Knight at the Movies Archives
Sharon Gless shines in a lesbian-themed character drama
I’m used to grousing about the lack of gay themed movies in theatres but how about not just the lack but the disappearance of
lesbian ones altogether? From 2004 to 2007 I reviewed the following lesbian themed films: D.E.B.S., My Mother Likes Women, Saving
Face, My Summer of Love, Imagine Me & You, The Quiet, Backstage, Puccini for Beginners, Gray Matters, The Page Turner, and Notes on a
Scandal.* The review tally since 2008: zero. But that can’t be because I haven’t sought them out in movie theatres (though I readily
admit that a few may have gotten by me) and my first review priority in this column is always a movie with LGBT themes and
characters. So where does the drought come from? Where did all the lesbian movies go?
Straight to DVD seems to be the answer. And it’s not just the lesbian pictures either. Queer films of every stripe have become a
rare commodity in movie theatres. This isn’t just a case of audiences not supporting Our Own Kind (though the dismal box office
numbers on the critically acclaimed Milk might suggest otherwise), it also highlights a not very pleasant truth: just because a movie
has queer themes and characters doesn’t make it a good movie. Far, far from it. Like their overwhelming straight counterparts a lot
– I mean a lot – of the queer movies are mostly junk, too. Or at least, not very good.
All of which makes the arrival of the genuinely arresting Hannah Free, the locally shot lesbian centric movie starring Sharon Gless,
opening this Friday at the Siskel Film Center, something to take note of. The movie, with a screenplay by out writer Claudia Allen
(based on her acclaimed stage play) is a character drama that spans the lives of its title character (played at intervals by Gless and
Kelli Strickland) and the love of her life, Rachel (played by Maureen Gallagher and Ann Hagemann). From childhood on Hannah has
been the free spirit, Rachel the conventional one. The one constant between them is a fierce love (abetted by a strong passion –
the ladies go at it like bunnies) and though Hannah is bitten by the travel bug she always returns to Rachel who has married, given
birth to twins, and been widowed.
Circumstances find Hannah and Rachel both confined to a nursing home – Rachel in a prolonged coma and Hannah feisty and mad
as hell because Rachel’s grown daughter Marge (Taylor Miller) won’t let her see mom “because you might upset her.” Hannah just
wants to say a proper goodbye but the indifferent, unfeeling staff and the immovable Marge stand in her way – a particularly bitter
blow because the object of her affections is just down the hall. Like many other one-last-wish-before-I-die movies (A Trip to
Bountiful, Garbo Talks, et al), the quest for dignity in the face of death provides an emotionally fraught, compelling journey.
In Hannah’s case, as she reflects back on her on again/off again life with Rachel she finds she is haunted –sometimes literally – by
the young, vibrant but prim Rachel who fought her love and desire for Hannah. “You always thought we were the only ones who did
what we did,” Hannah reminds the ghost of the younger Rachel with a laugh. Hannah writes in a diary and finds another repository
for memories of her life with Rachel – good (often focusing on the couple’s frequent lovemaking), bad (usually centered on the
closet vs. coming out and Hannah’s wanderlust) and cutesy-poo (unnecessary, cloying scenes with the childhood Hannah and Rachel
kissin’ in the barn and a’skippin’ through the dappled fields). This is Greta (Jacqui Jackson) a young woman ostensibly doing
research on the Great Depression who befriends Hannah (the different time periods covered in the film are hazy with the nursing
home sequences – I think – set in the mid-80s).
Allen’s writing is beautifully simple – her characters talk like real people who often have moments of lyrical insight (“I’m refining
myself down to the essentials,” Hannah comments at one point) and Allen relieves even the most emotionally gripping moments
with a knack for black humor (something she shares with the late playwright Scott McPherson). Allen gifts Gless – who gives a
tremendous, full bodied performance in her first starring film role – and the rest of the predominantly female cast with a host of
forceful and quirky characters. Glesss, who has become an indelible part of our television history thanks to “Cagney & Lacey,”
“Queer as Folk” and many other TV parts brings her vast experience with emotionally difficult characters to bear on the role and the
movie crackles whenever she’s on screen.
Gless doesn’t take over the movie – this is definitely an ensemble piece – but she brings to the role a certain set of expectations
and a familiarity on the part of the audience that the other actresses can’t hope to achieve (nor do they really need to). We’re
primed to like Gless and her feistiness, no matter the character; to root for her and director Wendy Jo Carlton has the good sense to
acknowledge this and keeps the camera on her star, utilizing long takes that allow room for the lengthy, emotionally laden scenes to
Though clearly made on a small budget the material and performances are strong enough to outweigh most of the quibbles I might
have had on that score (Rodney Evans’ 2004 Brother to Brother, which flipped back and forth between present day and the roaring
twenties is another example of material and performances overcoming shaky production values).
“It’s a depressingly masculine world,” Judy Parfitt tells Kathy Bates at one point in the film Dolores Claiborne but a labor of love movie
like Hannah Free with its feminist point of view – shot in Chicago by a coterie of lesbian artists which include Allen, Carlton, editor
Sharon Zurek, score composer Martie Marro – who all produced along with Tracy Baim (Full Disclosure: Publisher of Windy City Times)
– beautifully defies that edict for audiences of every persuasion.
Hannah Free plays Sept. 25 – Oct. 1 at the Gene Siskel Film Center.
Not for Womyn Only:
Expanded Edition of 9-23-09 Windy City Times KATM Column
By Richard Knight, Jr.
CHECK OUT OTHER KATM FILM REVIEWS IN THE ARCHIVES
*Reviews of all these films are available in the KATM archives