Stonewall

Review

by Christopher J. Hogan

Cineaste v22, n3 (Summer, 1996):37 (3 pages).



COPYRIGHT Cineaste Publishers Inc. 1996. Used in the UCB Media Resources Web site with permission.

The credits of Nigel Finch's Stonewall describe the film as a "fictionalization based on the book by Martin Duberman." This book was the first comprehensive history of the 1969 riots in Greenwich Village and of the events that led up to and followed them. Rather than synthesizing numerous primary sources into one, unified account of what has become, in Duberman's words, "the emblematic event in modern lesbian and gay history," he 're-creates' six queer individuals' lives. Thereby, Duberman hopes to show us how and why Stonewall became a critical turning point in the lesbian and gay rights movement. Stonewall, the film, attempts to capture this blend of historical fact-finding, social analysis, and engaging narrative. The filmmakers clearly wanted to depict the riots through the lives of gay men and, to a lesser extent, lesbians, in the late Sixties. Like Duberman's book, the film is meant to both boost pride in gays and lesbians and to bring this history to a wider, straight audience.

In a faux documentary-style interview that frames Stonewall, the drag queen LaMiranda (Guillermo Diaz) tells us that this is her "legend," her "Stonewall." While drag queens have recently been en vogue in the cinema, this choice of dramatis personae primarily pays tribute to the fact that it was, indeed, Puerto Rican drag queens who were on the front lines of the Stonewall riots - although, historically, they congregated in only a few bars (one reason, perhaps, being their poverty), and The Stonewall Inn was not one of the most popular ones. LaMiranda is a central figure and arguably the most compelling character in the film, but the story really belongs to Matty Dean (Frederick Weller). A bright and hunky Southern boy, he arrives at the Port Authority bus terminal, eager to take on New York City. His first night in town, Matty follows the sexy LaMiranda and her friends into The Stonewall Inn, a Mafia-run bar that maintains a mixed clientele of drag queens and gay men in chinos. LaMiranda and Matty are arrested after they stand up to the police in a raid that night. After they are bailed out by the queen of all queens, Bostonia (Duane Boutte), LaMiranda takes Matty in, initiating their tender love story.

The story of Matty and LaMiranda is unique among the recent crop of drag queen movies, such as To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. First, LaMiranda is neither depicted as the sexless mother hen nor as the flirt who tries to pass as a 'real' girl. Second, their relationship reflects Duberman's research, indicating that drag queens, after all, were romantically involved with so called 'butch' men. A 'straight' acting man, at the time, might have been a trick, a hustler, a sugar daddy or, significantly, a boyfriend - an insight that runs counter to some current conceptions of gay roles that claim the impossibility of a romantic involvement between a drag queen and someone like Matty. (Besides, it seems questionable how butch Matty really is - at one point in the film, he also puts on drag.)

Matty's life and his relationship with LaMiranda are complicated as he becomes involved with the Homophile Society, a group of homosexual men clearly based on The Mattachine Society (a homosexual rights organization founded in 1950). There, Matty meets Ethan (Brendan Corbalis), a handsome young school teacher who, for over ten years, has been fighting for the acceptance of homosexuals into the mainstream. Though Ethan seems to have the same goals as Matty, his politics and methods sometimes are too moderate and ineffectual for the young rebel. Matty finds himself torn between the pragmatic, yet assimilationist, approach of the Homophile Society and the in-your-face style of his drag queen friends at The Stonewall Inn. He also cannot fully commit to his passionate, yet frightening, love for LaMiranda, while the possibility of a more stable and acceptable relationship with Ethan is before him.

Stonewall grants great dignity to nearly all of its characters. The screenplay by Rikki Beadle Blair and the direction by Nigel Finch avoid both easy stereotypes and scapegoating. When Matty challenges Ethan's political tactics, Ethan retorts, "I'm not in this for the fight anymore. I'm in this to win." Similarly, the drag queens are not all selfish, apolitical airheads. The most interesting moments in Stonewall occur when their world collides with that of the Homophile Society. Often, there is conflict and misunderstanding, yet sometimes, when the characters let down their guards, mutual respect is found. When Bostonia finds herself dancing with the head of the Homophiles, she tells him, "Between you and me, I do salute." He responds, "Between you and me, I'm honored."

Characteristic of gay culture, everyone in Stonewall is consciously forming their own image. The drag queens go beyond the wearing of wigs and skirts in creating feminine identities, bringing out drag's stylistic hyperbole and its tendency to combine a variety of dissimilar and even dissonant styles. Their name changes are complete and final. LaMiranda has legally changed her name from Hector, but she's not the only one using an assumed name. Ethan writes for the Homophile newsletter under the name of Bruce Compton. We learn that even the seemingly guileless Matty has not always been "Matty Dean." His past name, like his life before coming to New York, remains a mystery throughout the film. His choice of name reflects the gay cultural phenomenon of appropriating and reinventing images from mainstream culture. He is a rebel like James Dean, but a gentler one with a more boyish first name.

For a peaceful demonstration at Liberty Hall in Philadelphia, the members of the Homophile Society and the Daughters of Bilitis agree to a strict dress code in order to present what they believe will be the best image. Finch gives us a long sequence (to the song "Sophisticated Boom") showing the freedom fighters donning the most conservative Sixties business clothes. While some may think that this may only be about hiding, others may argue that everyone is struggling to form a persona that fits with self-identity. In this light, we see the diversity of the gay characters brought together in the (sometimes internal and internecine) fight to create a publicly and personally acceptable image of homosexuals.

One of the film's great merits is its attention to the dynamics between the Mafia manager of the bar and its patrons. This not only constitutes the film's major subplot, but also provides the most surprising historical information. According to Duberman, the managers of gay bars were low in the hierarchy of the mob. They were also often closeted homosexuals. The film brings this out quite well in Bruce MacVitties's portrayal of "Skinny Vinny," the manager of The Stonewall Inn, who ends up committing suicide because he cannot reconcile his deep love for one of the drag queens with his 'official' life. This subplot is both moving and enlightening.

As a historical drama about gay men in the late Sixties, Stonewall fares very well. Michael Clancy's costumes and Therese DePrez's production design recreate the look of the period without going over the top, which happens so easily when designing for drag queens. Music supervisor Randall Poster has assembled a terrific soundtrack of quirky, yet appropriate, girl-group songs. Finch uses these songs in a series of lip syncing sequences in which the drag queens act like a Greek chorus that sets the tone and comments on the action of the film. The mix of 'realistic' cinematography and the more striking visuals of the drag numbers works with varying effectiveness. These small glitches, however, rarely detract from the emotional energy of the story.

Unfortunately, the film is much less successful in portraying lesbians. Of course, one could argue that The Stonewall Inn was almost exclusively a gay male domain which very few women ever visited. Since it is at the center of most of the action of the film, and all of the main characters either work for or patronize the bar, it would seem realistic that the story does not really center on lesbians. The filmmakers, however, seem nervous and uneasy about the lack of lesbians. After all, what they're bringing to the screen is the event that is commemorated in gay and lesbian pride celebrations around the world. This is presumably the reason why the scene in the bar that depicts the first riot includes many women customers. In fact, the number of women shown to be there that night seems to be almost as great as the total number of women who ever really set foot in The Stonewall Inn.

The film also takes pains to show a representative of the Daughters of Bilitis at the first meeting of the Homophile Society that Marty Dean attends. Later, we see women attending the Philadelphia demonstration. Yet all these women seem to be tokens carefully placed to show us that women were just as important to the early homosexual rights movement and to the Stonewall Riots. None of them come to life as complex characters in the way of even the smallest male roles. Finally, it is unfortunate that a film that embraces many of the complexities and conflicts of gay male culture shies away from exploring the difficulties that gay men and lesbians, in fact, often have in forging social and political alliances.

For better or worse, the Stonewall riots today are considered the inaugural moment of the modern gay and lesbian rights movement - they now belong to the entire community, not just to those who were there. As a 'historical epic,' the film relates to that by making a virtue of necessity. As LaMiranda says at the beginning of the film, "There's as many Stonewall stories as there is gay queens in New York, and that's a shitload of stories, baby. Everywhere you go in Manhattan or America or the entire damn world, you're going to hear some new legend." Stonewall is the first of these legends we've seen on film, but not the definitive one.

- Christopher J. Hogan


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