Film: Breaking Down Doors

Is Brokeback Mountain the breakthrough for tolerance on the big screen?

Feb 8, 2006 at 2:06 pm
The Weinstein Co

Kevin Zegers (left) and Felicity Huffman star in Transamerica, director Duncan Tucker's road movie about a man on the verge of a sex-change operation.

The Sundance Film Festival was just getting started with its first morning of screenings around Park City, Utah, but the Queer Lounge — a group of interview suites, party rooms and an art deco-inspired meeting area — was already abuzz. Excitement was on tap at the lounge, the Main Street headquarters for Planet Out, the gay film support organization, along with the normal coffee and pastries. The reason to celebrate was Brokeback Mountain's No. 1 box-office ranking just two days earlier.

The awards march for director Ang Lee's epic tale of two cowboys in love continues at full strength with victories at the Golden Globes and the Writer's Guild Awards, and it recently received seven Oscar nominations. Better yet, people continue to line up to see Brokeback Mountain in cities both large and small.

The coffee pot chitchat around the Queer Lounge says this: It's a good day to be gay — or a director or actor starring in a gay film. Tolerance, at least when it comes to choosing a movie, is on the upswing in America despite the efforts of conservative Christians. If Brokeback Mountain can become both a critical and financial hit, then other gay films have a shot at being seen.

The TV crews following actor Chiwetel Ejiofor might not know how to pronounce his name, but they recognize his handsome face thanks to roles in the John Singleton crime drama Four Brothers, the sci-fi action movie Serenity and Spike Lee's She Hate Me. His 2004 role in Dirty Pretty Things, playing a Nigerian illegal immigrant in London, remains a personal high.

Thanks to his starring role in the upcoming Kinky Boots, reporters ask Ejiofor the same thing: "What was it like to wear women's heels?"

Ejiofor does what the snippet of TV time allows — he laughs loudly and replies with a wide grin.

"It was hard, the hardest thing about the part," he says. "But I thought I looked good."

In Kinky Boots, director Julian Jarrold tells the tale of nice guy Charlie Price (Joel Edgeton) who inherits his father's failing shoe factory in Northampton, England. Charlie's inspiration for saving the family business comes in Lola (Ejiofor), a burly London drag queen. Lola needs heels that can support a man's weight, and Charlie commits to changing the factory lineup in order to capitalize on the transvestite market.

Kinky Boots comes to Sundance with the track record of good audiences during its late 2005 release in Britain. Its arrival in America (it's set for an April release) could not be better timed.

Brokeback Mountain has shown many Americans feel it's OK to go to a gay film. If Brokeback wins big at the Oscars, its ever-growing profile is likely to go through the roof.

"What's interesting are the diverse audiences who went and watched Kinky Boots in England," Jarrold says, taking Ejiofor's chair at the Queer Lounge. "It wasn't just young people in the city. It was aunties and grandmas and older couples. It was everyone, and I think that shows that people are opening up to all kinds of stories and characters."

Ejiofor is the face of Kinky Boots, balancing himself on stiletto heels as the cross-dressing Lola. Similar spotlight attention belongs to Felicity Huffman, best known for her role on TV's Desperate Housewives but who stretches in unexpected ways in filmmaker Duncan Tucker's road drama Transamerica.

Playing a man playing a woman offers plenty of chances for unexpected laughter, but Huffman maintains a gruff voice and a nervous demeanor as Stanley, a man on the verge of his long-awaited sex change operation. The core drama of Transamerica occurs around Stanley's cross-country drive with his estranged son (Kevin Zegers). Tucker's hope is that if Stanley and his son can accept each other, then there's hope for tolerance in all pockets of America today.

"I try to show these two characters traveling across the heartland of America," Tucker says. "They meet some people who are accepting and some who are not. But nobody they meet is any more or less bizarre than they are.

"You know, my brother lives in a tiny town in Colorado, and there is a construction worker who's a transgender. He wears dresses and construction boots and goes to the café to drink his coffee, and the people accept him. I think small towns are more accepting. I think fundamentalism rises in the exurbs with their antiseptic malls. The big cities and small towns have a lot of understanding."

Tucker is earnest about what he wants to say with Transamerica. The danger is that message movies often become shrill, allowing people to ignore the message.

What good is a cry for tolerance if the only people listening are the converted? That's where critical acclaim and box-office attention can help.

If Brokeback Mountain and Transamerica can crack open the door at multiplexes, who knows what other movies can sneak into the public eye? There are plenty of coming-soon possibilities.

If Kinky Boots follows in the footsteps of The Full Monty — a tale set in a depressed British factory town — then writer/director Ol Parker pays homage to the London-set comedy Four Weddings and a Funeral with his girl-meets-girl romance Imagine Me & You. (The film is set to open in Cincinnati on Feb. 17.) Piper Perabo and Matthew Goode play a cute couple enjoying their wedding day. But love at first sight pops up in the pretty face of the florist (Lena Headey) who catches the bride's eye.

Imagine Me & You has its share of heartache and soul-searching, but love conquers all in fairytale London with a happy ending between a cute couple.

The huggable Latino drama Quinceañera made Sundance history by winning both the Audience Award and Jury Prize for Dramatic Feature. Co-directed by Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer, it's as diverse as any movie can be.

Mexican families see their Echo Park neighborhood changing through gentrification. Magdelena (Emily Rios) is a young girl celebrating her quinceañera, a girl's 15th birthday. Her rough cousin Carlos (Jesse Garcia) has an affair with their gay landowners. There are plenty of issues scattered throughout Quinceañera, but Westmoreland and Glatzer emphasize the film's good humor and light touch.

Sometimes a director just wants his films to be watched and loved, nothing more.

"Issue movies and political movies are to me not interesting," Tucker says. "They tend to be humorless and not fun to watch. If there is a lesson to Transamerica, it should be invisible and permeate your skin without being aware of it. As a filmmaker I try to keep my love for the characters in the foreground, and let the chips fall where they may." ©