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and Jeffrey Friedman
Michael Lehmann’s The Truth About Cats and Dogs is a sort of hipster Cyrano de Bergerac with the sexes of the central characters reversed. This time around, generalized female insecurity substitutes for Cyrano’s oversize nose. The film centers on Abby (a winsome—and how often can you use the word “winsome” and mean it?—Janeane Garofalo), the host of a radio call-in show about pet care. The film’s cinematic shorthand quickly makes it clear what Abby’s problem is: On the way into her office, a man holds the door open for another woman before letting it slam in Abby’s face. After her radio show, she spends the evening alone with her cat as an easy-listening version—albeit his own—of Sting’s “The Bed’s Too Big Without You” plays in the background. Could it be that Abby is lonely?
It could, but that’s not all. After Abby gives Brian (Ben Chaplin), a hapless caller, some invaluable dog-care advice, he suggests that they meet in person. They pick a place, but when he asks, “What do you look like?” she snaps, “Why do you need to know that?” It’s clearly a sensitive subject; she babbles something about being tall and blond and then stands him up. Of course, Garofalo’s Abby is not at all unattractive—except by Hollywood standards, which divide women into two groups: “ugly” and “Uma Thurman.” Cats and Dogs could be interpreted as a feminist commentary on the fact that all women are made to feel that they’re ugly even when they’re not—except that Audrey Wells’ script has the other characters react as if Abby’s self-assessment is accurate. (Though Lehmann directed such relatively subversive fare as Heathers and Meet the Applegates, his treatment of this subject is surprisingly conventional.)
Enter Noelle (Uma Thurman), Abby’s ditzy but gorgeous next-door neighbor. (Noelle, a model, takes her abusive mate in stride—“You gotta have a boyfriend, don’t you?”—and believes everything she reads in Cosmo.) When Brian shows up unexpectedly at the radio station, Abby makes Noelle pretend to be her. They sustain the substitution far longer than is plausible, allowing Brian to simultaneously fall in love with Abby’s personality and Noelle’s looks. Brian listens to Abby on the radio every day, and the pair share a nightlong telephone call during which he reads aloud to her from Roland Barthes and she plays him a sonata on the violin. He simply doesn’t understand why she’s so “scatty” when he meets her in person, or why her short, brunette friend is always tagging along. (For her part, Noelle, who has never been treated as if she were smart before, is understandably smitten with Brian.)
Though its presentation of Edmond Rostand’s message is a little off center, Cats and Dogs is satisfying in the manner of old-style romantic comedies. (It seems altogether fitting, for example, when Abby and Brian reprise the famous dual-bathtub scene from Pillow Talk.) The film actually goes so far as to paraphrase the play, as when Brian echoes Roxanne’s famous lament, “I love one man, and have lost him twice.” Though Brian is the one who stands to learn something, it’s Abby who ends up sounding sheepish. “All of that stuff doesn’t come in a perfect package,” she says of her virtues, “it comes in this one.” Cyrano would never apologize for the size of his nose.
Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s The Celluloid Closet, based on the 1981 book by Vito Russo, is a fascinating look at the portrayal of gays in the movies. (The multiple-award-winning filmmakers also collaborated on The Times of Harvey Milk and Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt.) Closet combines interviews with actors, screenwriters, and directors—including the likes of Armistead Maupin, Susie Bright, Whoopi Goldberg, Jan Oxenberg, Harvey Fierstein, Quentin Crisp, and Richard Dyer—and film clips from 120 films to chart cinema’s depiction of homosexuality from the days of silent movies to the present.
“Sex perversion” was one of the many topics forbidden by the 1934 Hays Code—others that made the list included “lustful embraces,” “open-mouth kissing,” and “white slavery.” However, as Closet points out, gay characters were a presence on film before and, indeed, during, the Hays period. (One of the documentary’s most surprising revelations is the prevalence of homosexual stereotypes in movies of the ’20s and ’30s. A silent film clip of an effeminate man includes the curt intertitle, “Clarence the clerk—one of nature’s mistakes.”)
Closet makes its point with clips from movies both familiar and obscure. The most interesting—and, of course, the most numerous—are those in which homosexuality is simply implied. A hilarious musical sequence from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, for instance, has Jane Russell dancing and singing in a gym full of men who pay no attention to her, preferring to concentrate on their calisthenics. In Red River, Montgomery Clift and John Ireland express their admiration for each other’s, um, guns. The film chronicles the movies’ tendency to equate effeminacy and homosexuality. This is most often used for comic effect, as when the swishy interior designer in Lover Come Back answers the incredulous query, “Who has a lilac floor in their kitchen?” with an enthusiastic “I have!”
The film assembles a wonderful assortment of talking heads; the usual complement of bores and blowhards is notably in absence. Tom Hanks offers a down-to-earth assessment of his effect on the moviegoing public, postulating that his gay character in Philadelphia struck audiences as nonthreatening “because little Tommy Hanks” was playing him. Speaking of Marlene Dietrich’s turns in drag, Quentin Crisp observes, “There’s no sin like being a woman. When a woman dresses like a man, nobody laughs. They say, ‘She looks marvelous.’” Gore Vidal recalls postulating a homoerotic subtext for Ben Hur with William Wyler. “Don’t say anything to Heston,” Vidal cautioned.
Though “sex perversion” in the movies is no longer forbidden, gay normalcy is still hard to find. Which is why Harvey Fierstein doesn’t take it kindly when he is congratulated on the universality of his work. His stock reply? “Up yours, it’s gay.”