The Sons of Tennessee Williams

Reviewer: James van Maanen
Ratings (out of five): ** (round up 1/2 if you're keen on the subject)

Watching the extremely retro documentary The Sons of Tennessee Williams, directed, edited, written and produced by Tim Wolff, it's hard not to wonder at the rather shockingly old-fashioned attitudes, interests, and behavior of the gay denizens of New Orleans and its environs, as they reminisce and ready themselves for a relatively recent Mardi Gras ball.

Granted, this is all about Mardi Gras, a time when letting loose and having fun is evidently paramount. (I have never been to Mardi Gras or to carnival in Rio, so I can't claim to understand what all the fuss is about.) Still, Mr. Wolff's concentration on dressing up in drag as the be-all and end-all of gay liberation seems a bit much. While the press materials hails this as a history of the earliest civil right movement for gays in the U.S.A. -- and time-wise this indeed appears to be true -- the interests of the men shown here seem to begin and end with dressing up in drag and getting away with it. This is certainly a part of gay liberation, for some, but making a whole movie around it is a tad circumscribed, no?

Still, within this framework, there is some interesting history and a little fun to be found. The older generation viewing the movie will learn once again (and the younger crowd perhaps for the first time) how closeted and fearful the lives of homosexuals were during the mid-20th Century. The movie keeps moving back and forth between then and now, and some of the archival footage is worth seeing.

 sons-of-tennessee-williams

We learned of one, Fernando Rios, murdered by a trio of gay bashers in 1959 -- who got off scot-free. (Those were the days! When something similar happened here in Jackson Heights in the 1990s, prison for at least one of the killers was in the cards.) In the early period of these state-chartered, public "drag balls" (begun a decade before the Stonewall uprising), the application of make-up for royalty (the king and queen, I mean) was done by a fellow who ran the local funeral parlor.  It wasn't the best make-up job, one fellow recalls, perhaps because the guy doing it wasn't used to having live people -- who actually moved now and then -- as his subjects.

Even the movie's title seems a bit of a stretch. Unless I missed it, there is no reference to playwright Williams in the film, though there is a mention toward the conclusion of Blanche DuBois. Other than a smattering of info about the police raids on gays, the coming of AIDS and its destruction, and a bit about Hurricane Katrina's effect on the balls, almost all of the talk and anecdotes center around the costumes (indeed, some of these are original and amazing. My personal favorite: The New York Cheese Cake!) and make-up -- though one fellow does reminisce about New Orleans D.A. and politician Harry Connick, who he explains was the first to actively court the gay vote (and actually made good on his promises to the gay community).

All in all, the movie should appeal most to gays whose interests tend toward drag (and its history in the southern U.S.).

This DVD from First Run Features comes with bonus footage, costume photos, and deleted scenes.

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