Views expressed in The Advocate’s opinion articles are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent the views of The Advocate or our parent company, Pride Media.
My favorite film is the comedy classic Arthur, starring Dudley Moore and John Gielgud, who was gay and won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Arthur’s butler Hobson. I’ve seen the film almost 40 times.
There is a scene in the film where Moore’s Arthur and Gielgud’s Hobson visit the super swanky Bergdorf Goodman store in New York City, where Arthur buys 30 pricey sweaters, all in the same color.
When I moved to New York City in the mid-1990s, one of the first things I did was to seek out some of the locations that the film made famous, including Bergdorf Goodman; however, when I walked through the doors, I immediately felt like I didn’t belong. Being a humble, middle-class kid from Pittsburgh, I was aghast at the prices of the merchandise and the attitude of the store's staff.
When I walked in, no one approached me and said, “Can I help you?” That was sure sign that I was beneath the standards of Bergdorf Goodman.
I sort of felt the same way when I went to Fire Island for the first time. Everyone looked perfect, dressed — or minimally dressed — in attire that was fashion forward to someone like me, who could wear a burlap sack from Walmart. Let’s just say that my grubby clothes weren't keeping up with the Fire Island finery.
Everyone was buff, tanned, and taller than me — literally, it seemed, and metaphorically, based on my own insecurities. I felt like everyone was looking down on me. That was during my first tea at the famous Blue Whale bar, a happy hour where everyone goes, and then after many libations for some and just a few for others, everyone retreats to dinner parties at opulent houses around the island. (At least that’s been my experience.)
My first dinner party on Fire Island was a disaster. I was one of those who had too many teas, and I arrived welcomed by teetotalers. I was gratingly gregarious, verbose, and crude. If I was imagining the tea crowd looking down on me, I wasn’t imagining my dinner party guests giving me the side-eye for my atrocious behavior. Admittedly, I made a fool of myself — more than once — at Fire Island soirees, so I probably deserved the occasional cold shoulder.
There was my behavior, but there was also everyone else's — verbose too but in a boasting sort of way. The talk at dinners usually consisted of lots of bragging about material goods — new watches, new cars, real estate, all the things that were way above my pay grade. Did I feel intimidated? Yes. Was it a matter of a square peg trying to fit into a round hole? Absolutely. While they bragged, I internally gagged.
I have one huge pet peeve, and that is pretension and snobbery. I look at everything through the lens of what my grandfather always used to say: “Even the queen squats to shit.” And I venture to say that there are one too many men on Fire Island who think their shit doesn’t stink.
I’m not trying to offend anyone or casting judgments and aspersions on otherwise decent people or making a blanket statement about all the queer men on Fire Island. The guys I went with, who risked their reputations by bringing me, were terrific people, and I did meet some lovely folks during those trips. But I saw more hoity-toity than humility.
Though Fire Island Pines is stunningly gorgeous, I always debate if I'd go back. Call me an old queen if you must, but I just can’t shake the air there, which is somewhat full of people putting on airs.
My experience raises the question, is Fire Island an island not fit for misfits?
The recent film Fire Island on Hulu brought back so many memories of my trips to one of the preeminent gay vacation or weekend destinations. If you haven’t seen the movie, I won’t give too much away; however, I will say that the film depicts, in a bottom-line way, the haves versus the have-nots.
The film, produced by big studio Searchlight, has an all-queer, all-star cast including Bowen Yang, Margaret Cho, Matt Rogers, and Nick Adams. The movie is a modern-day romantic comedy inspired by Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and is set in New York’s Fire Island Pines.
Since I’ve provided an opinion from the “have-nots” even though the feeling is self-inflicted, I set out to talk with one of the film’s "have" protagonists, TV and theater actor Adams, who plays the haughty and hottie Cooper, an all too pretty and all too perfect young gay man.
Just to be clear, Adams, in real life, is the antithesis of the character he plays, except of course for his physique. Adams as a person is as genuine as they come. I'd go to Fire Island with Adams if he invited me, but after he reads this, I'm sure he'd prefer if I stayed home.
For both Adams and me, home is in western Pennsylvania; I’m from the south part of the state in Pittsburgh, and Adams hails from the north in Erie. We’re both from humble beginnings, though Adams admittedly had a more bucolic environment growing up.
“I call Erie the Hamptons of Pennsylvania” is how Adams describes his hometown. “I get back there a couple times a year. It’s a beautiful lake town, and my mom, after years of waiting, finally bought a home on the lake, so it’s a great place for me to go back to and unwind.” Which makes Adams perfectly cast in a film with a beachfront setting.
Before I put him on the spot about his character in the Fire Island film, I asked Adams what it was like to shoot the film on Fire Island. “We shot during September after the summer season ended,” he explained. “Shooting the film with an all-gay cast and director was one of the most meaningful experiences I’ve ever had. After the first table read, we knew it was magic. We were all hugging and kissing each other, and it all just felt so right. We felt like we all belonged in this film as a family.”
Yet that cast was divided into two “families” once the filming began. There is the humble kinship crew, of modest means, that was led by Cho’s "mother" character. Being catty, let’s call them the misfits on the island. And then there is a group of wildly good-looking men who reside in an all-glass beachside mansion. Let’s call them the Kardashians, since they appear to have it all: looks, money, more looks, and more money.
Ostensibly, Cooper is the leader of this group. They look down their tanned noses at Cho’s ragtag household and sarcastically belittle them at every opportunity. I asked Adams how he felt about the film playing out gay shaming and bullying within groups of queer men, particularly his group in the film.
“I think it’s a manifestation of self-hatred and trying to uphold some type of heteronormative expectation of what being a man looks like,” he observed. “In an effort to feel self-worth or validity or to build a protective armor, we’ve created a toxic standard of what it means to be desirable. The body standard then becomes a defining barometer for separating ourselves into subdivisions, and for people like Cooper, that feeds into status and thus fake hierarchy.”
Adams is spot-on. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve been able to revisit some of those not-so-happy memories of days on Fire Island. Adams’s explanation reminded me of a guy I met years ago on the island. He met the bodily standard. He was built like a “brick shithouse.” He was also a successful dentist, and he had a lot of money. And I was initially impressed, so we agreed to go out on a date once we returned to the city. Dripping with insecurity, I kept asking myself, What does he see in me?
Turns out that he was the one who was grossly insecure. Throughout our horrid dinner, which I always refer to as the worst date of my life, he kept asking, through various poses, if his chest looked good, if his arms were big enough, if his calf muscles were popping out, if he should shave his entire body, if he should get a nose job. It went on and on and on, and I was gobsmacked while I pounded down the beers. And then, out of nowhere, he asked me, "Should buy a house on Fire Island?" “Yes,” I blurted out. “You’re perfect for Fire Island.”
He was likable enough, in the snide way Barack Obama referred to Hillary Clinton, but at the same time, I couldn’t stand him.
That’s why I had to ask Adams about how people were reacting to his Cooper character. He is almost likable enough, but on the other hand, he's much too much. “People love to hate Cooper,” he said with a laugh. “I’ve had a great response; many people are surprised to see me take on a villain. But overall, I’ve been receiving so much love and praise surrounding the film. Audiences have really embraced the cast, and we are all beyond grateful. It’s been amazing to witness.”
I think Adams also summed up my feelings about Fire Island. It’s a love-hate relationship, and I think the movie really draws on that conundrum. It made me miss the island in some ways, and not want to go back in others.
The cast in the film is great. The diversity in the cast is great. The storyline is great and reminiscent. Fire Island as a backdrop is great. And of course, the movie has a happily-ever-after ending, complete with a sunset. But Fire Island as a place to visit? As a place to fit in? Those are still open-ended questions, and while I loved the film, I can't say that it made me miss Fire Island or made me feel less of a misfit.
Perhaps someone needs to invite me back to help settle my Fire Island dilemma once and for all. Would I go? Would I fit in? Should just get over myself?
John Casey is editor at large for The Advocate.