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The Boys in the Band and Beyond

In 1970, a watershed moment in the history of gay cinema occurred with the release of The Boys in the Band. Written by Mart Crowley, and based on his 1968 groundbreaking off-Broadway play, The Boys in the Band was the first mainstream Hollywood movie to focus exclusively on homosexual characters and issues. The story concerns a group of gay men, representing a cross-section of emblematic gay "types" (a queen, a clone, a hustler, etc.), who meet to celebrate a friend's birthday in a Manhattan apartment.

Upon its release, The Boys in the Band was celebrated as bold and compassionate, a breakthrough work on a taboo subject. By today's standards, however, the attitudes of the characters, especially their self-loathing, seem somewhat archaic and even objectionable.

Written on the eve of Gay Liberation--the Stonewall riots occurred nearly one year after the play opened and preceded the film's release by nine months--The Boys in the Band is reflective of its times. "I knew a lot of people like those people," Crowley has said of his characters. "The self-deprecating humor was born out of a low self-esteem, from a sense of what the times told you about yourself." As one of the most famous lines from the work clarifies, "Show me a happy homosexual and I'll show you a gay corpse."

A less clichéd, and certainly more celebratory, view of same-sex desire is presented in the film A Very Natural Thing (1974), written by Christopher Larkin (who also directed) and Joseph Coencas. The screenplay focuses on a young seminarian, David, who leaves the church after acknowledging his sexuality and embarks on his first homosexual relationship. Reported to be the first American mainstream film made by an openly gay director (William Friedkin, who directed The Boys in the Band, is heterosexual), A Very Natural Thing is an insider's view of gay life, detailing the everyday events of David and his boyfriend.

Nearly ten years passed before Hollywood embarked on another mainstream film focusing on same-sex desire. Unlike The Boys in the Band, with its self-hating, archetypal characters, Making Love (1982) presents a non-stereotypical view of gay men attempting to deal honestly with their sexuality. Barry Sandler's screenplay utilizes elements of classic melodrama to tell a modern love story of a married couple forced to confront the husband's homosexuality when he becomes emotionally attached to an openly gay writer. Sandler has explained that the script was the direct result of his decision to write from his personal identity and experience.

Anglo-Pakistani novelist and screenwriter Hanif Kureishi first came to prominence with his Academy Award-nominated screenplay for My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), which presents a cross-class, cross-racial homosexual relationship. Directed by Stephen Frears, and featuring excellent performances by Saeed Jaffrey and Daniel Day Lewis as the lovers, the film presents the homosexual relationship matter-of-factly even as it exposes the rapacity and inequities of Thatcherite Britain.

Other screenplays by Kureishi include Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1988), London Kills Me (1991), My Son the Fanatic (1997), The Escort (1999), and The Mother (2003). Gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals frequently appear in Kureishi's screenplays and novels, though they often reject the categories of sexual identity politics, just as they frequently blur categories of nationality and ethnicity.

A defining moment in the history of lesbian cinema occurred with the sympathetic portrayal of lesbian characters in Natalie Cooper's screenplay of Desert Hearts (1985), adapted from the 1964 novel Desert of the Heart by Jane Rule. The story concerns a married woman who has gone to Reno, Nevada for a divorce and has taken up residence at a ranch to wait out the process. While at the ranch, she meets an open and self-assured lesbian, and the two women subsequently begin a relationship.

The film ends on a positive note, and offers the possibility that two women can end up in a happy, stable relationship--as opposed to the doomed lesbian couples portrayed in such earlier films as The Children's Hour (1962) and The Killing of Sister George (1968).

Another critically-lauded film with non-stereotypical lesbian characters is Go Fish (1994), written by Guinevere Turner with the film's director Rose Troche. The film tells the story, in a casual, meandering style, of an extended group of friends in Chicago. Shot in black and white with a miniscule budget and a cast of nonprofessional actors (including the film's co-writer Turner), the film's frankness and feeling of everyday authenticity are perhaps its greatest virtues. Go Fish marked a breakthrough for young, urban lesbians unused to seeing something approximating their lives on the big screen.

Turner also wrote the screenplay for American Psycho (2000), based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis, in addition to several scripts for the television series The L Word (2004), about a group of lesbian friends in Los Angeles. Troche went on to direct Bedrooms and Hallways (1998), which focuses on a gay male relationship, and wrote and directed The Safety of Objects (2001), based on the novel by A. M. Homes.

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