Friday, January 13, 2006
So when they say gay what they REALLY mean is gay, get it?
Then, about halfway through the proceedings, The Producers comes to a grinding halt. Well, it doesn’t come to a halt per se, it’s more like we suddenly find ourselves in a time warp. The Producers is obviously a period piece, set in an undefined 1940s/1950s New York. But the time warp to which I’m referring is one that takes us to a particular, or rather a peculiar time when the love that dare not speak it’s name was still clearing its throat. A time when Liberace was the face of gay men everywhere, except that he wasn’t gay, he was just fabulous and waiting for the right girl and in the meantime more than happy living with his dear mother, and Johnny Carson laughed and laughed, and the audience joined in, even though some of them maybe weren’t quite sure why.
I can’t claim I know what it was like to be gay in the 60s and 70s, but I do know a few people who were gay in the 60s and 70s, and what I know most about them is that, during that time, they were decidedly not OUT. In fact, they were pretty steadfastly denying the remotest possibility that they might be anything out of the ordinary, a state that I think must exceed being ‘in the closet’, since how can one be ‘in the closet’ if one can’t even acknowledge that there is a closet, or four walls, or even a neighborhood?
And why would you acknowledge that neighborhood, swathed in pink ruffled organdy? In many ways Liberace was the perfect symbol of our society’s conflicted relationship with homosexuality. I remember my grandma LOVED Liberace. He was sooo funny…so sweet and charming…so talented…so flamboyant. He might be a little funny, if ya know what I mean? But boy can he play the piano. It was perfectly acceptable to be entertained by someone a little light in the loafers, but I must tell you that if my Dad had decided to run off and become Liberace’s pool boy, my grandma would have fallen on her knitting needle. It might be ok to enjoy being entertained by a man dressed up like Mae West, but it sure as hell wasn’t ok to BE a man dressed like Mae West, unless you made Johnny Carson laugh while doing it.
And so, The Producers. The story has been around since 1968. It’s a movie musical based on the musical based on the movie. Obviously, I am not the first person to write about it. I do know that every time I do read about it, the focus is on the Hitler humor. In that respect, the concept is genius. In the annals of human history, there are things that are Just Not Funny. Mel Brooks has made a career out of creating humor from situations that are just WRONG. When we laugh at showgirls singing “Springtime for Hitler” or Blazing Saddle’s Sheriff Bart (Where the white women at?), we know that we’re laughing at ourselves, at the knee jerk "how DARE you" in each of us.
But when Carmen Ghia opens the door in his too tight black turtleneck and eyeliner lisping “yessssssssssssssssssssssssssssssss..ss.ss”, what are we supposed to be laughing at? For many years, this is what it meant to be gay in the public eye. It meant lisping and limp wrists and oh my goodness Shirley that man is wearing a dress! I can’t say that I was offended by the “Keep it Gay” musical number or Carmen and Roger De Bris, I was just startled by how anachronistic it all seems.
This anachronism was emphasized all the more when one of Roger’s stable revealed himself to be Jai Rodriguez, one of the Fab Five from Queer Eye. Jai is decked out like a gay I Dream of Jeanie complete with lavender nipples and a turban to match. Jai can usually be seen weekly sporting the heights of metro-sexual fashion and instructing clueless straight men how to write thank you notes and fold napkins, without ANY lisping whatsoever, and certainly no painted nips.
I’m sure there are plenty of people out there who could lecture me about the non PC-ness of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, how it reinforces the stereotype of the effete gay male obsessed with fashion and fripperies. But I’ll tell you one thing it does do. Every week we see five completely different men, each with their own area of competency and expertise, each with markedly different personalities and styles and (I presume) not one of them had to wear a dress in order to get the job (although Carson does seem determined to change that). Oh my God Shirley, gays have individual personalities! They are not a monolithic army swathed in organdy. Seeing Jai dressed in lavender pantaloons was almost as startling as seeing someone in blackface.
On the plus side, that element of The Producers does kind of grip one by the shoulders and make us acknowledge, wow, we’ve come a long way, baby. Unfortunately it also suggests that we have not come quite far enough, yet.