Leading Ladies

I first saw Leading Ladies a little over a year ago, when it screened as part of the 2010 lineup of New York City’s LGBT film festival, Newfest.  Enamored with the film, I interviewed one half of its directing team, Erika Randall Beahm (who co-directed the film with her husband, Daniel Beahm) for a piece originally featured in the now disbanded and archived online feminist collective, Elevate Difference (formerly Feminist Review).*  Leading Ladies continues its festival circuit, appearing next at the Austin Gay & Lesbian International Film Festival on September 9th, and is now available on DVD.

It may seem quite an impossibility, but the film Leading Ladies is, simply put, a quietly revolutionary dance musical. While most dance musicals (think Dirty Dancing, Save the Last Dance) center on the boy-meets-girl heterosexual love match, Leading Ladies is a beautifully wrought girl-meets-girl story. It is simultaneously a dance musical, coming-of-age story, and coming-out narrative. The power of the film comes from its ability to maintain the generic conventions of the story while completely rejecting the hetero-normativity that is typically the narrative thrust of the genre. What’s perhaps even more amazing is that Leading Ladies succeeds at thwarting convention within a conventional structure while simultaneously being a whole lot of damn fun. Lesser films would sink under such weight.

Helmed by first-time directors Erika Randall Beahm and Daniel Beahm, this joyous film tells the story of the Campari women. The matriarch of the family is ballroom-dancing stage mom Sheri, played by Latin and Ballroom Champion Melanie LaPatin. Sheri has two daughters: like-minded drama queen and dancing champion Tasi (Shannon Lea Smith), and Toni (Laurel Vail), Tasi’s practice partner and the wallflower of the family. The film centers on Toni’s relationships, particularly with the emotionally volatile Tasi, and an unexpected romantic attachment to Mona (Nicole Dionne), a bubbly and outgoing woman Toni meets at a dance club. While LaPatin’s acting is a bit stiff, Smith’s neurotic and self-obsessed Tasi is played to high-pitched perfection. Vail might be the real star of this film, however, as she says more with her eyes than many actors can express with a word. She artfully plays the Ugly Duckling, the quiet witness to familial squabbles and the glue that keeps the Camparis together.

Leading Ladies has an ebb-and-flow, alternating between slow and quietly stirring scenes and vibrant, fast-paced dance numbers (most notably a hysterical and boisterous number set in a grocery store). The heart of this film beats loudly and quickly, and it leaves the viewer invigorated and deeply moved. To learn more about her hopes for the film, its generative process, and the ideological concerns that lead to its creation, I recently spoke with co-director Erika Randall Beahm.

Beahm co-wrote the film with Jennifer Bechtel, a friend and LGBT youth advocate in Champaign, Illinois, and Bechtel was struggling to find mainstream films that spoke to the young gay community. As Bechtel and Beahm perceived it, most gay and lesbian cinema tends towards violence or explicitness, while mainstream cinema features gay characters as “the sidekick.” Beahm and Bechtel thus sought to create a “family-centered gay and lesbian film for the mainstream market.” Their hope is that Leading Ladies provides gay youth with a positive portrayal of gay romantic love and thus “open a dialogue within themselves” and perhaps between gay youth and their families.

The film eschews aggressive and explicit representations of gay love for a romantic and “joyful falling in love which… straight kids get to experience in movies all the time.” Indeed, Leading Ladies treats its same-sex couple as any movie musicals’ heterosexual pairing: they meet, they dance, they fall in love. The romance is beautifully articulated through an artful juxtaposition of two dance sequences. Toni and Mona’s meeting is shot like a typical dance movie sequence—bright lights, loud music, and overhead shots looking down on the dancers. This film could be Dirty Dancing, if it weren’t for the same-sex couples dancing on stage and in the audience. Indeed, this is the goal of the film: to illustrate that dance (and by extension, romance and love) is the same for same-sex couples as it is for heterosexual partners. Toni leads Mona through a raucous, enthusiastic dance, and as convention dictates, the two find love while dancing. In a beautiful inversion of this sequence, we next find Toni in Mona’s lush apartment, where the more romantically experienced Mona takes the lead in the dance of romance. The lovers’ embrace is gorgeously shot in sensual blush tones and shadow.

For choreographer and dancer Beahm and youth musical programmer Bechtel, dance served as an obvious choice of backdrop for the love story. Beahm choreographed the film’s dances with Melanie LaPatin and Benji Schwimmer, the former So You Think You Can Dance! winner who also plays Toni’s best friend in the film. For Beahm, dance has an inherently transformative power: “There’s this kind of kinesthesia with dance that gets people to literally be moved on a physical level, and I believe also on an emotional and intellectual level.” The love scene between Mona and Toni, for example, is highly choreographed to match the non-diegetic music; Beahm suggests that this emphasis on “energy shifts… and the musicality” of the scene helps the spectator “lose sight of this being a gendered duet, and it just becomes two people moving together, falling in love.”

By emphasizing the movement and musicality of the scene, then, Beahm hopes to ease the fear of spectators who are uncomfortable with same-sex coupling and perhaps open a space for internal dialogue within the spectator: “For people who might have a hard time seeing two women… make out, it becomes this kind of transference of two bodies going through these really emotional and tender but also choreographed spaces, and so gender becomes less important.” By shifting the spectator’s focus from gender distinction to the movement of the body the film illustrates how little gender matters and how love—like dance—is a universal language. Thus the film utilizes dance to open up a space for shifting “people out of the fear they may feel if they’re watching from an outside perspective.”

Though the idea of dance as a catalyst to ideological and personal transformation may seem unusual, Beahm is quick to point out that dance has often added a “queer element” to the movie musical. In West Side Story, for example, the spectator sees groups of men “snapping and skipping” and yet the dance isn’t “sexualized, it’s charged and it’s activated.” Dancing is particularly subversive in moments of unison dancing, she suggests, when members of both sexes dance the same movements, suggesting a unity of the sexes and the democratization of the body. Leading Ladies takes this democratization one step further, rejecting the hetero-normative ballroom dance structure of male lead and female follow and replacing it with same-sex couplings. In doing so, Beahm simultaneously feeds off of the democratizing nature of dance while rejecting the rules of a dance form that reinforces gendered performance.

It is the inherent queerness in dance that Beahm finds so appealing and in tune with her views on feminism. For her, dance and feminism are “compatible” because they are both “hard to pin down” terms; their “slipperiness” as terms allows them to create spaces for dialogue and questioning. She likes her feminism to work “from the inside out,” enjoying the notion of becoming part of a system, and breaking it down from within. This is why her personal mantra is the cheeky suggestion to “wear pearls to the country club and then talk dirty.” Ultimately, Leading Ladies represents a filmic expression of this mantra—by placing non-conventional characters within a conventional generic structure, the film wears its pearls but then lets out a glorious, enthusiastic expletive as it sits down to dinner. Swearing has never been so much fun.

* My thanks to the editorial collective, particularly Mandy Van Deven, for allowing me to re-post this review, and for providing a space for constructive and instructive discussions of difference.

Katharine Hepburn and the Perils of Historiography

The following post is a re-working of a paper written for a Masters class at New York University.  The original work was a historiographical analysis of The Philadelphia Story, the 1940 film directed by George Cukor, based on the play by Phillip Barry.  As I culled through publicity stills, newspaper articles, and internet forums for any mention of The Philadelphia Story I soon discovered that the history of the film is largely constructed around the personal narrative of its female star, Katharine Hepburn.  In particular, the film is situated historically as Hepburn’s comeback from a supposed string of box-office failures.  The rhetoric of her return to stardom is present in newspaper articles at the time of the film’s release, and continues in contemporary film histories, biographies, and DVD reviews. My research, however, found that this narrative arc has rather dubious beginnings, and ultimately, illustrates the inherent problems of historicization.

The historical arc begins in 1938, the year Hepburn is seen onscreen with Cary Grant in both Bringing Up Baby (dir. Howard Hawks) and Holiday (dir. George Cukor).  Though both films will eventually be considered classics–the former as an exemplar of screwball comedy, and the latter an Oscar-nominated romantic comedy–they are poorly received by both critics and audiences. This same year the Independent Film Journal and other trade papers publish a now infamous letter written by Harry Brandt on behalf of the National Theatre Distributors of America.  Brandt’s letter provides a list of actors and actresses he considers “box-office poison,” and Hepburn tops the list (which also included the likes of Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford.) Historians and biographers alike are quick to slice this juicy insult from Brandt’s letter and use it to structure Hepburn’s life story as a monomyth.  They do not provide context for this quote, however, and thus mislead readers.

In his letter Brandt actually praises the listed actors “whose dramatic ability is unquestioned but whose box-office draw is nil,” and criticizes instead the studios writing their paychecks. He implores: Wake up Hollywood producers! Practically all of the major studios are burdened with stars – whose public appeal is negligible – receiving tremendous salaries necessitated by contractual obligations.” The large salaries of stars like Hepburn, Greta Garbo, and Joan Crawford, the letter suggests, force studios “to put these box office deterrents in expensive pictures in the hope that some return on the investment might be had.”   Studios are paying large sums to sign stars to multiple-picture contracts; if a star’s film didn’t appeal to audiences it could mean a big financial hit for individual theater owners, whose high purchase prices help the studios recoup losses.  He likely finds the cost of studio films prohibitive, especially since films at this time often are sold to exhibitors in bundles; as an independent theater owner Brandt is paying top dollar for bundles that included films with expensive stars in “prestige” films that presumably bring less returns than a standard Western or comedy.

It’s hard to say what real effect–if any–Brandt’s letter has on the film business or the stars he criticized.  The rest of the year proves hard for Hepburn, who terminates her contract with RKO after they offer her a role in Mother Carey’s Chickens.  Hepburn trades acting in front of the camera for acting on the stage, joining forces with playwright Phillip Barry to star in his new play “The Philadelphia Story”.  The pair know each other from their work together on Hepburn’s hit Holiday.  She purchases the rights to “The Philadelphia Story”, reportedly to ensure her place in any potential film adaptations.  Despite the “box-office poison” label of the previous year, the promise of a Hepburn stage production is met rather enthusiastically by the press.  On March 28, 1939, “The Philadelphia Story” opens at the Shubert Theatre in New York City.  The play is so successful that it tours until Hepburn leaves to work on the film adaptation (reports suggest that Hepburn receives offers from studios within days of the play’s opening.)  She sells the rights to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, with a guaranteed starring role, as well as her choice of director and costars.  For “box-office poison,” Hepburn is certainly receiving the star treatment.

The Philadelphia Story is immediately branded Hepburn’s comeback to screen stardom.  In fact, it is considered this even before the films’ successful theatrical run; while The Philadelphia Story is still in production a feature in The Christian Science Monitor suggests that Hepburn is “Back in Hollywood making [the play] into a picture, with a supporting cast which includes Cary Grant, James Stewart, and some others who are not ordinarily put into pictures thought likely to be ‘poison at the box office.'”  Another article–this one a full-page feature in Ed Sullivan’s “Chicago Daily Tribune” column, refers to her as “The Girl Who Proved Studios Wrong” before the film is even shot.

The Philadelphia Story is released on Christmas Day 1940.  It breaks box office records with successful runs throughout the United States, including a record six week run at Radio City Music Hall.  In fact, the screenings cease only because Radio City is “faced with a schedule of ten films awaiting exhibition.”  The Philadelphia Story is also a critical darling, with one reviewer calling Hepburn’s turn as Tracy Lord “her champion achievement.”  Costar James Stewart and screenwriter David Ogden Stewart go on to earn Academy Awards for their efforts, while Hepburn, costar Ruth Hussey, director Cukor, and producer Joseph L. Mankiewicz also receive nominations.

While reviews of Hepburn’s performance are largely positive, they are also rife with the rhetoric of previous failures, comebacks, and returns to glory. An article that appears in The Washington Post provides a stunning example: “Stigmatized only a few short months ago by a premature oracle of the celluloids as one of the stars who was ‘poison at the boxoffice,’ Miss Hepburn arises now in all her might to confound her critics.”  This article highlights one of the most interesting aspects of the comeback plot line–it implies an active wilfulness on the part of Hepburn to disprove Brandt’s statement.  Interviews with Hepburn indicate, however, that she doesn’t believe in Brandt’s assessment: “I truly believed that everybody still adored me, that it was nothing but bad material that had made me ‘box-office poison.'”  Fascinatingly, only six days after the release of the film, The New York Times announces that Mr. ‘Box-Office Poison’ Brandt himself has “issued a statement recanting the charge and paid tribute to her performance” in the film.

Ultimately, it’s impossible to say whether Brandt’s opinion truly mattered to audiences and critics of the time, or if it simply made for a good headline in the newspaper.  Regardless, the presence of the retraction in a reputable paper like The New York Times indicates that the term was still a part of the American media landscape almost two years after the original publication of Brandt’s letter.  Despite Brandt’s retraction, the infamous list remains a vital (if somewhat dubious) part of the Hepburn legend.  Contemporary reviews of The Philadelphia Story, film retrospectives, and Hepburn biographies alike continue to situate the “box-office poison” label as the hurdle for Hepburn-as-heroine to overcome, as if starring in a successful film is both a redemptive act and a purposeful attempt to “prove studios wrong.”

Unfortunately, today’s historians and biographers have followed the lead of Hepburn’s journalist contemporaries who stripped Brandt’s letter of its context and allowed (if not encouraged) the stigma of his list to become part of Hepburn’s legacy.  It is an indelible part of her story, while it is hardly mentioned in the biographies of the other stars listed.  For better or for worse, The Philadelphia Story will “always be remembered as Katharine Hepburn’s exclusive property–the story that brought her from ‘Box-Office Poison’ to her current status as one of the Foremost Stars of ALL-TIME.”