At its prime, bathhouses were cool because of their popularity among gay, bi and closeted men. There used to be somewhat of a beauty competition on who was allowed to enter these establishments. Sort of like the lines at the hottest nightclub in town where bouncers let in the most gorgeous and stunning people as others get left behind. The 75 year-old president of the North American Bathhouse Association also known as NABA, Dennis Holding recalls his experience of this in the 1970s:
“There was a club in LA called The 8709. It was on the second floor. In its day, there would be a line down the stairs to the street, and you’d wait and you’d climb all the way up, and if the attendant didn’t like your looks he wouldn’t let you in. I got rejected there once, but I got let in three or four times, and I remember the process quite well. But if they thought you weren’t attractive enough they wouldn’t let you in.”
At the height of their success, there were about 700 bathhouses operating throughout the country in the late 1980s. Today that number is down to a merely 60 in operation!
“The acceptance of gays has changed the whole world,” Dennis Holding, who owns a small bathhouse in Miami told the AP. “It’s taken away the need to sneak around places like these and today, you can go to the supermarket, launch your Grindr app and hook-up.”
Yes technology and social media have changed the rules of the game but technology will never be able to replace the safe and comfortable environment that the baths have to offer. At least not yet. Although Grindr can connect you with guys you MIGHT think look like their profile pictures, it doesn’t give you an easy option to walk away once you meet the guy for the first time.
I've actually never been inside a bathhouse. Am I missing out?
James Ivory (L) & Pierre Lhomme (R) before a screening of Maurice (Image by Matthew Rettenmund)
Earlier this week, I was excited to attend one screening that was a part the FIAF (French Institute Alliance Française) series CinéSalon: Lhomme Behind the Camera, which is running through February 23 at Florence Gould Hall (55 E. 59th St., NYC).
The series honors French cinematographer Pierre Lhomme, 85, whose work on a variety of classics and interesting efforts is said to have “helped shape the careers of iconic directors, including Chris Marker, Jean-Pierre Melville and James Ivory.”
Sample of three posters for the film; I had the middle one on my wall in collage. (Images via Cinecom)
The event that I was lucky enough to take in was a screening of the 1987 Merchant-Ivory film Maurice (pronounced Morris), a lushly romantic adaptation of the 1913 gay-themed novel by E.M. Forster that was not published until 1971, due to concerns that its subject matter could be ruled obscene.
Not only was Lhomme present, but director James Ivory, 87, also appeared to briefly introduce the film and then take part in a Q&A after, which I wouldn't have missed.
James Wilby as Maurice, the cat at the center of Forster's great gay love story (Image via Cinecom)
When I was in college at the University of Chicago—a school I attended in large part because I randomly found a queer students' union flyer when I went to visit, not even focusing on the school's reputation for academics—I had a job with a literary agent in the Fine Arts Building downtown. Maurice played that quaint venue, and I knew I could not miss it, even though it would mark the first time I saw a gay movie in public. I remember being scared to death buying the ticket, and then sitting in the theater, wondering if a man would try to grab my knee or something, and wondering if I might be recognized. (I was out to some high school friends back home, but almost no one on campus quite yet.)
I couldn't have asked for a more beautiful film to see in that phase of my life. I appreciated the unrepentant emotionality of Maurice (James Wilby) and Clive (Hugh Grant), as well as the cautionary aspect of Clive's retreat into the closet. Most uplifting to me was the film's happy ending, in which the upper-class Maurice finds passion and—just maybe—eternal happiness with a working-class stiff (Rupert Graves). As I told Mr. Ivory after the screening, the movie represented to me a true gay love story, and also a cautionary tale, but one that dealt with very contemporary issues (coming out) and did not feature characters who had to be punished for their alleged sins.
Maurice tells the story of a young English homosexual who falls in love with two completely different men, and in their differences is the whole message of the movie, a message I do not agree with. Yet because the film is so well made and acted, because it captures its period so meticulously, I enjoyed it even in disagreement ... The problem in the movie is with the gulf between his romantic choices. His first great love, Clive, is a person with whom he has a great deal in common. They share minds as well as bodies. Scudder, the gamekeeper, is frankly portrayed as an unpolished working-class lad, handsome but simple. In the England of 1914, with its rigid class divisions, the two men would have had even less in common than the movie makes it seem, and the real reason their relationship is daring is not because of sexuality but because of class. Apart from their sexuality, they have nothing of substance to talk about with each other in this movie. No matter how deep their love, I suspect that within a few weeks or months the British class system would have driven them apart.
He offers her money to spend one week with him, she accepts, he buys her clothes, they have sex and of course (this being the movies) they fall in love. They fall into a particularly romantic kind of love, the sort you hardly see in the movies these days - a love based on staying awake after the lights are out and confiding autobiographical secrets ... There could indeed be, I suppose, an entirely different movie made from the same material —a more realistic film, in which the cold economic realities of the lives of both characters would make it unlikely they could stay together ... But by the end of the movie I was happy to have it close as it does.
Yeah, so gays can't get one happy ending, but straights could, back then, get them every single time without a raised eyebrow. Perfect. (Decades later, Maurice is the better-reviewed and better-respected of the two films—91% on Rotten Tomatoes with 87% audience approval—even if Pretty Woman—62%/68%—is an immortal piece of pop culture because one of the leads had a vagina.)
Hugh Grant has had a very good hair life. (Image via Cinecom)
Watching it again 29 years later was moving in that I remembered so many scenes as if I'd seen the film a thousand times (just once). Even the music was a strong sense-memory—I had bought the album and listened to it over and over. It's an exquisite, evocative score by the late Richard Robbins, who did many of the Merchant-Ivory films, and who passed away in 2012. It was a treat to relive this experience, and I must say my fetishization of Hugh Grant's hair in this film (he isn't really high on my list of crushes anymore) and of every inch of Rupert Graves (he is) remains intact.
Afterward, Ivory and Lhomme took questions from the audience, some intelligent and some head-scratchers, including a long one from a woman who wanted to know if the actors were gay (!) and if the director had cast beautiful men as a comment on gay narcissism (gay!!!).
Two things that irked me: The woman next to me made a comment that my camera was making too much noise (it makes a very faint electronic whir when it turns on) before the film even started, and yet she wound up being the culprit when a wind-chime alarm blared throughout the last five full minutes of the movie. She also kept asking me to confirm what the subjects had said during the interview, even though I was clearly videoing everything.
Scudder, off to London to get his (gentle)man. (Image via Cinecom)
The other bummer was that the very last question ended with a statement that Graves's character Scudder was “possibly the worst person alive.” I was blown away by this assertion, as was I think Ivory, who didn't address it.
I asked the questioner afterward what he meant. “Oh, are you a Scudder apologist?” he asked me. Gee, I don't really think Scudder needs apologies made for him. Anyway, the younger guy asserted that he and all of his reading group all hated Scudder. Apparently, the segment in which Scudder—who had hoped to make love with Maurice again but found himself ignored—bluffed that he might blackmail his lover made this guy think Scudder was evil and manipulative. To me, it seemed baldly obvious that the intent of the author and the director was to show that Scudder genuinely loved Maurice and was extremely insecure when rejected. He specifically, warm-heartedly folds when pushed by Maurice, and explains he'd never take a penny from him.
They were there, they were queer, they got used to it. (Images via Cinecom)
Scudder risked his security by coming to have sex with Maurice the first time, then he gave up his security in the Argentines (as well as contact with his family) to spend what we hope will be the rest of his life with the guy. Putting aside how sexy Scudder is (check out this scorching montage of love scenes), he is nuts for Maurice, and he represents the non-judgmental self-actualization that Maurice needs and embraces, in stark contrast to the life of lies and self-denial that Clive has slid into and advocates. If Scudder is the worst person ever, what is Clive? It just seems to me that it's an accepted observation that Maurice was written by Forster explicitly to be a gay love story with a happy ending. If Maurice ends up with Scudder and it's supposed to be a happy ending, I have to believe Scudder is not supposed to be an unpleasant drama queen.
Theirs was a love that dared speak its name. (Image via Cinecom)
It was an interesting exchange, but one of those times when you not only have an impression you feel strongly, but your impression fits with the only possibly explanation of an artist's work. I will say that the ending has some room for interpretation in that we can't be sure the men will be happy always. Ivory mentioned to me that one complicating factor would be World War I, but he also said it was, indeed, supposed to be a happy ending.
Oh, Mr. Graaant! (Image via Cinecom)
Check out the my video, containing most of the answers and comments from Ivory and Lhomme, after the jump ...
My pal Alan Light has struck (gold) again, this time uploading some footage from 1998 and 1999 shot on Fire Island. Again, this shouldn't be such a flashback, but it feels like that anyway—almost 20 years.
First impressions (other than seeing some people I know!) is: Isn't it interesting how much less prepared people are when faced with a recording device? Today, people are on at all times. Also: HGH and other steroids and enhancements were not all the rage just yet—the bodies are much less inflated.
In this video, there's plenty of local color, including shirtless guys, dancing queens and shots of the Pavilion (that burned in 2011):
Duke Mason interviews former first daughter Patti Davis, who has an interesting perspective on her dad Ronald Reagan's reputation as the man who let AIDS run amok:
... I'm not gonna make excuses for, um, the failure of his administration to address the AIDS crisis when it was going on—I mean, it was a failure ... It hurts my heart that that, that that happened, on so many levels. One of my father's flaws was that he delegated authority to other people, and relied on them to, uh, give him the appropriate information on things ...presidents get briefings every morning, um, they're busy, so their time watching CNN is, uh, is limited, so they do rely on people to bring them information on what was going on, and there were people around him who did not want him dealing with the AIDS crisis, and I'm not making excuses for him, I'm saying that's a flaw of his, and in this case it turned out to be a really tragic flaw.
She goes on to say he only knew what was going on once Rock Hudson died, and only then because Hudson was a friend of his.
She says her father would not have supported Donald Trump's rhetoric, and also takes time to promote her new book, The Earth Breaks in Colors.
Janis Paige, 93, responded to my request for an autograph on this knock-out still of her from the '40s—and her signature is still a thing of beauty.
I've always loved Paige (and the late Anne Francis—I for some reason think of them in the same mind-breath), and yet became confused and for a long while had thought she'd passed away. Probably, I was thinking of Francis. Once I updated my list of stars 80+ and realized I'd left Paige off, I located this stunning pic and sent it right off to her. A couple of months or less later, and here she is.
Mike Douglas (far R) interviews: Astaire, Powell, Kelly, Paige, Miller, Reynolds, Fabray: 40 years later, four out of seven of these greats are still with us!
Keep reading for a great Mike Douglas-hosted interview of Paige and many other MGM musical stars back when they were promoting the That's Entertainment II documentary. In it, Paige displays her independence of thought in giving Douglas a decidedly non-B.S. answer, one in which she asserts her desire not to be controlled.
Keep in mind the show aired February 20, 1976. That means the stars (in order of appearance/speaking) were these ages at the time: Mike Douglas (50), Debbie Reynolds (44), Nanette Fabray (56), Janis Paige (53), Ann Miller (pictured on vintage movie mag; only 52!!!), Jane Powell (46), Gene Kelly (63), Fred Astaire (75), Hermes Pan (66). They all look great, but isn't it interesting that they project a much older aura than stars of the same ages today? Betty White is now 20 years older than Astaire was, Madonna is five years older than Miller was, Melissa McCarthy is a year older than Debbie Reynolds was.
Astaire & Powell
Or maybe, just maybe, they seem older to me because I'm so familiar with them, and when I was growing up, I could place them all as being many decades older than myself? Maybe a kid with zero idea of who they are would guess their ages accurately?
Now, the legendary Ziegfeld (which, to my surprise, has only been a movie theater since 1969) is closing down, and reopening in 2017 as a ballroom for corporate events. It will retain a movie screen, just in case.