27 January 2010

Big Eden

Big Eden
Celebrating the 10th Anniversary of
Big Eden
starring Louise Fletcher, Ayre Gross, Tim DeKay and George Coe
with Nan Martin and featuring Eric Schweig

The Best Gay Film Ever Made!
by Donny Jacobs

In 1999, Thomas Bezucha, a writer and director of independent films, decided to make a 1930s-style screwball comedy with Gay men as his main characters (his main inspiration was Bringing Up Baby, the Katherine Hepburn/Cary Grant classic from 1938). He wanted to stay true to the original spirit of the genre, so he decided his film would have no nudity, no explicit sex, no excess of profanity-laced dialogue, and no dearth of older actors. What it would have was a rural setting and a bunch of stock characters: A matchmaker, a town busybody, a wisecracking boss, a hunky ex-boyfriend, a loving parent in fragile health, a gaggle of comical drug store cowboys, and a shy general store manager with a secret yen for the lead character.

Applying this formula to a story about same-gender romance was novel enough, but Thomas Bezucha went farther. He conceived and realized a Gay movie that largely avoids campiness, and that presents Gay identity as neither shocking nor controversial outside of an urban setting. He called his film Big Eden. It was released in the early summer of the year 2000.

"Looking at the subject matter of recent Gay films," Bezucha said in an interview filmed for the DVD version of his movie, "the issues were (always) around sex! I wanted to explore issues of intimacy. I wanted to show that Gay people . . . have real, intimate relationships with family, with friends . . . show that we are (a) whole people. I'm not sure if Big Eden could possibly be a real place. It's just this fantasy I concocted. Big Eden to me is about posing a question: What if? What if any Gay man or Gay woman could live anywhere? What would that be like, if bigotry and (lack of) acceptance weren't a concern?" Later in the interview, he revealed that there was a political motivation behind making this film: "Big Eden (doesn't exist) now, but it's not that far off. (I wanted) to bring it closer."
Big Eden 5

The synopsis: Henry Hart, a successful artist, returns to his hometown in rural Montana to care for and ultimately bury his ailing grandfather, whom he affectionately calls "Sampa". Things get complicated when he learns that his high school crush, Dean Stewart, is also back in town. The two men try to rekindle an aborted love affair. However, Sampa's friend Grace Cornwell, an Earth Mother type and self-styled matchmaker, has different ideas about who Henry should settle down with. By the climax of the film, the whole town has joined forces to help Grace make the most unlikely love match imaginable.
"Big Eden, which made its local debut at last year's Seattle Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, is not quite like any midlife crisis Gay film we've seen before. What really sets it apart are the setting and the characters, who tend to forget their prejudices when they're dealing with people they care about. And the actors are just low-key enough to pull it off."
-John Hartl, The Seattle Times, June 8, 2001

Big Eden had great difficulty finding a distributor. The Hollywood studios wouldn't touch it. They didn't believe a Gay film without nudity and sex could draw an audience. Much to their surprise, after Wolfe Video picked up distribution rights, Thomas Bezucha's folksy comedy swept up honors on the LGBT film festival circuit. It bagged audience and jury prizes in San Francisco, Seattle, Cleveland, Miami, Toronto and even in Los Angeles, their own back yard. Rarely did the end credits run in a silent theatre; standing ovations became routine. With stronger promotion and wider distribution, Big Eden might've broken big and become another mainstream phenomenon like John Waters' Hairspray; that was not to be, but it quickly developed a cult following that's still strong and growing ten years later.

While the film scored a modest commercial success, it proved to be artistically controversial. A number of LGBT film critics decried the Utopian vista of Big Eden. They all but demanded harsh realism in Gay-themed movies, as well as edgy sexual content, and were unable to let themselves go where Thomas Bezucha wanted to take them. Unfortunately, you could tell the Gay critics from the Straight ones by their tendency to toss sexual slurs into reviews. One of the most disrepectful was amazon.com's Bret Fetzer: in his pointedly back-of-the-hand recommendation, he sneered that the movie centers around "bashful queers" and "old coots in cowboy hats".

Big Eden 2

Fetzer's ageism notwithstanding, for him to call Bezucha's Gay characters "queer" was cruel and cynical. It amounted to thumbing his nose at what the director was trying to achieve: a normalization of Gay people and Gay love within the most familiar of classic film settings: The American West. Toward that end, Bezucha not only cultivated a "Petticoat Junction" ambiance, he also loaded the soundtrack with vintage Country and Western tunes: "Don't Let The Stars Get In Your Eyes"(George Jones), "Welcome To My World" (Jim Reeves), "Take Me In Your Arms And Hold Me" (originally recorded by Eddy Arnold and sung in the film by Louise Fletcher).

Big Eden fairly screams tradition and shamelessly embraces mainstream values. Some folks couldn't handle the juxtaposition of "liberal" same-gender desire with "conservative" community values; no doubt they found the politics of Big Eden lacking in revolutionary vision. They must have been blind. Thomas Bezucha's daring approach to screwball comedy was more revolutionary by far than anything his critics could ever hope to achieve with their "reclaimed" pejoratives and obvious preference for pessimistic, semi-pornographic Gay storylines. 
"In his well-crafted film, Bezucha imagines with humor and affection a community so perceptive, caring and enlightened that it's capable of quietly nudging everyone in the right direction. Bezucha also suggests that a man like Henry, while not conventionally handsome, can nonetheless be attractive to others, and that a Straight man can love a Gay man while not being sexually drawn to him. These notions are not so self-evident as they might seem, even in Gay-themed films. With this wonderful ensemble cast, Big Eden is a fine example of the cinema of possibilities."

-Kevin Thomas, The Los Angeles Times, June 1, 2001

Veteran actress Nan Martin, who portrayed the scene-stealing Widow Thayer in Big Eden, put her finger on the film's greatest strength when she observed: "Many of the Gay and Lesbian films are divisive. They (make) the gap between the way (Gay and Straight) people think wider. This film, to me, was bringing that gap together. Three cheers for that!" Indeed. Three cheers, too, for Thomas Bezucha, a director who challenged conventional ideas about what a Gay film can and should be. Big Eden anticipated the marriage equality era we live in today, and it's as perfect a match for it as Pike Dexter was for Henry Hart. Easily the best Gay film ever made, it deserves a big budget Hollywood remake, and what a fabulous Broadway musical it could be! Hopefully, its considerable entertainment potential will be fully realized someday.

Big Eden 4
"It will always be around, this movie, and and people will discover it. There'll be new people seeing it all the time. It's not gonna get lost! It's one of those films that will become part of the lexicon of film history."
-Louise Fletcher, "Grace Cornwell" from Big Eden

Buy the double DVD version of Big Eden at 

1 comment:

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