By Tim Parks
What do these things have in common: a mother with severe O.C.D., a sweet transvestite from Transylvania, a pole dancing showgirl, pill popping dolls, and a director with an angora sweater fetish? Why, this is the stuff from which cult classics are made of.
Cult movies do not follow any set formula; Einstein’s theory of relativity could have an easier time being explained to a kindergartner. Some of these films that achieve cult status start out with the best of intentions: high production values, big name stars attached – the whole shebang; but, somehow or another they end up fading from the local Cineplex. Others are made on shoestring budgets, and feature a handful of never-been-heard-ofs hoping to strike it big in material that is well, less than “screen ready,” for lack of a better term.
While either example should flounder in obscurity, something happens to a handful of films that rise from the ashes, phoenixes of celluloid, soaring away from box office disappointment and critical drubbings to become something stronger, something that manages to leave an indelible stamp on the movie landscape nonetheless.
There are other breeds of cult movies among us, too. Some movies that do relatively well at the box office can become cult movies; even The Wizard of Oz is considered one! While others tread the very thin line between cult and camp, all but becoming a singular entity, and, there is a symbiotic relationship between cult movies and gay audiences, you couldn’t have one without the other.
Certainly the gay movie fan can gravitate towards these underdogs of the cinema for a variety of reasons: a drama that ends up being a comedy, an independent spirit that infuses a low budget film; liking the cult movies we do goes beyond being able to quote a movie’s dialogue chapter and verse, perhaps we see something in ourselves in these films that makes us watch them over and over again.
We went to the experts themselves, the fans, to find out why we love these movies. Here’s a look at some of the movies that have captured the gay imagination throughout the years.
The term cult movie was birthed in the late 1970’s and pertained to fans of cheap horror movies that were dealing with devil cults; and was widely associated with a core group of fans that are drawn to films, not for their artistic merit, but rather their shared ridicule of a film. Sounds tailor made for gay audiences!
But to witness the birth of a cult movie legend we must travel back two decades prior to a time when science fiction and horror movies were experiencing a renaissance.
Director Ed Wood didn’t start out his career intending to become synonymous with making some of the worst films ever; he had dreams of being likened to Orson Welles in terms of artistic vision and Hollywood credibility.
But, something happened along the way…perhaps, it was his “envelope pushing” first attempt at writing and directing a feature film, Glen Or Glenda, the tale of a man (played by Wood himself) that liked to dress up in women’s clothing, which mirrored Wood’s real life angora sweater and smart separates preference. Except the reflection staring back at him from behind the camera lens was cracked with stock footage of buffalo stampedes, faded horror movie meister Bela Lugosi as a puppet master bellowing, “Pull the strings,” in his thick Hungarian accent, and Wood’s own performance of Glen who longed to be Glenda.
Undeterred by the less than stellar reception of his directorial debut, Wood would go on to write and direct Jail Bait, Bride of the Monster (re-teaming with Lugosi), The Violent Years, and then came Plan 9 from Outer Space –which has been called the worst movie ever made. Produced on an untied shoestring budget, everything about this movie was destined to make it disappear from theatres right from the get go.
Star Lugosi died before filming commenced and Wood used test shots he had made of the actor, eventually using his wife’s chiropractor as Lugosi’s stand in, even though he was a good head taller than the Dracula star, and used a cape to cover his face. The special effects consisted of UFO’s that were made out of pie tins, the dialogue was full of inanities like, “it’s hard to find something when you don’t know what you’re looking for,” and the acting was wooden at best. Yet, this film managed to escape with its life, and create a new one as a cult classic.
The irony of Wood’s life is that he is more popular dead than alive, and the 1994 film Ed Wood, directed by Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp as Wood, snagged an Oscar for Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi. Sadly, Wood’s real life ended in the 1970’s, during which time he was relegated to directing soft and hard core porn.
During this period of time, movies got a shot in the arm from a young director by the name of John Waters, who started making films in a very innocuous way. During the 1960’s, he made silent 8mm and 16mm films and would start a word of mouth campaign about his screenings in rented church halls in Baltimore, Maryland (where he has filmed every single one of his films). Eventually, his brand of independent cinema tackled the notion of political correctness at the knees, and featured a core cast of characters that were willing to do anything for the avant-garde young maverick, including eating real dog poo on camera, as Divine did in Pink Flamingos.
Waters’ continued on his cinematic trek to uncover the dark heart of America with cinematic offerings such as: Female Trouble, Desperate Living and Polyester, before becoming more “mainstream” with Hairspray, Cry Baby, Serial Mom, Pecker, Cecil B. Demented and A Dirty Shame.
Glenn Rivera of Mission Hills is a connoisseur of John Waters’s movies, and cult movies in general. He had this to say about the appeal of Waters’ films.
“I think that John Waters is a big part of our gay culture; who else was watching Female Trouble and Pink Flamingos and all those movies, but gay people? There was the hippie culture that caught onto it, but gay people made it more popular, and were able to emulate it, because it was part of our lifestyle. He took the most extreme situations and he exaggerated them.” Rivera explained.
The face of cult movies would be forever changed in 1975 with The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the film that launched a thousand midnight showings. Upon its initial release in 1975, the film, starring Tim Curry, Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon, was considered a failure and did not play in more than a few test market cities, and was shelved, to gather dust and be all but forgotten.
But then, on April Fool’s Day in 1976, a young advertising executive at 20th Century Fox named Tim Deegan had the genius idea of convincing the Waverly Theatre in New York to start showing Rocky Horror during midnight showings.
Almost immediately the film attracted a core group of devotees, and they became the ones who pioneered Rocky Horror’s famed audience participation. They included: Bill O’Brien, the first person to dress as Dr. Frank-N-Furter, Lori Davis who dictated the protocol of all things Rocky, and Louis Farese, who is credited as the first person to yell lines back at the screen. Around Halloween of 1976, more audience members began showing up in costume, and the effect was so great that it continued well beyond the lifespan of a jack-o-lantern.
Today, the ad libbing of Rocky Horror is a well oiled machine that has a very specific rhythm, although it has been updated to reflect the current landscape of pop culture. For example, there are references to “South Park’s” wheelchair bound, Timmy, whenever Dr. Scott is shown on screen.
Although, screenings of Rocky Horror are not as popular as they were back in the day, the film has grossed $135 million dollars since its release, which makes it the highest grossing film to have never played in more than 200 theatres at one time, and has become forever linked as the pantheon of cult movie success.
Gay and Lesbian Favorites
Now, that our history lesson is over, let’s explore other movies that we have come to know and love. The movies mentioned below are akin to a rite of passage in our world, or as Rivera summarized it.
“It’s funny how gay men like the same movies growing up. It’s something you can’t help, its part of what we have inside of us, which sets our sexuality apart.”
Mommie Dearest is widely regarded as the prime example of good intentions gone awry on a cinematic scale. It certainly didn’t set out to be one of the all time camp champions, with an Oscar winning actress (Faye Dunaway) portraying another Oscar winner (Joan Crawford), based upon the best-selling memoir Crawford’s daughter, Christina (played by Mara Hobel as a child and Diana Scarwid as a teen and beyond) growing up as a victim of child abuse.
So, what happened? You could see the Oscar gold reflected in Faye Dunaway’s eyes that have gone mad in her famous “no wire hangers” scene. Therein lays the problem, there was probably no need to strike the sets after filming of Mommie was completed, as star Dunaway left nary any scenery after her performance. And, certainly the subject matter at hand, child abuse, didn’t lend itself to becoming the unintentional comedy gold mine that it has.
Why did Mommie Dearest become this gay icon of a film?
Former San Diegan, Jeff Best, who now calls Matthews, North Carolina home had this take on that.
“Number one, her outfits are fabulous. Number two, her attitudes and the way she experiences life resonates with a lot of people. Her anger and her fear and her confusion and all those core things resonate with people. And, even though it’s dysfunctional, people still can relate to it. And, I think that’s why it’s so popular.” He said.
And, he ought to know…this is a film that Best has seen over 300 times! Which leads one to wonder how he goes about keeping the experience fresh after so many viewings?
“I invite people that haven’t experienced it to watch it, so they’re naïve to the plot and what’s going to happen. Another thing that keeps it fresh is every single time I watch it, I pick up something new that I haven’t seen or observed or a prop or a facial expression or a line.” Best recanted.
It’s really nothing short of a surprise that a film based upon Crawford’s life could have the potential to be camptastic; this is an actress who appeared in black face in Torch Song, and unfortunately capped off her illustrious film career by co-starring in her last film with a half man/half ape named Trog.
Fun Fact: Anne Bancroft was originally cast to portray Joan Crawford in the movie. The infamous “Tina! Bring me the axe!” line was a real line that Crawford uttered in the 1964 film, Straight Jacket. Crawford once said in an interview, that if any actress were to play her in the story of her life, she would like Faye Dunaway to do so.
Crawford was also part of an ensemble of actresses in The Women, which was filmed in 1939 and centered on a group of friends dealing with the infidelity of central character, Mary’s (Norma Shearer) husband at the claws of one Crystal Allen (Crawford). Twelve years after “the talkie” was introduced to films, The Women upped the ante with its lightning speed dialogue, especially when delivered by Rosalind Russell, who would later star as gay fave, Auntie Mame. The lure of bitchy barbs like, “There’s a name for you ladies, but it isn’t used in high society – outside of a kennel,” proved to be a hoot for gay men. Yet, the film can be viewed as somewhat sexist in its depiction of its titular female demographic as nothing more than catty and chatty.
Fun Fact: Though filmed in black and white, the original cut featured a 10 minute Technicolor fashion parade. In keeping with the all female theme of the film, the animals used in The Women were female. It was remade as a musical and re-titled The Opposite Sex in 1956, starring June Allyson and Joan Collins.
Crawford starred alongside her nemesis, Bette Davis, in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? In this tale of sibling rivalry taken to extremes, Crawford is wheelchair bound, Blanche Hudson to Davis’ faded child star and mentally unbalanced, Baby Jane Hudson, who longs to be in the spotlight again; especially if it means tormenting her invalid sister with a dinner consisting of a rat and keeping her prisoner in their home throughout the bulk of the film.
Fun Fact: The Hudson sisters teenage next door neighbor was played by Davis’ real life daughter, and Davis had a Coca Cola machine installed on set to irk co-star Crawford, whose late husband was the CEO of Pepsi.
Another film that deals with aging Hollywood style is Sunset Boulevard. Gloria Swanson is ready for her close-up Norma Desmond, a one-time silent movie star, who enlists a writer, Joe Gillis (William Holden) to script her comeback movie.
Fun Fact: Director Billy Wilder initially sought out Greta Garbo and Mary Pickford for the role of Norma Desmond. Both Montgomery Clift and Fred MacMurray withdrew from playing Joe Gillis.
Don’t let The Bad Seed’s Rhoda Penmark fool you with her pigtails and penchant for dressing like The Swiss Miss girl; she’d be just as comfortable to knock you off for a pair of tap shoes, as she would be throwing a tea party. Young Patty McCormack (Rhoda) becomes suspected of offing those around her to get what she wants.
Fun Fact: The film had three separate endings that were shot during production, and all three female leads (Nancy Kelly, Eileen Heckart and McCormack) were nominated for Academy Awards.
On paper, the horror film, Carrie, may not seem a likely candidate for inclusion of a gay cult movie. But, if you think about it, Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) could have very easily passed for a gay teen, in terms of the amount of torment she’s subjected to, before she finally snaps and wrecks psychic vengeance upon her cruel classmates. Plus, her mother (Piper Laurie) would lock her in the closet to pray, and she befriends the female gym teacher, too.
Fun Fact: Melanie Griffith auditioned for the title role. Betty Buckley (Miss Collins, the gym teacher) later starred in the ill-fated Broadway musical of Carrie, as Mrs. White. Amy Irving (Sue Snell) and Priscilla Pointer (Mrs. Snell) were mother and daughter in real life, as well. Both Piper Laurie and Sissy Spacek received Academy Award nominations for Carrie, which is unprecedented for a film in the horror movie genre.
Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! was director Russ Meyer’s “ode to the violence in women,” according to its tagline. In the movie, three go-go dancers, headed up by the hot headed Varla (Tura Satana) go on a crime spree that includes kidnapping, robbery and murder!
Fun Fact: Lead “Pussycat” Satana legally owns her likeness and image, so whenever Meyer wanted to change the poster artwork, or re-release the project, it required Satana’s permission and Meyer would sometimes have to pay her all over again.
Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho isn’t exactly the first horror film you might associate with being a gay cult movie. But, it has all the ear markings to be so. A cross dressing killer, whose kindler, gentler alter ego as Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) all but screams gay, throw in a mother fixation and viola, there you have it, a gay cult movie.
Fun Fact: Psycho was the first American film to show a toilet flushing!
The Valley of the Dolls is about three women (Patty Duke, Barbara Parkins and Sharon Tate) who find refuge from the demands of their lives in Hollywood by turning to drugs and alcohol. The film was based upon the best-selling novel by Jacqueline Susann, and is chock full of one-liners like, “I wouldn’t pay attention to that. You know how bitchy fags can be!” Seeing Susan Hayward lip sync her way through the musical number “I’ll Plant My Own Tree,” should be worth the price of admission alone, but then there is also the famous wig snatching scene, between Hayward and Duke, to consider.
For film fan Rivera, this film is the absolute in campiness.
“If you take the movie and roll it up like a carpet, and take it to a totally different location and roll it out, it still decorates the entire place the same. It’s got everything rolled into one. It’s the essence of camp.” He lamented on what he cites as his favorite cult film.
Fun Fact: Judy Garland was originally signed on to play Helen Lawson (Susan Hayward’s role), but reneged and walked off the set with a sequined pantsuit that she would wear during concert performances.
Noticing a theme with the films that we adore? The vast majority of them have a focal point on strong female characters.
“What we’ve been taught, growing up as gay men, is to pay attention to those strong female characters as we have.” Rivera explained. “That’s why a lot of the movies are based on strong female characters, but we’ve turned them around to an extent.”
And, while it may seem that gay men have the corner market on cult movies, there are offerings for our lesbian counterparts. Robin Rigby, who facilitates the Sapphic Cinema Film Series at The Center every 4th Friday of the month (with the exception of November and December when it will be on different dates, due to the Holidays), explains that it makes perfect sense to her why cult movies seem to be male-o-centric.
“There are more movies, in general, geared towards men…there are more men making movies, whether they be gay or straight, naturally they would tend to make movies that would appeal to them. So, it’s a combination of factors.” She said with a laugh.
And, with that said, let’s take a gander at a few of the movies that gals cherish.
Bound stars the sizzling onscreen duo of Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon, as two women who fall into a lesbian love affair, while trying to make off with two million in mob money. There are plenty of plot twists and enough girl-on-girl to make this one a strong favorite.
Fun Fact: Noted sex author, Susie Bright, was the technical consultant for the bedroom scenes, and even had a cameo in the film as the lesbian that Corky (Gershon) tries to pick up in a bar.
The Hunger is “an awful movie in so many ways, but it’s got so many things going for it, that make it a classic. First off, Catherine Deneuve seducing Susan Sarandon is very hot,” according to Rigby and many a legion of female fans would concur wholeheartedly. In the 1983 vampire flick, there is the aforementioned lesbian angle, plus David Bowie as the third component to a bizarre love triangle.
Fun Fact: For a film that is widely associated with being a vampire flick, it was decidedly against the grain. There were no fangs and the creatures of the night could endure sunlight.
Showgirls could be one of the greatest text book cases of a film with high hopes that ended up being one of the campiest things ever committed to celluloid. The recipe for disaster is quite simple, really. Take one former teen actress (Elizabeth Berkley of “Saved By The Bell”), hire screenwriter Joe Eszterhas and Paul Verhoeven of Basic Instinct, set against the backdrop of the Las Vegas stripper/showgirl set, add a high dose of nudity and throw it in a blender, and you have Showgirls on the rocks.
For Rigby, Showgirls ranks high up on her list of cult favorites.
“I personally love Showgirls, because it’s just so trashy. The way I always describe that movie to people who haven’t seen it is, that the worst thing that you could possibly imagine happens to somebody, and you’re like ‘oh my god, that’s so awful!’ Then, 20 or 30 minutes later, something even worse is happening to some other character. It just spirals out of control, until it’s just so atrocious. It’s like watching a train wreck.”
Fun Fact: The filmmakers initially sought Madonna to play Gina Gershon’s character, Cristal Conners and Drew Barrymore to play Berkley’s character, Nomi Malone. The film has been making the midnight movie rounds, which brings us to our next bit of business, that being the new midnight movies as an oasis revival.
The New Face of Cult
While midnight movies’ popularity waned since the days of Rocky Horror, due to the advent of in home theatre systems, they are alive and well in San Diego. La Jolla Village Cinemas serves up a new cult movie experience every Saturday at midnight, and the films range from cult classics like Plan 9 from Outer Space to Raiders of the Lost Ark. Sure, it would be just as easy to rent or buy these films and screen them at home, but there would be a key component missing from the equation, according to Brad Hesselbrock, manager of the La Jolla Village Cinemas.
“The theatre experience is always going to be, as great as modern technology is for in home theatres, it will still never be the same as going to a theatre, seeing it on a ginormous screen with a bunch of other people coming together. It’s a whole other experience when you’re there with a bunch of other people and you’re interacting with the film.” He said.
And, Hesselbrock feels that there will always be room for the midnight movie experience.
“I continue to see them growing, San Diego’s been without a midnight movie series for a long, long time, since the days of The Guild. But, all over the country it’s been revived over the last several years, and it continues to grow in strength…it’s basically because of the demand of the patrons, the people that come out to see it; they want more and more type of shows and more of them.”
And, the very face of cult movies is undergoing a facelift with newer films like Fight Club, Clueless, Heathers, Chicago, Boogie Nights and Girls Will Be Girls being added to the ever growing list of movies that Hollywood has produced with a gay sensibility.
And, that’s the beauty of Hollywood; it will try to play it safe with their film fare, but every once and again a new film will squeak through that will end up being a brand new cult movie experience.