The first time I ever ventured to Awards Daily was back in 2000, so long ago it wasn’t even Awards Daily, it was Oscarwatch. It was winter… October I think. I had finished an acting gig in Omaha, Nebraska and found myself broke, emotionally starving and physically stuck.
Here I was, a young queer actor from Mississippi living in Nebraska, dreaming of New York City, while working as a dispatcher at a copy machine repair factory with no way out in sight. So I did what I often still do when I’m lost — I went to the cinema.
There was an awesome independent theater near my house, and it was playing “Billy Elliot,” the story of a coal miner’s son whose life changes forever when he stumbles upon a ballet class and becomes a dancer. It was directed by Stephen Daldry and starred Jamie Bell and Julie Walters. I found myself completely and immediately obsessed with this movie. If this kid could achieve his dreams despite the odds against him, surely I could do the same. I found myself back at the theater any chance I got. I think I saw the film at least 4 times, maybe more. I bought press kits on eBay. I bought and listened to the soundtrack on repeat. I even started going to dance classes. But I needed more.
I think it all started when I searched “Billy Elliot Oscars” and found exactly what I was looking for with Oscarwatch and Sasha Stone. I immediately engaged in the comments section, something I rarely do today. It was so much fun. I visited the site all day, every day. Oscarwatch was my escape.
Another reason I was feeling lost in Omaha was the fact that one of the other actors on the tour, Brett, had also stayed around for a few months. He became my first gay best friend, my touchstone. Unlike me, Brett was able to pull it together and move to the big city.
Brett was the first person to really introduce me to queer cinema. I had already seen Greg Araki’s wild road trip fantasy, “The Living End,” which led me to “Doom Generation,” but as much as I loved both, those solo viewings couldn’t compare to watching Todd Stephens’s, “Edge of Seventeen” or “Beautiful Thing” with my new best friend.
“Beautiful Thing” changed me. I can’t tell you how many times I rewatched the scene where Jamie and Ste kiss in the woods on their first real date, all to the tune of “Make Your Own Kind of Music” by the Mamas and the Papas. This was what I wanted, and I wanted it, and I realized I wanted it with Brett. The feeling was not mutual.
I did eventually move out to NYC myself, and continued to watch Queer cinema with Brett, until we didn’t. Our friendship was a casualty of bad choices. Things were very difficult for me during those last years in NYC, and movies were my getaway. “Shelter,” “Mysterious Skin,” “Latter Days,” these were the gay films that helped me through those times.
There have been so many wonderful queer films in 2017. Narrowing the list to Oscar contenders alone we have “A Fantastic Woman,” “Call Me By Your Name,” and “Strong Island” as well as LGBTQ characters such as Giles (Richard Jenkins) in “The Shape of Water” and Elio Perlman (Timothee Chalamet) in “Call Me By Your Name.”
This year’s Oscar nominees include so many of our finest LGBTQ artists: Benj Pasek, Dee Rees, James Ivory, Rachel Morrison, Yance Ford. And then there are the filmmakers/films that didn’t make the cut, such as Todd Haynes (“Wonderstruck”), “Battle of the Sexes,” “Beach Rats,” “Small Talk,” and many, many more.
Watching Daniela Vega as Marina in Sebastian Lelio’s “A Fantastic Woman” was groundbreaking in so many ways. The casting alone is somewhat of a revelation, one that needs to be repeated more often in the United States. With “God’s Own Country” we get to see (spoiler alert) an unusual thing when it comes to LGBTQ cinema, an altogether happy ending. And even more unusual, with the incredible 120 BPM (Beats Per Minute) we get to witness out actors playing gay. Perhaps that’s why the sex scene in the film has a level of honesty I haven’t witnessed before. Even if some films (“Weekend” comes to mind) come close.
This year, I’ve been thinking a lot about that winter in Omaha, and my many, many viewings of “Billy Elliot.” It’s not often I become obsessed with a movie like that, but when it happens, it happens big. It happened with “Black Swan” and came close with “La La Land.” This year, it happened as big as ever with “Call Me By Your Name.”
As I found myself in the theater for the 4th time (this seems to be the magic number) I began to wonder why. Why this film? It’s not the first time I’ve seen a gay coming of age story. And I’m not alone. On my second viewing I took my straight friend Amy, and I swear she was more obsessed than me! Even my straight friend Mitch told me it was one of the best films he had ever seen, crying at the end of the peach scene! Luckily I had the opportunity to get some help answering these questions from producer Peter Spears and Elio himself, Timothee Chalamet.
When I posed the question to Peter he told me how just that morning he had been introduced to a straight woman in her 70s who passionately loved the film. She said “how perfectly it captured the crush and confusion — the onslaught of first love, the panoply of different feelings one has.”
Timothee said that the answer lies in the audience member.
“I’ve heard it many different ways. Almost omnipresently is this idea that love is love is love and that self-acceptance as it relates to love is important to life but also self-acceptance that results from dating, heartbreak or a relationship that ended too quickly. For some people it’s a Northern Italy movie or a countryside movie, or for Christopher Nolan, it was an ode to the 80s, so I’ve heard it many different ways.”
I can relate to both the 70-year-old straight woman and to Christopher Nolan, but when I think about that very first viewing the hook was Elio’s obsession, that absolute desire for Oliver. When I first watched Elio put Oliver’s trunks over his head and get “into position,” I almost gasped with recognition and understanding.
I had of course heard about the peach scene, but I wasn’t prepared for what came next. When Oliver walks in and discovers what Elio has done Elio says “I’m sick,” followed by Oliver’s “I wish everyone was as sick as you.” That spoke to something deep inside of me.
This level of queer expression, even after all these years was altogether new to me. This was what it felt like to grow up gay, obsessing about something I couldn’t have, until I got it… only to lose it again.
“In lots of ways too, this movie is really kind of love letter to everyone for whom the closet stole the beauty and excitement and magic of first love,” said Spears. “We didn’t have that. We didn’t get to fall in love with that guy and have that summer. We all had first love but it was often secretive and if anyone found out, they were dangerous to our well being or our family dynamic… culturally. This is the love affair I always wanted to have but didn’t have.”
One night in college I met a guy named Andy who was in from out of town. We ended up crashing on the living room floor of one of our friends after a party. I was afraid to go back to my apartment, afraid I would miss something. He was so cute, and we talked for hours and hours, finally falling asleep, hands just touching. It was so innocent and romantic. The next morning I had to go to class but couldn’t wait to rush back and see him. When I got to my friend’s house I discovered him gone. When he returned my fantasy was quickly shattered. Andy had gone to another friend of mine’s apartment and slept with him. Thinking on Peter’s words… I realized he was right. When I remember that weekend, I conveniently seem to forget that last bit, the heavy heart filled with pain.
A few nights ago I decided to watch “Call Me By Your Name” with these thoughts in mind. Was it not the beautiful romance I thought it was? I believe full heartedly that once Oliver makes the decision to surrender to his desires, he is all in. They indeed fall in love, but those early signs of rejection are truly a warning of what’s to come. We as an audience forget as the romance carries us away.
I asked Timothee about the scene near the end of the film when Elio and Oliver, drunk on the street stumble upon a trio listening to “Love My Way,” sung by the Psychedelic Furs, the same song which plays earlier in the film when Elio watches Oliver dance with Chiara after having kissed her. On my first viewing I knew in that moment that Oliver was going to leave Elio, not just for the summer, but possibly forever.
I asked Timothee if he, as Elio, had felt the same way watching Oliver dance, yet again with someone else.
“What was your process in that moment, other than playing drunk,” I asked with a bit of a laugh.
“I love that question, especially the throw up bit… actually what’s going on in my head there… playing throwing up can be funny because you have it in your mouth already, a collection of goo. Half of the thought process is relating to that.”
Timothee and I both laugh a bit at this, but then he gets a bit more serious.
“I really like that you bring that up, because I think it’s a moment of confusion. I think where the insecurity as it relates to Oliver elsewhere in the script is because Elio hasn’t found that place of security and groundedness in his desire in his relationship to Oliver. At that point in the movie it’s been firmly established. So I think, you know — you see Elio go and sit down and he gets it. Oliver is just having a good moment and dancing and drunk, and he is just enjoying the moment.”
Timothee takes a quick breath and really stresses the next two words.
“And yet… like I’m glad you point that out — that feeling you had in the first screening — because Elio is also drunk, and there is that prime instinct that even though the love couldn’t have been expressed more clearly between both of them, seeing him go dance with someone else makes him feel the jealousy that we all have…”
After the scene on the street, Oliver and Elio return to their hotel. While Elio is sleeping, Oliver stares out the window, knowing that time is finally up. Oliver goes over to the bed and watches Elio, who dreams in hypercolor of a life they might have had.
In this moment we finally have the opportunity to see the real Oliver. Armie Hammer is brilliant in this moment because we, at last are able to see how much he truly loves Elio, but also how much that love pains him. Which is exactly why he can’t be with him.
It’s a moment of heartbreak, and heartbreak I know. Which takes me back to something Peter said,
“For me this book felt like a revelation There really was no villain here… other than just the villain of heartbreak.”
In the final scene of the film we watch Elio process everything we have just seen before our eyes, lit by the fire in one long take set to Sufjan Stevens’s “Visions of Gideon.” The through-line of that moment is certainly the heartbreak Peter was talking about. But there is so much more. Heartbreak and love. Desire and pain. Even hope.
Oliver says in the scene before, “I remember everything.” So does Elio. And so do we.