What a world of wonder we live in, and what a difference a decade of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” makes.
Long the domain of gritty gay clubs, indie filmmakers, and occasional mainstream appearances, drag artistry has been dragged — death-dropping, tea-spilling, and shade-throwing — into the global consciousness, in no small part due to the team of Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, whose predilection for fostering LGBTQ+ visibility has become a potent form of de facto activism.
Bailey and Barbato are the minds behind World of Wonder (WOW), the 1991-founded production company responsible for unleashing “RuPaul’s Drag Race” (RPDR), “RuPaul’s DragCon” conventions, and other queer-centric entities upon an unsuspecting, and increasingly welcoming, public. As storytellers and paradigm-shifters, they’re just getting started.
So much of what we now know of drag started with a chance meeting, which would become a pivotal event in herstory.
“Randy and I,” Bailey recalls, had “this shared moment of recognition” years ago, in Atlanta, when they came across a drag queen “wheat pasting posters around town, and they said ‘RuPaul is Everything.’ And we were like, oh, my god, he is a mother-fucking star… I think RuPaul’s always been a star. He’s one of those people who’s been fully formed, and it’s been about, really, the world catching up with him.”
WOW’s seeds of spreading the drag gospel, Bailey notes, sprung “from the days when Randy and I went to see drag shows at the Pyramid. We’d see these amazing queens on this tiny stage,” he said, referencing the iconic ’80s NYC East Village club where Lady Bunny, Lypsinka, and, yes, RuPaul, cut their teeth and sharpened their claws.
“We always felt,” Bailey says, of the art form and aesthetic, “drag deserved as big a platform as possible.”
With UK, Thailand, and Chile editions of “Drag Race” up and running, that platform handily extends beyond America, making RuPaul and World of Wonder globally recognized brands. But back in the Pyramid Club days, Bailey says, “I don’t know that we necessarily had an agenda. That would suggest we were very clever and knew what we were doing. I think it was just, we thought this is really great art. This is great creativity. This is great work, and people should see it.”
And see it they shall. Bailey assures there are “definitely plans to extend the franchise, yes,” and that WOW is “exploring some other local [international] versions.” He deferred when asked for specifics, insisting, “I can’t! I can’t… I could, but I’d have to kill you.”
Rather than end our interview via the strategic murder of this reporter, the conversation pivoted to the question of whether contestants from abroad might be invited to compete on future domestic seasons of RPDR. “There are no plans currently,” Bailey says, “but I think that would be a wonderful thing.”
Every country, Bailey notes, “has its own rich drag culture.” British drag, for example, is “a bit more gritty,” drawing on pantomime as well as “something called ‘end-of-the-pier’ humor,” which Bailey describes as referring to “seaside towns in Britain that have piers that go out into the water, and people would walk on the piers, and they became ‘Fun Fairs.’ I suppose it’s like the circus in America, I guess, but maybe it’s a little more ‘Little Britain,’ ” he notes, invoking the 2002-2007 BBC sketch comedy show whose title references the insular nature of cultural observation.
While the expressive quirks may differ, Bailey maintains drag is “something that is universally relatable. You don’t have to be a drag queen,” he says. “You don’t have to be gay.”
Recalling RuPaul’s iconic articulation of what constitutes the form (“We’re all born naked and the rest is drag.”), Bailey asserts, “Anything we put on ourselves is about building an identity, making a statement, assuming a pose, creating an image. So I think, in this Instagram world that we live in, everybody can get that, and enjoy that, and play with that.”
With its rich pageant of panels, meet and greets, product exhibitors, and appearances by a dozens-strong stable of “Drag Race” stars from seasons past and present, DragCon conventions, Bailey notes, came out of a “group discussion with Ru,” about ways in which the trio could “extend the experience of ‘Drag Race.’ Wouldn’t it be great for this tribe to actually meet up, in person? Increasingly today, we live in our virtual worlds and we’re communicating digitally, with less and less face-to-face time. Let’s do this. If we build it, will they come?”
With a combined 100,000+ attendees at 2018’s DragCon LA and NY, and greater numbers expected this year, the participatory phenomenon, Bailey says, “kind of defies everything you might expect. It’s absolutely a huge LGBTQ+ core,” he notes, but also draws “tremendous numbers of girls and women, and also, lots of families; teenagers bringing their parents, or younger kids dragging their mums and dads along… It defies demographics.”
The celebratory nature of DragCon is, Bailey says, “important to put in the context of the fact that when the Stonewall Riot happened, it was illegal to be gay. It was against the law to dress up in gender-inappropriate clothing… And here we are, 50 years later, it’s kids’ response to the show that is most inspiring to us. You know, drag has a long history, and has been the victim of much cultural prejudice and judgment during that history, but kids today, they don’t care about that. They just love it. It’s like Big Bird or UglyDolls or Lego movies, and they respond to that.”
Ten years ago, when “Drag Race” first hit the airwaves, Bailey notes, “Trump wasn’t in the White House. ‘Drag Race’ fans are the exact opposite of this — I was going to say, administration, but it’s actually a regime. Drag is not about fear. Drag is not about building walls, or exclusiveness… It’s a big tent for everybody. So I feel that given the cultural climate, it’s become more pointed.”
Asked to name an emotionally pointed moment from “RuPaul’s Drag Race” (currently airing Season 11), Bailey cites Season 5 contestant Roxxxy Andrews, who, after lip synching for her life, “starts to tear up, and Ru says, ‘What’s the matter?,’ and then Roxxxy reveals, at three years old, that her mother abandoned her at a bus stop. I mean, you realize, being a drag queen, you don’t just walk out the door like this. It takes incredible courage, and often, incredible suffering and persecution, to get to that point. Yes, it’s about wigs and heels and glitter and stuff, but it’s also about heart and humanity, and perseverance, and a sort of refusal to be defeated by bigotry, callousness, cruelty, hatred.”
Perseverance against all odds is a theme also running through the chilling, cautionary documentary series “Ministry of Evil: The Twisted Cult of Tony Alamo,” a recently ran Bailey/Barbato-created work for SundanceTV, that chronicles those who did, and did not, escape the cultish thrall of a sociopath in evangelist’s clothing.
“Years and years ago,” Bailey recalled, WOW “made ‘The Eyes of Tammy Faye,’ [a documentary about the ministry of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker], so we’ve always been fascinated by the phenomena of televangelism.”
Tammy Faye, Bailey notes, was “not a typical televangelist… She was, in many ways, and I think she’d agree with this, she was a drag queen. She had wigs, her makeup was tattooed on. She was very loving and openhearted… But to tell you the truth, we had not heard of the story of Alamo Ministries. When Peacock Productions came along to us, we were shocked and stunned, and it’s always fascinating to us: Why is it that people will put their faith in such self-evident con men and frauds?”
That is, he says, “a rhetorical question, because look who we have as president… It seems that in America, we are especially susceptible to cults and cult-like personalities… This man may be the president, but as we’ve known for many years, he’s a liar, he’s a cheat. How does this work [our susceptibility]? I think everybody needs to be aware of it.”
But with a multitude of projects that encourage participation and foster fierce loyalty, how close to a cult is “Drag Race” becoming?
Bailey draws a notable line between the drag ministry and, well, “Ministry.”
“As far as I know,” Bailey says, in defense of the art form, “there are not drag queens holding kids in a basement, making them work. But the distinction to make, and this is THE distinction, is that drag doesn’t take itself too seriously… Drag parodies everything. Yes, it celebrates pop culture, but it celebrates it by making fun of it. And that is the difference, because you’re just not going to enslave yourself. It always, by definition, prevents the cult from becoming some crazy, Jonestown-type experience, right? One hopes.”
RuPaul’s DragCon LA is taking place May 24th-26th, 2019 at The Los Angeles Convention Center. For information visit https://rupaulsdragcon.com
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.
Jessica Chastain Accepts the Oscar for Lead Actress:
First openly queer woman of color, Ariana DeBose wins an Oscar
It was DeBose’s first academy award nomination and Oscar. The awards ceremony was held at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood
HOLLYWOOD – North Carolina native Ariana DeBose, who identifies as a Black-biracial queer Afro-Latina, won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress Sunday for her portrayal of Anita in Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation of West Side Story.
The film was based on the 1957 Tony award-winning Broadway musical production directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins with music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and a book by Arthur Laurents.
DeBose in the category for Best Supporting Actress has previously won a Screen Actors Guild Award, a Golden Globe and a BAFTA. She was awarded the Oscar over her fellow nominees in the category including Aunjanue Ellis for King Richard, Kirsten Dunst for The Power of The Dog, Jessie Buckley for The Lost Daughter, and Dame Judi Dench for Belfast.
“Imagine this little girl in the back seat of a white Ford Focus. When you look into her eyes, you see an openly queer woman of color, an Afro Latina, who found her strength in life through art. And that’s what I believe we’re here to celebrate,” DeBose said in her acceptance speech.
“So to anybody who’s ever questioned your identity ever, ever, ever or you find yourself living in the gray spaces, I promise you this: There is indeed a place for us,” she added.
It was DeBose’s first academy award nomination and Oscar. The awards ceremony was held at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood and were hosted by Out lesbian comedian Wanda Sykes, actors Regina Hall and Amy Schumer.
The Associated Press: Oscars Special, editor’s picks
For the first time in two years, the Academy Awards are rolling out the red carpet at Hollywood’s’ Dolby Theatre
NEW YORK – As the entertainment, motion picture and film communities gather in Los Angeles for the 94th annual Oscars ceremony at the Dolby Theater in Hollywood Sunday evening, the editors of the Associated Press have curated the news agency’s top six stories prior to this evening’s gala.
LOS ANGELES (AP) — For the first time in two years, the Academy Awards are rolling out the red carpet at Los Angeles’ Dolby Theatre for what the film academy hopes will be a…Read More
The 94th Academy Awards are right around the corner with just enough time to squeeze in watches of some of the 10 best picture nominees before the lights go down in the Dolby…Read More
Ahead of the 94th Academy Awards, Associated Press Film Writers Lindsey Bahr and Jake Coyle share their predictions for a ceremony with much still up in the…Read More
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Nominees for the 94th Academy Awards, which were announced Tuesday via a livestream. Winners will be announced on March 27 in Los Angeles. Best actor:…Read More
LOS ANGELES (AP) — James Bond didn’t get an Oscar nomination this year, but that doesn’t mean that he won’t be part of the ceremony. It’s the 60th anniversary of the first…Read More
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Elaine May was the last to arrive and the first to leave at the Governors Awards on Friday in Los Angeles. Her fellow honorees, Samuel L. Jackson, Liv…Read More
‘The End’ is the beginning: an interview with Wayne Hoffman
Gay author’s new book features a family mystery and coping with Alzheimer’s
Writer Wayne Hoffman’s name will be familiar to readers of gay fiction, including those who enjoy an erotic edge to what they’re reading. His novels include “Hard,” “Sweet Like Sugar,” and “An Older Man.” Hoffman’s journalism career has also earned him a following via publications such as The Nation, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Billboard, and The Forward, as Tablet Magazine, where he is presently editor. For his new book, the non-fiction work “The End of Her: Racing Against Alzheimer’s to Solve a Murder” (Heliotrope Books, 2022), he called on his skills as a journalist and storyteller, to unravel a family mystery, all the while coming to terms with his mother Susan’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis and subsequent decline. The result is a kind of PBS’ “Finding Your Roots” crossed with Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. Hoffman was kind enough to answer a few questions about his book in a recent interview.
BLADE: Wayne, you’re known as both a journalist and a novelist. When thinking about writing your new book, ‘The End of Her: Racing Against Alzheimer’s to Solve a Murder,’ did you always know that you would tell the story in a non-fiction format, or had you considered writing it as a novel?
WAYNE HOFFMAN: I knew it’d be non-fiction because my goal was to find out the facts about what really happened to my great-grandmother—was she really murdered, and if so, by whom? I could have made up a story and turned it into a novel. But that’s what other relatives had basically already done, with the outlandish legends about her that they’d passed down as family lore. I wanted to focus instead on uncovering the truth, as much as possible.
BLADE: After having written three novels, what impact did creating a work of nonfiction have on you as a journalist?
HOFFMAN: I’m used to daily and weekly journalism—reporting quickly, writing quickly, publishing quickly, and moving on quickly. And I’m used to writing novels—having years to write and revise. This was a new combination: I was reporting, but without any solid deadline. I could go back and rethink things, look for new sources, change conclusions, rewrite a thousand times. That’s a luxury journalists rarely get. If I hadn’t had that time—if I’d had to publish what I’d found after the first few weeks or months—I wouldn’t have understood what really happened.
BLADE: How much did your time as an editor at the Forward and Tablet come in handy in your research?
HOFFMAN: Being a newspaper and magazine editor allowed me to imagine what I’d say if a writer turned in what I’d written, and see what pieces were still missing. But working specifically in the Jewish press—the Forward and now Tablet—for the past 20 years also gave me a broader understanding of the larger context around my great-grandmother’s murder: the waves of Yiddish-speaking immigrants coming to North America from Eastern Europe in the early 1900s, how they did and didn’t assimilate, how they tried to build not just families but larger communities, how they found new ways to make a living.
BLADE: I’m glad you mentioned immigration because ‘The End of Her’ is many things including an immigrant story, both American and Canadian, with an emphasis on Jews in Manitoba, a subject that may be new to many readers. What was it like exploring that, both on a personal and professional level?
HOFFMAN: It was fascinating because so much of the story was both unknown to me and unexpected. I knew there were plenty of Jews who immigrated to Manitoba—Winnipeg in particular, which is where my family settled, and where my great-grandmother was murdered. But I couldn’t have imagined what their lives were like. My great-grandfather was basically a cowboy, riding horses and buying cattle on the prairies of Saskatchewan; his brothers were almost certainly bootleggers. Who knew? When I went to the tiny town of Canora, Saskatchewan, to dig into that slice of my family’s history, I had never imagined I’d end up there. But then I thought, I bet my great-grandfather, who grew up in Russia, thought the same thing when he arrived a hundred years ago!
BLADE: Religion and religious traditions also figure prominently. What makes it unique is that they are written about from a gay perspective. In what ways do you think religion has made you the person you are today?
HOFFMAN: I grew up in a traditional Jewish home—I kept kosher, went to synagogue every week, went to Jewish summer camps, attended Hebrew school, took classes at the Jewish Community Center. So, it certainly had a huge influence on who I am today. Coming out as a teenager—as gay and atheist—complicated all of that. Some things fell by the wayside: I don’t keep kosher or go to synagogue anymore. My brother is a rabbi, and he goes to synagogue enough for both of us [laughs]. But I’m still strongly culturally identified, and working in the Jewish press, I spend every day steeped in Jewish culture and the Jewish community—all of it as a very public, very open gay man. Yeesh! Look at my novels—there’s no way to pretend I’m not super-gay [laughs].
BLADE: As you said earlier, ‘The End of Her’ is about family lore and learning as much as possible about it while your mother, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, can both provide details, and benefit from the solving of your great grandmother Sarah’s murder. Do you think with this book you may inspire others to clarify longstanding family myths?
HOFFMAN: I hope so. We have so many tools now to help us understand our personal histories in terms of genetics and DNA. Those are things you can discover from a drop of blood, or a swab. But what about the parts of our history that aren’t stored in our blood or our genes, but in our memories? You can find out a lot from documents—whether they’re official documents like birth certificates or personal documents like letters. But some things you can only find out from relatives and friends who remember things. The more of those people you can contact—before it’s too late—the richer picture you can create of your family’s history, and your own. That might clear up mysteries and scandals, or it might reveal mysteries and scandals you didn’t know existed, which might even be more interesting.
BLADE: In writing about your own, and your immediate family’s, experiences in dealing with your mother’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis, you share heartbreaking and devastating details. For example, the frustration with physicians unable to comprehend the intricacies of treating an Alzheimer’s patient as in chapter 29. Was it your intention for the book to be a tool for others going through a version of something similar?
HOFFMAN: Definitely. There are a lot of resources for people trying to understand what someone with Alzheimer’s is going through—or will go through. But there aren’t enough stories for those same people trying to understand how the disease will affect them, too, as family members or friends, or caregivers. We have our own journey, and I hope that people who read what I went through, and how my family dealt with things—the parts we got right and wrong, and the choices we made—will understand a bit more about what they’re really facing.
BLADE: Have you started thinking about or working on your next book project?
HOFFMAN: I have a few projects sketched out, and even begun. At some point, I’ll sit down and spread them out on my desk, and one of them will (I hope) call out to me, “Me, me! I’m next [laughs]!”
‘Better’ than ever: an interview with Harvey Fierstein
Beloved actor on pandemic, Broadway history and new biography
One of the best things about reading a memoir by someone with a distinctive voice – both spoken and written – is that you hear them as your read their book. Let’s face it, award-winning writer and actor Harvey Fierstein qualifies as someone who has a distinctive voice and while reading his revelatory memoir, “I Was Better Last Night” (Knopf, 2022), you’d swear he was in the room with you, dishing away. Harvey was gracious enough to make time for an interview shortly before the book’s March 2022 publication date.
BLADE: Harvey, why was now the time to write your memoir, “I Was Better Last Night,” and does having a milestone birthday (70) in 2022 have anything to do with it?
HARVEY FIERSTEIN: What’s really funny is that so many sources, if you look online, have my birthday as 1954, even though it’s actually 1952. The reason is that when I turned 22, my friend Eric Conklin, who directed the original production of “Torch Song,” said “You should tell everybody you’re turning 21.” I said, “Why?” He said, “Because if you lie when you’re older, nobody believes it. But if you start at 21, who the fuck’s going to care!” That year, I moved my birthday to ‘53. The next year, we decided we’d do it again. But I never took it seriously. Things just get picked up by this one or that one. I think it was in New York magazine that they got the facts wrong and said my parents were Eastern European immigrants. They were actually third-generation Americans. But it got picked up by everyone and everywhere it said I was the son of Eastern European immigrants. My mother was born in Brooklyn and my father was born in the Catskills. So, I wrote the book, and there’s a fact checker, of course. Every time I mentioned my age he sent back a note, “Wikipedia says you were born in ‘54. This one says you were born in ’54,” I had to keep saying, “Why would I lie and make myself older? I’d only make myself younger!” It’s another one of those examples of why you should never lie. I am indeed as old as the mountains. So, did I write the memoir because of the birthday? No. Like everybody else in the fucking world, this pandemic hit. I was a very good boy. I sat down and did all the work on my desk. At that time, we were supposed to be doing a production of “Bye Bye Birdie” at the Kennedy Center. I finished the rewrites on that. I had rewritten “Funny Girl,” which was done in London and then went on tour in England, and we were bringing it to Broadway. I wanted to make some more changes to it, so I got all those changes done. “Kinky Boots” was sold to cruise ships, so I had to do an adaptation, a shortening of the show, as I had already done for “Hairspray” and other shows. That was off my desk and done. I’m working on a new musical with Alan Menken and Jeff Feldman, the guys I wrote “Newsies” with.
BLADE: Yes, I read about that in the book.
FIERSTEIN: So, I was all caught up with that. Basically, I was done. Then I sat down and, as I say in the book, I make quilts. I owed a couple of quilts as gifts. I went down to my little sewing room and I made seven quilts in a row [laughs]. Usually, I turn out one a year. Everybody got their birthday quilts, their wedding quilts, whatever it was that was owed. I had cleared my desk and we were still in the pandemic. Then my agent said to me, “Why don’t you write your memoir?” I said, “Because I don’t write sentences.”
BLADE: You wrote the children’s book. That has sentences.
FIERSTEIN: But that’s kid sentences. I’ve written op-eds, but for that you just have to get the voice of Edward R. Murrow in your head or something like that. That’s like writing dialogue, as well. All of a sudden, you’re Aaron Sorkin. I thought, “What the fuck? I’ve got a computer. Let me try.” I wrote four chapters, and I sent them to my agent. She said, “This is great!” She sent the chapters out to I think nine publishers, and eight of the nine made offers.
BLADE: There are numerous powerful moments throughout the book. Without giving away too much…
FIERSTEIN: Oh, go ahead, give it away! I already know what happens.
BLADE: But I don’t want to spoil it for the readers.
FIERSTEIN: That’s right. Goddammit.
BLADE: Chapter 57 contains one of the most emotional sequences involving your parents. Would it be fair to say that writing the book was a cathartic experience?
FIERSTEIN: Yes, the whole thing really is. When I started, I asked Shirley MacLaine because she’s written 300 books about her 700 different lives. She said, “Write what you remember because your brain has a way of editing, and it will give you what you need for this book. You’ll remember things for other books and other things, but write what you remember and just be true to what comes up.” I said, “Even about other people?” She said, “Yes. When you’re writing about other people, you’re really writing about yourself. Just trust that.” That’s what I did. There were hundreds of stories that I could have told. I just tried to sort of follow a line of thought and let it be.
BLADE: That’s interesting because the chapters in “I Was Better Last Night” are presented in chronological order, beginning in 1959 and concluding in 2022. Is that how they were written?
FIERSTEIN Yes, I wrote it exactly as it is. As you say, that particular chapter, I knew was coming because I knew what happened to bring that memory back. I’m trying to say it as you said, to not give it away. What happened between me and my brother, when he sat down to watch the last revival of “Torch Song.” My editor was incredibly gentle with me. Now and then he’d say, add more here or there. But the only real note that I got from him was he wanted to move that story into chronological order since the rest of the book is. I said, “No. That’s in emotional order.”
BLADE: It needed to be where it was.
FIERSTEIN: Exactly! Most celebrity autobiographies begin “I was a kid and I saw a show and I said, ‘I wanna be a star, too!’” Which is obviously not my story. I never wanted to be in show business. I didn’t want to be a writer. I didn’t want to be an actor or a drag performer. It was not my dream at all. That’s why it was so important to do it chronologically. I wanted to show how I lived my life being true to the moment I was in.
BLADE: In “I Was Better Last Night” you take readers on a journey through modern theater, from The Gallery Players and La Mama to off-Broadway and Broadway. With that in mind, would you agree that in addition to being a memoir, the book also functions as a theater history lesson?
FIERSTEIN: I guess it does. I have certainly been told that by a bunch of people who’ve read the book. When I was talking to Patti LuPone about it, she said, “Geez, I wish I had done what you did. She came through theater school and right into the legitimate, not through the experimental. As I say in the book, I came from an art school, so I always approached it as an art. Theater was part of an art movement, and I got involved because I wanted to meet Andy Warhol. Little did I know they would put me in drag. I guess there is a history there. Certainly, when I look around me, and I look at the people that I grew up with – Kathleen Chalfant and Obba Babatundé — and, of course, La Mama became something bigger. There were lots of others. Meeting Matthew (Broderick) at 18, or Estelle Getty who was a housewife from Bayside, Queens. She wouldn’t even admit she was from Bayside. She told everybody she was from Long Island [big laugh]. I said, “Estelle! Bayside is in Queens. Shut up!” What is history? After all, history is just day after day after day after day. I did start, as a baby, in this experimental theater. I wish that experimental theater still really existed. There were a few of us that I would say destroyed off-off-Broadway. I think greed is what destroyed off-off-Broadway. I think what happened was when people saw Tom O’Horgan make it, when “Hair” became a hit, that had a lot of people going, “Where’s my ‘Hair’?”
BLADE: But don’t you think that experimental theater might exist in cities where it’s a little more affordable to do that kind of thing? Say, Austin, Texas.
FIERSTEIN: There will always be experimental theater. It’s just, how is it looked at? Is the government funding there for it? I hear a lot of people saying, “Let’s not waste money on theater.” “Torch Song Trilogy” wouldn’t have been what it was if not for a government grant. I don’t know if you know this, but I just gave a grant to the New York Public Library at Lincoln Center to build a theater laboratory because rehearsal space is incredibly expensive in New York and almost impossible to find. David Rockwell is designing it and I’m hoping it’ll be open in two years. I tell a story in the book about how years ago we were rehearsing up at the YMCA, and the director just disappeared and left us with the bill for the rehearsal room. If I can leave a rehearsal room behind… Lin-Manuel (Miranda) developed “Hamilton” in the basement of the Drama Book Shop. For my shows, I used the basement of La Mama which was this small space, but big enough for us to rehearse and develop what we needed to do. I even did a couple of shows down there.
BLADE: Chapters 19 through 22 give readers insight into the inspiration for and the writing of “Torch Song Trilogy” and then much later you write about the recent revival with Michael Urie. What was it like to revisit the creation and the revision of “Torch Song Trilogy?”
FIERSTEIN: They’re your children, so they never really leave you. You may not think about them in the same way all the time, but they don’t leave you. You ask a mother about her son when he was six, and she can tell you a story about that time. It doesn’t mean you live with those stories every day. But they’re always there. Unfortunately, as you get older and people die on you, you remember them, or you go back to those stories time and again to remember how you all met and all that. With something like Torch Song, which is so much a part of my life, there was no real shock to going back and looking at that stuff again. Seeing Michael do it was not a shock either, because I cast all of my understudies. The show ran on Broadway for five years, but I didn’t play it all five years. There were other Arnolds and I saw all of them. There were matinee Arnolds, and then we had a bus and truck tour, and a regular tour. I saw all of those guys play it. I saw it in London with Tony Sher, who died a few weeks ago. He won the Olivier for “Torch Song.” Writing a memoir is not a time to blame other people [laughs]. When you’re writing plays, it is.
BLADE: I’m so glad you said that because one of the things that I think will strike readers about “I Was Better Last Night” is the brutal honesty with which you write about alcoholism and sobriety, as well as your suicide attempt. What do you hope readers will take away from that?
FIERSTEIN: There’s a certain point when you’re writing something like that…I don’t really care [laughs]. I needed to tell the truth and you hope that the truth will do good. When you’re writing fiction, you care more about how it’s read and what somebody gets out of the fiction. When you’re writing non-fiction, it’s like, “This is what happened, like it or not, Cookie.” The only hope is that I hope you know I’m telling it the best I can and being truthful. Because the truth does affect people, that I know. When you’re writing drama, you are manipulating an audience, and a story, and emotions. When I was writing the book, of course, there’s still an art to it, but I’m not turning away from something because it’s not comfortable. I’m going to say it. If somebody thinks I’m an asshole, let them think I’m an asshole. You read the book, and thank you very much for doing so.
BLADE: That’s my job!
FIERSTEIN: You see in the book that I don’t have an answer for my own gender. Had I been born in 1980, instead of 1952, would I be a woman now? I don’t know. I don’t have those answers. I don’t have the luxury of being born in a different society. The first (trans) person I knew was Christine Jorgensen, who died owing me money, that bitch [laughs]. When I was writing the book, I was going through photographs. There’s a picture in the book of me and Marsha P. Johnson and Jon Jon marching in a Gay Pride march. I put that picture up and somebody wrote to me telling me about Marsha, like you should know who this person was. I was like, “What are you talking about? This was a friend of mine!”
BLADE: Thank you for mentioning pictures. I live four blocks south of Wilton Manors in Fort Lauderdale. In the book you include a photo of the WiltonArt.com street sign that features a quote by you. What does it mean to you to be immortalized in this way?
FIERSTEIN: While it’s very flattering, another place I looked had it that Walt Whitman said it! With one hand, you’re flattered, and with the other, you’re slapped across the face.
BLADE: At least they got the attribution right in Wilton Manors.
FIERSTEIN: That’s lovely, it really is lovely. It’s a lovely thing to see something link that. I was watching some interview with Billy Porter and as if by accident, they walked down the block where there was a mural on the side of a building of his portrait. As if, “Oh, I didn’t know that was there!” You sort of laugh, like, yeah, right! You brought a film crew because you didn’t know your picture was there on the wall [laughs]. That sort of stuff of celebrity is always funny. Especially when you have friends who are famous and you try to just be human beings together, but then you go out in public, and you realize that they mean a whole other thing to the public than to you.
LACMA’s David Geffen Galleries to ‘touch millions of lives’
The David Geffen Galleries, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s ambitious project inches closer to expected 2024 completion
LOS ANGELES – In 2017, David Geffen – the billionaire entertainment executive, producer and philanthropist who co-founded DreamWorks SKG and whose name is synonymous with Hollywood – made history, donating $150 million to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). It was the largest cash gift from an individual the museum had received.
“I am excited to see the positive effects this new building will have on Los Angeles’s art and architectural communities,” said Geffen, who is considered one of the most powerful gay people in America, at the time. “This innovative addition to the LACMA campus will ensure ongoing and expanded access to their permanent collection. LACMA will be able to touch millions of lives and create an even healthier and more vibrant community for everyone.”
With Geffen’s contribution, LACMA inched closer to its $650 million goal to fund a project that would replace four of the museum’s seven buildings with new galleries. With his donation outpacing all the others, the museum announced the galleries would be named the David Geffen Galleries “in honor of his extraordinary gift.”
Designed by Peter Zumthor, an award-winning Swiss architect, the museum touts Project “Building LACMA” as “more than a renovation.” It’s “a completely new way to understand our relationship to the arts and culture of the past, the present, and the future,” according to the project’s website.
Nearly five years later, construction is underway, hoping to complete the project in 2024.
Though LACMA has relied on large private donations, like Geffen’s, when the building is finished it will essentially be owned by the people of Los Angeles County – underscoring the importance of private-public partnerships in the arts.
“At a time when federal funding for the arts is threatened, it’s important that we foster public-private partnerships, like this one, to support arts and cultural institutions,” said Geffen. “Together, we can and must make sure every person has access to the arts.”
The history of the project goes back more than a decade, with the museum landing Zumthor all the way back in 2009. Four years later, Zumthor presented “The Presence of the Past: Peter Zumthor Reconsiders LACMA.”
The design was tweaked but ultimately approved by LACMA’s board of trustees in 2014, beginning a long and relentless fundraising campaign to bring Zumthor’s vision to life.
The David Geffen Galleries was conceived as a “building of and for Los Angeles,” according to LACMA. When finished, it will be a long, horizontal, glass-and-concrete structure, stretching along Hancock Park and across Wilshire Boulevard.
The main floor will feature an approximately 110,000-square-foot exhibition space, elevated 30 feet above street level. It will also provide spaces for education, public programs, a 300-seat theater, retail and restaurants.
“The horizontal design eliminates traditional cultural hierarchies, literally placing all works of art on an equal footing, on a single level,” said the LACMA, adding that the “architectural context will encourage the development of fresh selections of works of art and new historical narratives, and allow LACMA’s curators to create more diverse and inclusive presentations.”
Though the museum promises great impact, the project has received its fair share of criticism for its cost and decision to demolish the original building, according to commercial real estate development news site Urbanize LA.
The majority of the project’s funding came from private donors, like Geffen, amounting to $525 million of the total $650 million initial goal. However, the County of Los Angeles made up for the missing $125 million. LACMA also upped its goal, now raising another $100 million.
The project has also amassed debt, something the museum addresses on an FAQ page. “The private donations are generally paid over a period of time,” it read. “Therefore, as part of the plan of finance approved by the County of Los Angeles Board of Supervisors, there will be $300 million of debt issued by the County of Los Angeles to be fully paid for by Museum Associates (LACMA) from private donations.”
Critics have also charged that, despite its budget, the new building will have less space. According to LACMA, the new facility will be approximately 347,500 square feet, while the previous was roughly 393,000 square feet, making for a reduction of about 45,000 square feet.
LACMA notes that the demolished buildings may have “many serious structural issues and problems with plumbing, sewage, and leaks, compromising their ability to hold our collections and host our visitors and staff.” In fact, one of the project’s goals is to replace “inefficient, deteriorating buildings with new, environmentally sustainable structures, embracing state-of-the-art resource management and technology resulting in the project achieving LEED Gold certification.”
“The proposed building was slightly reduced in size to achieve a balance of quantity and quality of interior space, while upholding the design intent in a sustainable, seismically resilient manner,” the museum added. “The design of the new building will allow LACMA to program more flexibly and dynamically, allowing the galleries to rotate more frequently and for more art to be displayed over time.”
And still, the project remains one of the most high-profile changes along the Miracle Mile.
“If museums are designed properly, they can be as open and accessible as a public plaza, and as intimate and intellectually spiritual and personal as a single encounter with a work of art,” LACMA said on its website. “That’s really what we’re going for here in the new building.”
The David Geffen Galleries will be made up of three different configurations: Terrace Galleries, Core Galleries and Courtyard Galleries – all of which differ according to their shape and light.
The Terrace Galleries will be lit by floor-to-ceiling windows, making the three-dimensional objects it features “come to life,” according to LACMA. This part of the museum will also offer views of the city and the park surrounding the building.
The Core Galleries will be enclosed rectangular spaces filled with works that require controlled light – from prints and drawings to photos and paintings. “The majority of the core galleries feature a single entry and exit point, encouraging focused and contemplative viewing,” said LACMA.
Finally, the Courtyard Galleries will connect the other two galleries. “Glimpses of the perimeter will allow visitors to orient themselves and remain connected to the city around them throughout their visit,” the museum said.
None of this would be possible without the contributions of Geffen, who became one of the first business executives to come out as gay in 1992.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times after he donated, Geffen shrugged off a question about his legacy. “I think medicine, education and the arts are extremely important to the community,” Geffen said. “It’s about creating opportunities for young people to become inspired.”
“I’ve lived here for a very long time and I believe in the power of these institutions to change people’s lives,” he said. “I think it’s valuable to support them, and I’m fortunate that I can. There are many others who also can, and hopefully will do so in the future.”
SAG Awards throw some curves at Oscar
Ariana DeBose, whose performance as Anita in “West Side Story” continued its awards sweep by winning her the prize for Best Supporting Actress
SANTA MONICA – The 28th Annual SAG Awards took place at the Barker Hanger in Santa Monica on Sunday night, and anyone who had predictions about who the winners would be (i.e., everyone who follows the SAG Awards) almost certainly got some of them wrong – because it was an evening full of surprises.
Since the Screen Actors Guild has been presenting its annual awards, honoring achievement by actors in film and on television, the evening has become known as a final bellwether for the Academy Awards race (SAG is the last major awards body to announce their winners before Oscar night).
It’s not hard to see why: actors, whose votes determine the winners for their union’s trophies, also represent a sizeable percentage of the Academy’s voting membership, so it follows that their choices have a strong chance of winning both. It doesn’t always work out that way, of course, but over 27 years of presenting their awards. SAG’s choice for Best Actress has matched Oscar’s 19 times, Best Actor has matched 22 times, and Best Picture – which correlates (roughly) to SAG’s Best Cast Performance award – has matched 12 times.
That means that some of the evenings upsets (if you want to see them that way) have changed the game during the homestretch to the Oscars, with Will Smith’s win as Best Actor (in “King Richard”) is bad news for Benedict Cumberbatch, whose performance as a closeted Montana rancher in “The Power of the Dog” steamrolled through the first wave of Awards Season and was widely favored to win before losing to Smith at the Golden Globes.
On the other hand, it was good news for Ariana DeBose, whose performance as Anita in “West Side Story” continued its awards sweep by winning her the prize for Best Supporting Actress. She is considered the clear front-runner in the parallel race at the Academy, making the out actress likely the closest thing to a sure bet for an LGBTQ win on Oscar night. The only other out performer nominated for their movie work was Lady Gaga, whose turn in “House of Gucci” earned a nod for Best Actress – though it was omitted from Oscar’s slate for the same category.
As for Best Picture, that’s a bit more complicated. “The Power of the Dog,” presumed to be a front runner at the Academy (and the only film nominated there to center on queer themes in its storyline, though “West Side Story” features a nonbinary character), was not even nominated for SAG’s equivalent award. The winner, “CODA” (about the hearing child of deaf parents who wants to pursue a career in music), is nominated for the Oscar, too – and while fewer than half of the winners have matched in this category, only four movies have taken home the Academy Award without having also been nominated for the SAG.
On the television side of things (which doesn’t affect the Oscars, obviously, but may provide insight when the Emmy Awards happen later this year), the biggest surprise was the strong showing for “Squid Game,” the violent dystopian thriller that became Netflix’s most-viewed series. The Korean import also pulled off upsets in both the Best Actor and Actress Television Drama acting categories, with the prizes going to Lee Jung-jae and Jung Ho-yeon, respectively. It rounded things out with an additional win for Best Television Stunt Ensemble, making it the biggest winner of the night.
There were no out LGBTQ winners in the television categories, though out actor Murray Bartlett had been nominated for his role in “White Lotus.”
Disappointing though the showing for LGBTQ+ nominees may have been – and the picture is not much brighter for the Oscars, either – it’s still a far cry from the days when the only way for a queer performer to win an award was to stay firmly in the closet. That deserves to be acknowledged and celebrated.
Now let’s keep the pressure on Hollywood to keep doing better when it comes to diversity and equal representation. It’s obviously been working so far.
The full list of SAG winners is below:
Motion Picture Awards
- Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Leading Role: Will Smith, “King Richard”
- Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role: Jessica Chastain, “The Eyes of Tammy Faye”
- Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Supporting Role: Troy Kotsur, “CODA”
- Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Supporting Role :Ariana DeBose, “West Side Story”
- Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture: “CODA”
- Outstanding Action Performance by a Stunt Ensemble in a Motion Picture: “No Time to Die”
- Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Television Movie or Miniseries: Michael Keaton, “Dopesick”
- Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Television Movie or Miniseries: Kate Winslet, “Mare of Easttown”
- Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Drama Series: Lee Jung-jae, “Squid Game”
- Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Drama Series: Jung Ho-yeon, “Squid Game”
- Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Comedy Series: Jason Sudeikis, “Ted Lasso”
- Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Comedy Series: Jean Smart, “Hacks
- Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Drama Series: “Succession”
- Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Comedy Series: “Ted Lasso”
Outstanding Action Performance by a Stunt Ensemble in a Comedy or Drama Series: “Squid Game” *WINNER
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