Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Trip


I had to put aside my work on Mother Teresa: The Musical briefly this weekend in order to make an emergency appearance at a charity benefit. Apparently Evelyn Keyes was supposed to be the guest celebrity but the poor dear had a sudden flare up of that nasty skin condition and had to cancel at the last minute. Madame Rose, my publicist, got a phone call desperately asking if I would consent to take her place. I do these benefits from time to time, especially for those red ribbon agencies; all those lovely chorus boys know how to throw a great party and they always seem so familiar with my work and it's always pleasurable to be out there amongst the fans. Not to mention all the tips I've gotten on hair care and interior design.

Anyway, a limo arrived at Chateau Maine to take me down to Grauman's Chinese where I was served stale popcorn and brought in to meet and mingle with other industry professionals on the red carpet while the hoi polloi clamored to pay $50 for a film ticket in order to rub shoulders with us more famous folk. I, of course, dressed for the occasion in a lovely magenta sequin sheath with sateen ruffled sleeves and some floral appliqués. White elbow gloves, white sling back Prada pumps and a white feather boa completed the fetching ensemble and I could just see the crowds parting for me at my appearance. The mighty Wurlitzer greeted me as well, playing Swanee, one of my signature pieces as I made my entrance.

The occasion was a benefit showing of Miles Swain's film, The Trip, a small independent film about the life and loves of a gay couple against the background of the 70s and the early 80s. In structure, it's very much 1930s studio romance: Boy meets boy, boy falls for boy, boy loses boy, boy finds boy. The boy in question is Alan Oakley (Larry Sullivan). When we first meet him, it's 1973 and he's a young republican supporter of Nixon who is researching and writing a book on homosexuality. He's living with Beverly (Sirena Irwin), who seems to be some sort of left over flower child. His mentor, at the paper where he works, is the closeted Peter (Ray Baker), a rich lawyer who has an unrequited thing for him and who invites him one evening to one of his special boys only parties. There Alan meets out and proud teen Bobby (Steve Braun) and his roommate Michael (Alexis Arquette). There is a certain crackle of electricity between Alan and Bobby, despite the fact that Alan self identifies as straight and, eventually, they become a couple, something Alan tries to hide from the world, especially his parents although his ex-showgirl mother (Jill St. John) has no problems figuring it out and accepting it.

The lives of these six characters intertwine over the course of the next decade, Tales of the City style, as Alan and Bobby grow into a mature pair, separate over what is seen as a betrayal and is more about a failure to communicate, and Alan, after an unsuccessful second relationship, recognizes his need for Bobby and goes off to rural Mexico in search of him. This leads to the titular road trip as the two of them head back to the United States in a disintegrating Oldsmobile. All of this is played out over a background of the rise of gay liberation, the Anita Bryant led backlash, and the rise of HIV as a social force and personal tragedy.

Writer/director Swain, in his debut film, bites off a bit more than he can chew with his period piece setting. Budget limitations lead to the 70s being portrayed by bad Florence Henderson shag wigs on the men and worse pantsuits on the women. Some of the jokiness of the early scenes is also a bit sophomoric as many of the laughs depend upon attitudes and events that didn't emerge until decades later, making his characters, in their earlier incarnations, modern folk in costume rather than fully realized humans living in 1970s L.A. Some of this may be due to Swain's youth - he wasn't there. At the same time, by the latter half of the film, Swain has found his rhythm and the voice of his characters and the scenes taking place in the early 80s, both in Los Angeles and Mexico, have an unexpected emotional force to them, leading to a devastating conclusion (even if it is lifted from an old urban legend.)

Swain gets good performances from his actors, most of whom were unfamiliar to me. Larry Sullivan and Steve Braun, in the leads, both give heartfelt and consistent performances as the conflicted lovers, especially in the latter half of the film when they get all that plastic hair out of the way. The supporting cast has a ball with their more comic roles, especially Jill St. John who nonchalantly walks off with every scene she's in. Alexis Arquette and Sirena Irwin also have some decent moments, although the former seems to mainly be playing himself. There's also a cameo from the divine Julie Brown as a Madonna wannabe circa 1984 that's hysterical and a great in joke to anyone familiar with her previous lampoons of the singer.

I expected to be underwhelmed, especially given the awkwardness of some of the early scenes, but the film gradually builds in emotional power and it's worth sticking with to get to the third act and the actual road trip. The metaphorical trip, the trip of life that all of these folks are embarked upon, begins to resonate back from these later scenes and some of the choices of the characters and their reactions to their society will also resonate with the audience, especially those old enough to have been there and done that. The use of well chosen pop music of the 70s and 80s through the film also gives it a richer texture and helps tie it in to the collective memories of those who were there.

While it's probably not the best gay love story ever filmed, it's got its moments and is worth a look from anyone interested in the human connection and it shows that its young writer/director and stars have got good things in them to take into their future careers.

Settled labor strike. Symbolic plant. Gratuitous pot inhaling joke. Gratuitous dildo waving. Griffith Park information tables. Anita Bryant cream pie. T & A medallion. Homophobic literature. AIDS activism. Car hood striptease.

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