Knight at the Movies Archives
Tom Gustafson's musical fantasia is the gay indie of the year, two powerhouse stage productions come to the screen
Suddenly at the movies gay is good again – at least in Chicago. Within a two week period we’ve had Milk, Gus Van Sant’s
tremendous biopic of Harvey Milk open here and now, in an exclusive run beginning this Friday, December 12 at the Music Box
Theatre, we’re getting Were the World Mine, the delightful queer, musical re-imagining of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer’s Night
Dream.” The film, which premiered in October to a rapturous, sold out audience at the Chicago Film Festival is a joy to behold, the
gay indie release of the year, a sort of queer style High School Musical with bits of the British indies Get Real and The History Boys
thrown in for good measure.
The movie is the feature debut of director Tom Gustafson (see my separate interview with him online at www.windycitytimes.com), his
off screen partner and co-writer Cory James Krueckeberg, Kira Kelly their cinematographer, Jessica Fogle who wrote the music (an
exuberant cross between Erasure, Abba and Scissor Sisters), and much of the cast. Many of the performers are Chicagoans or have
ties to Chicago and the film was shot here. Together, this creative team and their actors have enlarged upon Gustafson’s 2003 short
“Fairies” and fashioned an exuberant gay fantasia.
The story centers on the tousled, dark-haired, moody Timothy (played by out actor Tanner Cohen) who is given to flights of
dreaming – especially about the school jock Jonathan (Nathaniel David Becker) at the all male prep school he attends. But he’s also
secure enough to be one of the few openly gay students and not particularly upset by the taunts of the other members of the rugby
team and the silent derision of their sneering coach (Christian Stolte) as he walks the halls in his skinny jeans and sneakers. Trying
out for the school play, a musical version of “A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream” – at the behest of his oddly poetic drama teacher Ms.
Tebbit who has a habit of speaking in iambic pentameter (Wendy Robie from “Twin Peaks” and The People Under the Stairs) – is
another thing and it’s only at the last minute that he finally auditions.
But then, literally, Timothy finds his voice and the moment he begins to sing in his clear as a bell tenor, the character (and the film)
takes flight. Underneath a blue night sky and liquid moon in a magical forest Timothy’s fantasy of a romance with Jonathan is
realized (and incorporates a chorus filled with the rugby players to boot). After the audition Jonathan, who has been listening
outside the door tells him, “Nice pipes” and offers Timothy a ray of hope.
Ms. Tebbit casts Timothy as Puck and as rehearsals commence he discovers the recipe for a love potion. Armed with a purple pansy,
he’s soon splashing the potion into the eyes of all the homophobes in town, ensuring that the first person they see and fall in love
with will make them gay in the process. Naturally, a slew of complications ensue as the film builds towards its climax, the
performance of the play by the all male cast. When the potion wears off will Jonathan still be in love with Timothy? Will Timothy’s
mother Donna (Judy McLane) finally come to terms with his gay sexuality and stop caring what the snobbish Nora (Jill Larson)
thinks? Will Frankie (Zelda Williams, daughter of Robin) and Max (Ricky Goldman) get back together after the potion has made the
pre-potion straight Max a rival of Jonathan for Timothy’s affections?
The film has enormous charm, enhanced by winning performances from its two leads and made especially memorable by Robie’s
bewitching turn as the drama teacher who seems to be an all knowing fairy godmother to the other characters. Though the film was
made, like most gay indies, on a miniscule budget the production doesn’t suffer for it and Kelly’s cinematography, particularly in the
fantasy sequences, is gorgeous. One quibble: throughout, at intermittent moments, the characters have burst into song and though
ostensibly a musical, the film really only features one full out production number and one wants more of the incredibly infectious pop
tunes Fogle has composed (the soundtrack helps to satisfy this craving to some degree).
Were the world mine, a film as winning as Were the World Mine would reach well beyond its gay core audience into mainstream appeal
– a fantasy of mine that I’ve had about many other gay indies and with this movie may yet be realized.
An additional note: Director Gustafson and several of his cast members will attend a screening of the film at the Music Box on
Saturday, December 13 for a Q&A with the audience. www.musicboxtheatre.com
Two competing prestige films opening this week, Doubt and Frost/Nixon, are big screen adaptations of award winning Broadway plays
and will most likely compete when awards time comes around. The latter comes to the screen with its stage leads Michael Sheen
and Frank Langella intact while Doubt replaces its trio of Broadway stars with movie marquee names. Instead of lesbian actress
Cherry Jones (who won the Tony for her performance) as Sister Aloysius the nun/high school principal you don’t want to mess with we
get Mighty Meryl (Streep) along with Philip Seymour Hoffman as her nemesis, the “progressive” father who she believes has
engaged in inappropriate behavior with a 12 year-old boy. Amy Adams of Enchanted, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, and Junebug plays
the innocent young nun/teacher who tentatively brings her suspicions to Streep’s character. Here with go with an age old debate – do
the replacements live up to their counterparts? Do Langella and Sheen have the advantage because they played Nixon and Frost
onstage or are their performances revealed onscreen as having been too worked out? Will audiences for films with these dramatic
origins, both of which feature plenty of scenery chewing, queue up for each?
Though Ron Howard has opened up Frost/Nixon, giving us a transatlantic look at the back stage machinations that went on as the
London-based talk show host negotiated with ex-President Richard Nixon, who had resigned and gone into exile in his California
coast home, my money’s on Doubt, which confines its action to the school and church where the play took place. Howard’s film is
entertaining enough thanks to his opening up the material, to the intricately worked out performance of Langella as Nixon
(obviously, scaling it back for the camera), and supporting work from a prickly Sam Rockwell and Oliver Platt. But I’ve seen one too
many movies about the disgraced president to find the material compelling and Sheen’s characterization of Frost, with his alternate
gigantic ego one minute and slices of insecurity the next isn’t all that far from his performance as Tony Blair in The Queen, or nearly
In fact, seen on the screen, Frost/Nixon and The Queen, both written by Peter Morgan, aren’t all that different, considering that both
focus on the delicate personal negotiations between two highly powerful individuals. But the glacial, imperious Queen Elizabeth in
the personage of Helen Mirren was much more enthralling than Nixon, good as Langella is and the material, with its backstage view
of power in action, was much more insightful and lyrical.
As for Doubt, John Patrick Shanley directs his screen adaptation of his own play and by casting Streep, Hoffman and Adams,
hedges his bets that audiences will overlook the touchy subject matter in favor of watching two acting titans go at it. The material is
still heavy with metaphor (the characters constantly battle the howling winds, etc.) but he certainly gives the audience their money’s
worth. Streep performance lives up to one of Hoffman’s lines about the character she’s playing, “The dragon is hungry.”
At 59, our most esteemed actress caps off a big year at the box office (thanks to Mamma Mia!) with a role that gives her everything
that first brought her wide acclaim: an iron-willed, inscrutable character with a distinct accent (this one is from the Bronx) whose
implacability masks underlying insecurity, and a memorable wig (think Silkwood, Sophie’s Choice, etc., this time she wears a black
bonnet). She’s a character that takes charge with as little as a flick of her eyes (just like Miranda Priestley in The Devil Wears Prada)
and in her encounters, more a series of competitions, with the other actors she mostly wins (except a vividly emotional scene with
Viola Davis who plays the boys mother).
When the shouting match starts between she and Hoffman, who essentially plays a part that is subordinate to hers (as is Adams’),
Streep practically melts the walls off the set and the scene is as mesmerizing as one had hoped but later, at the film’s conclusion,
she makes an acting choice that is far different than the one Jones made onstage and made me realize in one fell swoop that
Streep’s entire performance had been scaled for the stage while Jones’ tightly controlled underplaying had been scaled for a movie.
This shouldn’t deter you from seeing Streep give one of those film performances that audiences love – she overacts the way Bette
Davis did in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and its fun and scary and thrilling at the same time. Streep’s performance is the
reason to see Doubt but subtle it’s not – and there’s no doubting that.
All the World's a Stage:
Were the World Mine-Doubt-Frost/Nixon
Expanded Edition of 12-10-08 Windy City Times Column
By Richard Knight, Jr.