Randal Kleiser Celebrates His “Party”
By Tim Parks
An entire generation of gay men owes director Randal Kleiser a big thank you for informing our proclivities through his cinematic achievements. Whether, it was Leigh McCloskey playing a male prostitute in the TV movie, “Dawn: Portrait of a Teenage Runaway,” which co-starred Eve Plumb (Jan Brady of “The Brady Bunch”) as the titular runaway/teen prostitute. Or maybe it was more than a lingering glance at Christopher Atkins in a loincloth in “The Blue Lagoon,” the openly gay film auteur has never shied away from controversial subject matter.
However, it was a 1978 semi-innocent big screen movie that put him on the map; a little song-and-dance effort that starred John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John called “Grease,” which was Kleiser’s inaugural introduction to film audiences and another good way to check your own gaydar.
Years later, Kleiser took a painful experience of having his ex-lover Harry Stein throw his own farewell party into a love letter of that real-life event by turning it into the film, “It’s My Party,” a 1996 movie that starred Eric Roberts as a gay man seeking dignity before the ravages of AIDS overtake him. The movie also reunited the director with “Grease” star Olivia Newton-John, and featured Margaret Cho in one of her earliest film roles.
On Sunday, August 21 at 2:00 PM, FilmOut will be paying tribute to both Kleiser and his 15-year-old film with a screening at the North Park Birch Theatre. LGBT Weekly spoke with Kleiser about his impressive film resume and why he’s glad that “It’s My Party” will be recognized by FilmOut.
LGBT Weekly: How does it feel to have directed “Grease,” the number one movie musical of all-time?
Randal Kleiser: When we made it, we certainly didn’t know that it was in the cards at all. RSO Films and Robert Stigman was making two movies at the time, “Grease” and “Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band” with the Bee Gees, and they had for their cast party mounds of caviar and shrimp and crab meat; and ours was hot dogs and hamburgers for our wrap party (laughs). So they thought that was going to be the huge musical and that “Grease” was just some little teen thing that would disappear.
So, we were left alone pretty much, because no one thought it was going to go anywhere, and that was great because it was my first movie; I stumbled my way through it.
We just lost two of our cast members, Annette (Charles, who played Cha Cha DiGregorio) was a very close friend of mine; I took her out to various events because she’s just so smart and interesting – she was a professor of speech at Cal State Northridge, and she also worked with transgender youth to help them adjust.
LGBT Weekly: What is your favorite memory of making the film?
RK: Probably the night at the drive-in, that was when Olivia first came out of the trailer to show me her look for the end of the movie, the bad Sandy look. It was dark, I was setting up some shots, suddenly this blonde wild woman started coming through the backlit area, and everyone was just going gaga looking at her. She showed up and I didn’t recognize her and thought, “Who is this amazing looking girl?” She said hi and I realized it was Olivia, and it was just so cool to see the transformation that the makeup and wardrobe people had come up with. So everybody was excited that night.
LGBT Weekly: What has been a standout reaction that you have received about the movie?
RK: Most people say, “Oh wow, I looked at ‘Grease’ again and I didn’t realize it was so dirty! A lot of parents say, “Oh, my kids know all of the songs and sing the lyrics.” And, I think, “They do?” I’ve never seen a little kid sing “Greased Lighting,” but I sure would love to, because it would be so hysterically funny and campy.
LGBT Weekly: Some of your films, such as “Dawn: Portrait of a Teenage Runaway,” “The Blue Lagoon” and “Summer Lovers” were controversial efforts – why did you feel drawn to the material on those projects and their portrayals of sexuality?
RK: Well, I guess because I hadn’t seen stuff like that done, and I thought it would be fun to try it. “Blue Lagoon” was a book I read and it was just so wonderfully written, it was sort of like “Robinson Crusoe” written by an English writer in the 1870’s. It’s a very romantic kind of novel, and I just wanted to make a film that captured that innocence of children growing up on an island where they don’t know better, and they run around naked because why wear clothes if there’s no one around?
The sexual freedom of the ’70s was still in my head at the time, and I wanted to create a movie version that captured the feel of the novel, which I think we did.
But when it came out, all these right wing people said it was kiddie porn, and I thought, “What? Are you kidding me?” Today I couldn’t make “Blue Lagoon” the way I did, because SAG since that movie, and maybe because of it, made a new rule you cannot have underage actors doing sexual acts, or even portraying or faking sexual acts.
It was certainly a barometer of sexuality when people saw that movie, because you had your choice with column a or column b. A lot of people have told me that’s when they realized they were gay, because of Christopher Atkins in “Blue Lagoon.”
LGBT Weekly: “It’s My Party” was based on your experiences with your ex-lover Harry Stein – did that make it difficult at times during the shoot?
RK: I committed to doing it, and I really felt like it was important to do, so I went into it fully knowing all that. It was really a matter of trying to get the movie right; I wasn’t all uptight about it. I felt compelled to make it as real and honest as I could; actually, it was like psychotherapy to get through that.
Everybody who worked on it worked for scale, and they were all friends and everybody was really pushing to make it work. It was a great set because everybody was there not because of the money or the fame or any ulterior motives – they were just there to try to make the movie work, and it was really great to have all those people, like Olivia and Lee Grant and all these people working for scale; it was really terrific.
LGBT Weekly: How does it feel to have the film being honored at FilmOut?
RK: I think it’s great; you know I didn’t even realize that it was fifteen years since the movie was made and time has flown by. I think it’s great that finally somebody’s acknowledging it, because when it came out, it sort of came and went. It was during the time when it was all happening, and nobody really wanted to pay attention to something about someone dying; people were dying everywhere, so I think it was lost in the shuffle.
And some gay critics sort of attacked it and I’m not quite sure why. They said it was very Hollywood and fake and nobody would ever look that good if they had AIDS; and, of course, he did and that was the way it worked, he looked spectacular the day he died. A lot of these people, I don’t know who they were, they were very bitter and mean about it.
LGBT Weekly: The film also featured Margaret Cho in an early role – what do you think of her becoming a gay icon?
RK:I think it’s great, and I think that people come up to her and talk about the movie all the time, which is nice. I’m glad she’s an icon, because she’s part of the movie and it’s great to have her in there.
LGBT Weekly: How did you reach the decision to film this particular story?
RK: Right after the event, I went to Hawaii and my friend, Joel Thurm, who was the casting director on “Grease” and many of my films, flew to Hawaii to hang out with me. And he brought the photographs that were taken on the day of the party, and I looked at them and said, “This is a movie, I’ve got to do it.”
I started writing the script, and it was something that anybody whose been through it was nothing like it that they’ve ever experienced before; it was such a bizarre and emotional roller coaster ride to be at a party and realize that the guest of honor was not going to be there the next day.
He wanted to celebrate; he didn’t want it to be a sad affair, so everyone was acting like it was a celebration, but knowing that it wasn’t. The complex emotions that went through that day stuck in everybody’s minds, like a traumatic kind of experience. I just thought that it would be a very compelling film.
Looking back at it, it’s almost like a docudrama of a time in history, a period before there was any hope.A lot of people don’t realize that there was a time when getting HIV was a definite death sentence. So you either had to succumb to the various types of diseases that your body could get, or take the matter into your own hands and exit the way you wanted to exit.
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