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TCM Fest: West Side Story's Queer Origins and Other LGBTQ+ Highlights

West Side Story

We apparently have Montgomery Clift to thank for West Side Story.

At least, that’s according to one of the stars of the much-loved 1961 film, which, ahead of the release of a new version this year, is the opening night centerpiece of the 2021 TCM Classic Film Festival. The festival, like last year’s edition, is being held virtually — on television and online — due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The annual festival, first held in 2010, has become the highlight of the year for many a cinephile. Every spring from 2010 through 2019, throngs from all over the world descended on Los Angeles, where TCM took over several theaters for four days to screen classic films from the silent era through recent decades, with the movies usually accompanied by talks from TCM hosts, film scholars, and, if available, their stars and creators or their descendants.

COVID-19 meant there would be no in-person festival in 2020, and now the pandemic is abating in some parts of the U.S., but there are still too many unknowns to make an in-person festival feasible. (TCM plans to bring the in-person fest back in 2022.) So there will again be special programming on TCM, supplemented this year with additional attractions on HBO Max. The fest will be held tonight, beginning at 8 p.m. Eastern, through Sunday (HBO Max content will be available to stream on-demand throughout that period), and it offers much of interest to LGBTQ+ audiences and to “anyone with a pulse” who loves movies, as one TCM executive put it.

TCM Fest

West Side Story, of course, had a wealth of gay and bisexual talent among its creators, including book writer Arthur Laurents, composer Leonard Bernstein, director-choreographer Jerome Robbins, and a guy named Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the lyrics and went on to some success as a composer as well.

The Monty Clift connection adds to that. Versions of a story about his role have been going around for a while, but here’s how Russ Tamblyn, who played Riff, leader of the Jets street gang, told it this week in a Zoom session with journalists.

Robbins, credited with “conceiving” West Side Story in addition to his director and choreographer duties (he and Robert Wise co-directed the film), discussed its origins with the movie’s cast, Tamblyn said.

“He told us on the set one day that the idea really came from Montgomery Clift, who was Jerry’s boyfriend at the time,” Tamblyn recalled. “He said that he was with Monty at a party on Fire Island … [and Clift said] ‘I’ve got an idea for a musical. Why not have a musical about Romeo and Juliet but make it with gangs in New York?’ And Jerry said that he just couldn’t get it out of his head.”

That was in the late 1940s, and it took Robbins until 1957 to develop the show and get it on Broadway. It was acclaimed, although a more traditional (albeit delightful) production, The Music Man, was that season’s biggest hit and Tony winner. The 1961 film, which won 10 Oscars, including Best Picture, really cemented West Side Story’s iconic status.

Later this year, a new version of the film will be out, directed by Steven Spielberg and with more ethnically appropriate casting of the Puerto Rican roles. Tamblyn and costar George Chakiris, who joined in the Zoom session, don’t have any objections to the remake; the trailer for it premiered during the latest Oscars ceremony. “I thought the trailer was wonderful — I really loved it,” Chakiris said.

Reimagining a film for a new generation is a time-honored practice in Hollywood, Tamblyn noted. “I feel like it’s kind of like passing a baton, like a relay race, just like they did with A Star Is Born,” of which there have been many versions, he said.

West Side Story

Tamblyn said one aspect of the original that he thought could be improved upon was the portrayal of Anybodys, the butch girl who desperately wants to be one of the guys in the Jets. She could be read as a lesbian, a transgender boy, or perhaps simply a cisgender straight girl rebelling against gender roles. Tamblyn, without going into those specifics, said he hoped Spielberg would develop the character further — and maybe he has: In the new film, Anybodys is played by a trans male actor, Ezra Menas.

Chakiris praised the remake’s inclusion of his 1961 costar Rita Moreno, who took home the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for playing Anita, while Chakiris won Best Supporting Actor as her lover, Bernardo, leader of the Puerto Rican street gang the Sharks. In the new version, Moreno is Valentina, the widow of Doc, who ran the drugstore-soda fountain where the rival gangs hung out. “It makes wonderful sense that Rita is part of this film,” he said.

 Moreno recently reunited with Tamblyn and Chakiris for a conversation that will air along with the 1961 film tonight on TCM at 8 p.m. Eastern (check your local cable schedule). The movie and the conversation will also be available on HBO Max. Watch a clip of the three stars below.

Jacqueline Bisset on Bullitt and George Cukor

Jacqueline Bisset will join TCM host Eddie Muller for a discussion of the beyond-cool 1968 cop drama Bullitt, which gave Bisset her first major role. She played Cathy, girlfriend to maverick San Francisco policeman Frank Bullitt (Steve McQueen). The film and conversation will air at 5:45 p.m. Saturday on TCM and will be available on HBO Max as well.

Bisset, who also sat for a Zoom interview this week, doesn’t think the film did much for her career. “I felt that the character I played was really not necessary in that movie,” she said. Indeed, it’s mostly about the male characters and the famous car chase scene, and Bisset’s Cathy is there primarily to be beautiful and to show that Frank has a softer side.

But Bisset went on to a long and distinguished career just the same, with roles in high-quality films such as François Truffaut’s Day for Night and the 1974 version of Murder on the Orient Express, plus the occasional misfire (The Greek Tycoon, anyone?). Among the directors she worked with was George Cukor, on his last film, 1981’s Rich and Famous. Bisset said she felt like she really became an actress with this movie, in which she and Candice Bergen played rival authors (a remake of 1943’s Old Acquaintance, which starred Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins).

Bisset had some issues with the great director (no, the fact that he was gay wasn’t one of them), but she thought he did an excellent job with the film. “Socially, we got on quite well,” she said. “On the set there was a bit of tension.” She was a producer on the movie, and Cukor wasn’t crazy about the long hours she expected him to work. “He wasn’t used to actors being involved in production … he definitely didn’t like it; he wanted me to shut up,” she said. On the plus side, she recalled, “He had tremendous energy, he was extraordinarily dynamic … he feared no one.” That included any New York City bystanders making noise during the location shoot, and he got rid of them quickly. “He had a tremendous force in him, and if it was on your side, it was good,” Bisset said. “If he didn’t like you, tough.”

Remembering Robert Osborne

Robert Osborne was the primary TCM host when the channel launched in 1994 and remained its most prominent public face until shortly before his death in 2017. Several of his introductions will air as part of the festival programming on both platforms. Osborne, a former actor and journalist, brought a wealth of knowledge to his duties, his colleagues recalled in this week’s Zoom session.

“His expertise was only exceeded by his generosity in sharing it,” said TCM General Manager Pola Changnon. When Osborne, who lived in New York, would come to the studio in Atlanta for tapings, “everyone felt like it was the coolest uncle coming to visit when he would walk the floor and talk to people, and he really cared about everyone who worked on this network,” she recalled.

“We truly see what he did for us as being foundational. … Every other host is going to be measured by his bar,” she said, adding, “It’s very sad too, to think about him not being with us right now.”

“The way he made you feel welcome when you watched TCM is how he was in person,” noted Charlie Tabesh, TCM’s senior vice president of programming. Osborne was “gracious and welcoming and kind and warm,” Tabesh said.

Other Festival Highlights for LGBTQ+ Viewers (and Everyone Else)

Dirk Bogarde in Victim

Dirk Bogarde in Victim

HBO Max will stream Victim, a 1961 British film starring Dirk Bogarde as a closeted gay man trying to expose a blackmailer. It was one of the first mainstream films to treat homosexuality with sympathy. It will be accompanied by Osborne’s intro, a documentary on the history of gay and lesbian films, and a discussion between TCM host Dave Karger and former Advocate editor Alonso Duralde.

Mark Harris, a renowned film historian who happens to be gay, will discuss his latest book, Mike Nichols: A Life, in conjunction with TCM’s screening of Nichols and May: Take Two, a documentary about the future film director’s early comedy act with Elaine May. It will air Saturday at 11:45 a.m. Eastern.

Cary Grant and his real-life pal (and maybe boyfriend) Randolph Scott compete for the affection of Irene Dunne in the lovely comedy My Favorite Wife, airing on TCM Friday at 5:45 a.m. Eastern. Scott turns up again in Ride the High Country, costarring with Joel McCrea in this late-career Western, airing Saturday at 10 a.m. Eastern on TCM. HBO Max has two of Grant’s best films: Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (Martin Landau shines as a gay villain) and Howard Hawks’s His Girl Friday. Another great Hitchcock film with plenty of homoeroticism, Strangers on a Train, is on TCM Sunday at 6:15 a.m. Eastern.

Judy Garland in A Star Is Born on HBO Max. Need we say more?

And: Martin Scorsese introducing Mean Streets and Goodfellas; conversations with Sophia Loren and Eva Marie Saint; Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless; Alan Parker’s Fame; comedians doing a table read of Plan 9 From Outer Space and a showing of the famously bad film itself; Mel Brooks’s The Producers, which is even funnier than Plan 9; a restoration of the film noir They Won’t Believe Me, which deserves a bigger audience; the Ernst Lubitsch silent So This Is Paris, with a new score; the works of cinema pioneer Georges Méliès; Steve McQueen (the director, not the actor) introducing his first feature, Hunger; Mira Nair introducing The Namesake; and more classics of the Hollywood studio era like The Thin Man and The Maltese Falcon.

Truly, something for anyone with a pulse who loves movies. Find the full schedule for both the TCM channel and HBO Max at FilmFestival.TCM.com.

Tags: film, television

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