Busch told the Blade in a lengthy phone interview, “I get into various adventures and, I think, this could be a good story to tell.”
Interviewing Busch is like chatting with a fab storyteller over coffee or a glass of wine. Except that you’re talking to a legend who’s entertained and inspired queers (and discerning hetero audiences) for decades. (I’m wearing my “Vampire” T-shirt as I write this.)
As a playwright, Busch writes “linear” plays, with a beginning, middle and an end, he said. As a cabaret singer, “the way I sing songs is telling a story,” Busch said.
Since childhood, he’s been creating vivid scenes in his imagination. From early on, Busch has felt as if he’s both a spectator and star in the movie of his life.
It seemed inevitable that he’d write a memoir. It’s the ultimate form of storytelling. “You reach a certain point in your life,” Busch said, “where you’re more reflective and see your life as a whole.”
“You reflect on the paths you didn’t take,” he added.
Busch spent his childhood in Hartsdale, N.Y. He had two older sisters, Betsy and Margaret. His mother’s death was devastating for Busch. His Aunt Lil and Joan Rivers have been among the women who have been “mothers” to Busch since his mom died.
Once, Busch said he and Rivers dined with friends. “Joan Rivers said ‘I wish I had a gay son I could phone at midnight and discuss whatever movie was on TCM,’” he recalled.
Busch would have loved to have been Rivers’s “gay son.”
Life in Hartsdale was hard for Busch after his mother passed away. His father was often absent and showed little interest in his children.
Things were miserable for Busch when his grandmother, for a time, cared for the family. He knew, as a boy, that he was gay and hated going to school where a movie-and-theater-loving kid who liked to draw wasn’t one of the cool kids.
Yet Busch forgave his “father’s failings,” he writes in “Leading Lady, “because he gave me the theater.”
Busch became entranced with the theater when his father, an aspiring opera singer who performed in summer stock, took him to the old Metropolitan Opera House in New York City to hear Joan Sutherland sing the role of Amina in Bellini’s “La Sonnambula.”
Busch was saved from a life of boredom and bullying when Aunt Lil, his mother’s sister, took him to live with her in Manhattan. There, like Auntie Mame, she raised him. She prodded him into applying to the High School of Music and Art in New York City. He was accepted there.
After high school, Busch graduated with a bachelor’s degree in drama from Northwestern University in 1976.
“My Aunt Lil is the leading lady [of the title of his memoir],” Busch said, “she was the most influential person in my life.”
One of the reasons why Busch wrote “Leading Lady” was to paint a full portrait of her. “It was important that it not be this kind of gauzy, sentimental memory piece,” he said, “making her out to be a saint.”
Aunt Lil adopted Bush when he was 14. Her goal was that he would go to college, become independent, be a survivor – make a place for himself in the world.
“I don’t know what would have happened if she hadn’t stepped in,” Busch said.
“She was very intellectual,” he added, “I’ve never met anyone [else] with such a pure devotion to thinking. It was a little intimidating.”
Aunt Lil’s standards for caring – for giving of oneself – were so high that it was almost impossible to meet them. “She believed that you should anticipate what people would need,” Busch said, “before they told you.”
Looking back, Busch is most proud of himself when, “I’ve gone past my natural self-absorption,” he said, “when I’ve thought of someone else.”
Busch is being too hard on himself. In “Leading Lady,” and when interviewed, he’s caring and curious as well as witty, savvy, and as you’d expect, a bit campy.
His sister Margaret died recently. “She declined gradually over nine months,” Busch, said, choking up, “I gave her my bedroom and I slept on my sofa.”
Like many of her generation, Aunt Lil didn’t understand queerness or drag. But she loved Busch. She didn’t go to see his productions, he said. “She could have gone like other parents,” he said, “and been tight-lipped. And said something nice that she didn’t believe.”
But “she didn’t want to lie or be hurtful,” Busch added, “so, for her, it was: can’t I just love and support you, and not go?”
Aunt Lil didn’t get Busch’s sexuality. But she knew about secrecy. Busch learned of a terrifying secret that his aunt had long kept hidden. In the 1930s, during the Depression, Aunt Lil worked as a nurse. One day, when she worked overtime, one of the patients suffered a burn. She had to leave nursing. “Her sister in a nasty mood revealed this,” Busch said, “Aunt Lil never discussed it.”
In the 1970s, Busch had trouble getting into theater because there were only roles for actors playing straight male characters. “The only way I could get on stage was to write my own roles,” he said, “I have a rather androgynous nature.”
Busch found that the feminine within him was a place of authority and strength. “I’m fine when I play male characters,” he said, “but I’m better when I play female characters.”
Why this is so liberating for him is a bit of a mystery to Busch. “But I accept and love it,” he said.
Times have changed since Busch made his first big splash with “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom.” “In 1985, being a drag queen was considered a negative,” Busch said, “my generation of drag performers bristled at being referred to as drag queens.”
Busch no longer bristles. “I feel like the characters,” he said, “I enjoy costumes and getting the right wig.”
“But, I go from male to female not through trickery or anything visual, I transfer through my soul.”
In “Leading Lady,” Busch recalls AIDS and other dark moments from the past. Many of his friends and colleagues died from AIDS. “AIDS was the World War II of our generation,” he said.
But Busch, in his memoir and in his life, isn’t only looking back. He’s very much in the present. Busch is embarrassed to say he was lucky. During the pandemic, devastating to many, he made art. He did play readings on Zoom and finished writing “Leading Lady” which he’d worked on for 14 years.
During the pandemic, Busch with Carl Andress co-wrote and co-directed the movie “The Sixth Reel.” The film’s cast includes Busch, Julie Halston (Busch’s longtime muse), Margaret Cho and Tim Daly.
Busch describes the film, an homage to the Hollywood madcap movies of the 1930s, as “a comic, caper movie.”
“I play a disreputable dealer in movie memorabilia,” Busch said, “a legendary lost film is found, and I see it as my ticket out of debt.”
The “Sixth Reel” is playing from Sept. 21 to Sept. 27 at the LOOK Dine-In Cinema West 57th Street in New York City.
“I hope the run in New York will encourage people to distribute this little movie,” Busch said.
Meet ‘one of the most powerful disabled people on the planet’
Eddie Ndopu a wizard of advocacy and glam
(Editor’s Note: One in four people in America has a disability, according to CDC. Queer and disabled people have long been a vital part of the LGBTQ community. Take two of the many queer history icons who were disabled: Michelangelo is believed to have been autistic. Marsha P. Johnson had physical and psychiatric disabilities. Today, Deaf-Blind fantasy writer Elsa Sjunneson, actor and bilateral amputee Eric Graise and Kathy Martinez, a blind, Latinx lesbian, who was Assistant Secretary of Labor for Disability Employment Policy for the Obama administration are just a few of the people who identify as queer and disabled. Yet, the stories of this vital segment of the queer community have rarely been told. It its series “Queer, Crip and Here,” the Blade is telling some of these long un-heard stories.)
Everything comes full circle: back to Britney Spears for Eddie Ndopu, 32, a queer, Black, disabled man who is a wizard with advocacy and glam.
“I knew I was queer early on,” Ndopu whose memoir “Sipping Dom Perignon Through a Straw: Reimagining Success as a Disabled Achiever” (Legacy Lit) is just out, told the Blade recently in an extended interview, “though I didn’t have the language for it.”
Ndopu, whose mother fled from South Africa because of apartheid, was born in Namibia. At age nine, he and his family moved to Cape Town, South Africa. He was raised by his mother, a single mom.
When he was two, he was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy. He was expected to die from this degenerative disability by the time he turned five.
Decades later, Ndopu knows what it means to live with declining strength, and the knowledge, that while we’ll all die, he’ll likely die sooner than most of us.
At the same time,through his queerness, disability, and imagination, Ndopu said, he embodies what it’s like to live a fabulous life.
It began when he was a child watching and listening to Spears. “Britney was the first pop star I encountered as a young boy,” Ndopu said. “She was iconic in so many ways. I adored her! I watched her dance.”
His mother gave him an album by Spears. “It was my thing,” Ndopu said, “The first thing I owned.”
Spears seemed unstoppable to Ndopu. It triggered something in him. “It made me want to be on the global stage,” he said.
Years later, Ndopu empathized with Spears when she fought to be released from the conservatorship she was under from 2008 to 2021.
“Disabled fans, especially, were with Britney in her battle to be free,” Ndopu said, “because often, disabled people, particularly intellectually disabled people, have been denied agency. Have been denied their autonomy.”
We owe Spears an apology, Ndopu said. “It’s analogous to what disabled people go through,” he added, “we’re owed an apology for all the ways in which we’ve been made to endure so much [through ableism].” (This reporter is queer and disabled.)
Since childhood, Ndopu has loved beauty, fashion and glam. “My first dream was to be a designer,” he said, “I sketched in art classes in school.”
Ndopu daydreamed about living in the United States – about being based in New York City. He watched the soap opera “The Bold and the Beautiful.” “I didn’t watch for the stories about the characters,” Ndopu said, “I watched for the fashion! It gave me glimpses into a world where I wanted to be.”
But as his disability progressed, Ndopu lost strength in his hands. He could no longer draw. “I had to dream a new dream,” he said, “I knew I wanted to do something extraordinary. I imagined an escape.”
One day, he looked through a magazine and saw a story about a school, the African Leadership Academy, that was going to train young people in Africa to be future leaders. He applied to the school.
“They rejected me. Because they didn’t know what to do with me,” Ndopu said, “I wrote to them and got in.”
“I don’t know if I’d do that today,” but I did then,” he added, “that was my saving grace.”
Going there was Ndopu’s first big break. When he was only in his teens, Ndopu was speaking about disability justice.
After graduating from the Leadership Academy, Ndopu graduated with a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies from Carleton University in Canada in 2014. In 2017, Ndopu was the first African student with a degenerative disability to graduate with a master’s in public policy from the Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University. Based at Somerville College, Ndopu received a full scholarship from Oxford.
Today, Ndopu, known for his fab oversized, bejeweled sunglasses, is an award-winning global humanitarian and social justice advocate. Time magazine has called him “one of the most powerful disabled people on the planet.”
Ndopu, fulfilling his childhood daydream, now, lives in New York City.
He is on the board of the United Nations Foundation, a group founded by Ted Turner to support the work of the UN. He works for the UN as a global advocate for sustainable development on issues from climate change to hunger.
Ndopu likes to identify as queer because, he believes, the word “queer” embodies all of his identities – from race to disability to sexuality to being fabulous. “I love to identify as queer,” he said.
In college, Ndopu was infatuated with a guy on the basketball team. He was heartbroken when his affections were unrequited. “That was the moment when I fully embraced my queerness,” Ndopu said, “I came out with my first heartbreak. There was no sitting with it. I went from zero to 100!”
Ndopu became one of the directors at Carleton’s gender and sexuality resource center. He studied queer theory.
There’s a critical contradiction for queer, disabled people, Ndopu believes. At its best, queerness (and the queer community) celebrates the full spectrum of bodies, sexuality and gender from nonbinary to pansexual to two-spirit. “The body is at the center for queer folks,” he said, “that’s something to celebrate.”
On the other side of the coin, though, the queer community doesn’t want to accept, “doesn’t want to have a conversation about bodies that aren’t the socialized idea of the body,” Ndopu said.
That often boils down to ableism toward queer, disabled bodies, Ndopu said. If you’re queer and disabled, you go through “the tension between acceptance and desire,” Ndopu said.
There are many “inspirational” memoirs by disabled people – tales of “overcoming” disability – of overpowering insurmountable odds.
Thankfully, Ndopu’s memoir doesn’t fit this bill at all. “Sipping Dom Perignon Through a Straw” is searing and intimate. Ndopu describes his family: what it was like to grow up with an absent father, how oppressed his mother was by apartheid and how loving and caring she was of him. But much of the memoir is focused on his year at Oxford.
For most people, queer, non-queer, disabled or nondisabled, being at Oxford would have been like being in a fairy tale. Like living the fantasy of your life.
For Ndopu, it was a crowning achievement. He had friends, studied what he wanted to study at a renowned university, and, even became student body president of his program.
Yet, from the get-go, his time at Oxford was riddled with ableism. The physical inaccessibility of the buildings was bad enough. But, Ndopu needs help 24/7 with activities of daily life from getting dressed to going to the bathroom. Finding and paying for caregivers at Oxford was a nightmare for him.
“A sharp, illuminating debut memoir,” Publishers Weekly, said of Ndopu’s book, “…Ndopu shines a light on ableism both conscious and unconscious.”
His experience at Oxford made Ndopu realize that being successful wouldn’t protect him from disability-based prejudice and discrimination. Being brilliant wouldn’t guarantee that you’d have a caregiver to help you pee. He came to believe exceptionalism is used against disabled people (and other marginalized groups).
“The idea that we have to be resilient – that if we have enough grit we’ll overcome all obstacles is used to oppress disabled people,” he said.
You might think that, given his shortened life expectancy and experience of ableism, homophobia, and racism, Ndopu would give up hope. But you’d be wrong.
“I’m going to go out like a fucking meteor!” queer and disabled icon Audre Lorde says in the epigraph to Ndopu’s memoir.
“I deliberately chose this quote from Lorde’s Cancer Journals,” Ndopu said, “I hope I’ll die in as close to a transcendent experience as possible.”
No matter what, Ndopu will be fabulous. “It’s not a frivolous thing,” Ndopu said, “being fabulous makes me, visible.”
For too long, queer and disabled people have been invisible, he added.
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Red, White & Royal Blue’ director on new film, royal weddings, and more
Matthew López moves from theater to movies with gay rom com
These days, it seems that gay rom coms are as prevalent as right-wing religious fanatics protesting said movies. There is even a preponderance of gay Christmas movies. On the Hallmark channel, no less. So, does “Red, White & Royal Blue” have what it takes to stand apart from the pack? Based on the popular novel by queer writer Casey McQuiston, “Red, White & Royal Blue” isn’t just notable for its storyline involving the budding romance between Alex, the bisexual First Son of the first female POTUS, and gay British Prince Henry. “Red, White & Royal Blue” marks the directorial debut by Tony and GLAAD Media Award-winning gay playwright Matthew López (“The Inheritance” and “Some Like It Hot”). Matthew generously made time in his busy schedule for an interview in advance of the movie’s release, which premiered last week on Prime Video.
BLADE: Matthew, considering your long and lauded history in the theater, was the prospect of directing your first feature film daunting, thrilling, or both?
MATTHEW LOPEZ: Generally thrilling, occasionally daunting. But it was only daunting in that there was just a steep learning curve. I was acutely aware of the things I didn’t know, and on occasion, there were things I didn’t know I didn’t know until I had to know it [laughs], at the risk of sounding like Donald Rumsfeld. But it was mostly thrilling, and it was great fun, really. I’d do it again if they let me.
BLADE: With actors such as Taylor Zakhar Perez and Nicholas Galitzine in the lead roles of First Son Alex and Prince Henry, “Red, White & Royal Blue” will have no trouble drawing gay men. Do you think the actors could have the same draw on straight audiences?
LOPEZ: I hope so. I’ve spent a lifetime as an avid consumer of straight love stories, and not just because I had no other options, but because I genuinely wanted to see any of those particular films. I don’t see any reason why the stream doesn’t flow in both directions. This is as unapologetically a queer rom com as “Moonstruck” was as unapologetically an Italian rom com. It is part of what makes this movie unique. It is inescapable, but it also is, we hope, if we’re successful and if we’re lucky, it becomes part of the larger canon of rom coms, rather than simply kept in a corner. We want as many people to see this movie as possible, but we also knew that we wanted to make a movie that was as specific as possible. We never tried to hide who we were in order to find an audience. I think that kind of specificity is what people are really desiring these days.
BLADE: There are some powerful and emotional scenes in “Red, White & Royal Blue,” but the one that hit me the hardest is when Alex, son of the first female POTUS, came out to his mother Ellen, played by Uma Thurman. What was it like to work with Uma?
LOPEZ: I adore her. She was so very happy to be in this movie, which was so wonderful. She really understood Ellen. She and I had so many wonderful conversations about her before production. I involved her in a lot of costume design decisions. She was really wanting to understand this woman holistically. That scene was just so beautiful. By the time we shot it, she and Taylor had really bonded, and they had shot a lot of scenes together at that point. It was the loveliest, warmest environment on set. I mean, it was a very lovely, warm environment on set every day, but that day you can just see in that scene the genuine affection that these two actors have for one another. It was real.
BLADE: Ellen is a staunch Democrat. As a Florida native, and considering what has occurred here during the reign of the current governor, was that in any way what appealed to you about directing and co-adapting the screenplay for “Red, White & Royal Blue”?
LOPEZ: No, I loved the story, and I didn’t give a shit what the governor of Florida thinks about it. I couldn’t care less what that man thinks, only as it relates to the health of the union. I didn’t have this story growing up. I didn’t have access to characters such as these when I was younger. It took until I was in my 40s to read it, to get a novel that had a character like Alex. That I knew implicitly was really special. To me, it was really powerful to read a novel that had a queer, Latino, young man at the center who was a very positive characterization of a queer Latino man. Someone who was filled with hope and possibility. I wanted to bring that into the world. The politics in the novel and in the movie are a hopeful one. It’s not something that is, I hope, too much of a fairy tale.
BLADE: I loved seeing out actor and writer Stephen Fry’s name in the credits at the beginning, and without giving anything away, was surprised to see him, very close to the end, in the role he plays. What did it mean to you to work with Stephen?
LOPEZ: I’ve always been such a fan of his and really admired him greatly. We had had some sort of communication through other people over the years because he had seen “The Inheritance” in London. He got word to me, through our producers, how much he loved it. I had been working at one point on another film that I thought I was going to make, and when he found out that I was working on it, he was like. “I’d really love to be a small part in it if you have anything.” But I never talked to him and never met him. When this role came around [laughs], we thought, “Let’s see if he really means what he says!” He jumped at it! It didn’t take long at all for him to say, “Yes.” That was fun. Just to watch him and work with him is just a great thrill and a pleasure. It was for everybody. Everybody was really excited the day that he came on set.
BLADE: “Red, White & Royal Blue” is being released at a time when, following the passing of Queen Elizabeth and the situation surrounding Harry and Meghan, questions about the necessity of a monarchy have gotten more attention. Do you think “Red, White & Royal Blue” is a help or a hindrance in that regard?
LOPEZ: I don’t really have an opinion one way or the other about that because I think that the movie isn’t actually about the royal family. It uses the royal family as a vehicle to tell the story of a person trapped in a circumstance. I think the thing that is so amazing about Casey McQuiston’s novel is that Casey actually gives us a character that, historically, we haven’t had too much sympathy for. And yet, because Casey draws this character in a way that a lot of us can relate to, which is a person trapped against their own will and circumstances that they are powerless over, you really care for Henry and you really feel deeply for Henry. I also knew that, as we were making this film, I didn’t want the audience to think about the actual royal family when they were watching the film. Because I think if they did, they would be taken out of the story. I think we use the trappings of royalty as a way to tell our story, but it doesn’t take an opinion one way or another, because that’s not what the movie is about.
BLADE: The movie begins with a storybook royal wedding, but the real love story is the one between Alex and Henry. In recent years, the UK has begun taking actions such as the posthumous pardoning of thousands of gay men for gross indecency, and such, as well as Prime Minister Sunak’s recent apology to LGBT members of the military. With that in mind, do you think that the characters of Alex and Henry could also have a storybook wedding?
LOPEZ: Absolutely! I think the British people would support it. The British people are no different than the American people in many ways. There are, of course, great pockets of resistance to change. There is an adherence to traditionalism. I live in London, I’m a resident of the UK. The people that I know there are good and accepting people by and large. I think that Alex and Henry absolutely could have the wedding that they wanted if they wanted it.
BLADE: Have you started thinking about your next film, theater, or writing project?
LOPEZ: I’ll honestly tell you that the thing I’ve been thinking about lately is getting a fair deal from the studios for writers and for actors. As a striking writer who also happens to be a non-striking director, beyond releasing this film, my primary concern is making sure that we can go back to work with a fair contract.
Turning pain into positive & using art as therapy – Carl Hopgood
He knew he wanted to embark on a path toward a “bold, exciting life” among other “creative people” while “doing amazing things and living”
LOS ANGELES – Like many people born with an inclination toward creative expression, Carl Hopgood has known from a very young age that he wanted to be an artist.
Growing up on a small farm in rural Wales, the Cardiff-born Hopgood spent his childhood surrounded by animals and nature, letting his imagination run wild and creating worlds he envisioned with baskets, fruit boxes, flowers, stones, tabloid clippings, and other items that struck his fancy. Then, at 7, he was invited to spend an afternoon with his best friend, whose cousin was visiting; that cousin happened to be Richard Burton, and he happened to be accompanied by his even more famous wife, Elizabeth Taylor.
Hopgood was not just star-struck, he was inspired.
“My world was never the same after that day,” he tells the Blade. “They told stories about Hollywood, London, glamorous parties, movies, photography… and Andy Warhol! Andy Warhol was my first artist crush. He was also born on a farm, so I felt an immediate connection.”
After that experience, he knew he wanted to embark on a path toward a “bold, exciting life” among other “creative people” while “doing amazing things and living.”
Four decades and one continental transplant later, it can safely be said that Hopgood has accomplished his goal.
A successfully established LA-based artist, he’s created a unique body of work that includes pieces in Neon, Sculpture, Film / Video Installation, and canvas painting; his collectors include Morgan Freeman, Eugiono Lopez, The Vinik Family Foundation, The Groucho Club and Rupert Everett; and recent exhibitions of his work – like his neon art installations ‘Looking For Love In All The Wrong Places’, ‘My Heart Is Open’, and ‘You Changed My Life’ at the Maddox Gallery in West Hollywood, and ‘Chair Therapy’ at United Talent Agency’s UTA Artspace LA – have garnered a flurry of enthusiasm and increasing national attention.
The latter installation created a particular stir with its inclusion of a controversial neon sculpture called “Just Say Gay”, Hopgood’s response to the draconian anti-LGBTQ legislation championed by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis; that work was acquired by prominent collector Beth Rudin DeWoody and will be on display from December 2023 at her Bunker Art Space in West Palm Beach, Florida.
When talking with the Blade, Hopgood is keen to focus the discussion on a new goal – the completion of a documentary about the creation of “Chair Therapy” – but he’s certainly willing to start the conversation by talking about the sense of queer defiance behind “Just Say Gay” and many of his other works, because the two subjects go hand in hand.
“Being a gay man of Welsh and Greek heritage,” he proudly proclaims, “the fight against bullying, repression, injustice and discrimination became central themes of my artistic expression.”
As he explains, that fight is rooted in a traumatic childhood experience. “I was bullied by classmates,” he remembers. “They would chase after me, push me to the ground and kick me in the groin. I managed to escape and found sanctuary under a stack of chairs in the school assembly hall. The school therapist helped me cope by using a technique called Empty Chair Therapy, where you would talk to an empty chair about your feelings.
“I decided turn this pain into something positive and use art as my therapy.”
Much later, the young Hopgood would be inspired by the confrontational aesthetic of Damien Hirst – after reading a scathing criticism of one of his works in the paper – and follow in the controversial artist’s footsteps to Goldsmiths College in London, eventually becoming part of a movement with fellow graduates like Steve McQueen, Jason Martin, Ceal Floyer, Angela De La Cruz and Alessandro Raho.
“It was an incredible moment to be a young artist in 1990s London.”
Nevertheless, after 20 years in the London art scene, he decided it was time for a change.
“I had just watched a documentary featuring David Hockney,” he explains. “The freedom and possibility of David’s work was clearly inspired by Southern California with its beautiful palette and open, sunny skies. It was a stark contrast to the gloomy weather of the UK, and the anxiety and depression that accumulated over the years. I had heard about the growing LA art scene –LACMA, MOCA and The Broad were beginning to attract an international audience – and I decided that moving to Los Angeles would be good for both my mental health and creativity.”
The choice was a fortuitous one for him – “It was the perfect time to go,” he says, “and I was ready to work in new mediums and expand my repertoire.” Then, like the rest of us, he had to put all his plans indefinitely up in the air.
“In early 2020, when the pandemic hit,” he tells us, “I would see all the bars and restaurants shuttered in West Hollywood. It was like a ghost town. Looking through the store front windows, all I could see were chairs stacked on top of each other – and that image took me straight back to my unhappy childhood.”
He decided to use it for inspiration and began work on the first sculpture in the “Chair Therapy” series (“My Heart is Open”) – which as he describes, addresses “toxic masculinity, oppression and queer identity, themes I’ve always championed.”
Those themes are doubtless also at least partly behind his desire to see the planned documentary – titled “Fragile World” – reach fruition. Filmed during the pandemic, it profiles Hopgood by charting his personal artistic journey, but centers on the development of “Chair Therapy”, in which he combined found and vintage wooden chairs with neon lights shaped into positive words to provide hope, love and support for a community who were hardest hit by Covid and the shutdowns it necessitated.
“Seeing those stacked chairs and tables, in those empty establishments, I knew some would be forced to close for good. I felt so helpless, but I knew there was something I could do.”
Now, with his own hard-hit community – alongside many others – facing aggressive legislative oppression from the extremist right, he’s determined to see the film finished, so that the same empowering message of optimism embodied in his work can be spread to a larger audience as a reminder not to let the bullies break their spirit. To that end, the documentary’s director and producer, LA-based British filmmaker Kate Rees Davies, has set up an Indiegogo campaign to raise the funding necessary to finish the project.
Another motivation, perhaps even more personal, might be found in Hopgood’s revelation of a hidden influence in another work from the “Empty Chairs” series: “Twelve Steps”, which explores the massive financial success of a California citrus industry made possible by the hard work of a segregated Mexican immigrant labor force. “I was also inspired in that piece by a line from Greek poet Dinos Christianopoulos,” he says, “who was sidelined by the Greek literary community in the 1970s because he was gay. It’s a small but powerful couplet which was included in the collection ‘The Body and the Wormwood’ that reads, ‘What didn’t you do to bury me, but you forgot that I was a seed.’”
For Hopgood, perhaps, the documentary also represents a seed, one that he himself has planted in hope of spreading its positive power into the world – and he’s counting on the support of his patrons through Indiegogo for the water, light and nourishment it requires to grow.
Renowned historian Martin Duberman reflects on a full life in ‘Reaching Ninety’
New memoir looks back at Stonewall, efforts to ‘cure’ homosexuality
Renowned queer historian, playwright, author and LGBTQ activist Martin Duberman, 93, began writing stories when he was four. “They still exist,” Duberman, Distinguished Professor of History Emeritus at City University of New York (CUNY), told the Blade in a telephone interview. “They’re with my papers at the New York Public Library.”
Duberman doesn’t understand what drove him to create. “I’d write these moralistic tales,” he said, “hand-sewn inside covers. About how Alice learned to do what her mother told her to do.”
Duberman who has written some two dozen books as well as plays, hasn’t stopped writing.
Name most anything or anyone and he’s written about it: from the Stonewall Uprising to actor and civil rights activist Paul Robeson. His memoir “Cures” recounts how mental health professionals tried to “cure” him of his “homosexuality.”
When he was 70, he wrote “Haymarket,” a novel set in 1886 in Chicago during protests by labor activists.
His newest book “Reaching Ninety,” is a memoir. In it, Duberman recalls the people, events and work of his life – from coming out to his student years – to his relationships to his beloved puppy Emma (named after iconic feminist and anarchist icon Emma Goldman) to aging.
In “Reaching Ninety,” Duberman quotes the dictum “aging is not for sissies.” But, “The trouble is that I am one,” he adds, “It’s part of my cultural heritage.” There’s a thread running through his work, Duberman, who founded CLAGS: CUNY’s Center for LGBTQ Studies, the first university-based LGBTQ research center in the United States, said. “I’ve been trying to reinvent historical writing.”
It’s essential if you’re an historian and you’re presenting an account of past events, to remain true to the known evidence, Duberman said. “But you have to be clear,” he added, “the evidence that has come down to us is partial and skewed.”
At the beginning of his career as an historian, Duberman wrote with a more traditional view of history: that history could be known and chronicled objectively. As if the historian’s background had no impact on how they wrote history.
Duberman’s early work was well-received. His 1961 biography “Charles Francis Adams, 1807-1886″ won the prestigious Bancroft Prize.
But, as he matured personally and professionally, Duberman began to question the pretense of objectivity. He came to see that subjectivity is an essential part of writing history.
“The historian – with their own background – in their own time – is always present in the history they write,” said Duberman, who earned his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1957.
Historians must adhere to the evidence, Duberman emphasized. “But, they need to decide to come clean about who they are even, in part, to write in the first person. To explain their reaction to evidence.”Historians’ reactions to the evidence they uncover about the past could impact how they write history, he noted.
Historians don’t always know the full extent of how their backgrounds contribute to their interpretations of history. But they should take it for granted that at least some of their eras and views are present, Duberman said.
“To me, the choice comes down to how explicit I should be,” he said, “and how am I going to make it known.”
This was a new way of thinking and writing about history. Take Duberman’s 1972 book “Black Mountain: an Exploration in Community.” In the 20th century, Black Mountain College was a community for artists. But it was, as per the times, homophobic. A faculty member of Black Mountain was arrested for having sex in a car with a minor, Duberman writes in “Reaching Ninety.” He was let off with a suspended sentence. He became an “instant pariah,” resigned immediately and no one from the community at the college offered any help, Duberman writes.
When writing his Black Mountain book, Duberman felt compelled to come out as gay. To be, as an historian, transparent about how his biography impacted his view of history.
“It’s hard to think well of a place that could cooperate as fully as Black Mountain did in an individual’s self-destruction,” Duberman wrote in his Black Mountain book about how the college treated the gay teacher, “indeed to have assumed it as foreclosed.”
“But perhaps I exaggerate, a function of my own indignation as a homosexual, a potential victim,” he added.
In 1972, when the book was published, Duberman’s coming out in his reaction to an incident in the history of Black Mountain College received mixed reviews.
He was denounced in historical journals. “The New York Times reviewer dismissed my coming out as a vaguely unclean bit of business,” Duberman writes in “Reaching Ninety.”
“Other people were well-disposed toward the book,” Duberman said, “they were academics, not historians.”
Historians are a conservative group of people, Duberman said. “They devote their lives to preserving — underline it — the past,” he said, “They’re not likely to be interested in any combined format that merges the past with the present.”
Duberman doesn’t have a clue as to what got him hooked on history. “It was inescapably an unconscious decision,” he said. “I was torn between literature and wanting to be a writer. To find out more about the past and how come we’re at the point of time that we are.”
When Duberman was a freshman at Yale University, the man who taught his history class was only five years older than he. “At his very first class we took to each other,” Duberman said, “and became friendly. He became a role model for me.”
“He just died at 99,” Duberman added, “we never talked openly about homosexuality. But I got the strong impression that he, too, was gay.”
Duberman, who was born in New York, wasn’t out in college or graduate school. Though, he checked out the two gay bars in Boston when he was at Harvard.
Coming out wasn’t an option for people in Duberman’s generation who came of age in the 1940s and 1950s. You could be arrested, expelled from school, kicked out of your apartment or fired from your job if you were open about who you were. People warned him “against coming out to any degree,” Duberman said.
Duberman and his older sister were raised in a secular Jewish household. His father, as a young man, escaped from working in a beet plantation in Russia to Germany and then to New York. His mother went to high school at night while working as a secretary.
From childhood on, Duberman was bitten by a love of theater. He went to theater camp and performed in high school plays.
As a student at the (then) boys prep school Horace Mann, he played female as well as male roles. One night, his friend Bob’s girlfriend noticed that Duberman was the “actress” who portrayed a “stewardess” in a play that evening, Duberman recalls in “Reaching Ninety.” “‘But you can’t be,’ she gasped, ‘you have such beautiful legs!’” Duberman remembers her telling him.
Duberman, a polymath, would grow up to become a privileged insider while remaining an observant, critical outsider.
His many honors include: the Vernon Rice/Drama Desk Award, three Lambda Literary Awards, a special award from the National Academy of Arts and Letters for his contributions to literature and the 2007 lifetime achievement award from the American Historical Association. He’s been a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award finalist.
He and his life-partner, Eli, a psychoanalyst, have just celebrated their 35th anniversary. He’s revered for his pioneering work in queer history.
Yet, even though he’s white, cisgender, and privileged, Duberman hasn’t ever been complacent or content. He still remembers how horrified he was back in the 1960s when he taught at Princeton. “I taught about slavery,” Duberman said, “I was thunderstruck! The white, privileged undergrads were on the verge of defending slavery.”
“It shocked me,” he said, “I shouldn’t have been surprised. But I was.”
The more he taught, the more discontented Duberman got with, what he saw, as the authoritarian system of education at universities. “I didn’t see the teacher as an authority figure,” he said, “but as a fellow learner.”
Though he had tenure, Duberman resigned from Princeton because of this. Also, he dared to move from Princeton to New York. “Then, people at Princeton thought: How could you leave the loveliest town in the world,” Duberman said.
Duberman deplores Trump and anti-queer right-wingers. But he also has been a long-term critic of the LGBTQ rights movement. Queers should be less concerned about marriage equality and more concerned about issues of race, class, and economic justice, he believes.
“There’s resistance to Trump’s lies,” Duberman said, “and it’s appearing in the mainstream – in The New Yorker – even The New York Times.”
The electorate is the greatest roadblock to social change, Duberman said. “The LGBTQ community, like a lot of the country, is conservative,” he added.
Duberman isn’t feeling terribly optimistic at this moment. But, “I keep hoping that one of the upcoming generations will turn out to be different,” he said.
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Corbett Joan O’Toole still fighting for self-determination, respect for disabled people
Author and activist on coming out, intersectionality, and a lifetime of advocacy
(Editor’s Note: One in four people in America has a disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Queer and disabled people have long been a vital part of the LGBTQ community. Take two of the many queer history icons who were disabled: Michelangelo is believed to have been autistic. Marsha P. Johnson, who played a heroic role in the Stonewall Uprising, had physical and psychiatric disabilities. Today, Deaf-Blind fantasy writer Elsa Sjunneson, actor and bilateral amputee Eric Graise and Kathy Martinez, a blind, Latinx lesbian who was Assistant Secretary of Labor for Disability Employment Policy for the Obama administration, are only a few of the numerous queer and disabled people in the LGBTQ community. Yet, the stories of this vital segment of the queer community have rarely been told. In its series “Queer, Crip and Here,” the Blade will tell some of these long unheard stories.)
Corbett Joan O’Toole, 71, a queer, disabled elder and a Ford Foundation 2022 Disability Futures Fellow, knew one thing for sure growing up in Boston: She didn’t want to be a nurse.
O’Toole has had a physical disability since she was 12 months old. “I sometimes joke that my becoming disabled was my birthday present when I turned one year old,” she said in a phone interview with the Blade.
O’Toole has used a wheelchair since she was 30. Before that, she walked with crutches and leg braces.
As a child, she’d had surgery, O’Toole said. “I saw what nurses did,” she added. “Men told them what to do. I knew nursing wasn’t for me.”
Even as a child, O’Toole could tell that male employers had the same attitude toward secretaries. “Sitting in an office all day didn’t seem like fun,” she said, “The only other thing a white woman in my generation could be when they grew up was to be a teacher.”
“I decided to be a teacher,” O’Toole added, “where I’d have my own classroom and no man would be telling me what to do.”
When she was young, O’Toole led, by her account, a sheltered life. She didn’t know then that she was queer. “I didn’t know if I met any queer people,” O’Toole said, “but I always knew that I liked strong women. I thought they were interesting.”
And, O’Toole, like many kids and teens with disabilities then (and, even often, now) knew that little was expected of disabled people. That disabled lives weren’t highly valued. “I was in school all the time with nondisabled kids,” O’Toole said.
Nearly everything was inaccessible then from libraries to courthouses to movie theaters. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) wouldn’t be passed until decades later. “You were expected to adapt even if things were inaccessible,” O’Toole said.
If you couldn’t make it in an inaccessible world, the attitude was “you don’t have to be here,” O’Toole said.
O’Toole didn’t meet other disabled people except during the summer, when she’d spend a month at a camp for disabled kids. The director and staff were nondisabled, O’Toole said. But at camp, she got to hang out with 90 other disabled kids. O’Toole got to interact with people like herself – disabled kids living vibrant lives. “We explored nature,” she said, “we collected blueberries. Made pancakes.”
There, O’Toole developed her life-long love of sports. As an adult, she has played competitive wheelchair basketball and power soccer. At her childhood summer camp, “We did archery,” O’Toole said, “and played baseball.”
At a time when sexism was the norm, O’Toole got to do things that girls usually couldn’t do at camp. “We went fishing,” she said, “We used power tools in a woodshop,” she said, “It was empowering!”
At camp, if the kids wanted to do something, they’d figure out a way to make it accessible – to make it work, O’Toole added.
O’Toole, author of “Fading Scars: My Queer Disability History,” a groundbreaking book that was a Lambda Literary Award finalist, graduated in 1973 from Fitchburg State University with a bachelor’s degree in education and her teaching credentials. The summer after graduation, she moved with a friend to Berkeley, Calif.
O’Toole was eager to go to California. It would get her out of the cold of New England, where getting around in ice and snow if you’re using crutches or a wheelchair is difficult. “It sounded like fun,” she said. “I’d be in a part of the country where it’s a Mediterranean climate – it’s spring or summer. No snow.”
The move to California was transformative for O’Toole.
There, people thought about disability accessibility. She met queer people and disabled people as well as many nondisabled and disabled lesbians.
“At 23, I came out,” O’Toole said, “I met a woman in a women’s workshop.”
She got to know Kitty Cone, an out disabled lesbian and disability rights movement leader. (Cone died in 2015.) She connected O’Toole to the burgeoning independent living movement. “She brought me to the Center for Independent Living in Berkeley and to the disabled lesbian community,” O’Toole said.
The independent living movement believes in self-determination and self-respect for disabled people. It fights disability-based discrimination and views disability from a cultural and social, rather than a medical perspective. Independent living centers are community-based, non-profit organizations, organized and controlled by disabled people. They provide advocacy, information and other services.
“The Berkeley CIL had a lot of lesbians who were nondisabled,” O’Toole said, “we are the wives of every movement.”
O’Toole came to California at a pivotal moment in disability history – at the beginning of the modern disability rights movement. She quickly became a vital part of that history.
O’Toole, along with Cone and Judith Heumann, the disability rights movement founder who died last month, was a leader in a 1977 nearly month-long occupation by disabled protesters and their allies of a San Francisco federal building known as the “504 sit-in.” As a result of the protest, the Carter administration signed the ‘504′ regulations, which prohibited schools, hospitals, and other entities receiving federal funds from discriminating against disabled people. These regulations were the precursor to the ADA.
“Berkeley became like Mecca,” O’Toole, who is featured in the Oscar-nominated documentary “Crip Camp,” said. “Disabled people came to Berkeley from all over the world.”
In the years since the 1970s, O’Toole’s life has contained more multitudes than even Walt Whitman could have fathomed.
She is a single mom. Her daughter, whom she adopted, has a physical disability. O’Toole was a founder of the Axis Dance Company, an acclaimed ensemble of disabled and nondisabled performers. Currently, she’s working on a novel and traveling in a self-built camper van.
But things haven’t always been easy for O’Toole. Like many disabled parents, especially those who are disabled and queer, she’s encountered prejudice.
O’Toole’s daughter is now 30. Raising her daughter, O’Toole often feared that because she was a single mother, disabled and queer, she’d lose custody of her physically disabled child. It was fraught, O’Toole said, because of the bias against queer and disabled people being parents.
“The courts – the social service system – are all too happy to take your kids away,” O’Toole said.
O’Toole had to fight to get her daughter the services and education she needed.
“Because I was a lesbian, I had to constantly be in the closet,” she said, “our of fear that they’d take my child away if I was out.”
Her lovers, if they were around school system staff, would have to pretend to “just be my friends,” O’Toole said.
For decades, long before intersectionality was a fashionable buzzword, O’Toole, who is white, has thought about the intersection of class, queerness, race, and disability.
“I grew up in a working class neighborhood,” O’Toole said. “My Dad was a firefighter. I was taught a lot about class.”
“But there was a lot of racism embedded in my world,” she added.
It wasn’t until she went to Berkeley and became part of the lesbian community that she was “in rooms with lesbians of color,” O’Toole said.
White women need to listen better to women of color, she said. “We need to follow their lead.”
O’Toole couldn’t believe how much she didn’t know about what women of color experienced. Take just one thing: “I didn’t know that parking tickets could turn into jail sentences,” she said.
“I have to do the work,” O’Toole added, “it’s not their job to educate me. It’s my racism that’s blocking me from the truth.”
Despite all of the difficulties, O’Toole is hopeful. People are resilient. They love and care for each other, she said. “What are you doing to spread hope,” O’Toole asked.
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Queer representation did not sit quiet at Emmy Awards
This year- 50% of the best drama series, 25% of the best comedy, & 60% of the best limited series featured LGBTQ characters or plot lines
LOS ANGELES – The pandemic is over (in award show world anyway), and glitz and glamour have returned. That is the prevailing impression from this year’s 74th Annual Emmy Awards. The show was stunning and exciting from the outset, but even with the pomp and loud noise of celebration, a queer presence was not to be drowned out.
The tone of representation was launched immediately as announcer, queer comic, Sam Jay, looking sharp in her black tuxedo, took the mic. On camera even more than host Kenan Thompson, Jay was a presence and a personality and decidedly queer. If her gay power was not enough, the point was made when Thompson and out actor Boen Yang joked on stage. Thompson accused Yang of a comment being “a hate crime”, Yang retorted “Not if I do it. Then it’s representation.”
Representation was going to be made this evening. The visibility was significant considering, according to the GLAAD Where We Are on TV Report, out of 775 series regular characters only 92 are LGBTQ (less than 12 percent). That 11+ percent is a record high of LGBTQ characters in all of TV history. The record was set by an increase in lesbian, bisexual and transgender characters, but a decrease in gay male characters from the previous year.
For the Emmy nominations, 50% of the best drama series nominees, 25% of the best comedy, and 60% of the best limited series featured LGBTQ characters or plot lines. As far as queer talent, that was more sporadic, heavily slanted towards “supporting categories” and often with queer talent all in the same category against each other.
Regardless, we showed up, as did other individuals who scored recognition for their identities. Some of the key LGBTQ representative moments included:
- Early in the show, Hannah Einbinder did a hard flirt from the stage for Zendaya, saying that she was not on the stage to present, but rather to stare at the beautiful actress.
- Gay actor Murray Bartlett won Best Supporting Actor for a Limited or Anthology Series for The White Lotus. He thanked his partner Matt, but strangely did not mention the famous “salad scene” (Google it…)
- The White Lotus also won the Best Limited or Anthology series category, and bisexual Mike White won Best Director for Limited Series as well. White is the son of gay clergyman, author, and activist Mel White. They appeared on the Amazing Race as a father and son team.
- Jerrod Carmichael won the Emmy for Outstanding Writing of a Variety Special for his heartfelt Rothaniel in which he comes out as gay as part of the show. Carmichael wowed in a brilliant white, flowing fur coat over his bare medallioned chest.
- Out actress Sarah Paulsen and Shonda Rhimes, who singlehandedly is responsible for 17% of all LGBTQ characters on TV, presented the Governors Award to Geena Davis for her organization Institute of Gender in Media. The mission of the organization is representation of women in media. Davis stood before a video featuring various women artists including transgender actress Laverne Cox. The organization is the only public data institute to consistently analyze representations of the six major marginalized identities on screen: women; people of color; LGBTQIA+ individuals; people with disabilities; older persons (50+); and large-bodied individuals in global Film, Television, Advertising and Gaming.
- Lizzo broke RuPaul’s streak to win Best Competition program. RuPaul showed up later in the show do present a major award anyway. Lizzo has not felt the need to label herself in the LGBTQ spectrum but has said, “When it comes to sexuality or gender, I personally don’t ascribe to just one thing. I cannot sit here right now and tell you I’m just one thing. That’s why the colors for LGBTQ+ are a rainbow! Because there’s a spectrum, and right now we try to keep it black and white. That’s just not working for me.”
Beyond the rainbow scope of queer representation, intersectional, iconic and historic representation was also on hand:
- LGBTQ icon Jennifer Coolidge won Best Supporting Actress in a Limited or Anthology Series for The White Lotus. It was her first award win ever. Squeals of delight could be heard in space from gay Emmy watch parties. OK. I don’t know that for a fact, but I would put money on it.
- LGBTQ icon Jean Smart won Best Actress in a Comedy Series for Hacks, a series of which its producer called about “women and queer people.”
- Lee Jung-jae became the first South Korean actor and first Asian actor to win Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series for Squid Game.
- Zendaya became the youngest person ever to win in the leading acting categories two times as she won for the second season of “Euphoria”
- Hwang Dong-hyuk became the first South Korean to win Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series for Squid Game
- Sheryl Lee Ralph won Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series for Abbott Elementary becoming only the second black woman in history to win in this category after 35 years. Jacké Harry won for 227 in 1987. “I am an endangered species,” she sang as her acceptance. “But I sing no victim’s song.”
Yes, there was a day in the not long ago past where the mention of a single same sex spouse, or a renegade pro-lgbtq comment, made our queer hearts spill over. Those days are passed. We are getting a place at the table. Representation is starting to stand up and be heard.
For those who rightfully seek it, and seek more of it, the best advice came from Sheryl Lee Ralph: “To anyone who has ever, ever had a dream, and thought your dream wasn’t, wouldn’t, couldn’t come true, I am here to tell you that this is what believing looks like, this is what striving looks like, and don’t you ever, ever give up on you.”
Supporting Actor in a Limited or Anthology Series or Movie: 74th Emmy Awards:
Daisy Edgar-Jones knows why ‘the Crawdads sing’
Actress on process, perfecting a southern accent, and her queer following
Daisy Edgar-Jones is an actor whose career is blossoming like her namesake. In recent years, she seems to be everywhere. LGBTQ viewers may recognize Edgar-Jones from her role as Delia Rawson in the recently canceled queer HBO series “Gentleman Jack.” She also played memorable parts in a pair of popular Hulu series, “Normal People” and “Under the Banner of Heaven.” Earlier this year, Edgar-Jones was seen as Noa in the black comedy/horror flick “Fresh” alongside Sebastian Stan.
With her new movie, “Where the Crawdads Sing” (Sony/Columbia), she officially becomes a lead actress. Based on Delia Owens’ popular book club title of the same name, the movie spans a considerable period of time, part murder mystery, part courtroom drama. She was kind enough to answer a few questions for the Blade.
BLADE: Daisy, had you read Delia Owens’s novel “Where the Crawdads Sing” before signing on to play Kya?
DAISY EDGAR-JONES: I read it during my audition process, as I was auditioning for the part. So, the two went hand in hand.
BLADE: What was it about the character of Kya that appealed to you as an actress?
EDGAR-JONES: There was so much about her that appealed to me. I think the fact that she is a very complicated woman. She’s a mixture of things. She’s gentle and she’s curious. She’s strong and she’s resilient. She felt like a real person. I love real character studies and it felt like a character I haven’t had a chance to delve into. It felt different from anyone I’ve played before. Her resilience was one that I really admired. So, I really wanted to spend some time with her.
BLADE: While Kya is in jail, accused of killing the character Chase, she is visited by a cat in her cell. Are you a cat person or do you prefer dogs?
EDGAR-JONES: I like both! I think I like the fact that dogs unconditionally love you. While a cat’s love can feel a bit conditional. I do think both are very cute. Probably, if I had to choose, it would be dogs.
BLADE: I’m a dog person, so I’m glad you said that.
BLADE: Kya lives on the marsh and spends a lot of time on and in the water. Are you a swimmer or do you prefer to be on dry land?
EDGAR-JONES: I like swimming, I do. I grew up swimming a lot. If I’m ever on holidays, I like it to be by the sea or by a nice pool.
BLADE: Kya is also a gifted artist, and it is the thing that brings her great joy. Do you draw or paint?
EDGAR-JONES: I always doodle. I’m an avid doodler. I do love to draw and paint. I loved it at school. I wouldn’t say I was anywhere near as skilled as Kya. But I do love drawing if I get the chance to do it.
BLADE: Kya was born and raised in North Carolina. What can you tell me about your process when it comes to doing a southern accent or an American accent in general?
EDGAR-JONES: It’s obviously quite different from mine. I’ve been lucky that I’ve spent a lot of time working on various accents for different parts for a few years now, so I feel like I’m developed an ear for, I guess, the difference in tone and vowel sounds [laughs]. When it came to this, it was really important to get it right, of course. Kya has a very lyrical, gentle voice, which I think that North Carolina kind of sound really helped me to access. I worked with a brilliant accent coach who helped me out and I just listened and listened.
BLADE: While I was watching “Where the Crawdads Sing” I thought about how Kya could easily be a character from the LGBTQ community because she is considered an outsider, is shunned and ridiculed, and experiences physical and emotional harm. Do you also see the parallels?
EDGAR-JONES: I certainly do. I think that aspect of being an outsider is there, and this film does a really good job of showing how important it is to be kind to everyone. I think this film celebrates the goodness you can give to each other if you choose to be kind. Yes, I definitely see the parallels.
BLADE: Do you have an awareness of an LGBTQ following for your acting career?
EDGAR-JONES: I tend to stay off social media and am honestly not really aware of who follows me, but I do really hope the projects I’ve worked on resonate with everyone.
BLADE: Are there any upcoming acting projects that you’d like to mention?
EDGAR-JONES: None that I can talk of quite yet. But there are a few things that are coming up next year, so I’m really excited.
LA Blade Exclusive: L Morgan Lee, Broadway’s newest icon sings her truth
She is the first ever trans actress to receive a Tony Award Nomination & the first trans performer to be in a work that has won a Pulitzer
NEW YORK CITY – “I am just a girl,” L Morgan Lee tells me. That simple statement is her self-definition, a girl taking life one step at a time.
To the rest of us, L Morgan Lee is so much more. She is the award-winning actress starring on Broadway in the hit show of the season, A Strange Loop. Her singing talent matches that of any legendary diva, she is creating landmark theatrical projects on womanhood and New York Times articles are being written about her. She is the “girl” in the spotlight now.
She is also, the first ever transgender actor or actress to receive a Tony Award Nomination.
While she is not the first trans performer to be seen on a Broadway stage, she seems to have broken the glass (or some might say, cement) ceiling of being recognized in the upper echelon of talent. She is the first transgender performer to be in a work that has won a Pulitzer. While the Pulitzer recognizes the author, whom she was not, certainly her creative input was weaved into the final book of the play.
L Morgan has journeyed a complex path to self-awareness. “For me, even in terms of being trans, the idea of being anything outside of what I was assigned at birth was just laughable and crazy to me as a child,” she says. “It just, it made no sense. It was not something that I was comfortable saying out loud to anyone or voicing. How would I be looked at by my parents, by anyone else? So, I would sit and dream. The dreaming is, I think, what forms, much of so many queer people’s lives and experiences. Those dreams become our lifelines. I would dream and dream. I have a memory of when I was maybe six years old, in the middle of the night, looking up at my ceiling in my bedroom. Waking up soaked with tears. Saying, if I could wake up and be a girl, a girl, everything would be okay.” She adds. “That is why I am so excited to have gotten my first opportunity to be on Broadway, excited to have gotten a Tony nomination. Because I know that there is some kid somewhere, who is also looking up at the ceiling saying that same thing.”
L Morgan’s first adventure into performing was as a kid and ironically projected her future identity fluidity: she costumed up and performed “Karma Chameleon” in nursery school. She allowed herself to explore her true identity under the guise of a Halloween costume quite a few years later. She went in fully fashion glammed drag, and it changed her world forever. “The minute I did it, I felt a jolt of energy I had never felt before. I finally felt free in so many ways. It’s as if like it’s as if I finally got to breathe.”
When she started work on A Strange Loop, she had been cast under the assumption that she was a cisgender man playing female parts. As the years of work into the play went on, L Morgan’s transgender journey escalated, and she attempted to resign from the play as she realized she was no longer the person they thought they had hired. Not only were they aware, as many close loved ones can be, of her journey, but they embraced her and assured her that she belonged more than ever.
“The characters I played allowed me to, in some ways hide until I was able to be more public about who I am. And once I did that, it certainly brought another layer of depth to what I was doing. I have been that much more comfortable in my own skin. I’ve grown. Transition has settled in more. So, both my viewpoints about the show, the people I’m playing, and my lens of life in general, has evolved through the process. So, certainly the woman I am today, views the show and the script, and the characters I play in a very different way than I did when I first sat down to do it in 2015.”
Her growth within the show, and the growth of the show itself are intertwined. Certainly, some of the magic of the show is that it is not “performed” as much as it is lived out of the souls of the actors in it. L Morgan describes, “The experience of A Strange Loop has been beautiful, complex, layered and ever evolving, for me in particular. Every time I’ve come back to the rehearsal room with this project, my own lens has been slightly evolved or has moved forward in some ways.”
“The piece is as strong as it is because the lens itself, the lens through which the story is told, is very specific and very honest. Inside of that specificity, there are lots of complications and layers and messy stuff. There are things that you don’t ‘talk about out loud’ taboo to discuss. There are things that people see as problematic. There are so many things inside of all of that, but it’s honest and it’s human. It is a 25-year-old, who’s about to turn 26, sort of raging through life, feeling oppressed and unseen and shouting out to find how he fits into the world. It is how he can find his truest voice in a world that doesn’t really allow him to feel like he’s enough. Because it is so specific about those things the show touches so many different people.”
L Morgan demonstrated coming out as a confident transgender actress, with her vulnerabilities unhidden, on the opening night of the play and decisions she made as she stepped into the public spotlight. “I feel a responsibility. It feels like a dream, it feels wonderful. It feels exciting. It’s like everything I’ve ever asked for but the, the most poignant feeling for me is the responsibility. How could I show up for that person that needs to find me.”
“On my opening night on Broadway, we were trying to figure out what I was going to do with dress and hair and all these things. You only get a first time once. You get your debut one time. So how do I make the most of this moment? I felt raw and excited. I needed to show like the most honest and clear-cut version of me I could. I needed to show my shaved head because that’s something that’s important to me. It’s something, I almost never show. I stepped out revealed, exposed and vulnerable on the very public red carpet, speaking to cameras with my buzzed head. Our relationship with hair runs very deep, especially for trans people, and there was something about it, that just felt like, I needed to do it. That kid somewhere under the covers needs to see this trans woman who is in her Broadway debut and she’s in a pretty dress and she has a shaved head, and she seems like she’s comfortable. Then when you hear her talking about it, you hear about her vulnerability and hear that she felt nervous, and you hear that she was dealing with dysphoria and she was dealing with confidence and she was dealing with all these things that we attached to our hair and she reveals those things. Not only because they’re true but because when we reveal Our Truth, our humanness, there is universality there. There is connection inside of our vulnerability.”
While the Tony nomination escalates her Broadway experience, L Morgan does not lose sight of her mortal existence. “On the day that the Tony nominations happened, I fell apart, completely losing it in my bedroom. Then I realized, I still needed to get a couch, and clean up the apartment. I still feel regular. It’s been a wild dream and at the same time, your real life just keeps on going. I am just trying to put one foot in front of the other.”
On the night of the Tonys. L Morgan will be up against some heavy hitters. Not the least of these is Broadway Legend Patty LuPone. L Morgan is ok with that. Her dream has been to see her face in one of the camera boxes on television of the nominee hopefuls.
“The biggest reason I do, what I do is one because I love storytelling. My experience is black, my experience is trans, but I’m just, I’m just a woman. I am a woman who had a trans experience. That’s my story. I know that somewhere there’s s a kid, as I have said, who is just like I was. It is extremely important for me to make that kid proud and make that kid feel seen and make that kid know that it’s possible.”
“I want that kid to be able to know that most importantly, they already are who they are dreaming to be. The world is telling you something different, but you know who you are. There’s nothing wrong with you, there is nothing wrong with us. The world has never told us that we were an option.”
“That kid needs to find my story. They need to know that we exist. It is the reason it took me so long to be public about things and to start speaking, because I wasn’t seeing enough examples. There’s a quote, ‘she needed a hero, so that’s what she became.’ I really live by that.”
She needed to see a transwoman Tony Nominee. So that’s what she became.
When they call the winner on Tony Night, it will be between a Broadway legend and Broadway’s newest icon.
However it goes, another ceiling has been broken forever, and somewhere a trans girl in hiding will realize her dream too can come true.
For better and for worse, Oscar makes history again
The biggest queer moment of the night was Ariana DeBose’s historic win as the first out woman to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress
HOLLYWOOD – By the time you read this, the biggest moment from this year’s Oscars will already be old news – but before we can move on to a discussion of what the wins and losses reveal about the state of LGBTQ+ representation, inclusion, and acceptance in the Hollywood film industry, we have to talk about it anyway.
When Will Smith stepped up onto that stage at the Dolby Theatre to physically assault Chris Rock – a professional comedian, doing the job he was hired to do in good faith that he would be safe from bodily harm while doing it – for making an admittedly cheap and not-very-funny joke, it was a moment of instant Oscar history that overshadowed everything else about the evening.
There’s been enough discussion about the incident that we don’t need to take up space for it here – tempting as it may be – other than to assert a firm belief that violence is never a good way to express one’s disapproval of a joke, especially during a live broadcast that is being seen by literally millions of people.
Smith, whether or not he deserved his win for Best Actor, succeeded only in making sure his achievement – which could have been a triumphant and historic moment for Black representation in Hollywood, not to mention an honorable cap for his own long and inspiring career – will be forever marred, and the palpably insincere non-apology that replaced what could otherwise have been his acceptance speech was only a textbook example of putting out fire with gasoline.
Yet that polarizing display also allows us a springboard into the much-more-important subject of queer visibility in the movies, thanks to another Smith-centered controversy (and there have been so many, really) from the early days of his career that sheds a lot of light on the homophobic attitudes of an industry almost as famous as playing to both sides of the fence as it is for the art it produces.
Back in 1993, riding his success as a hip-hop artist-turned actor and springboarding from his “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” fame into a movie career, Smith appeared in the film adaptation of John Guare’s critically-acclaimed play “Six Degrees of Separation,” playing a young con artist who preys on a wealthy Manhattan couple (played by Donald Sutherland and Stockard Channing), convincing them to give them money and even move into their home before they eventually discover the truth after coming home to find him in bed with a male hustler.
Unsurprisingly (it was 1993, after all), some of the play’s homosexual content was “softened” for the film version, but Smith was still called upon to perform in a scene depicting a kiss between himself and co-star Anthony Michael Hall. After initially agreeing, he abruptly changed his mind (due to advice from friend-and-mentor Denzel Washington, who warned him that kissing a man onscreen could negatively impact his future career) and refused to do the kiss, necessitating the use of camera trickery to accomplish the scene.
Decades later, Smith expressed regret at the choice, saying it was “immature” and that he should have gone ahead with the kiss – but the story nevertheless provides some insight about the pressure placed on actors in Hollywood to appear heterosexual for their audiences, no matter what.
Despite advancements, that pressure continues today – and Smith, whose unorthodox and publicly rocky marriage already has put him under an arguably unfair microscope, has also been alleged (most notoriously by trans actress Alexis Arquette, who made controversial comments about the couple shortly before her death in 2016) to be participating in a sham marriage in an effort to conceal both his own and his wife’s queer sexuality, may well have been feeling it when he was moved to assert his masculinity at the Academy Awards.
True or not, such rumors still have the potential for ruining careers in Hollywood; and while it may be a facile oversimplification to assume that homophobia was behind Smith’s ill-advised breach of decorum, it’s nevertheless a topic that goes straight to the heart of why the Academy, even in 2022, has such an abysmal track record for rewarding – or even including – openly queer actors on Oscar night.
Granted, things have improved, at least in terms of allowing queerness to be on display at the ceremony. On Sunday night, out Best Actress nominee Kristen Stewart attended with her fiancée, Dylan Miller, with the couple sharing a public kiss on the red carpet as they arrived for the festivities; the trio of female hosts – which included out woman of color Wanda Sikes alongside fellow comedians Amy Schumer and Regina Hall – called out Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill with a defiant joke during their opening presentation.
Jessica Chastain – who won Best Actress for playing unlikely LGBTQ ally and AIDS advocate Tammy Faye Baker in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” – made an emotional speech decrying anti-LGBTQ legislation and advocating for all people to be “accepted for who we are, accepted for who we love, and to live a life without the fear of violence or terror.”
Numerous participants in the evening, whether male or female, queer or straight, took the opportunity to push gender boundaries with their couture for the evening (thanks for that, Timothée Chalamet). Elliot Page, joining Jennifer Garner and JK Simmons for a “Juno” reunion, became the first trans man to be a presenter at the Academy Awards. Finally, two beloved queer icons shared the stage for the evening’s finale, as Lady Gaga was joined by wheelchair-bound Liza Minnelli, frail but full of obvious joy at being there, to present the award for Best Picture.
The biggest queer moment of the night, of course, was also one of the first: Ariana DeBose’s historic win as the first out woman to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Accepting the award (for which she was considered by far the front-runner), De Bose proudly highlighted her queerness alongside her other intersecting identities, saying “You see an openly queer woman of color, an Afro-Latina, who found her strength and life through art. And that is, I think, what we’re here to celebrate.”
The evening’s other queer nominees did not fare so well. “Flee,” the Danish documentary about a gay Afghan refugee’s escape from his homeland as a teen, made history by scoring triple nominations as Best Documentary Feature, Best International Feature, and Best Animated Feature, but it went home empty-handed. Stewart – the only other openly queer acting nominee – lost to Chastain for Best Actress, and the divisive but queer-themed “Power of the Dog” lost its bid for Best Picture to “CODA,” as well as all of its multiple acting nominations – though its director, Jane Campion, already the first woman to be nominated twice for the Best Director Prize, became the third woman to actually win it.
Of course, the Oscar, like any other award, should be bestowed upon the most deserving nominee regardless of sexuality, gender, or any other “identity” status, and it seems unreasonable to expect all the queer nominees to win – though some might feel a little reparative favoritism wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing when it comes to balancing the scales. Even so, nobody has a chance to win if they’re not even nominated, and that’s where Oscar has repeatedly and persistently fallen short.
According to a recent report from Professor Russell Robinson, Faculty Director of Berkeley Law’s Center on Race, Sexuality & Culture, analysis of more than half a century of Academy Award acting nominations reveals that out of 68 nominations (and 14 wins) for performers playing LGBTQ roles, only two nominees – neither of whom went on to win – were LGBTQ-identified in real life.
While actors like Tom Hanks (“Philadelphia”), Sean Penn (“Milk”), Penélope Cruz (“Parallel Mothers” and “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”), and the late William Hurt (“Kiss of the Spider Woman”) garnered career-boosting acclaim along with their Oscars for playing queer characters, there are no equivalent success stories for queer actors playing straight roles – indeed, only eight openly queer performers have gotten a nomination for ANY role, queer or otherwise, in the entire history of the Oscars, and no transgender performers have ever received one at all.
While one might believe statistics like this are at least beginning to change, bear in mind that both of Benedict Cumberbatch’s two Oscar nods so far were for playing gay men, including this year’s “Power of the Dog” (the first was for playing real-life queer hero Alan Turing in “The Imitation Game”).
The topic of whether straight actors playing queer characters is appropriate at all is of course a hotly-debated one, with reasonable arguments – and queer voices in support of them – on both sides. We won’t attempt an in-depth examination of that issue here, but what is obvious even without the above statistics is that the Academy – or rather, looking at it from a wider scope, Hollywood itself – has a deeply-ingrained prejudice against queerness, regardless of how loudly it proclaims itself to be an ally.
Yes, progress has undeniably been achieved, especially within the last few years; the strong showing of films like “Moonlight,” “Call Me By Your Name,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and other LGBTQ-oriented titles on recent Oscar nights has gone neither unnoticed nor unappreciated.
Yet the Academy – as well as the industry it represents – has a pattern of responding to criticism over its inclusiveness in half-measures. It takes more than a hashtag to end sexual harassment of women in the workplace, no matter how many times it’s flashed on the screen during an awards show, and it takes more than a token nomination every few years to give an underrepresented population a fair place at the table, too.
This year’s ceremony was not without its missteps. The choice to bump awards from the broadcast for time while simultaneously devoting minutes to a James Bond tribute or a performance of a song (“We Don’t Talk About Bruno” from Disney’s “Encanto”) that wasn’t even nominated; accompanying the annual “In Memoriam” tribute to the year’s dearly departed with a choreographed dance and vocal performance; the insensitivity of rushing some winners (like “Drive My Car” director Ryusuke Hamaguchi, accepting when his film won for Best International Feature) to finish their speeches while letting others continue uninterrupted; these and other ill-considered decisions had already blemished the show before “the slap heard ‘round the world” ever happened.
Nevertheless, this Oscar show felt more authentic than many in recent memory. There was a raw, unpredictable quality to it, perhaps rooted in the Academy’s controversial choice to relegate several “lesser” awards to a pre-show presentation, that manifested itself in the uncomfortable response of the audience to the often sharp humor of hostesses Sikes, Schuman, and Hall – who mercilessly skewered Hollywood’s say-one-thing-do-another approach to sexism, racism, homophobia and more throughout the show, often with visible apprehension over how their jokes might land.
Nervousness notwithstanding, their presence and their comedic calling-out of industry hypocrisy, along with the willingness of the celebrities in the house to laugh about it, was an element that lifted the proceedings enough to make them not only bearable, but sometimes even enjoyable.
That doesn’t mean the Academy can rest on its laurels. While it’s become common for their awards show – and all the others, for that matter – to serve as a kind of celebrity roast, where jokes are made and laughed at about the industry’s hot-button issue of the day, the persistent problems in Hollywood can’t be corrected just by allowing its workers to blow off steam by making fun of them once a year.
The film industry thinks that by going along with self-mocking humor about its own misogyny, racism, and homophobia, it gets a pass to continue ignoring the growing demand from the public to eliminate those same toxic ingredients from its standard recipe.
Perhaps the Smith incident, based as it seems to have been in a show of masculine dominance, will prompt some soul-searching within the entertainment community over its own rampant hypocrisy. Let’s hope so, because if the Academy Awards are ever to be truly inclusive in their representation of every segment of our society, no matter who they are or who they love, that’s something that has to happen first in the movies their prizes are meant to honor.
We’ve come a long way, to be sure, but we’re not there yet.
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