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‘AIDS Diva,’ ‘Boulevard’ offer history lessons not to be missed

Two outstanding LGBTQ documentaries arrive

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Dickson Hughes and Richard Stapley flank Gloria Swanson in ‘Boulevard: A Hollywood Story.’ (Photo courtesy The Film Collaborative)

It’s a great time to be alive for queer documentary fans. It seems as if every month brings a whole new crop of titles, covering a broad array of subjects and offering new insights about the LGBTQ history you thought you knew – as well as introducing you to pieces of it that you’ve never even heard of.

That’s a good thing. It reassures us that our queer cultural history, once in danger of being buried in the homophobic haze of a past that wanted to pretend we didn’t exist, is finally being recorded for posterity, and that the stories of our unsung heroes will be preserved.

One such hero is the subject of “AIDS Diva: The Legend of Connie Norman,” which screened at Los Angeles’ venerable Outfest LGBTQ Film Festival last week. Directed by award-winning filmmaker Dante Alencastre (“Raising Zoey,” “Transvisible: The Bamby Salcedo Story”) it spotlights a remarkable figure who rose to prominence during the AIDS crisis, but who would seem right at home in today’s era of “woke” activism. Indeed, she’d be front and center, teaching all of us a few things about how to keep the movement advancing ever forward.

For those who don’t know – and unless you were in Los Angeles during the early ‘90s, chances are good that you don’t – Connie Norman was a masterful spokesperson for ACT UP/LA in the late ‘80s and early ’90s Los Angeles, a self-appointed “AIDS Diva” who described herself as “an ex-drag queen, ex-hooker, ex-IV drug user, ex-high-risk youth and current post-operative transsexual woman who is HIV positive.” Above all, however, she called herself simply “a human being seeking my humanity.” 

Standing proudly in her multiple, fluid, and evolving LGBTQ identities, she became a fixture in the campaign to raise awareness about the terrifying epidemic that was decimating the queer community – and the inadequate, often inhumane care afforded to its stigmatized victims. In addition to her work with ACT UP, she shared her soulful and salty rantings and intersectional politics through her local LGBTQ newspaper column and her pioneering LGBTQ cable television show – the first daily talk show about gay issues hosted by a gay rights activist on a commercial Los Angeles-area station. She charmed even the opposition with her piercing and compassionate voice, building bridges in gender issues and politics and evoking a humanitarian, neighborly, transcendent vision of life and love not just for her own queer tribe but for all. Herself diagnosed with AIDS, she continued to work tirelessly until her death from complications of the disease in 1996. A few months later, her ashes were scattered on the White House lawn as part of ACT UP’s “ashes action” in protest of government inaction against AIDS.

In Alencastre’s brisk but engrossing documentary, Norman emerges through extensive archival footage as a larger-than-life personality that nevertheless exudes authenticity and the kind of “real talk” attitude that somehow acknowledges the value in everyone, whether on her side or against it. The footage, much of it little seen (if at all) in the quarter century since her death, is largely rough by today’s standards – after all, most of it is culled from local news and cable broadcasts of the time – but that technology gap does nothing to mute her passionate voice nor dim the brightness of her light. Indeed, there’s an immediacy about her in every appearance that transcends time and seems directed entirely at our contemporary world, urging modern viewers to once more wake up, take action, and fully engage with our collective lives and our world. From an activist standpoint, it makes Alencastre’s film a powerful journalistic call to action, a reminder that the struggles of our past are connected in an unbroken line to those of the present. Just as importantly, as a filmic portrait of a one-of-a-kind icon, it introduces Norman, in all her defiantly eccentric charm and glory, to a world that will likely always need to hear what she had to say.

Tackling what might (at first) seem a lighter topic is “Boulevard! A Hollywood Story,” which also screened at Outfest for its world premiere presentation. The latest documentary from Emmy winner Jeffrey Schwarz (“I Am Divine,” “Tab Hunter Confidential,” “The Fabulous Alan Carr”) takes viewers on a forensic deep-dive into the archives and filing cabinets of Hollywood history to unearth the little-known story of a musical that never was – an ambitious adaptation of “Sunset Boulevard” commissioned by none other than that classic film’s star Gloria Swanson herself.

Swanson, of course, was a one-time silent cinema goddess whose electrifying performance as faded-and-psychotic movie star Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder’s dark, noir-ish satire of the Hollywood dream machine had given her a brief return to the limelight 20 years after her own silver screen heyday had ended. When further roles failed to materialize despite the movie’s success and the rave reviews it had earned her, she hit upon the notion of turning the film into a Broadway musical as a sure-fire vehicle for herself. In pursuit of this goal, she hired Dickson Hughes and Richard Stapley, two young songwriters and romantic partners, and the three of them began a three-way collaboration that soon began to have unsettling parallels with the story of “Sunset Boulevard” itself. The aging star developed an infatuation with the handsome Stapley, creating a tense dynamic into the creative threesome. It drove a wedge between the couple, and ultimately ensured that the project – a tentative proposition to begin with – would never reach fruition.

If that were all there was to the story, “Boulevard!” would still be an entertaining nugget of show biz ephemera and worth watching every one of its 85 minutes. But there’s much more to be revealed in Schwarz’s detailed excavation of this footnote in Hollywood history; within the remarkable tale he unearths is woven a moving, bittersweet love story between two young men at a time when such things were hard enough already without a movie diva inserting herself into the mix. In the process, the seasoned documentarian delivers a powerful, observational document of gay love in mid-20th century America, bringing a cumulative emotional power to his film that is sure to bring tears to many viewers’ eyes before the final credits role.

What’s particularly striking in Schwarz’ film is the kindness it bestows upon its subjects. Swanson, despite her role as a would-be femme fatale coming between two committed lovers, is never treated with anything but dignity and respect, and her two erstwhile collaborators – whose post-Swanson stories each took unexpected turns – come off as a pair of imperfect “everymen” who achieve a kind of grace even as success eludes their grasp. The result is a film that far transcends the trivial pursuit at its center to provide an empathetic contemplation of life, love, growing old, and rising above our failures.

It’s Schwarz’s best movie to date, and that’s saying a lot.

No release date has yet been announced for “AIDS Diva” or “Boulevard!” – but keep your eyes open, because each of them is a history lesson you won’t want to miss.

AIDS Diva, gay news, Washington Blade
‘AIDS Diva’ Connie Norman. (Photo courtesy OutFest)
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‘Wildhood’ explores queer Indigenous experience

An example of personal filmmaking at its most sublime

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Joshua Odjick and Phillip Lewitski star in ‘Wildhood.’ (Photo courtesy Hulu)

It’s hardly news to say that the movies have a less-than-ideal track record when it comes to authentic representation – or, really, any representation at all – of Indigenous people. For most of its history, Hollywood’s “dream machine” dutifully perpetuated the narrative that, with very few exceptions, “the only good Indian is a dead Indian,” and even after the cultural tide began to turn, filmmakers who attempted to propagate a more compassionate viewpoint usually muted their efforts with stereotyped portrayals of Native Americans that presented them either as comic relief or tragic victims of oppression – when they weren’t being idealized as magical fonts of ancient wisdom, that is – and did little to convey the reality that they were really just human beings like the rest of us.

It goes without saying that the LGBTQ community can relate. But though things have gotten somewhat better for us in recent years, we are still hard pressed to think of many examples of films in which Indigenous people have not been essentially marginalized – and when we try to think of movies with Indigenous people who are also queer, the best most of us can do is “Little Big Man,” the 1970 Arthur Penn western in which Dustin Hoffman is raised by a Sioux Nation tribe and grows up with a Two Spirit character named Little Horse (played by Native actor Robert Little Star) as his friend. For the record, it’s a sympathetic portrayal, if not quite fully drawn. It was also nearly 60 years ago, and we’re still waiting for another mainstream movie to show us a more authentic vision of queer Native experience.

While Hollywood continues to drag its feet on correcting that gap, however, Canadian/L’nu Two Spirit/nonbinary filmmaker Bretten Hannam has been hard at work to bring their own perspective to the screen – and their debut feature film, “Wildhood,” which launches on Hulu June 24, is as much a breath of trope-free air as one could wish.

Disregarding expectations about Indigenous identity right out of the gate, it centers on Link (Phillip Lewitski), a half-Mi’kmaq teenager who lives with his younger half-brother Travis (Avery Winters-Anthony) in a rural trailer park on the coast of Nova Scotia. Their home life is toxic, with an abusive father (Joel Thomas Hynes) more interested in training them for a life of crime than in taking care of their basic needs; when Link learns that his Mi’kmaw mother may still be alive – despite what he had been told since early childhood – he abruptly decides to steal away with Travis and make a run for it, hoping to locate her and find a better life in the process.

Ill-prepared for a cross-country journey, an early encounter brings them quickly under the wing of Pasmay (Joshua Odjick), a Two Spirit Mi’kaq pow wow dancer traveling from gig to gig. Though Link is hesitant to trust this interloper and the two are frequently at odds, he gradually warms to Pasmay, and an emotional bond begins to grow between them as the three young travelers make their way across the Canadian wilderness together.

It’s not hard to gather where things go between Link and Pasmay, and together with the quest to reconnect Link to his estranged mother and the Native heritage she represents, it should be obvious enough that this is a coming-of-age tale whose protagonist yearns to embrace more than one neglected facet of his identity. Yet though it might be easy to classify “Wildhood” as a teen “coming-out” movie, it would also be misleadingly dismissive.

Like its central character, it’s a movie with many questions to be asked and answered, and sexuality is only one of the many elements woven together in Hannam’s briskly paced yet intricately layered screenplay. No one in the movie needs to “come out,” exactly; it’s easily gleaned that Link knows from the start that he is gay, or at least someplace on the queer spectrum, even if he doesn’t know that getting comfortable with that fact might be tied up in the journey ahead of him. As for Pasmay, they’re fully comfortable with their Two Spirit nature, yet the past trauma of family rejection is something they have yet to fully overcome. As these two walk together – accompanied by the one-eyed but clear-sighted Travis, who is working through family issues of his own – their growing closeness requires them to grapple with these lingering fears, providing a framework through which Hannam can subtly illuminate the differences between the world views held by white and Indigenous cultures.

With an Indigenous queer filmmaker behind the camera, the takeaway from that contrast inevitably emphasizes the opposition between two different cultural conceptions of queerness itself, and rightly so. As for their direction, Hannam’s remarkably self-assured visual storytelling effortlessly complements the nuances of their screenplay to mesmerizing effect, making all these intellectual-sounding themes arise like thoughts in a meditation, to be noted as they pass and remembered later. No doubt it helped that “Wildhood” was expanded by Hannam from an award-winning 2019 short; in any case, the result is a film with an easy, natural flow that neither shies from emotion nor dwells in it, and culminates exactly where we hoped while taking us places we never expected to go. 

As for the acting – a crucial element in making any film rise to its highest aspirations – Hannam’s cast not only serves them well, but are so perfectly attuned to their movie’s delicate spirit that they seem not to be performing at all. The nonbinary Odjick, charismatic without being showy, exudes a confident compassion that makes a perfect complement to Lewitski’s awkward and angry teen rebel, and the easy chemistry between them helps to make the latter’s lowering of defenses all the more believable. Winters-Anthony gives a stunningly genuine performance as Travis, helping to bring full weight to the all-important theme of chosen family; and Michael Greyeyes (the film’s most recognizable face, thanks to TV roles in “True Detective” and “Fear the Walking Dead,” among other titles) gives a memorable turn as a helpful stranger who facilitates Link’s eventual reunion with his mother – in exchange for a favor, of course.

“Wildhood” comes to Hulu after becoming a hit on the Festival Circuit in 2021, where it was an official selection at both TIFF and AFI Fest and won awards at both the Canadian Screen Awards (for Odjick’s performance) and the Palm Springs International Film Festival. That provenance is a testament to the importance of such festivals in amplifying the voices of marginalized artists and allowing them to tell their stories – but it’s not the reason for putting the movie at the top of your must-stream list, nor is the fact that it’s an embarrassingly rare example of Indigenous queer inclusion on the screen. Ultimately, the reason for watching “Wildhood” is that it is an example of personal filmmaking at its most sublime, existing at the intersection of personal experience, public enlightenment, and popular entertainment.

That’s a big burden to bear, but “Wildhood” never feels weighed down. On the contrary, it leaves us with a sense of freedom and acceptance that is lighter than air. 

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Summer of 2022: a queer screen roundup

Kevin Bacon stars in queer horror flick ‘They/Them’

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Kevin Bacon stars in queer horror film ‘They/Them.’ (Photo courtesy Peacock)

Since the summer season starts with Pride month, we can always count on June bringing plenty of great LGBTQ entertainment options to our screens. This year has been particularly bountiful – we’ve already highlighted several standout titles for our readers, like the smart, sophisticated, and stingingly funny rom-com “Fire Island” (now streaming on Hulu) and the dazzlingly diverse re-imagination of the iconic series “Queer as Folk” (available to watch on Peacock), as well as the return of “Love, Victor,” Hulu/Disney’s popular coming out/coming of age series (beginning its third and final season on June 15) – so it’s understandable if viewers are still making their way through these and some of the other movies and shows on our must-see list.

If you’re one of those who are still catching up, however, you’d be well advised to do it quickly. June is not quite done rolling out its offerings, and that’s just the beginning. The rest of summer has more in store for queer viewers – and once again, the Blade is here to offer some suggested titles that we think are worth looking out for in the weeks to come.

Being BeBe (Now streaming, Apple TV/Prime Video/broadcast premiere June 21 on Fuse)

Director Emily Branham brings us this intimate documentary charting 15 years in the life of drag performer Marshall Ngwa (aka BeBe Zahara Benet), who immigrated to America from the homophobic environment of his native Cameroon before becoming the first champion on “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and launching a career as one the leading artists celebrating Black Queer Excellence today. It’s an up-close look at a performer whose emotional journey raises timely concerns at the intersection of LGBTQ, BIPOC, and immigrant lives today.

The Umbrella Academy, Season 3 (June 22, Netflix)

The popular comic-book-inspired fantasy drama series comes back for a much-anticipated third installment after leaving its titular collection of superhero siblings stranded in a strange timeline at the end of the last one. Hip and irreverent, this violent, decidedly adult superhero saga had a huge cult following even before Netflix brought it to the screen, and show creator Steve Blackman’s slick, stylish adaptation of it has spawned a whole new army of fans – many of them queer, thanks to the material’s inclusion of two queer characters among the leads and an “outsider” vibe that gives it a generally queer sensibility. This season will surely be essential viewing for LGBTQ viewers, since it marks the return of Elliot Page to the character he originated before transitioning, in a storyline carefully crafted by Blackman (who consulted with GLAAD and brought in writer Thomas Page McBee to consult, alongside Page himself) in which the character (formerly Vanya) transitions to become Viktor and begins using he/him pronouns – a historic moment in television, whether you’re a fan of superhero shows or not. Besides Page, the series stars Tom Hopper, David Castañeda, Emmy Raver-Lampman, Robert Sheehan, Aidan Gallagher, Justin H. Min, Colm Feore, Ritu Arya, and Justin Cornwell.

Where the Crawdads Sing (July 15, in theaters)

Though Delia Owens’ best-selling novel does not tell a specifically queer story, it has drawn many queer fans. That’s probably because its lead character Kya, an abandoned girl who raised herself to adulthood in the dangerous marshlands of North Carolina, is relegated to the status of “other” when she is drawn into the nearby town community by two young men – and it doesn’t help matters when one of them turns up dead. Starring Daisy Edgar-Jones, Taylor John Smith, Harris Dickinson, Michael Hyatt, Sterling Macer, Jr., and David Strathairn, this screen adaptation was written by “Beasts of the Southern Wild” scribe Lucy Alibar and directed by Olivia Newman.

Anything’s Possible (July 22, Prime Video)

We may have thought we had seen all multi-hyphenate performer Billy Porter’s many talents, but we were wrong. The Tony- and Emmy-winning Porter makes his debut as a feature film director with this “delightfully modern” Gen Z coming-of-age story about a confident trans high school girl named Kelsa who is busily navigating her way through senior year when she discovers that a shy classmate has developed a crush on her. Written by Ximena García Lecuona, the story is described as “a romance that showcases the joy, tenderness, and pain of young love,” and it stars Eva Reign, Abubakr Ali, and Renée Elise Goldsberry. And in case you’re wondering, Porter does not appear, himself – though he is credited as Executive Music Producer alongside Justin Tranter, which is yet another reason to look forward to this one.

Uncoupled (July 29, Netflix)

Neil Patrick Harris returns to the sitcom milieu that has brought him fame in a sitcom so perfect for him it’s shocking nobody ever thought to make it before – but perhaps we had to wait for him to be the right age to play Michael, a 40-something gay man who thinks he has a picture perfect life until his husband blindsides him by walking out the door and away from their marriage after 17 years together. He’s now confronted with the nightmare scenario of being middle-aged, queer, and single in New York City – but when he starts to recognize the possibilities of living a single life, he decides to make the most of it. From “Emily in Paris” creator Darren Star and longtime “Modern Family” producer Jeffrey Richman, it looks to be a prime opportunity to enjoy Harris at his comedic best in a sharp, sexy, and very queer eight episodes of television.

They/Them (August 5, Peacock)

From horror cinema heavy-hitters Blumhouse Productions comes this queer fright flick (pronounced “they-slash-them”) described as a “queer empowerment story set at a gay conversion camp” and starring Kevin Bacon as a counselor hoping to help his “guests” find “a new sense of freedom” by shedding their queerness. Unfortunately, a mysterious killer starts claiming victims, and the campers must work together to protect themselves from more than just heteronormative programming. Oscar-nominated screenwriter John Logan (also responsible for the beloved horror series “Penny Dreadful”) created, wrote, and directs, bringing his vision as an out gay man to a classic genre with surprisingly few queer entries. Kevin Bacon, Anna Chlumsky, Theo Germaine, Carrie Preston, Quei Tann, Austin Crute, Monique Kim, Anna Lore, Cooper Koch, and Darwin del Fabro star.

Besides all these, don’t forget we also have new seasons of queer-inclusive sitcoms “Rutherford Falls” (June 16, Peacock) and “What We Do in the Shadows” (July 12, FX), so there will be more than enough strong LGBTQ content to hold us over until the release of Billy Eichner’s hotly anticipated gay rom-com “Bros” in September – but you’ll have to wait until our Fall Preview issue to find out more about that.

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Margaret Cho on ‘Fire Island’ and the state of stand-up

‘We laughed every day’ making new film

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Margaret Cho returns to film in ‘Fire Island’ out June 3. (Photo by Mary Taylor)

Could there be an Emmy Award in Margaret Cho’s future? In Hulu’s “Fire Island”(premiering June 3), as well as on HBO Max’s “The Flight Attendant,” Cho’s uncharacteristic restraint gives her queer characters, Erin and Utada respectively, an admirable depth and humanity. Additionally, Cho has an upcoming appearance on the Emmy Award-winning “Hacks”(as herself), and ongoing guest-starring roles in a multitude of popular shows. Never one to sit idle, Cho will be taking her stage act on the road throughout the coming months. Busy as she is, Margaret was gracious enough to make time to answer a few questions.

BLADE: Margaret, in the new movie “Fire Island,” you play Erin, who’s described by one of the characters as a “career brunch server, age unknown, lesbian queen.” What was it about Erin that spoke to you and made you want to portray her?

MARGARET CHO: I just love the script. I’m a big fan of Joel Kim Booster, and his comedy and his writing, and as a person. I wanted to be a part of the film. I love Andrew Ahn’s direction. I love Bowen (Yang). It was really special to do this. The “career brunch server” was so appealing. Everything about this character is a lot of fun, and so it was just perfect. We had a blast doing it.

BLADE: It looks that way! Erin is the wise lesbian housemother to her gaggle of younger gays. Is this an aspect of your personality that also transfers to your off-screen life?

CHO: Absolutely! The elder gay. The crone. It’s also the old lesbian who’s burned all of her bridges with the current lesbians her age and has to mine the younger generation for friendship. It’s very fun, it’s really cold, and it’s very realistic to me.

BLADE: What was the best part for you about acting with rising comic actors such as Bowen and Joel, whom you mentioned, as well as Matt Rogers?

CHO: We laughed every day. We had such a good time. Outside of my dressing room, every day, there were full-on reenactments of entire “Real Housewives” episodes. Full Tiffany Pollard monologues from “I Love New York.” It was like Shakespeare in the Park, but it was “Real Housewives” by the trailer. It was exciting. I just love those guys.

BLADE: Erin was able to afford to purchase the Fire Island house following winning a settlement involving a piece of glass and a major Italian chain restaurant. Do you think our current culture is more litigious than necessary?

CHO: I don’t know. I think the character is just really savvy and knows where to make an opportunity for herself. I think that’s really more it. I don’t know if it was necessarily because of the culture or the time or whatever. But I think that she’s just smart about doing what she can to get something.

BLADE: Was your first trip to Fire Island as a performer or as a vacationing guest?

CHO: Every trip I’ve made there was as a performer and then I stayed for vacation. So, I made it work and pleasure, both at the same time. I’ve been going there since 2008. I love spending time there and just hanging out. I’m actually more of a Provincetown lady. I’ve been going to Provincetown since the 1980s to work and perform and just hang out. These are very much important areas for me. It’s the gay beach life that I really love.

BLADE: You mentioned Andrew Ahn, the gay filmmaker who directed “Fire Island,” and he also directed the lauded 2019 film “Driveways.” Is he a director you could see yourself working with again?

CHO: Absolutely! I love Andrew. I think he’s quite an incredible director. Not only is he so great with actors…the way that he creates films is so visually stunning and they’re so emotionally rich. I really admire him and his vision as an auteur. I would love to work with him again.

BLADE: You were one of the performers in the line-up for the LGBTQ comedy show “Stand Out,” which was part of Netflix is a Joke: The Festival. Stand-up comedy has received increased attention with Jerrod Carmichael coming out as gay in his HBO Max comedy special “Rothaniel,” as well as the controversy surrounding Dave Chappelle’s Netflix comedy special. As a performer whose roots are in stand-up comedy, do you think there’s the possibility of healing?

CHO: Yes, I think so. We need to hear from LGBTQIA voices in comedy. I think that queer comedy has always been a part of the larger comedy world. We’ve always had a very strong presence within comedy. I see so many more of us participating and out there in this conversation. I was glad to be part of the festival and I’m so grateful to be part of the queer comedy community.

BLADE: Finally, I live in Fort Lauderdale, and I noticed that Florida is not on your tour schedule. I know that I’ve seen you perform in West Palm Beach, Miami, and, more recently, in Fort Lauderdale. With the political climate being what it is under the current governor, do you foresee performing here at any point in the near future?

CHO: Yes, definitely. I think it’s important to be out there. I was actually just there a few weeks ago, so. I think that we need to be constantly out there and we definitely need to be heard. Yes, I’m sure I’ll be returning again soon. 

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