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Articles

Jamie Babbit and The Quiet
By Michael Guillén
August 25, 2006 - 5:22 AM PDT


"Sexism is at play, homophobia is at play, racism is at play."

I've read elsewhere that you discount that The Quiet has a lesbian subtext, that it's more about feminine empowerment. And yet Katy Mixon - who delivers a powerhouse performance as Elisha's best friend Michelle - strikes me as a closeted lesbian who I thought was going to pounce on Nina during their overnight bedroom scene. Am I correct in that perception?

[Laughing.] Absolutely. Absolutely.

Just checking my gaydar. You've also stated that you're interested in ideas of constructed gender where everything is hypermasculine and hyperfeminine. You've done for the cheerleader what Ang Lee's done for the cowboy. Are you interested in recontextualizing any other "hyperfeminine" archetypes besides the cheerleader?

Wow, that's interesting. Someone asked me about the cheerleader icon today and I did say that I kind of feel that the feminists in the early days were all about burning your bras and burning your Barbie dolls and the new feminists are all about incorporating the Barbie doll into a feminist context. I would love to do something about Barbies, for sure. I would love to do something - I was actually pitching a music video recently that had to do with a new way of looking at Barbie dolls. There's a lot of those feminine archetypes out there that I'm interested in.

You've noted that the film business environment in general is more open to being out at work, that there's a proliferation of lesbian presence and input behind the scenes, but that in front of the camera, it's still like the 1950s. Why do you think lesbian visibility - in contrast to lesbian production - is still such a sticky wicket?

Y'know, I don't know. I really think a lot of it actually sadly comes from publicists, agents and managers and a lot of them are gay, which is even more ironic. I would love to actually do a documentary - I hope I'll do it soon - where I interview lesbian managers and agents and publicists and talk to them about their views and how they protect their clients because it is such an interesting phenomenon that happens. I went to this really amazing speech that Ian McKellen gave once to a queer industry audience. It was so great because he lambasted the audience and said, "You guys are agents and managers out there and you've all told me a million times to stay in the closet and I didn't listen to any of you and it hasn't hurt my career at all. You guys have got to get with the program. This is ridiculous." It was so great to hear someone like Ian McKellen tell it straight. He's just the best.

He's an articulate champion.

He really is. Just a political and humanitarian champion. It's something I would love to explore because I'm out, I always encourage my acting friends to come out, they never do. [Laughter] I swear to God it's their evil agents and managers. Because actors are very insecure people. I think intrinsically directors tend to be more confident people who got where they are because they had to say to hell with everyone. Intrinsically, actors - because they're so good at accessing their emotions, which is a very abnormal human thing to do - to be able to cry in front of 200 people that you don't know at all. It's an amazing gift that they have, but I think they're very sensitive people and I think they're preyed on by their agents and managers to closet themselves.

I wasn't expecting that answer at all, so I find that interesting. Recently, at Frameline's Persistent Vision conference, you sat with your friends Angela Robinson and Guinevere Turner on a panel entitled "We Want Our Dykeback Mountain" (MP3). Obviously, you believe there's a lack of parity between gay male and lesbian cinematic representation; were any solutions proposed at that panel? Did any insights come out of that discussion?

So much about Brokeback Mountain was really the leadership of Focus and of Ang Lee and his friend James Schamus, who runs Focus. Although Focus is a studio, it was really the friendship of these two men that were able to bring a story like Brokeback Mountain into the public realm. Not only did they have the power to write and direct the movie, they're also super-talented. Also, James Schamus is the head of Focus so he was able to publicize it in a way that did it justice. He didn't believe all the gay marketers who said a gay movie can only make $2 million, don't even bother going wide. They made over $100 million with that movie because they marketed it like a regular movie. So it took leadership. They're both straight men and they had the guts to do that. There's a lot of gay people in leadership positions in Hollywood and they don't have the guts to do it. It really just takes someone with guts, and I feel like it's going to happen but, unfortunately, I think sexism is at play, homophobia is at play, racism is at play, all those things.

A movie's millions and millions of dollars. It's a big risk for a company, and people are afraid, and you need leadership. I'm hoping one of these days someone - whether male or female, gay or straight - has the leadership to push a big lesbian movie through. I think it could be as successful as Brokeback Mountain if it were good. Brokeback has proven that the public's ready for it. I think if there's a good lesbian movie out there, and it's marketed in the great way that Brokeback was, and it wins awards and all that, that it could really do well.

You've described yourself as a younger-generation lesbian who can make fun of the queer community and that, in fact, it's a sign of progress when a community can laugh at itself. In the critical wake of Cheerleader, you expressed disappointment in several older gay men, some who were reviewers, who you felt couldn't appreciate your film because they were too sensitive to the issues you were satirizing. Care to name any names? [One beat. Two beat.] You don't have to, I'm just teasing.

People can go and Google.

I've chafed against that characterization because I'm an older gay male reviewer and I want to think I keep an open mind to the narrative themes and concerns of our queer youth.

Right.

Was it just the critical reaction to that particular project that made you feel that? Or do you still feel this is a problem? Kind of like the managers that you're talking about with actors, are some gay reviewers not doing the right thing?

I don't know. It's always hard to know. I was actually talking to Amy Sherman-Palladino recently, who is the writer/creator of Gilmore Girls, and she said, "We've never gotten an Emmy nomination and I've gotten so many amazing critical reviews." I said, "What I really think it is, is that you're a woman and the TV series is about these two women, and I really think it's sexism at play. I don't think you're taken as seriously as other shows because it's a female show."

When you start noticing sexism, racism and homophobia, it's hard to stop noticing it. It's a curse in some ways, because everything's loaded. But I do think it's true. I think it's systemic. On every level, there are these biases. But I also think there are a lot of older gay men who loved Cheerleader. There are a lot of older gay men who hated Cheerleader, not because of the politics of it, but just because they didn't like it, or they didn't think it was funny, which is totally valid.

So we don't all have to be put out to pasture?

[Laughing.] Absolutely not!

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Index
"I wanted to do something that was a little darker."
"Sexism is at play, homophobia is at play, racism is at play."

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Michael Guillén
A film critic and journalist whose interests include Mayan culture and Jungian psychology, Michael Guillén blogs at The Evening Class. He is a contributing writer to Entertainment Today, the Canadian film site Twitch and the Austrian magazine Ray.

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