Over the last 50 years, gay characters in films have gone from novelty (the eccentric but ultimately unhappy neighbor who befriends the straight protagonist, à la Murray Melvin in A Taste of Honey) to stereotypical images of decadence, if not outright villainy (think Shelley Winters in Cleopatra Jones), to proud (but often still tragic) political mouthpieces. It's a sign of just how much things have changed in the last generation that the characters in the films of this year's QFest aren't zany novelties, over-the-top caricatures or ideological straw figures. They're simply gay characters with stories worth telling, and they're refreshingly diverse even within the context of a festival where diversity is a given.
Take the titular heroine of the opening film Becks. Played by Lena Hall, she's an aspiring singer-songwriter whose life takes a U-turn when she leaves an unfaithful partner and returns to the safety of her childhood home. Goodbye New York; hello Maplewood! Living with her not entirely open-minded mother (Christine Lahti), she reluctantly rediscovers a life she thought she'd outgrown — and even starts to like it, thanks to a weekend singing gig at an old friend's bar and a chance to give guitar lessons to Elyse (Mena Suvari), the wife of an old high-school enemy.
- COURTESY OF CINEMA ST. LOUIS
- Lena Hall and Mena Suvari discover love in Maplewood in Becks.
Suvari and Lahti are good, but Hall, a Tony Award nominee, carries the film with her singing and her endearingly laid-back performance. St. Louis audiences, though, may be more impressed with the mostly on-target bits of local color. Written and directed by former locals Elizabeth Rohrbaugh and Dan Powell (who also plays Becks' bartender friend), Becks is a portrait of someone who feels like an outsider even in her own hometown. It's not because she's gay; it's because she's stuck in a place where people can't stop talking about Cardinals baseball and where they went to high school.
Becks represents a generation of gay women and men coming out in a time where their sexuality is relatively accepted, even in God-fearing Cardinal Nation. For Sam Cooper, the neurotic hero of After Louie, that's a difficult thing to accept. As played the incomparable Alan Cumming, Sam is a veteran of the 1980s AIDS scare, and he's a little resentful of younger men who didn't share those dark days. An artist, he's nostalgic for his time as an activist, obsessing over a memorial to a friend who died three decades earlier, and frustrated by friends who no longer dwell in the past.
When he begins a purely physical relationship with Braeden (Zachary Booth), his bitterness and sense of mortality escalate, alienating his friends and forcing him to re-evaluate a lifetime of political awareness. After Louie is a spotty but ambitious film, a digest of four decades of gay culture held together by Cumming's irresistibly cranky charm (and New York accent).
- COURTESY OF CINEMA ST. LOUIS
- Lavender Scare is about a past president's attacks on the LGBT community.
Finally, for a valuable lesson in American history, The Lavender Scare describes how homosexuals were systematically removed from government jobs and the military for being "security risks" during the Cold War era, despite not a single case of a gay man or woman ever being accused of turning over government secrets or being blackmailed over their sexuality.
Directed by Josh Howard and based on a book by David Johnson, it's a fast-paced, disturbing depiction of small-mindedness turned into political edict. Told in the Ken Burns style, with letters and diaries read by Cynthia Nixon and Zachary Quinto, among others, The Lavender Scare is a capsule history of Cold War hysteria and a classic example of a political witch hunt. Stories of careers cut short and loyal Americans driven to suicide are recounted by those who suffered the sanctioned persecution, as well as by the bureaucrats who wielded the brooms.
And if you think these stories of ruined careers and lives are just tales from a less enlightened time, stick around to the very end for a footnote about how the State Department — and the current White House — have addressed this chapter of history. Short answer: a dignified apology from one administration, a typically crass response from another.