Hanging With Mr. Cooper
BY Jeremy Kinser
January 19 2012 3:47 PM ET
Many groundbreaking LGBT-themed films, such as Longtime Companion, Paris Is Burning, and The Living End, first garnered attention after screening at the Sundance Film Festival, which begins today in Park City, Utah. Organized with the assistance of superstar Robert Redford, who still serves as Sundance president, to attract filmmakers to Utah, the festival is now a coveted place to launch new films and for independent filmmakers to seek distribution. John Cooper, who has also served as programming director for Los Angeles’s Outfest, has watched firsthand as LGBT cinema came of age. Since 1989, Cooper has been instrumental in the success and worldwide recognition of the annual cinematic showcase each January. Cooper tells The Advocate about witnessing the changing mainstream reaction to queer cinema, notable gay films to seek out at this year’s festival, and how Redford supports LGBT films.
The Advocate: What was the first gay-themed film you remember seeing?
John Cooper: I vividly remember Making Love, but I was already in high school. Before that I saw a made-for-TV movie called called Alexander: The Other Side of Dawn, which was a sequel Dawn: Portrait of a Runaway, about a teenage runaway that starred Eve Plumb, and there was a sequel. I remember there was a scene on the beach and they were playing football and the sexuality was just up-front. Maybe it was just me. [Laughs] I also remember watching The Children’s Hour with Shirley MacLaine and Audrey Hepburn. My mother let me watch pretty much whatever I wanted on television. There was a lot of hidden subtext in films in those days.
You've been with Sundance since 1989. How have you seen reaction to LGBT films change over the years?
It shocked me when Longtime Companion won the audience award. I expected a lot of people to walk out, but it became a big hit. And that was in 1990. It connected with people emotionally. I think the strength of LGBT films is if they connect emotionally with audiences, then the sexual orientation of the characters doesn’t matter.
What are some of the LGBT-themed films that were first shown at Sundance?
The Times of Harvey Milk and Parting Glances. My first year there it was Longtime Companion. My second year there was Poison, Swoon,Orlando, Silverlake Life, The Living End. I’m pretty sure we showed every Gregg Araki movie at Sundance. That was one of the first AIDS-themed films I saw.
And it helped launch the new queer cinema movement.
Yes, Ruby Rich! She actually said that at a Sundance panel. She said it in such a provocative way that we just started calling it that. It was a very organic thing that happened.
Were LGBT films seen as a novelty before that?
Maybe a little in the beginning. One thing we insisted on doing is never making gay films into a sidebar. We decided to treat LGBT films just like all the others. It was absolutely the right choice.