Saturday, September 22, 2018

Welcome to 28 Barbary Lane

Ahh, San Francisco. Like the Land of Oz and the Garden of Eden, the fabled City by the Bay is a magical and mythical destination, a real-life come-as-you-are party, a place where you can let your hair down, be yourself and pursue your own idea of happiness—and maybe even taste some forbidden fruit along the way. No wonder Angels in America playwright Tony Kushner used the city as his prototype for Heaven.

There could be no better setting for the odyssey of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City (1993). Based on his marvelous series of books, originally serialized as a fictional column in The San Francisco Chronicle, this groundbreaking 1993 miniseries is set in the San Francisco of 1976, that brief shining sweet spot after Vietnam and Watergate and before the spectre of AIDS crashed the party of free sexual expression.

A view from Russian Hill by Warzau Wynn

Dealing with themes of homosexuality, transsexualism, drugs and a variety of other perversions and persuasions, and featuring unapologetically adult language and nudity, the series caused an uproar with its first controversial airing on PBS. The ultra right-wing Moral Majority blasted the series for its “obscene” subject matter and campaigned vigorously against federal funding for the arts for public television. With all that political kafuffle, no wonder Tales remains so popular with the outcasts, sinners and heathens of the world.

Tales of the City is the best kind of soap opera, peopled with unforgettable characters that audiences grow to love and care about, fantastic stories made addictive with byzantine plot twists, metaphysical themes and synchronicities, all imbued with an underlying philosophy of love and tolerance. Gorgeously produced, intelligently written and brilliantly acted, this is a series I find myself watching again and again.

Good neighbors: Mona (Chloe Webb, Mary Ann (Laura Linney) and Mouse (Marcus D'Amico)

Olympia Dukakis (Moonstruck, Steel Magnolias) is iconic as the mysterious and strange landlady Anna Madrigal, “the mother of us all,” who makes each tenant in her Barbary Lane building a member of a new family unit, offering unconditional love and acceptance—as well as a welcoming joint taped to their doors, a housewarming gift from her own overgrown garden of cannabis plants.  
“You’re one of us now,” she whispers to new tenant Mary Ann, urging her to “bite into that lotus,” quoting Tennyson (“Eating the lotus day by day…”). When asked if she has an objection to pets, permissive Mrs. Madrigal replies, “Dear, I have no objection to anything…”

Unconditional love: Olympia Dukakis as Mrs. Anna Madrigal

Of course, like all denizens of Barbary Lane, Mrs. Madrigal has her secrets…chief among them (spoiler alert) that she spent the better part of her life as a man named Andy before having a sex change. (In the 1970s when the book was written, and even into the 1990s when the series was produced, this was a shocking secret to reveal…but today we take such things in stride. This mild spoiler is only one delicious plot twist in an intertwining crazy quilt of sordid but entertaining lives.) “We don’t have people like that in Cleveland,” Mary Ann comments ruefully.

Born innocent: Laura Linney as Mary Ann Singleton

Laura Linney (Ozark, The Truman Show) brings to life the character of sweet and naive Mary Ann Singleton of Cleveland, Ohio, who surveys her new hometown with wide-eyed wonder and curiosity. Through the course of the series, goody-two-shoes Mary Ann will nevertheless end up having an affair with a married man, smoking the devil's weed and singlehandedly taking down a sleazy private investigator who threatens to reveal Mrs. Madrigal’s identity as a transsexual.

Barbara Garrick (Working Girl) steals every scene she’s in with her humorously tense and agitated performance as DeeDee Halcyon Day, a neurotic and uptight heiress who moves in the same social circles as infamous fellow San Franciscan Patty Hearst.

Unstable: Barbara Garrick as DeeDee Halcyon Day

The narcissist: Thomas Gibson as Beauchamp Day

Marcus D’Amico strikes the perfect note of boyish vulnerability as Michael (Mouse) Tolliver, hopeless romantic and homosexual, looking for Mr. Right in all the wrong places. Handsomely heroic William Campbell is Dr. Jon Fielding, the doctor Michael falls in love with (a character every good soap opera needs!).

Paul Gross is Brian Hawkins, one of Mrs. Madrigal’s rare heterosexual tenants—a good-looking womanizer who strikes up a gay-straight alliance with Michael. The pair become fast friends as they cruise the city’s nightspots for horny guys and gals.

Sexual healing: Mouse and Dr. Jon Fielding (William Campbell)

Straight and available: Paul Gross as Brian Hawkins

The eccentric: Parker Posey as Connie Bradshaw

Chloe Webb (Sid and Nancy, Practical Magic) is perfect as the kooky Mona Ramsey, a free spirit who goes around topless, practices yoga and transcendental meditation and reveals lesbian tendencies, falling for moody fashion model D’Orothea Wilson, played by Cynda Williams. Mona gets Mary Ann a job at Halcyon, where she works as an advertising copywriter. 

Rounding out the cast are a host of brilliant actors: Donald Moffatt (Clear and Present Danger) is Edgar Halcyon, a wealthy but terminally ill businessman who falls in love with Mrs. Madrigal. Thomas Gibson (Eyes Wide Shut) is unforgettable as Beauchamp (pronounced Beacham) Day, Halcyon’s bisexual playboy of a son-in-law, who cheats on his wife with anybody handy. Parker Posey (Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show) is delightfully offbeat as Connie Bradshaw, Mary Ann’s classmate and friend from Ohio who introduces her to the '70s San Franciscan’s daily diet of of disco, casual sex and supermarket cruising.

As well, you’ll run across a host of quirky cameos by the likes of Edie Adams, Rod Steiger, Karen Black, Bob Mackie, Ian McKellan, a young Janeane Garafolo and many more, adding piquant flavor and spice to the mix of outlandish characters and situations. 

Cynda Williams, Chloe Webb, Marcus D'Amico and William Campbell

Tales of the City transports you to a bicentennial red, white and blue mid-1970s where you can almost smell the lemon candles, incense and marijuana in the air, as you boogie to classic disco and watch Mary Tyler Moore and Mary Hartman. It’s a freewheeling era of birth control, feminism and casual pickups—cruising for sex in the aisles of a Safeway supermarket. 

Naturally, the central character of the series is the hilly, romantic, mysterious gothic city referenced in the title itself. San Francisco has inspired many a storyteller—it’s a progressive sanctuary that birthed the hippie movement, the Summer of Love and the quest for LGBTQ rights, a place where they were practicing tai chi in the park 40 years before it became fashionable. 

Green thumb: Mrs Madrigal in the garden, tending her cannabis plants

San Francisco is a very special city; “Nobody is from here,” someone comments to Mary Ann. Indeed, Armistead Maupin himself is a San Franciscan transplanted from the Deep South, and to the author the city is a very metaphysical place indeed. Mrs. Madrigal refers to her entire adopted family as reincarnated citizens of Atlantis.

Much of the series was filmed on location here, and the action centers around the ramshackle apartment house at 28 Barbary Lane—a fictional address on real-life Russian Hill, off Lombard Street, and indeed Maupin’s plots and subplots meander and twist much like the famous crooked thoroughfare itself. Homages to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo abound in the series, from Bernard Herrmann’s music to locations including Kim Novak’s Mason Street apartment building, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Legion D’Honneur and Muir Redwood Forest.

Maupin’s Tales continued to unfold with the sequels More Tales of the City (1998) and Further Tales of the City (2001) produced by Showtime. The second and third series introduced a host of new characters (including Mrs. Madrigal’s zany brothel-running mom Mother Mucca) and storylines from the Maupin books, as well as new actors playing familiar characters. But fan favorites Laura Linney, Olympia Dukakis and Barbara Garrick reprised their roles in both series, establishing a strong through-line of continuity.

In 2011 a musical version was mounted at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theatre featuring music by Jake Shears of Scissor Sisters fame. The opening night was attended by Laura Linney and Armistead Maupin (and my best pal Eric and I were there in the audience that night, too, at the Geary Street theater!).

Author, author: Dukakis with Armistead Maupin

Good news—Maupin’s Tales will continue to be told on screen. Netflix has ordered 10 new episodes (presumably based on the later Maupin books, the last of which were published in 2010 and 2014) that will again star Linney as Mary Ann, Dukakis as Mrs. Madrigal and Garrick as DeeDee. I eagerly await the series reboot in 2019.  In the meantime, for Tales virgins, the original 1993 series is currently running on Acorn TV.

Celebrating all the kinks and peccadilloes and foibles of the human experience, Tales of the City celebrates the imperfect art of being human—ultimately, it’s all about people and the love they share. 

This is an entry in the Gender Bending the Rules Blogathon, cohosted by my friend Quiggy at his engaging and prolific Midnite Drive-In blog. Thanks so much to all who have participated—I look forward to reading everyone’s entries!

Friday, September 21, 2018

Presenting the Gender Bending the Rules Blogathon

Give Quiggy and me any chance, we'll take it. Leave us any rule, we'll break—er, bend— it...Welcome to the Gender Bending the Rules Blogathon, hosted by The Midnite Drive-In and yours truly.

Hopefully this array of films will help our readers and fellow movie lovers feel free to express both the masculine and feminine aspects of their natures, no matter what gender or sexual orientation they identify with. Creativity is all about freedom, fluidity and flexibility, after all, is it not?

Many thanks to those who have contributed and to all our readers. And if you have a blog post that fits our theme, feel free send us the link so you can participate as well.

May the cross-dressing, gender bending and sexual confusion begin...


Great Old Movies brings us the great Alistair Sim as a regal (if not comely) grande dame in The Belles of St. Trinians.

Nope, it's not the movie you think...Caftan Woman introduces us to the comic gem First A Girl starring the versatile Jessie Matthews.

Papa, can you hear Movie Rob's insightful essay on Barbra Streisand's Magnum Opus Yentl?

William Hurt reveals the vulnerable beauty of his feminine side in Kiss of the Spider Woman, through the eyes of The Midnite Drive-In.

Which one of these 1980s dudes isn't one? Find out in the exposé on Just One of the Guys at Angelman's Place.


Movie Rob discusses the nuances of Glenn Close’s Academy Award-worthy performance in the title role of Albert Nobbs.

Nurse Charles, are you insane? Realweegiemidget Reviews salutes the ensemble cast of the classic cross-dressing comedy Tootsie.

The Midnite Drive-In’s enthusiastic celebration of comedy classic The Birdcage is anything but a drag.

Time-travel with Angelman’s Place to mid-1970s San Francisco, home of the beloved transsexual protagonist of Tales of the City.


Wide Screen World encourages us to brush up our Shakespeare and behold Dame Joan Plowright as an iconic gender deceiver in Twelfth Night.

The cigar and tux look familiar (see Day 1 of our blogroll above), but Julie Andrews gives a one-of-a-kind performance in Blake Edwards’ Victor/Victoria, seen through the eyes of MovieRob.

Crítica Retrô introduces us to the little-known Ernst Lubitsch silent I Don’t Want To Be a Man starring Ossie Oswalda.

Top 10 Film Lists extolls the virtues of identity fluidity in Billy Wilder’s frenetic farce extraordinaire Some Like It Hot.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Let's Hear It for the Boy

Because I “came of age” in the 1980s, the teen sex comedy, which arguably reached its zenith during this era, is dear to my heart and part of my DNA. Who could resist Johnny Depp and Rob Morrow running around naked in Private Resort, Tom Cruise dancing in his underpants in Risky Business or Tom Hanks actually exuding sex appeal in Bachelor Party? Here’s my personal favorite of this guilty-pleasure genre—Just One of the Guys (1985). 

Its storyline is as old as the hills but has served as a reliable plot device in sex farces since before the time of Shakespeare—the hero or heroine disguising themselves as the opposite sex, as familiar complications ensue. In Just One of the Guys, our leading lady—like countless other female protagonists from Viola in Twelfth Night to Katharine Hepburn in Sylvia Scarlett to Julie Andrews in Victor/Victoria—pretends to be a man to break gender rules and achieve her objectives.

This high ’80s teen sex farce contains just about all the elements of that beloved genre. It’s not nearly as raunchy as, say, Porky’s, but there are titillating, split-second flashes of “brief nudity” throughout—from naked male butts in the obligatory locker room scenes… to a bedroom plastered with dozens of Playboy centerfolds… to a quick reveal of star Joyce Hyser’s bare breasts. 

But in my opinion, Just One of the Guys is a superior entry in the teen sex comedy category, well played by a bright and talented cast of young actors. With a witty script written by Dennis Feldman (The Golden Child) and Jeff Franklin (Full House) it’s also one of the few directed by a woman—Lisa Gottlieb, who directed only a small handful of films and TV shows, including Cadillac Ranch and Dream On.

Joyce Hyser as Terry
Suspecting she is the victim of sex discrimination when her story is not chosen by her journalism teacher, aspiring high school journalist Terry (Joyce Hyser) goes undercover at a neighboring school, posing as a boy to get her story published and win a prized summer newspaper internship. Her article, on the nutritional content of school lunches, is just as boring to the teacher at the new school, however, but Terry (of course) finds a new angle for her story: her temporary “sex change”.

As the popular high school senior who disguises herself as a boy to prove a point, Joyce Hyser’s bravura performance carries the film with finesse. Tall and curvy, with a solidly attractive bone structure, Hyser is equally alluring as a girl and as a guy. She fills out a small bikini impressively, but when she cuts off her hair, dons her brother’s clothes and deepens her voice, she transforms herself into an equally plausible (and good-looking) male. Unlike a Tony Curtis or Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot or a Barbra Streisand in Yentl, willing suspension of disbelief is barely necessary for the audience to believe in the deception. As Terry, Hyser easily gets in touch with her own masculine energy, looking and feeling the part. Watching some scenes, you’ll no doubt forget that the actor playing Terry is a woman. Hyser (This Is Spinal Tap, Valley Girl) truly triumphs in this iconic role.

Terry and Kevin (Leigh McCloskey), before the "sex change"

Hyser leads a cast of young performers who are as adept at well-timed wisecracks as they are attractive and winning. 

Billy Jacoby (who now uses the stage name Billy Jayne) steals every scene he’s in as Terry’s adolescent and perpetually horny little brother Buddy. The scene where Buddy teaches his sister about crotch-grabbing and ball-scratching is a classic, as are Buddy’s lame attempts to seduce his sister’s friends.

Billy Jacoby as Buddy

“What a fox,” purrs Sandy, played by a pre-Twin Peaks Sherilynn Fenn, who is determined to lose her virginity to the handsome, well-dressed new boy in school wearing the “bitchin’ tie.” When Terry agrees to go on a double date at a makeout spot called the cave, where the horny and predatory Sandy gropes for Terry’s fake sock-crotch and almost blows her cover.

Well-built, good-looking blond William Zabka, best known as Ralph Macchio’s nemesis in The Karate Kid, is Greg Tolan, who runs the school with his musclehead buddies, bullying the student body while dating prom queen Deborah Goodrich (All My Children). Among the freaks and geeks and weirdos at Terry’s new school (de rigueur to ’80s teen comedies like Revenge of the Nerds) who are terrorized by Zabka and company are Arye Gross (Big Eden) and Robert Fieldsteel as interplanetary dorks Willie and Phil (an obscure reference to another lost 1980s film). 

Sherilynn Fenn as Sandy
Matinee idol–handsome Leigh McCloskey (Alexander: The Other Side of Dawn, Dallas) plays Terry’s conceited college boyfriend who drives a sports car and and puts Terry down for cutting her hair and not wearing enough makeup. The farcical scenes with Terry making quick changes from female to male with Sherilynn Fenn in one room and Leigh McCloskey in the other are amusing and well played.

The theme of androgeny is explored in subtle as well as obvious ways in this film. Terry’s new friend Rick (Clayton Rohner) is soft and sensitive, with a lot of feminine energy—making Hyser’s Terry seem even more alpha male, tough and assertive. When Rick is unable to find a date, Terry takes charge to help his/her pal.

William Zabka as Greg
But it wouldn’t be an ’80s teen comedy without an unhealthy dose of gay panic in addition to the sexual confusion. Greg refers to anyone smaller or weaker than him as a “tulip.”(Better than “faggot,” I suppose.) Best friend Denise (Toni Hudson) is horrified what people will think of her when she is forced to accompany Terry to the prom (“The sad thing is, you’re the best date I’ve had in weeks…”). And at the beach party-themed prom at an oceanfront resort, when Terry bares her breasts to prove to him that she is a woman, a disgusted Rick blurts “Don’t worry, he’s got tits” when the crowd sees Terry kiss Rick and assume they’re gay lovers. Of course, all is resolved in the denoument and all's well that ends well, each of the principals finding their proper soulmate...

Clayton Rohner as Rick
Just One of the Guys is one of the most memorable teen comedies of the 1980s, intelligently written and directed and acted with timing and finesse by a talented young cast. It’s a film I enjoyed seeing then and still love watching now. 

This is an entry in the Gender Bending the Rules Blogathon, cohosted by my friend Quiggy at his engaging and prolific Midnite Drive-In blog. Thanks so much to all who have participated—I look forward to reading everyone’s entries!