22 January 2010

Nobody's Queer In Big Eden

Big Eden

Celebrating the 10th Anniversary of
Big Eden
The Best Gay Film Ever Made!

Earlier this year, I mailed the following letter to Judith Martin, the etiquette columnist known as Miss Manners:

Please make a public statement in support of respectful reference to LGBT Americans! I am a Gay Black man who lives in the Bible Belt, and I'm appalled by the derogatory nature of the language I increasingly see and hear in the media.

On a number of cable TV shows (MSNBC's "Keith Olbermann" is one example), I've heard LGBT people called "tr*nnies", "homos" and "f*ggots" in a "comic" manner. Popular sex columnist Dan Savage routinely peppers his columns and TV interviews with "f*g" and "f*ggot". NPR's "Talk Of The Nation" once gave comedian Scott Thompson several uncensored minutes of airtime to perform a song called "F*ggots On Parade."

The community radio hosts of a local Gay lifestyle and newsmagazine love to apply the word "queer" to everything Gay-related. Ironically, Gay media often contains the crudest language imaginable: I've seen magazine covers with lurid headlines ranging from Blood, Sweat And Queers to Roller Derby D*kes to Yeah! I'm A F*g. The last straw for me came when I went online to buy a family-friendly Gay film from amazon.com, and saw a product description describing the movie's characters as "bashful queers".

I've had conversations with a number of people about how offensive I find these labels. I could not get my message across to them. I was told that sexual slurs have been drained of their toxicity by popular usage, and they encouraged me to use them myself! One guy compared it to casual use of the n-word, and since I'm African-American, he took the infuriating liberty of using the n-word with me!

I've been attacked for supposedly being "politically correct." I've been ridiculed as "thin-skinned" and "immature". In the worst exchange I had, I was told: "You're nothing but a damned queer who thinks he's better than the rest." Of course, this came from someone identifying himself as "queer."

When LGBT Americans are forbidden the right to wed in thirty states; when we're banned from open service in the US military; when we're forbidden to join the Boy Scouts; when we can and often are excommunicated from church membership; when serious films about us still have trouble getting produced in Hollywood, and Gay actors remain closeted out of fear of stigmatization; when we still face imprisonment and/or execution in numerous countries; when LGBT children are still regularly bullied in school; and especially when hundreds of us are still assaulted and murdered in hate crime incidents, atrocities that are usually attended by screams of "f*ggot", "queer", "d*ke", etcetera, I hardly think the time is right to start normalizing hurtful, pejorative labels for sex and gender difference. I doubt the time will ever be right for that!

I regret that the polite terms used to refer to LGBT folk have origins either in popular slang (Gay) or clinical texts (Transsexual). I understand the desire for "umbrella terms" that simplify discussion of people like me. However, the ugly, ignorant slurs now gaining currency are unsuitable! "Queer" is not interchangeable with Gay. Hate speech still hurts! Why don't they understand?

I don't know if Miss Manners understood; I don't know if she ever read my letter.  However, ten years ago, a man named Thomas Bezucha understood perfectly. In 1999, Bezucha, a writer and director of independent films, decided to make a 1930s-style screwball comedy with Gay men as his main characters (his main inspiration was Bringing Up Baby, the Katherine Hepburn/Cary Grant classic from 1938). He wanted to stay true to the original spirit of the genre, so he decided his film would have no nudity, no explicit sex, no excess of profanity-laced dialogue, and no dearth of older actors. What it would have was a rural setting and a bunch of stock characters: A matchmaker, a town busybody, a wisecracking boss, a hunky ex-boyfriend, a loving parent in fragile health, a gaggle of comical drug store cowboys, and a shy general store manager with a secret yen for the lead character.

Applying this formula to a story about same-gender romance was novel enough, but Thomas Bezucha went farther. He conceived and realized a Gay movie that largely avoids campiness, and that presents Gay identity as neither shocking nor controversial outside of an urban setting. He called his film Big Eden. Starring Louise Fletcher, Ayre Gross, George Coe and Eric Schweig, it was released in the early summer of the year 2000.

"Looking at the subject matter of recent Gay films," Bezucha said in an interview filmed for the DVD version of his movie, "the issues were (always) around sex! I wanted to explore issues of intimacy. I wanted to show that Gay people . . . have real, intimate relationships with family, with friends . . . show that we are (a) whole people. I'm not sure if Big Eden could possibly be a real place. It's just this fantasy I concocted. Big Eden to me is about posing a question: What if? What if any Gay man or Gay woman could live anywhere? What would that be like, if bigotry and (lack of) acceptance weren't a concern?" Later in the interview, he revealed that there was a political motivation behind making this film: "Big Eden (doesn't exist) now, but it's not that far off. (I wanted) to bring it closer."

The synopsis: Henry Hart, a successful artist, returns to his hometown in rural Montana to care for and ultimately bury his ailing grandfather, whom he affectionately calls "Sampa". Things get complicated when he learns that his high school crush, Dean Stewart, is also back in town. The two men try to rekindle an aborted love affair. However, Sampa's friend Grace Cornwell, an Earth Mother type and self-styled matchmaker, has different ideas about who Henry should settle down with. By the climax of the film, the whole town has joined forces to help Grace make the most unlikely love match imaginable.

"Big Eden, which made its local debut at last year's Seattle Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, is not quite like any midlife crisis Gay film we've seen before. What really sets it apart are the setting and the characters, who tend to forget their prejudices when they're dealing with people they care about. And the actors are just low-key enough to pull it off."

-John Hartl,
The Seattle Times, June 8, 2001

Big Eden had great difficulty finding a distributor. The Hollywood studios wouldn't touch it! They didn't believe a Gay film without nudity and sex could draw an audience. Much to their surprise, after Wolfe Video picked up distribution rights, Thomas Bezucha's folksy comedy swept up honors on the LGBT film festival circuit. It bagged audience and jury prizes in San Francisco, Seattle, Cleveland, Miami, Toronto and even in Los Angeles, their own back yard! Rarely did the end credits run in a silent theater; standing ovations became routine. With stronger promotion and wider distribution, Big Eden might've broken big and become another mainstream phenomenon like John Waters' Hairspray; that was not to be, but it quickly developed a cult following that's still strong and growing ten years later.

While the film scored a modest commercial success, it proved to be artistically controversial. A number of LGBT film critics decried the Utopian vista of Big Eden. They all but demanded harsh realism in Gay-themed movies, as well as edgy sexual content, and were unable to let themselves go where Thomas Bezucha wanted to take them. Unfortunately, you could tell the Gay critics from the Straight ones by their tendency to toss sexual slurs into reviews! One of the most disrepectful was amazon.com's Bret Fetzer: in his pointedly back-of-the-hand recommendation, he sneered that the movie centers around "bashful queers" and "old coots in cowboy hats"(the derogatory tone of his review has since been modified).

Fetzer's ageism notwithstanding, for him to call Bezucha's Gay characters "queer" was cruel and cynical! It amounted to thumbing his nose at what the director was trying to achieve: A normalization of Gay people and Gay love within the most familiar of classic film settings, the American West. Toward that end, Bezucha not only cultivated a "Petticoat Junction" ambiance, he also loaded the soundtrack with vintage Country and Western tunes: "Don't Let The Stars Get In Your Eyes"(George Jones), "Welcome To My World"(Jim Reeves), "Take Me In Your Arms And Hold Me"(originally recorded by Eddy Arnold and sung in the film by Louise Fletcher).

Big Eden fairly screams tradition and shamelessly embraces mainstream values. Nobody is "queer" there! Some folks couldn't handle the juxtaposition of "liberal" same-gender desire with "conservative" community values; no doubt they found the politics of Big Eden lacking in revolutionary vision. They must have been blind! Thomas Bezucha's daring approach to screwball comedy was more revolutionary by far than anything his critics could ever hope to achieve with their "reclaimed" pejoratives and preference for pessimistic, semi-pornographic Gay storylines! In fact, the premise of Big Eden is so progressive, it makes Brokeback Mountain look like a tepid remake of The Boys In The Band!

"In his well-crafted film, Bezucha imagines with humor and affection a community so perceptive, caring and enlightened that it's capable of quietly nudging everyone in the right direction. Bezucha also suggests that a man like Henry, while not conventionally handsome, can nonetheless be attractive to others, and that a Straight man can love a Gay man while not being sexually drawn to him. These notions are not so self-evident as they might seem, even in Gay-themed films. With this wonderful ensemble cast, Big Eden is a fine example of the cinema of possibilities."

-Kevin Thomas,
The Los Angeles Times, June 1, 2001

Veteran actress Nan Martin, who portrayed the scene-stealing Widow Thayer in Big Eden, put her finger on the film's greatest strength when she observed: "Many of the Gay and Lesbian films are divisive. They (make) the gap between the way (Gay and Straight) people think wider. This film, to me, was bringing that gap together. Three cheers for that!" Indeed!

Three cheers, too, for Thomas Bezucha, a director who challenged conventional ideas about what a Gay film can and should be. Big Eden anticipated the marriage equality era we live in today, and it's as perfect a match for it as Pike Dexter was for Henry Hart. Easily the best Gay film ever made, it deserves a big budget Hollywood remake . . . and just imagine what a fabulous Broadway musical it could be! Hopefully, its considerable entertainment potential will be fully realized someday.

"It will always be around, this movie, and people will discover it. There'll be new people seeing it all the time. It's not gonna get lost! It's one of those films that will become part of the lexicon of film history."

-Louise Fletcher, "Grace Cornwell" from
Big Eden


  1. Thanks so much for this wonderful post on a film about which I never heard. It sounds like a film all people should see.

    As Nan Martin said: ""Many of the Gay and Lesbian films are divisive. They (make) the gap between the way (Gay and Straight) people think wider. This film, to me, was bringing that gap together."

    I think that many of the Gay people who would not like this film because it's not "sexy" or "edgy" enough may well merely equate (like a lot of Straight people unfortunately do) being Gay with Sex.

    As you know, our sexuality is comprised of both emotion and sexual expression, and it may well be that many Gay people who are ghettoized (at least in their own minds) might enjoy the sexual part of being Gay but fall (to one degree or another) short of the emotional bonding that comprises "love" in their own lives that, in turn, makes such a film as "Big Eden," as it is described, uninteresting (or even "counterrevolutionary") to them.

    It's difficult to fully know why this film isn't more popular and widespread, but thanks so much for calling attention to it.

    I imagine a lot of people, like me, haven't heard of it either, and it would be wonderful to see it to understand friendship, bonding, and community engagement in helping fulfill all people in their romantic lives, without anyone pejoratively distinguishing their sexual orientations.

  2. Amiable post and this enter helped me alot in my college assignement. Say thank you you for your information.