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Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss

Review by Gregory Avery
Posted 2 October 1998

  Written and Directed by Tommy O'Haver.

Starring Sean P. Hayes, Brad Rowe,
Meredith Scott Lynn, Richard Ganoung,
Holly Woodlawn and Paul Bartel.

At the beginning of Tommy O'Haver's enjoyable, good-spirited film, the protagonist, a youngish, gay photographer, is given time to tell us a few things up front (before segueing into the "groovy" title sequence, which, incidentally, it is). He left the small town he grew up in, in Indiana, because he was homosexual and everything else was straight, straight, straight, and decamped to Los Angeles, where there is a bit more variety. That, once there, he found himself to be a "romantic", and not the type to avail himself of leaping from one bed to the next, and that he has set his sights accordingly. And that the straight people in the audience -- apparently, from the filmmaker's point of view, a majority -- are given a list of what to expect from the remainder of the film: a tongue in the ear, some casual banter, but nothing that's going to send straights racing for the exits. (Or, in other words, none of the exuberant, Rabelaisian qualities of Gregg Araki's The Living End.)

Thus prepared, we sit back -- straight, gay, or pansexual -- to observe the story of Billy (Sean P. Hayes), who is just exiting a relationship, as he first spots Gabriel (Brad Rowe), pouring coffee at the cafe where Billy is meeting with his friend Georgiana (Meredith Scott Lynn), who's having man troubles of her own. When Billy and Gabriel meet again, by chance, and seem to agree with each other, the inevitable questions begin to kick in with Billy: What's the probability factor? How carefully should he move? What if Gabriel responds to a suggestion? Could they maintain a guy/guy relationship while moving into a more serious one, and could they do the same if they can't have a more serious one? The film convincingly depicts a situation where one man seems unsure about whether to try a romantic situation of this type, but seems not entirely averse to it, while the other is not experienced enough to simply say, okay, let's try it, and if it works, fine, if not, that's fine, too. In the meantime, the chemistry between Billy and Gabriel becomes increasingly palpable, enough to make one want to see them make a go of it simply because they seem to get along well in every other aspect, something that's very difficult to find in any sort of relationship.

One thing the film reaffirms is that we've moved from the phase of it's-okay-to-be-gay movies of the Eighties to ones in the Nineties, such as Grief and Kiss Me, Guido, which address aspects of relationships that are universal, from the awkwardness of introductions, to waking up in the morning alone and the yearning for permanent bonding. Dropping the acceptance baggage at the stoop, films such as this are able to include scenes such as one where Hayes and Rowe, in formal wear, execute a charming dance duet in the style of the Thirties R.K.O. musicals, or for a drag queen to perform to Petula Clark's recording of "Happy Heart" while champagne bubbles waft across the stage.

O'Haver has made the film both in Panavision and created a production that uses the limited means at his disposal to maximum advantage. But the material seems like it could have been worked on a little more. We learn very little about Gabriel, who, in the form of Rowe, has an attractive square-jawed face, bit of the Rob Lowe squint to his eyes (but without the narcissism that Lowe projected in his Eighties starring roles), and a self-effacing way of moving himself. Other than that, his character is a musician, he plays with a band named "Cornhole" (which, while not stated in the film, is a euphemism for a sex act, let alone a surprising moniker for a, presumably, heterosexual band), and that he has a girlfriend (who is never seen in the film). Billy has Gabriel appear in the first of a series of photographs for which he has gotten backing to do, and which will depict famous screen kisses in Hollywood films. The first is Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster's famous encounter on the beach in From Here to Eternity.

One would expect that we would see the development of Billy's photo series while the situation between him and Gabriel works itself out, but, instead, the story takes a complete turn by introducing a famous ad photographer, who, as played by Paul Bartel, is a wicked parody of Bruce Weber, who is famous, and notorious, for almost exclusively photographing fabulously fit, young men in various states of undress. (See also Weber's book "Bear Lake".) The predatory roue in the film woos Gabriel away to model for him, thus instigating a whole roundelay where Billy worries and starts checking-up to see if Gabriel has been poached by another man. In fact, the film is very ambiguous about why Gabriel and Billy do not end up pairing together. We don't see very much of Billy's "Hollywood Screen Kiss" project, nor do we see the "Hollywood screen kiss" the title would lead us to expect. (There is a kiss, though, but from another source.)

What the film does have is the indication of some promising directorial talent, many individual moments that are very funny. (And the best comic line I've heard this year: Georgiana's boyfriend walks out of a showing of From Here to Eternity and comments, "Ernest Borgnine was very good, but the dialogue was a little pretentious.") And a funny, fully-realized performance from Sean P. Hayes. Hayes has a triangular face, with a prominent nose and eyebrows that seem to shoot right over his eyes and below his forehead. His looks are quirky and appealing without being clownish or eccentric, and he has a sarcastic but even-mannered way that doesn't strike one the wrong way. In fact, it's one of the main reasons why the film maintains interest and spirit, even though other aspects about it dissemble in your mind, afterwards. Billy could be just as problematic to live with in some ways as anyone else, but, like many other eternal hunters in stories and films past and present, we see no reason why he shouldn't be entitled to finally find love.

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