If there's one thing you can take away from the Cinema Pride Collection, it's that "gay cinema" isn't a genre. The set compiles 10 films from the MGM and Fox DVD catalogue, a number of which are quite good, and groups them together because they all touch on themes of homosexuality.
Imagine 10 random films compiled into one program because they all contain heterosexual characters. That should prepare you for this slate of emotionally draining dramas followed by absurd farces followed by unflinching depictions of brutal hate crimes and Nazi concentration camps followed by warm, fuzzy romantic comedies. Luckily, the hodgepodge includes many good to great films, and some of the lesser titles are noteworthy cultural artifacts.
The Children's Hour, William Wyler's elegant 1961 drama about two teachers (Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine) whose careers are destroyed when they are accused of having a lesbian love affair. Wyler had adapted Lillian Helman's play in 1936, but had to remove any suggestion of homosexuality. With censorship becoming more lax 25 years later, he took on the play again. Wyler is fearless in letting his scenes play out in long, emotionally trying episodes that put Hepburn and MacLaine's performances to the test. He displays a deep understanding of the way words can be as devastating as a nuclear bomb. When the bad news lands, it lands hard.
Skip ahead several decades later to 1999 and filmmakers are freer to explore touchy subject matter, even if they have to work miracles on microscopic budgets to do it. Kimberly Pierce's Boys Don't Cry earned Hilary Swank her first Oscar for her portrayal of Teena Brandon aka Brandon Teena, a real-life woman who convinced many people, including the girls she dated, that she was a boy. The film works as a study of a wreckless life, as a romance (supported by a great performance by Chloë Sevigny that's equal to Swank's) and finally as an examination of the psychology of perpetrators of hate crimes. The film features some very difficult content, but is very rewarding.
The same can also be said for Bent, a stylish and brutal 1997 Holocaust film by director Sean Mathias. A searing portrayal of human desperation, the film stars Clive Owen as a man who goes from the wild debauchery of underground Berlin to the hell of a Nazi concentration camp. I knew nothing about the film before I received this set, and it was definitely the greatest discovery.
Another gem with a stronger foothold in cinema history, My Beautiful Laundrette, starring Daniel Day-Lewis, was an early breakthrough for the great British director Stephen Frears. Frears was made on a tight TV budget and it isn't the most polished work of his career, but it's a smart, funny study both of what it means to be gay and what it means to be an immigrant.
For those interested in studying the differences and similarities between films that tell the same story, the set contains the 1979 French film La cage aux folles and Mike Nichols's 1996 US remake The Birdcage, with Robin WIlliams and Nathan Lane. While technically both adapted from the same play, about a gay couple trying to play straight when they meet the conservative parents of their son's fiancee, the later film was clearly made with the first adaptation in mind. In many ways, the films are extremely similar--and let's face it, they haven't aged well if they were ever really funny. One of the greatest problems of the French film is that it spends all its time building to the dinner scene, and and then delivers a short, flaccid conclusion when it gets there. Running around half an hour longer, the US version delivers on more of its promises, even if it still feels long in the setup.
For more drag humor, the set includes Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, the cult classic Australian road film about a trio of drag queens driving through the desert on their way to a gig. It's amusing to see Guy Pearce and Hugo Weaving in roles strikingly different from the ones they're now known for. The film itself is a bit trying on one's patience--heavy with obvious characters and rushed jokes, unconvincing when it tries to be serious--but its performances partly compensate for the lackluster filmmaking.
While Priscilla will always have its loyal fans, The Object of My Affection has gone largely forgotten since its 1998 release. Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston star as a gay man and a straight woman who become best of friends, although the lady may deep down want it to be more than that. The film's heart is undeniably in the right place and the leads are likable, but it often cheats, letting its characters leap from mindsets without naturally taking them there.
Rounding out the set are two romantic comedies about adorable lesbians who are only just discovering that they're lesbians, Kissing Jessica Stein and Imagine Me & You. Both films veer toward too much cuteness at times, but Imagine really overdoses, even if you can't help but smile at its charm some of the time. Add in characters who routinely spell out exactly how they're feeling and the film becomes overbearing. Jessica Stein, on the other hand, earns its laughs more deeply through it's characters and their situation.
A cynical DVD reviewer might suspect this release of being a clever excuse to unload some excess discs. No effort has been made to conform the discs to the package design--they're simply the old discs with whatever art happened to be on them when they were first printed. Two of the titles, Imagine Me & You and The Birdcage are even those old double-sided discs with the widescreen edition on one side and the pan & scan on the other. Some of the Fox discs start with a flashy DVD-format promo that declares "THE FUTURE IS HERE NOW!"
The packaging squeezes five discs each into two flipper cases the size of normal single-disc cases, which is bad for the double-sided discs, which were both scoffed on arrival. On The Birdcage, the "full-screen" side was be scoffed, but 4x3 isn't "full-screen" for a lot of people anyway these days. You have to hate watching movies in their original aspect ratio AND have an old TV for it to make a difference. However, some genius decided to make the full-screen side of Imagine Me & You the main side, which means there were marks on the side of the disc with the widescreen transfer. Thankfully there were no playback problems. I'd advise flipping the disc over as soon as you get the packaging.
Three of the films feature non-anamorphic transfers, thankfully letterboxed to their proper aspect ratios but lacking the best possible resolution. Priscilla has decent source material, but given its 2.35:1 ratio, becomes a blocky mess when you attempt to zoom in to avoid black bars on all four sides of the TV screen.
The two other films are in 1.66:1. While The Children's Hour is transfered from clean, excellent quality source material and the black-and-white comes across well, La Cage aux Folles is a dirty, scratched-up, blurry mess and an embarrassment to the DVD format.
Taking into account the low-budget nature of the production and the dated transfer, My Beautiful Laundrette looks pretty good in its anamorphic transfer, pillar-boxed to its 1.66:1 ratio. Obviously you'll get some grain, especially in low-light shots, but that's the nature of a fast, cheap production.
The other films are all sharp and properly colored, and while not as well-encoded as releases from the past few years are very respectable. For more in-depth reviews, check out DVDTalk's individual reviews of The Children's Hour, La cage aux folles, My Beautiful Laundrette, two reviews of The Object of My Affection and Imagine Me & You.
If there's one area where MGM excels in its DVDs, it's subtitles and alternate languages. The Birdcage, for example, includes English, French and Spanish subtitles, plus captions for the hearing impaired in all three languages, to accompany its English, French and Spanish Dolby Digital soundtracks. The films generally come with their original English soundtracks in mono, stereo, and/or surround, and French, English and Spanish subtitles.
My Beautiful Laundrette's sound is muffled in parts, but generally clear despite its low-budge nature. The other films are all very well mixed within the limitations of the formats in which they're presented.
The Children's Hour, Bent, La cage aux folles, The Birdcage, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (which is not the Extra Frills Edition) and My Beautiful Laundrette only include the theatrical trailer,
The Children's Hour gets a free pass because its trailer is pretty badass--full of harsh cuts and unconventional choices that reflect the direction cinema was starting to move in the early '60s, when the French New Wave was taking off and it was no longer cool to play by the rules. The other trailers are generally well-edited, if not spectacular, with the major exception being that of La cage aux folles. The trailer is an awful barrage of stupid titles, unnecessarily read aloud. It's got to be one of the worst trailers of all time.
Fox releases Boys Don't Cry and The Object of My Affection include the trailer, a set of slightly different TV spots and a routine four-minute featurette with cast and filmmaker interviews explaining the movie's premise, in case you didn't know what it it was. Object includes four trailers for other Fox releases.
Boys Don't Cry includes a teaser trailer and an excellent audio commentary with director Kimberly Pierce, who intelligently discusses her storytelling and soundtrack decisions and also describes the pitfalls and difficult choices that come with low-budget filmmaking.
If Boys includes the best extra, Kissing Jessica Stein and Imagine Me & You compete for the most. Stein includes deleted scenes, trailers, TV spots and two, yes two audio commentaries, one with director Charles Herman-Wurmfeld and cinematographer Lawrence Sher and one with stars Heather Juergensen and Jennifer Westfeldt. While not as insightful as Pierce, the speakers are perhaps more relaxed than the Boys Don't Cry director, who sometimes seems a little stiff. These are fun, anecdotal commentaries rather that sources of great cinematic insight.
The best part about Imagine Me & You director Ol Parker's audio commentary is that he isn't convinced of his film's greatness, and recognizes its shortcomings. Imagine also features deleted scenes, with explanations from Parker, and a "director's statement" in which he explains what he set out to do when he made the film.
Retailing at just under $50 as an Amazon exclusive, the Cinema Pride Collection is certainly priced right. But keep in mind that not all the discs in this set are top-notch when weighing the pros and cons of a purchase. If Priscilla would be a big reason to buy, keep in mind that it's an old, inferior version compared to the recent release. Other discs in the set are also due for a makeover. Taking all this into account, I've given the set a "Rent It" recommendation, but obviously some of these films are most definitely worth owning. Just make sure you understand what you're in for.
Jeremy Mathews has been subjecting films to his criticism since 2000. He has contributed to several publications, including Film Threat, Salt Lake City Weekly, the Salt Lake Tribune, In Utah This Week and The Wasatch Journal. He also runs the blog The Same Dame and fronts the band NSPS.