Hooray for Hollywood
O'Haver's Tasty "Trifle" Skips Most Queer-Cinema Clichés
It's an easy, glib, and incomplete comparison, but in a sense, writer/director Tommy O'Haver appears to be sort of the gay Woody Allen. His feature debut, Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss, has echoes of the Woodster (especially Allen's late-70s Annie Hall/Manhattan period--i.e., the good stuff, when he made sexual neurosis seem romantic instead of merely neurotic). Without much of a stretch, you can imagine Billy's title character, an unlucky-in-love L.A. art photographer, being played by Allen (or a younger stand-in--say, John Cusack) instead of the droll, puppyish Sean P. Hayes. You can imagine Tony Roberts playing Billy's roommate/best pal George (if George weren't short for Georgiana, and the character weren't played by Meredith Scott Lynn). And the object of Billy's affection, a beautiful but remote musician/model, could be Diane Keaton or Mariel Hemingway or Barbara Hershey or any of the increasingly younger leading ladies in the Allen rep company if he weren't being played by Brad Pitt look-alike Brad Rowe.
Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, is more cinematically surefooted than most products of the indie queer-cinema movement and less pleadingly bland than most gay-themed studio efforts. Along with all of his witty charm, Billy has sharp edges and a healthy libido--he's not a cipher/eunuch like so many gay film protagonists in the '90s. He's obsessed with old Hollywood movies, and the romance and physical perfection they celebrate.
Screen Kiss follows Billy as he puts together a photo series re-creating famous movie love scenes. When he finds Gabriel (Rowe) at a party, he persuades him to play the leading man in the pictures, then begins the harder work of wooing him. The maddening mixed signals Gabriel gives off--he has "a girlfriend in San Francisco" he never wants to talk about--set up the story's suspense.
Just as Allen once envisioned Humphrey Bogart's ghost offering dating tips and Diane Keaton as Snow White's animated, wicked stepmother, O'Haver has fun with his hero's cinephilia--in the first blush of attraction, Billy envisions himself and Gabriel subbing for Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity's famous surf scene, and when Billy endures a setback, we see his disembodied, shrieking head in a Dali-esque nightmare sequence, à la Vertigo. But for all of its will-they-or-won't-they? sex games, Screen Kiss is really about illusion--the kind films thrive on, the kind Billy makes in his work, the kind that fuels romantic fantasies and couplings. Movies are love and love is the movies. When Billy tells his mentor Perry (Richard Ganoung) about his longing for Gabriel, Perry tells Billy he's projecting.
O'Haver humbly bills his film as "A Tommy O'Haver Trifle," and while Screen Kiss is appealingly light, it succeeds where more "serious" gay-themed films haven't in making its hero's concerns accessible to a wide audience. Through a series of flashbacks (told through narration and Polaroids--Billy's quirky photographic medium of choice), we learn Billy's history regarding straight boys and unrequited desire. Thus when he finally winds up sharing a bed one night with Gabriel--who may or may not be interested in doing more than sleeping--the resulting scene is comic, sweet, anxious, and moving.
Screen Kiss doesn't entirely escape the tiresome clichés of '90s queer cinema: the predatory, older, alcoholic gay man (Eating Raoul's Paul Bartel does the, um, honors here); the dependence on drag queens for comic relief and filler musical numbers; the cartoonish, clueless boorishness of straight boys (though Carmine Giovinazzo does have some rudely funny moments as George's LSD-swacked swain). But it's a promising debut, and it heralds a bright future. Perhaps years from now, when O'Haver has produced a whole batch of "Trifles," Screen Kiss will be considered one of his "early, funny" ones. Keep this guy away from the Ingmar Bergman films and the teenyboppers, and he'll be fine.