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WCT 25: Knight at the Movies: Movies and 1985
Windy City Times 25th Anniversary Issue

This article shared 3004 times since Wed Sep 29, 2010
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Before the announcer even said her name, the spotlight picked up Oprah Winfrey as she marched purposely down the aisle. Of course, she was wearing purple. A small cheer went up from the balcony section and she turned and waved momentarily and smiled and then walked onstage. There were speeches of congratulations and an acceptance of them by Oprah but I don't remember who made them or who else was there other than that it was a mixture of Chicago's socially prominent and a smattering of its colorful nightlife denizens ( hence my presence ) .

Then the lights dimmed and The Color Purple preview began. It was December of 1985.

At the time, 1985 hadn't seemed like a particularly memorable year at the movies. The top box-office winners included a wide variety of genres that had become populist hits: Back to the Future, Rambo and a fourth Rocky movie, Out of Africa, The Jewel of the Nile, Cocoon, The Goonies, Witness and Spies Like Us. On the face of it, only Cocoon, which featured a raft of senior-citizen actors in its cast ( along with hunky Steve Guttenberg ) seemed particularly risky. The other stuff—par for the course.

But the release of The Color Purple—which ended up joining this group as a top 10 box-office winner for the year and garnering a slew of Oscar nominations—gave mainstream audiences something that none of these other movies did. Not just the film debut of both Whoopi Goldberg and Winfrey ( her real introduction to a national audience ) or a big-budget movie focused almost exclusively on the saga of a group of African Americans in the South helmed by the movies most successful director—a white man named Steven Spielberg. That combination in itself was a rarity in cinemas.

The real importance of Spielberg's treacly, by-the-numbers movie ( rightfully the subject of a mixed critical response ) was the lesbian love scene between Goldberg and Margaret Avery ( another Oscar nominee ) plopped down right in the middle of the picture. It's not particularly good ( it couldn't be any less sensual ) but there it is, big as life, in a mainstream studio release seen by millions of moviegoers on screens across the country and around the world. In 1985 that was groundbreaking.

Only three years before I remember being at a suburban screening of Deathtrap, in which Christopher Reeve gave Michael Caine a quick peck on the lips, signaling a gay love affair between the two characters. All around me, audience members booed and walked out—over a peck on the lips between two men. That same year Making Love was hounded out of theatres.

Now, when I look back at the films of 1985, the year that Windy City Times was born, I see a lot more than that passionate kiss between two women for queer movie audiences to take note of. Some of the queer movie highlights of that year include the raft of unapologetic gay characters in Scorsese's After Hours ( including the couple in leather drag kissing in the bar with open mouths ) ; the sexy love affair between screen newcomer Daniel Day-Lewis and Gordon Warnecke in Stephen Frears' My Beautiful Laundrette; Paul Reubens as his childlike character, Pee Wee Herman, dressing in female drag and being frankly delighted as he is objectified by two men in Pee Wee's Big Adventure; and Paul Schrader's artsy, beautiful biopic Mishima: A Life in Four Parts, a look at gay Japanese writer Yukio Mishima. And as dreadful as the screen adaptation of A Chorus Line by Sir Richard Attenborough was, the gay characters from the stage edition of the landmark musical were kept intact.

Gay director James Ivory with producing partner Ismail Merchant also broke through to mainstream audiences with A Room with a View, which featured full frontal male nudity. William Hurt made queer history as the first man to play an openly gay character and win an Oscar ( for Best Actor ) in Hector Babenco's political drama Kiss of the Spider Woman. However, 1985 has another sad movie first—it was the year that Rock Hudson came out of the closet and then died shortly thereafter from AIDS—tagging the disease for years to come as a "gay plague."

For the ladies there wasn't as much overt stuff, although the year did include what would become a lesbian classic: out director Donna Deitch's Desert Hearts, which featured an erotically charged romance between co-stars Helen Shaver and Patricia Charbonneau. The year also featured a lot of movies with strong women at the helm—Glenn Close in Jagged Edge, Geraldine Page in The Trip to Bountiful, Jane Fonda, Anne Bancroft and Meg Tilly in Agnes of God, Anjelica Houston in Prizzi's Honor, Miranda Richardson in Dance with a Stranger ( the film that also introduced audiences to Rupert Everett long before he came out ) . The year also included the debut of Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan ( arguably, her best movie ) , Tina Turner in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome and Cher's first major starring role in Mask. And 1985's best movie villain was gay audience fave Grace Jones in A View to a Kill.

In hindsight, two of my favorite films from 1985 are only queer upon closer examination. In A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge, the confused teenager played by Mark Patton ( who came out years later ) spurns the physical advances of his girlfriend and spends a lot of time in the company of his muscular best friend. Later, he's caught in what appears to be an S&M bar by the school coach, who orders him to return with him to the high school where he's given laps for punishment. Moments later in a steamy shower, the coach is dispensed in what is nothing less than a homoerotic S&M shower stall scene. Screenwriter David Chaskin, Patton and the film's star, Robert Englund, have acknowledged that the movie is meant to be a rather twisted coming-out story.

Then there's Fright Night, in which the teenaged Charley ( William Ragsdale ) , a horror movie fan, becomes convinced that his new neighbor, the fashionable, scarf-wearing Jerry ( Chris Sarandon ) , is a vampire. Soon Charley and his girlfriend, Amy ( Amanda Bearse ) , along with their friend, Ed ( Stephen Geoffreys ) , have convinced a washed-up TV horror host ( Roddy MdCowall ) that they're onto something. Of course Jerry—aided by his good looking blonde "friend," Billy ( Jonathan Cole ) —is too clever for the group and soon it's Amy that Jerry is after. Writer-director Tom Holland's script is a nice mixture of camp, chills and over the top special effects. But in hindsight the movie becomes a veritable queer horror flick. Bearse later came out ( and now directs LGBT-themed movies ) , the late McDowall was gay, Geoffreys went on to appear in S&M gay porn and Sarandon had won an Oscar nomination playing a gay transgender man in 1975's Dog Day Afternoon. ( Note: Fright Night is part of the line-up of this year's Music Box Massacre Oct. 9. )

Finally, 1985 also saw the birth of a lot of future gay audience movie faves—Emile Hirsch, Kellan Lutz, Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan, Chace Crawford, Amanda Seyfried—actors who can play gay characters onscreen without the blink of an eye. Now if only we could get just one movie star to come out at the height of his or her career, there will be much to applaud and look forward to in the coming 25 years.

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