The golden Hours

With Meryl Streep as a lesbian, Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf, and Julianne Moore kissing Toni Colette, The Hours would seem to be the gayest movie ever nominated for nine Oscars. But the actresses and filmmakers argue that transcending such labels is exactly what has made the film so successful

BY Michael Giltz

March 14 2003 12:00 AM ET

The
Hours
is not a gay film,” says David Hare,
the acclaimed British playwright who adapted Michael
Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize–winning
novel for the screen. If by “gay film” Hare
means a movie about “the gay experience”
that speaks chiefly to queer audiences, he’s
right. Since its release in December, The Hours has
found enthusiastic audiences (and critics) of all
stripes—an adulation confirmed by its nine Academy
Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best
Director, and three acting nods. But for lesbian and
gay observers, what’s remarkable about the
golden reception afforded The Hours is that all
of its universal themes—the struggle for human
connection, the difficulty of self-expression, and the
search for meaning—are so inexorably
intertwined with the sexual fluidity of its three main women
characters.

“I think
the sexuality of the movie is very fluid,” says
producer Scott Rudin, who thanked his life
partner—publicist John Barlow—when accepting
the film’s Golden Globe for Best Drama. “I
would not say it’s gay or straight. I think
it’s really about people who are dealing with issues
that involve their sexuality, but a lot of it is unresolved
and expressed in other ways. Look, it’s a movie
that is fundamentally about people who are thinking of
ending their lives. And that is a big, tough subject to
deal with in a movie.”

It’s true.
At the conclusion of its three intertwined tales—set
in different time periods—the film climaxes
with two characters committing suicide and a third
abandoning her husband and young son. Yet through that
darkness The Hours reaches a stirring place of
affirmation—a moment of pure hope and love
that’s encapsulated in a kiss between two lesbian
lovers.

For Meryl Streep,
who shares that final kiss with The West
Wing
’s Allison Janney, the characters’
sexuality was secondary to their sex. “Listen, I told
Sherry Lansing [the head of Paramount], I think
it’s shocking that it’s the first time in
[recent] history that a woman-driven film—where women
are the actual protagonists and not the girlfriend of
somebody—could be considered for Best Picture.
And that’s amazing. I think that’s amazing to
me.”

A woman’s
film? A gay film? Embracing its many identities is what
The Hours is all about. It’s also about
respecting people’s choices as they come to terms
with their own identities, says Nicole Kidman, who
plays novelist Virginia Woolf in the movie’s
1920s story line. “It’s saying, you know, we
have to be really kind to each other,” she
adds, “and people make choices [that they need
to make].”

When Laura
(Julianne Moore), a 1950s Los Angeles housewife, decides she
must escape her doting husband and doe-eyed son,
“that’s judged so harshly in this
society,” says Kidman. “But there’s a
reason for that [decision], and it’s her
reason, and it’s a very pure reason. And it’s
a life choice. I just think we all are ready to jump
on the [judgment] bandwagon too easily. You
don’t have the right to decide how someone else
should live their life.”

Moore agrees and
goes one step further: Laura’s abandonment of her
family, she says, is an affirmation of life. “I think
you feel that she chose to live,” Moore says.
“At the end of the day, she chose life over
death.”

The examination
of such life choices is the crux of the film’s three
plot lines, each set during a single day in a
different decade. Streep’s Clarissa is a
contemporary lesbian New Yorker preparing for a party to
celebrate her friend and onetime lover, acclaimed poet and
person with AIDS Richard (Ed Harris)—a task
that causes her to question how she lives her life.
Moore’s Laura spends her day under the watchful eye
of her intense little son while trying to bake a
birthday cake for her husband and fend off the desire
to escape her life. And Kidman gives her most
transformative performance yet as Woolf, kept in an isolated
suburb by her husband, Leonard, in the hope that sheer
boredom will keep her suicidal despair at bay.

As the movie
weaves from story to story, all of that inner turmoil is
skillfully orchestrated by director Stephen Daldry—to
a hypnotic score by composer Philip Glass—on
its path to eventual transcendence. “Obviously
it’s about three women trying to find change in their
lives and their feelings of entrapment or containment
or suffocation or loss,” says Daldry.
“As they try to break out of that, I think all of
these women do reach somewhere else, somewhere
positive. What I like about the film is that
you’re always aware of the cost of that
transformation—the cost of those choices. We
all make choices about how our lives should be better
or how our lives need to change, but those changes or those
transformations or that search for some level of redemption
is so often sentimentalized.”

In a “gay
film”—that is, a movie that could be shunted
aside by the mainstream—those choices would
revolve around the discovery and acceptance of the
precise sexual identity of the three female leads. Is
Virginia Woolf a lesbian? Is Moore’s ’50s
housewife unhappy in her marriage because she’d
rather be shacked up with her perfectly put-together
neighbor, played by Toni Collette? And how close to a Kinsey
6 can Streep’s lesbian Clarissa be—despite
having Sally (Janney) as her partner—when
Richard was the great love of her life?

Such questions
are integral to novelist Michael Cunningham’s vision,
Hare says. “Obviously you know Michael’s
work, and you know Michael,” he says.
“Anything that is in the film about sexuality tries
to be honest to what the book was about, and indeed
what Virginia Woolf herself was about. She could be
typed as a gay writer or a straight writer. Virginia Woolf
at various times was attracted to men and to women.
And I think Michael felt very strongly that he was a
gay man who felt the most important relationships of
his life and most sexual relationships of his life [at
one point] had actually been with women.”

Cunningham
himself says sexual identity was not at the center of
Woolf’s emotional struggles.
“It’s hard to know about Virginia
Woolf,” he says. “She hardly had sex at
all. She had sex with Leonard a couple of times after
they were married, and she couldn’t manage it. She
had that big affair with Vita [Sackville-West], but
she and Vita had sex only a couple of times with kind
of the same result. She was a mess.”

The fact that the
film version of The Hours so defiantly refuses
to define or limit Woolf or its other characters owes
much to director Daldry’s vision. Sexual fluidity, he
says, “just seems so natural to me, so I
don’t see it as something that I would have to
consider [unusual].”

Daldry is, after
all, the man whose first film was Billy Elliot, which
still has queer viewers debating whether its
11-year-old ballet dancer protagonist grows up to be
gay. The film toys with that question—Billy kisses a
boy and rejects a girl—but declines to answer
it.

Just as Billy
Elliot
cannot be pinned down as a gay
coming-of-age story, The Hours isn’t
about lesbians through history. It’s about the
desperate need everyone has to control their own
destiny, about being open to all possibilities, even
those that may defy traditional notions of sexual identity.
It’s a theme that Daldry himself embodies: An
A-list theater director in the 1990s—his An
Inspector Calls
won him a Tony in
1994—Daldry did an interview in Out with his
then partner, set designer Ian MacNeil. The two later split
up, and Daldry married performance artist Lucy Sexton.

Cunningham,
however, dismisses talk about Daldry’s personal life
in favor of praising his innate talent. “I
think Stephen’s sexuality is actually as
incidental as David Hare’s is,” says the
author. (Hare is straight.) “Stephen is
fearless, and he’s hugely ambitious in all the right
ways. He wants to make the biggest, most
idiosyncratic, beautiful things he possibly can. And
that’s all I ask for in an artist of any
kind.”

As Moore warmly
puts it, “He’s, like, deconstructed
gay.”

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