Guys don't iron other guys' clothes!"
- Sgt. Benson
That doesn't make it any easier watching Partners, a long forgotten 1982 farce that was apparently made as a comedic counterpunch to the controversial Cruising, the 1980 William Friedkin thriller with Al Pacino. It's yet another take on The Odd Couple, starring Ryan O'Neal as macho sergeant Benson and John Hurt as officer Kerwin, a gay man who works a desk job. To give you an idea of the film's approach, one of its taglines was "Benson is a cop who wants to clean up the streets...His partner just wants to redecorate," while the poster has Hurt brandishing a hair dryer instead of a gun. ("Stop, or I'll blow you!")
Benson immediately knows Kerwin is gay because the quiet man doesn't look at the secretary's ass (what a perceptive detective!). When an unsolved murder in the gay district garners bad press for the police, Chief Wilkins (Kenneth McMillan) decides to pair the two up and have them "infiltrate the gay community." The chief shows Benson a picture of the male model victim, whose nude body graces the cover of a magazine: "What does it do for ya?" he asks. "It's not my style."
Both balk but cave, and soon move in together as a couple, and the fish-out-of-water tale wastes no time in piling on the gay jokes: O'Neal wears a wide assortment of embarrassing clothes to "fit in", from headbands to a leather harness and chaps to tight cutoff jean shorts to a low plunging tank top (and check out Hurt's shoulder pads!); a lecherous motel clerk gropes Benson under the table ("I didn't spend 10 years in homicide to be mauled by some old queen!"); and the two are assigned a pink Beetle that honks to the tune of "Mary Had a Little Lamb" (although I have to admit being amused when an officer tells Benson, "The car's around the corner, sergeant," pausing before adding with a smile, "It's a VW.").
The sequences intended to elicit the most laughs revolve around Benson having to brave humiliation to get clues, including an embarrassing walk to a coffee shop, an unwelcome embrace on the beach and a photo shoot for Man's Man magazine. He has to exert his masculinity every step of the way just so we don't get confused. In one of the more pathetic scenes, Benson leaves his new homo-crowded apartment complex to escape the gay air, seeking sex with the first woman who runs by him to "cure" his frustration (never mind he has a girlfriend).
You can guess what happens at this point: Benson grumbles his way through the assignment, but before long the two begin to behave like a real couple (aww!) as the macho sergeant starts to soften up just a little on his way to semi-acceptance. Just don't touch him.
Hurt is the sideshow here, as Kerwin isn't given much to do. He's a meek, anal-retentive man who likes to cook, clean, do laundry and dote on his man--and also gets distracted from the assignment while shopping. Kerwin occasionally has a good idea that helps the case, to the shock of his squad. He also cries ("I must be the only cop in the world that's got a partner that cries!") and gets jealous (as gays are prone to do) when a woman threatens to get between him and Benson ("I make breakfast around here!" he warns his new competition). It all leads to a conclusion that hinges on whether the limp-wristed homo can steady his Nervous Nellie hands long enough to fire a manly gun and shoot a bad guy. Yes, it's as insulting as it sounds. (And if you look at the back of the DVD box, you know how it pans out).
The script has no problem letting the "f" word fly. It first rears its ugly head just seconds after Benson tries to offer an olive branch to his partner: "To each his own. I know some gay people--they're very nice." Immediately cut to Benson on the phone, begging with the chief: "We're not gonna get anywhere with this faggot. Why don't we just cut our losses right now?" The word makes many more unwelcome appearances ("Those two faggots look exactly alike, just like all faggots!"), along with plenty of other absurd scenarios and dialogue.
The periphery gay characters are also walking stereotypes, including two men who agree to meet Benson--a complete stranger who has them under his spell instantly. One of them later skips into the ocean, and is soon mocked in a police station by cops and prisoners. There's also a makeup man who screams, and a horde of horny guys that come on to Benson. The film goes to great lengths to keep O'Neal's shirt off, and offers a few sets of boobs (including 1974 Playboy cover girl Robyn Douglass, whose earrings clang like crazy) to appease the straight men actually watching this...an effort I'm guessing goes completely unappreciated.
Partners was helmed by Will & Grace director James Burrows and written by La Cage Aux Folles scribe Francis Veber, so I know the intentions weren't cruel. I'd say the film is harmless, but I'm not fully convinced of that. I might lose my gay card for this, but I had no issues with Cruising, a movie I actually enjoyed. Partners is a tad offensive, but I'm not so much of a tight ass that I can't find humor in some of the scenarios. As a movie it's predictable and goes for cheap laughs--some of which work.
So I can't say the film is useless--in an era when gay men were absent on the big screen, Partners put then front and center. If nothing else, this film is a time capsule, a window into the world and how it perceived homosexuals in the early 1980s. It's fascinating in that regard, and one of the few films from that era to mark progress for the movement--even if it makes me cringe.