By Advocate Contributors
Originally published on Advocate.com November 11 2009 10:00 AM ET
The Auteur: Pedro Almodóvar
As he premieres his 17th feature film this November, Pedro Almodóvar finds himself in a somber mood. The celebrated Spanish auteur, who recently turned 60, is not feeling nostalgic, though Americans, it seems, are looking back to his earlier work—his 1988 film, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, is slated to become both a Fox television series and a Broadway musical. If anything, Almodóvar is eager to move forward, having recently announced that he has his next four scripts in mind, with one complete and another nearly finished. No, he’s not looking back—the director just thinks his stories are becoming darker, less humorous, more reflective.
“It was my intention from the beginning to make a sober, austere film,” he says of Broken Embraces, the latest addition to his 30-plus-year oeuvre. “It was important that I differentiate it from my previous films. I wanted a drama dry of tears—not only lacking tears but not evoking tears. At this moment it is profoundly me.”
His new film barely resembles the tragicomic kitsch of earlier favorites like the Oscar-winning All About My Mother. Instead, it continues down the noirish path of Almodóvar’s last three projects, Volver, Bad Education, and Talk to Her. A labyrinthine, Hitchcockian melodrama, Broken Embraces tells the story of blind Spanish filmmaker Harry Caine (Lluís Homar), his producer, and her son, forced to relive their painful past when an aspiring director, Ray X, shows up at Caine’s doorstep in Madrid. Almodóvar then flashes back to 1992, when a beautiful secretary–cum–call girl, Lena (Almodóvar’s current muse, Penélope Cruz), takes up with her controlling millionaire boss, Ernesto Martel. An aspiring actress, Lena lands her first role in Caine’s new film, and the not-yet-blind director and actress fall in love and begin an affair, only to be spied on by Martel’s gay teen son, Ernesto Jr., who is taunted and ridiculed by his father. And that’s just the tip of the convoluted tale.
Arguably his most cerebral film to date, Broken Embraces isn’t an easy pill to swallow. As a tale of passion and treachery, a tribute to 1950s thrillers, and an Almodóvar love letter to moviemaking, the film stews in heartache and familial discord, specifically tension between Ernesto Jr. and his father. “Ernesto Jr. is a deeper character than you see on screen,” Almodóvar says. “Part of the movie is about fathers and sons, especially hugely powerful fathers that obliterate their sons.”
Almodóvar based that rocky relationship on the obscure story of Ernest Hemingway and his estranged son Gregory. “Gregory Hemingway married more women, had more children, drank way more, and hunted more elephants than this father,” Almodóvar says. “Then, close to the age of 60, he decided to change his sex and had a horrible ending.” Re-created as Gloria Hemingway, she eventually died of hypertension at age 69 in a Miami women’s prison cell in 2001. She’d been arrested for indecent exposure five days before, having been found naked with a dress and high heels in her hands.
“Ernesto Jr.’s story isn’t as terrible,” Almodóvar says. “But, like Hemingway, after his father’s death, he unconsciously imitates the paternal behavior he detests so much. Even though he is gay, he marries women and has children who hate him as much as he hated his own father. After his father dies, he decides he’s going to break that pattern and take charge of his life.” The adult Ernesto Jr. (soon revealed to be Ray X) also seeks vengeance with a film showing how his homophobic father crushed his spirit.
Long applauded for his frank portrayal of queer characters, Almodóvar has been candid about being gay since he can remember. “I come from a small rural town, and I left very young, at 17 years old, to go to Madrid, where I lived my life openly,” he says. “I was already out and leading my life, but I never got to tell my father before he died. I didn’t see the necessity in telling my parents, but later, at around 21, I told my mother and the family who was going to be part of my day-to-day life.”
As solemn as it is, Broken Embraces does contain vibrant moments that remind one of the kooky genius behind it. Almodóvar makes a cinematic Barbie doll of Cruz in one scene, posing Lena cheekily in different wigs and channeling Hollywood icons like Marilyn Monroe for Girls and Suitcases, the film within the film. In a snippet of Girls and Suitcases, Almodóvar fans will recognize winks to his earlier movies, including a jaw-dropping cameo. With its hysterical edge and vivid colors, the fictional comedy is really a pastiche of his own Kika and Women on the Verge.
Though he can’t quite explain America’s sudden renewed interest in the beloved latter film (he thinks the Desperate Housewives phenomenon has a lot to do with it), Almodóvar is excited to see how Broadway director Bart Sher, who won a Tony last year for his revival of South Pacific, has reinterpreted Women on the Verge. “I’m curious,” he says. “I don’t know exactly if I’ll love the result, but it’s exciting. No Spanish film has experienced this sort of popularity.” Almodóvar has made some changes to the script but says he’s kept his distance from the show. “It’s really their project and I’m just collaborating. I’m just the father of the child.” — Jason Lamphier
The Activist: Shirley Tan
There are two types of activists: those who revel in the spotlight, and those who would rather slink away from it when the speech is over. Speaking with Shirley Tan, who was catapulted into national discourse following an early-morning arrest last January by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in her Pacifica, Calif., home, you get the sense that she’d prefer going back to relative anonymity. Tan fled her native Philippines in 1989 after a family member who had murdered Tan’s mother and sister was released from prison. Tan, who feared for her life if she were to return home, was denied asylum in the United States in 1995, but she appealed the ruling. Awaiting a decision, she remained in the country with her partner, Jay Mercado, a naturalized citizen who was unable to sponsor Tan for citizenship as heterosexual spouses do routinely. In the meantime, Tan gave birth to twin boys, and as she raised her family with Mercado—the two women have been together 23 years—she was unaware that her appeal had been denied and that a deportation order was issued in 2002. After her arrest, a group of politicians led by U.S. senator Dianne Feinstein of California successfully lobbied for Tan to remain in the country, where she’s become a very visible face of the Uniting American Families Act, which would allow gay and lesbian Americans to sponsor nonresident partners.
Tan, 44, is visible, but not eagerly so. “I’m certainly not used to this,” she says of the national speaking engagements and congressional hearings she’s since fit into her once-domestic schedule, which included a recent 13th birthday party at a local bowling alley for her sons. “I’m just an ordinary housewife, living my own life, doing everything for my kids and my family. But this is what I have to do now. It’s not only our family, but the 36,000 binational couples who are relying on UAFA.” Tan’s activism has reached the White House, where she recently met with Obama staff members—one of whom had a pastor who was in a binational gay relationship, Tan says.
The press blitz isn’t over yet. Tan expects to speak out in favor of the legislation as it enters the larger debate for comprehensive immigration reform expected to play out in Congress in 2010. And she’s got a starring role in a short documentary on binational gay couples currently in production. How’s that for accidental stardom?
The Dynamos: Craig Zadan and Neil Meron
With Academy Award winners (Chicago), acclaimed biopics (Life With Judy Garland), crowd-pleasing box office hits (The Bucket List), and definitive versions of classic musicals (Gypsy) on their lengthy, eclectic résumé, Craig Zadan and Neil Meron are among the most successful producing partners in the industry. It seems unlikely that the prolific pair should have anything left on their to-do list. “We’d always wanted but never had a hit television series,” Meron says.
Their wish was fulfilled in 2009. Drop Dead Diva, their dramedy about a shallow model reincarnated into the plus-size body of an attorney, has not only attracted such household-name guests stars as Liza, Paula, and Rosie—a rarity for a fledgling series—but proved a ratings bonanza for Lifetime. The show is also a buzzy hit with gay viewers, who, Meron says, “can relate to the struggle for acceptance.”
“Neil and I both believe in entertaining the audience while educating them and making them feel good about themselves,” Zadan says. “And we do both. Which is why Drop Dead Diva is such a perfect project for us to produce.”
Despite their success in film and television, Zadan says, “We don’t have a Hollywood sensibility as much as a New York sensibility since we both come from the theater.” 2010 will bring a remake of Zadan’s own Footloose (starring Chace Crawford) and see the two make a pronounced return to their roots. Besides producing timely Broadway revivals of two 1960s musicals—How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (with Daniel Radcliffe attached) and Promises, Promises (with gay faves Sean Hayes and Kristin Chenoweth headlining)—the team will merge their theater and TV worlds in a collaboration with Steven Spielberg on a series for Showtime about the creation of an original musical.
The Survivor: Sam Adams
During a performance at L.A.’s Hollywood Bowl last September by Portland, Ore.–based Pink Martini, out pianist and front man Thomas Lauderdale referenced Mayor Sam Adams as one of the things that makes his famously quirky hometown so famously quirky. And many in the audience, familiar with the ongoing saga of the embattled gay official, applauded. However, sentiment among Portland residents themselves with regard to Adams is decidedly mixed.
Adams ushered in 2009 with a bang, being sworn in at 12:01 a.m., January 1, and making Portland the largest U.S. city ever to be presided over by an openly gay mayor. However, by the time Barack Obama had been sworn in as president on January 20, Adams had admitted to an affair with an intern named Beau Breedlove in 2005, a relationship Adams insists didn’t become sexual until Breedlove turned 18. During the mayoral race, candidate Adams had denied a sexual component to the relationship at all when faced with a smear campaign by an opponent, so with his belated confession came calls from many quarters, both gay and straight, for his resignation.
“I should have been honest at the time when this first surfaced in 2007,” Adams told Willamette Week. “But I didn’t believe that given the way that rumors were being spread—about whether I had broken the law by having sex with a minor—that people would believe me.”
Despite doubts on the part of many, a Facebook page supporting the mayor boasted almost 3,400 members as of October. “[Adams] made a mistake when he lied about the relationship to the public,” the page reads. “But this mistake does not warrant the resignation of a committed public servant.”
Oregon attorney general John Kroger launched an investigation to determine whether Adams had a sexual relationship with a minor, but by January’s end, Adams had decided to stay in office, telling Out.com he was well aware he’d upset many residents: “I totally understand why they’re angry. I’ve let them down. The best thing I can do right now is to work at trying to make amends by serving the people of Portland.”
Adams’s instincts were on target. In June, Kroger concluded there was insufficient evidence to prosecute Adams. And a recall effort fell far short of obtaining the necessary number of signatures to qualify the issue for the November ballot. “Portlanders are fair-minded people, and I’m very grateful for their support,” Adams told The Advocate. “What I’m most concerned with now is the city’s growing unemployment rate and growing high school dropout rate, plus keeping Portland the greenest city in the U.S.”
The Organizer: Cleve Jones
In a year when Cleve Jones saw his critical role in gay history portrayed on the big screen, it wouldn’t have been surprising if the pioneer had just sat back and basked in the glory of all the attention. But Jones instead continued making history.
A Castro Street compatriot of Harvey Milk’s in the 1970s and the founder of the AIDS Memorial Quilt in the ’80s , Jones cochaired this year’s National Equality March and is endeavoring to strengthen bonds between the LGBT movement and organized labor.
Over the past year, several factors created perfect timing for the march, Jones says—including Obama’s election, Democratic majorities in Congress, and the passage of Prop. 8 in California. “We saw that real change is possible for America, and we saw how easily rights can be taken away.” Then, energizing new and veteran activists alike, came the acclaimed film Milk, with Emile Hirsch playing Jones, and the 40th anniversary of Stonewall. “This is a rare moment of opportunity, and we need to seize it,” Jones says.
National gay rights efforts are important, Jones says: “If you want equality before the law, you need to focus your attention on the federal government.” While Obama and Congress have been slow to act, Jones believes action will come if LGBT people keep pressing.
He’s pursuing new allies as director of the LGBT community program for the labor union Unite Here, which represents workers in several industries, including hospitality. In 2008 it initiated a boycott of Southern California hotels owned by Prop. 8 supporter Doug Manchester, costing him more than $7 million in convention business, Jones says.
While gays and labor have cooperated fruitfully since the 1970s Coors beer boycott (in which Milk was a key player), Jones says, the Prop. 8 battle drove home the need for further LGBT outreach to immigrant working families.
Of the Milk biopic, Jones says, “I’m very proud to have played a part in bringing that story to the screen.” What would Milk be doing today? “He would be telling us to push as hard as we can.”
The Showman: Neil Patrick Harris
It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s Neil Patrick Harris! He brought down the house as the host of the Emmys and stole the show at the Tony Awards. Harris has had a full 2009, being the new face of Old Spice, hosting Saturday Night Live, and doing voice work for the animated TV shows Robot Chicken and Batman: The Brave and the Bold and the feature films Beyond All Boundaries and Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs. And he continues to lampoon his public image, having once again played a tweaked version of himself in A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas, out in 2010. He’s funny, can sing and dance (he’s a Broadway veteran), can play straight (Barney on the sitcom How I Met Your Mother, for which he was Emmy-nominated), avoids the paparazzi, and is, to many, the model of the out, modern actor—after all, whether or not he made you forget he’s gay, he almost made you forget he played Doogie Howser.