As California's Proposition 8 is overturned and TV networks announce that both new and returning fall shows will have additional gay characters (and three of the six actors contending for an Emmy for best supporting actor in a comedy are gay, with two playing gay characters), homosexuality seems to have become, if not mainstream, at least a more accepted part of American society than in the closeted days of Rock Hudson and Montgomery Clift.
On the eve of its 15th anniversary, the North Carolina Gay & Lesbian Film Festival at the Carolina Theatre has become a mainstay of the local film scene, named a Signature Event by the Durham Convention and Visitors Bureau. This year's screenings and events from Aug. 12–15 include high-profile potential Oscar contenders, a plethora of new and returning gay filmmakers and a show by gay icon Bruce Vilanch on Aug. 13.
Not bad for a festival whose first year almost didn't happen.
Jim Carl, the Carolina Theatre's senior director, remembers "a lot of controversy" over the initial film series, which screened in 1995. "If I recall correctly, City Council had to come in to screen the films, because there was concern that they were pornographic," Carl says. "Even the subject matter was controversial. But it was still a very successful series."
The first festival, Carl says, had eight films, and about 800 people attended. By 2001, attendance had jumped to around 10,000, with the number of films in recent years occasionally hovering around 100.
As the festival grew, the controversy decreased. "The first few years, we had protesters out in the plaza," Carl says. "There was a big brouhaha about even having the festival in the Triangle at all. But by 1997, I remember the focus in the media was the lack of controversy—the TV reports were wondering why things weren't more controversial." There have only been a few peaceful protesters since then, Carl says, and the Carolina Theatre gives them cold drinks to help them deal with the heat.
Now the festival is one of the largest for LGBT films in the country—unexpected from the state long associated with Jesse Helms. Carl says that most distributors contacted about showing films at the festival tell him, "I would never have believed that in North Carolina."
"They expect New York, Miami, Los Angeles, New York," Carl says. "They are blindsided that it would happen here. The best part is when they go back to their bigger cities and tell their friends not just about the venue but that it's a great audience. We often get filmmakers to come back, out of competition, just to hang out and enjoy the audience."
A number of this year's bigger films weren't available for screening. (In the case of the Asheville-shot Flight of the Cardinal, it was because director Robert Gaston literally hadn't finished a screenable print but wanted to be part of the festival.)
The most high-profile film is unquestionably the festival hit Howl, from the creators of the documentaries The Times of Harvey Milk and The Celluoid Closet, with an all-star cast headed by James Franco as Allen Ginsberg.
Another promising number is Gen Silent, a documentary from the minds behind Bob and Jack's 52-Year Adventure, about senior citizens forced to retreat to the closet when they enter retirement communities or require caregivers.
BearCity focuses on four men in the "bear" subculture of the gay community as they struggle to find love and happiness.
The films that were available for screening are, at times, almost indistinguishable from "mainstream" Hollywood cinema. The Women's Centerpiece Film, The Four-Faced Liar, is the tale of a bisexual love pentagon among five Greenwich Villagers. This amusing crowd-pleaser is no worse than the countless other tales of NYC 20-somethings. Marja Lewis Ryan adapted the script from her play, and co-stars.
Bloomington, from Fernanda Cardoso, editor of The Real L Word, is a solid but melodramatic film about a former child star (Sarah Stouffer) who has an affair with her college professor (Allison McAtee); the result feels almost like a Sapphic version of An Education, minus that film's bracing wit.
The horror-themed short Remission (part of "The Wolf With the Red Roses" program of men's mixed shorts playing throughout the weekend) wouldn't be out of place at the Carolina Theatre's Nevermore Film Festival, with the main character's offscreen lover the only gay connection. You Can't Curry Love (part of the "Everybody is Having Sex ... But Ryan" shorts series) is a tale of an East Asian who falls for a local during a trip to India. Complete with a closing Bollywood dance number, it's one gender reversal away from a "traditional" romantic comedy.
Other films examine the conflict between gay and straight culture. The excellent Edie & Thea: A Very Long Engagement, from the makers of The Brandon Teena Story, offers a strong argument for gay marriage in its tale of Edie Windsor and Thea Spyer, a lesbian couple whose four decades of cohabitation cumulated in their finally being able to legally marry in Canada. The hour-long tale is a funny and touching look at how intimate, life-long relationships can exist between people of any orientation.
A number of films take a comedic look at gay-straight relations. The Men's Centerpiece Violet Tendencies, from popular gay writer/ actor Jesse Archer, focuses on an aging "fag hag" (former Facts of Life star Mindy Cohn) who attempts to find a straight relationship outside of her circle of gay friends. If you're offended by the term "fag hag," then this might not be for you; the entire film is filled with randy one-liners, puns and hookups.
Gayby (part of the "Ain't No Doubt About It, I'm Gay!" men's mixed shorts) is an amusing, Woody Allen-esque short that involves a straight woman attempting to have a child with a gay friend the old-fashioned way; the dialogue-based scenario could easily be expanded into a feature. The similarly titled Gay Baby (part of the "Mother Nature Does the Rest" men's mixed shorts) is an amusing and touching tale about a couple who find out they're expecting a fabulous bundle of joy.
Perhaps the biggest gay-themed film isn't playing at the festival at all. Carl says the gay-parenting comedy The Kids Are All Right, considered a potential Oscar contender, has been the Carolina Theatre's biggest nonfestival, nonseries hit since There Will Be Blood in early 2008. "It's tripled the grosses of anything I've had playing all year long," Carl says. Forget the celluloid closet—gay cinema is out and proud, and in the Triangle, the N.C. Gay & Lesbian Film Festival is leading the way.