Monday, August 4, 2014

Higher Learning: Confessions of an angry alumnus

“Be true to your school,” The Beach Boys sang in 1963.

But what if your school isn’t true to you?

I’m referring to my alma mater, Pepperdine University, which made headlines recently for its perceived support of Proposition 8, a hateful effort to overturn the California Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage. The well-funded Yes on 8 campaign debuted its first television spot Sept. 29, including a fear-mongering claim that acceptance of same-sex marriage is “mandatory.”

“That changes a lot of things,” Pepperdine law professor Richard Peterson warns in the ad, “people sued over personal beliefs, churches could lose their tax exemptions, gay marriage taught in public schools.”

Progressive Portlanders might be horrified to see an institute of “higher learning” stepping into such a divisive minefield, but Pepperdine isn’t your typical university. For starters, the Malibu, Calif.-based school is affiliated with the Church of Christ, which frowns on dancing and putting women in positions of power.

When I arrived on campus in 1990 to pursue a bachelor’s degree in journalism, Pepperdine had just recently lifted its ban on campus dances. A couple of years later, the female dean of students was allowed to lead the prayer at a school assembly—one small step for womankind.

Like so many conservatives, Pepperdine also confuses faith with politics. As a student it was hard to tell whether I was at college or at a GOP think tank: Invited speakers included the likes of former Attorney General Ed Meese and Solicitor General Ken Starr, who went on to achieve infamy as the independent counsel who spent $40 million of taxpayer money on a witch hunt to destroy President Bill Clinton. Oh, and guess who’s now on staff shaping the minds of future lawyers? You got it: Law School Dean Kenneth Starr.

So, given that track record, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that Pepperdine remains in lockstep with the right-wing agenda by opposing equal rights for all couples. Or does it? After a vocal outcry from alumni who were furious about the Yes on 8 ad, the administration tried to distance itself from the campaign.

“We’d like to stress that the professor does not represent a Pepperdine University-endorsed position, as the university does not advocate for/against political candidates or ballot propositions,” public relations executive director Jerry Derloshon said Oct. 2. “The professor in the ad was not advocating a Pepperdine position, but his own personal position. We have received confirmation that our request to have the reference to Pepperdine University deleted from the ad will be honored…perhaps by today.”

Since that statement was issued, Pepperdine’s name has yet to be removed from the ad. In fact, Peterson shows up again in an even more inflammatory spot that uses the ultimate scare tactic: A little girl comes home from school and excitedly tells Mommy about how she’s going to grow up to marry a “princess.”

“Think it can’t happen? It’s already happened!” Peterson bellows. “When Massachusetts legalized gay marriage, schools began teaching second-graders that boys can marry boys. The courts ruled parents had no right to object.”

The deception tactics already seem to be succeeding. While early polls indicated Prop 8 was behind by as much as 38 percent to 55 percent, the ads are being credited with flipping numbers around: Led by a major shift among young Californians, a CBS survey says that likely voters now favor the measure by a five-point margin, 47 percent to 42 percent.

For a school that boasts “the highest standards of academic excellence and Christian values,” Pepperdine doesn’t seem to place much importance on either. California law already bans bias based on religion and prohibits public schools from teaching students anything about family issues against the will of their parents, so Peterson’s bogus declarations put the entire university’s reputation on the line.

Furthermore, the school isn’t exactly being Christlike by spreading the lie that it knew nothing about the professor’s involvement. According to its student newspaper, The Graphic: “Peterson said he informed School of Law Vice Dean Tim Perrin in advance that he was appearing in the commercial and that he would be associated with Pepperdine. Perrin did not voice any concerns, according to Peterson.”

This isn’t the first time that Pepperdine has underestimated the backlash that comes from homophobia. Way back in 1992, when I was editor of The Graphic, a group of underground gay students approached me to make their presence known. In the middle of the night, they had painted a pink triangle on “The Rock”—the only free-speech zone on campus—but it was immediately covered up by a Bible-banging adversary.

When I called that student for a comment, his blunt reply was shocking: “No way is homosexuality tolerated or should be tolerated. If they want to paint it during the day, I’ll watch over them with my baseball bat.”

The bigot was surely expecting backslaps and high-fives, but my article ended up turning him into a campus pariah, and he eventually transferred to an even more conservative university. It was a tense time—especially for a closeted student like me—but at least it got people talking.

In a follow-up story, I interviewed one sensitive administrator who said a mouthful: “I would hope on a campus like this that we’re able to talk about issues like this in less emotional, less confrontive kind of ways. I suspect that we’ll be talking about those things on campus for a long time.”

Originally published in Just Out, Oct. 17, 2008

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Pat Benatar Hits Salem with Her Best Shot

In the early ’80s, Pat Benatar had the Best Rock Vocal Grammy nailed shut.

But in 1992, the National Academy Recording Arts & Sciences couldn’t even find enough female rockers to justify the category, so it was dropped that year. What gives? Are the pickings that slim, or are the voters not looking hard enough?

“There’s a plethora of people out there,” she says. “I don’t know what the hell they were thinking, unless they were looking at commercial success only.”

Benatar, who performs with Steve Miller tonight at the Oregon State Fair, recalls 1978. That’s the year flash-in-the-pan A Taste of Honey's No. 1 disco ditty “Boogie Oogie Oogie” brought Best New Artist accolades over leading eclectic rock singer Elvis Costello.

“They’re historically based on what was popular at the time,” says Benatar, who took home statues for the 1980 album Crimes of Passion, the 1981 single “Fire and Ice,” 1982’s “Shadows of the Night” and 1983’s “Love Is a Battlefield.”

The latter was part of a string of hits including “Invincible (Theme from Legend of Billie Jean)” and “Sex as a Weapon” that became sort of feminist anthems during a rather conservative decade.

“It was very indicative of what was going on those days,” she says. “I always write lyrics from the heart. It was certainly more aggressive then. It’s just not necessary now.”

Becoming a mom hasn’t changed Benatar’s tune any, but it did take her off the road from 1993 to 1995 when she had her second child, Hana, who is now 2.

Benatar, 43, took advantage of a swing through Oklahoma City last week to show older sister Haley, 11, the site of 1995’s federal building bombing, which killed 19 kids.

“It was just horrific,” says Benatar, who cowrote “Hell Is for Children” and “Suffer the Little Children.” “When you have children of your own, it just really hits you so much harder when you realize that your baby is just as old.

“I thought it would be really a good thing to see what violence really brings you. We planted a tree at her school when it happened.”

Heroin abuse in the music industry also seems to be on the tip of everyone’s tongues lately, but Benatar isn’t sure why.

“It’s very difficult to tell,” she says. “It’s always been there. It’s always been a problem…. It’s the problem du jour. People get bored. There’s nothing to talk about.”

Benatar and husband/producer/longtime collaborator Neil Giraldo try to improve the industry’s negative image by participating in charitable events like 1985’s Artists United Against Apartheid and staying “pretty outspoken and active.”

“It’s pretty much on a daily basis,” she says. “We choose to do it privately.”

But one opinion Benatar is quite public about is her impression of Chrysalis Records. Even though it was the only label she ever had worked for, parting was sweet relief in 1993.

This summer’s tour gives her a chance to hone material for the coming Innamorata album — slated for an early winter release — while negotiating with a new company.

“Anything will be better. Selling them on the corner would be better,” she says bluntly. “It was a nightmare. The company was sold two or three times while I was there. It was a revolving door. No relationships were ever set up.”

Now that Chrysalis controls Benatar’s old material, Heartbreaker: 16 Classic Performances was released this year without her endorsement.

“They just put ’em out because they can. I had nothing to do with it whatsoever. It makes you wonder how many greatest hits albums one person can have,” says Benatar, whose other collections are 1989’s Best Shots and 1994’s All Fired Up: The Very Best of Pat Benatar.

After recording an acclaimed blues record in 1991, she describes the new tunes as “rootsy,” with plenty of 12-strings, acoustic guitars and fiddles.

“This is a contemporary record,” she says. “We really had such a good time doing it. It’s pretty lyric-heavy. It’s hard to pigeonhole.”

Benatar, who compares performing to “riding a bike,” enjoys summer tours like this one. She probably is one of the only artists on the road who is coordinating the last tour date with her daughter’s first day of school.

“Haley’s been coming with us since she was a baby,” she says. “Two is a handful. They’re veterans now.”

Originally published in Statesman Journal, Aug. 29, 1996

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Not Narrow: She's straight, she's irate, get used to it

Ever since I first saw her in 1994’s Reality Bites, I’ve felt a strong kinship with Janeane Garofalo. Her character, a recent college graduate, was working at The Gap and demonstrating how to use a plastic board to fold a sweater: “People don’t know,” she said dryly. “They don’t know what it takes.”

I’d just graduated from college when that film came out, and that summer I found myself working at Target in Boise, Idaho — using the same damn folding board.

Clearly, Janeane is my soul sister. The 42-year-old former co-host of Air America Radio’s The Majority Report vented with me about the state of the union before hitting the road for a comedy tour.

Jimmy Radosta: Do some people come to your shows unprepared for you to be so outspoken?

Janeane Garofalo:
During the buildup to the illegal invasion and occupation, there would be pockets who were of course the people that believed the nonsense that the administration was shoveling, and so they would be offended. There would be walkouts and heckling.

That personality type is as confusing to me as people who abuse animals. You kind of wonder what makes them tick, like when you watch Animal Cops on Animal Planet and you see that someone has thrown a puppy in a trunk and left it there. I feel the same way about a right-winger: I don’t get it, I don’t understand what makes them tick, I don’t know what happened to them as children that caused them to turn out that way.

Some Democratic politician [state Sen. Bob Hagan of Ohio] half-jokingly said that it shouldn’t be gay people who should be banned from adopting but conservatives and Republicans…because you don’t want to put them in that environment. I concur with that sentiment.

JR: Speaking of gay family matters, do you feel like same-sex marriage scared enough voters to swing the 2004 election in Bush’s favor?

First of all, it is my belief that not only was the 2000 election stolen when Antonin Scalia installed George Bush as president, I believe John Kerry won the 2004 election. If you read the Conyers report and other studies done to investigate the voter fraud, the electronic touch-screen voting problems, if you look at the documentary Hacking Democracy, there’s no evidence to support George Bush won that election, either.

I would say that the gay issues that the so-called conservatives put out there — it’s just embarrassing. It doesn’t scare anyone off who is reasonable. It’s a flash-point topic used to corral the dumb and the mean into voting.

JR: Are we at least making some progress with the recent scandals involving Ted Haggard and Ann Coulter?

Don’t forget Jeff Gannon/Duckert and Cpl. [Matt] Sanchez at the [Conservative Political Action Conference] recently — the gay porn star who Sean Hannity says is “a great American.” CPAC is about as close to a white supremacist rally as you’re gonna get.

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Anybody who is a vehement anti-gay activist is usually a closet queen. They have that Roy Cohn quality of the self-hating gay or the attack queer or whatever you want to call it.

Reasonable people can always see through televangelists, right-wing bullies, people like Ann Coulter. Ann Coulter is just a performing clown.

Then there’s some people who Malcolm Gladwell would call “late adopters” who see through it eventually.

And then there’s people who will never see through it, because that’s who they are. There will always be a segment of the population, because of their personality shortcomings, who will embrace gay-bashing and internment camps and gulags.

JR: Are you going to continue acting?

Yes, I like to do both. I just did a pilot for a TV series for next season…about lawyers. It’s a one-hour dramedy from the people who are involved with Numb3rs and Law & Order starring Mark-Paul Gosselaar [Saved by the Bell, NYPD Blue].

JR: Are you going to return to radio?

I actually only do the radio show intermittently. Sam Seder still has the show…and it’s moved to the morning. I could not move to a morning slot. No way, José. After Sam had his baby, he and his wife agreed that he needs to move to the morning show so that he could be home at night. I was like: “You know what, Sam? Good luck to you.” I can’t be in an office at 5:30 a.m. five days a week. I’m not cut out for it.

Originally published in Just Out, March 16, 2007

’Tis the Sleazon: John Waters decks the halls with boughs of trash

John Waters has a busy month ahead — holiday headaches notwithstanding.

American Movie Classics is spotlighting the filmmaker's 1972 cult hit Pink Flamingos on Dec. 30 on Movies That Shook the World.

California's Orange County Museum of Art is displaying Change of Life, an exhibit of his photographs, sculptures and "little movies," which reduce a whole film to a single still.

The Treatment Action Group is honoring him on Dec. 11 in New York City for his AIDS activism.

And he'll be in town on Dec. 16 to celebrate A John Waters Christmas, a compilation of campy holiday tunes like Roger Christian's "Little Mary Christmas," a politically incorrect tale of a crippled orphan who doesn't get adopted on Christmas morning, and "Happy Birthday Jesus," which Waters suspects was recorded at a tiny studio in the South with a stage mother hovering over a young girl wearing a torn party dress. You have to hear it to believe it.

Jimmy Radosta: What do you think of Portland?

John Waters: Oh, it's great. It reminds me of Baltimore in a lot of ways, only you have better book shops — and more famous directors living there.

JR: What's the plan for this show?

I'm going to be talking about my obsession with Christmas — and about Christmas crime and Christmas fashion and Christmas presents and Christmas cards and what you should do with your family and how you deal with depression at Christmas or how you handle all the insanity at this time of year.

JR: I love the Christmas compilation. I've got you sandwiched right between Crystal and Muddy Waters, which somehow seems appropriate.

JW: Oh, good! Well, I think Brenda Lee has the best all-time Christmas record. I could never top her, so I wanted to come in second…. None of these [songs] were made to be ironic. They were done fairly seriously.

JR: Do you find that it's a lot harder today to find musicians who are unaware of their cheese factor? Now we've just got people like Clay Aiken.

JW: Yeah, but even they're aware of it. Basically because of cable and the Internet, everybody's aware of everything. There are no pockets of the country left that aren't plugged in, really.

At the end of Pecker, the last line was "To the end of irony!" I remember when 9/11 happened, all the editorials said, "The end of irony" or something. I thought: "Wait a minute! I said that like two years ago. It didn't take 9/11 to figure that out."

JR: You're about to be honored for your AIDS activism alongside a state senator and a Cornell professor. Did you ever think there would come a day?

JW: I guess if you stick around long enough and they can't get rid of you, then they've gotta honor you. I'm certainly flattered that they're doing it.

Sometimes it's weird. When I was at the Kennedy Center when Hairspray opened [on Broadway] with the Bush Washington crowd and I stood up and I got a standing ovation, [a friend] whispered to me, "If these people knew you, they would hate you!"

JR: Speaking of politics, what are your thoughts on same-sex marriage?

JW: I'm for it. I personally have no desire to get married. That's for straight gay people. I'm not one of ’em. I wanna invest in gay divorce and tattoo removal, the growth industries of the next decade.

JR: An upcoming documentary on AMC credits Pink Flamingos for inspiring the punk movement, Jackass and Fear Factor. How do you feel about that?

JW: Certainly…Pink Flamingos was a punk movie. We just didn't know there was a term. I mean, the audience looked like hippies, but they were angry hippies.

Jackass — I'm a huge fan of that. Johnny Knoxville was the star of my last movie [A Dirty Shame].

Fear Factor — I've never seen it, but I get the comparison. I mean, eating shit is basically the kind of thing they do on that show, right? Except without the good outfits!

JR: What are your future projects?

JW: I'm working on a big show that I'm having at [New York City's] Marianne Boesky Gallery in late April called Unwatchable. I have a new TV show that comes out Feb. 3 on the Here network called John Waters Presents Movies That Will Corrupt You. And I am a regular on a Court TV pilot that we hope will be ordered up called ’Til Death Do Us Part that is based on true crimes, but acted out with actors, about a bride or a groom that kills one another. Each episode begins with their wedding, and I'm the "Groom Reaper," the time traveler that knows they're gonna kill each other and tells the audience.

Originally published in Just Out, Dec. 2, 2005

My New Grandma: Bea Arthur reminisces about the 'Golden' age of television

She's not a tough broad, but she plays one on TV.

Bea Arthur cemented her status as a gay icon with ball-busting roles on Maude and The Golden Girls, each of which earned her an Emmy Award. Rufus Wainwright even dropped a reference to "my new grandma Bea Arthur" in his 2001 song "California."

Today, the 82-year-old enjoys a quiet life of cooking, reading and hanging out with her dog, a Doberman named Emma. She also occasionally performs a one-woman show featuring a few lowbrow stories from her 50 years in the business mixed with her favorite songs.

I bonded with the Tony Award winner (for 1966's Mame, opposite Angela Lansbury) in advance of an upcoming gig in Salem.

Jimmy Radosta: Do you have any theories on why gay fans connect with you so strongly?

Bea Arthur: In every show that I've done on television — certainly in the sitcoms — we always fought injustice. My God, what the gay community has been suffering all these years is injustice!

Of course, there's something else, which has to do with being bigger than life. It's like opera — you know what I mean? I sort of have a feeling that Judy is looking down and saying, "Go, girl!"

JR: Are you surprised by the revived popularity of The Golden Girls now that it's available on DVD?

BA: It's still on television every 15 minutes all over the world! It's incredible. You know, we started it in ’85 — that's 20 years ago — and it's still on every day on Lifetime. I am very surprised. I really don't understand it. It's a cult hit.

JR: The Golden Girls and particularly Maude tackled so many controversial topics — homophobia, anti-Semitism, abortion. Were you aware at the time how significant and groundbreaking this was?

BA: Absolutely not. First of all, television was not that old at the time, and it's only looking back on it that I realize what we did. Abortion was never discussed, let alone used as a plot. I think it's wonderful that we brought a lot of issues to the viewing public for the very first time in the context of the half-hour comedy.

JR: Did any of the pressure that came as a result of the 1972 abortion storyline affect you?

BA: I tell you, looking back on it now, the network probably tried to protect me. I did get a lot of mail, but I can't say that it was really hate mail. It was from people who genuinely feel that abortion is wrong. It was an eye-opener for me, because prior to that, I had never had an abortion, but it seemed to be a fact of life that any girl who got in trouble got an abortion. I never thought about it one way or another.

JR: Are you politically active, or do you keep those opinions to yourself?

BA: That's the difference between me and the character of Maude. Norman Lear…was married to a militant feminist, and so he wrote the character of Maude based on Frances.

I have never been involved politically. I mean, I like to make damn sure I investigate things so that I know who to vote for and not to vote for, but I don't get that emotional about it. If you see me with petitions, it has to do with animal rights and the rights of foster children.

JR: What should people expect from your one-woman show?

BA: Ninety minutes of terrific theater. It's an entertainment — that's all it is. It's not totally autobiographical. There's a lot of terrific music, and I talk about things that have happened to me. I even tell a joke. It's like being in my living room.

JR: How long have you known the show's musical director, Billy Goldenberg?

BA: I've known Billy since 1980. That's how the whole thing started. Marilyn and Alan Bergman were being honored by the American Civil Liberties Union…and they got all their favorite performers to perform their favorite songs. Since they're just lyricists, they also got the composers of each of these to conduct. Billy had written Queen of the Stardust Ballroom with them, and I did three of the numbers from the show. We've been joined at the hip ever since.

JR: What's it like being a cultural icon?

BA: [Audiences] feel like I'm their friend because I'm in their living room every five minutes. When I come out at the beginning of my show, it's so nice because it's such a warm feeling. These people want to like me, because they already know me. Maybe some of them think I'm very assertive or whatever because of the characters that I've played, but that never bothers me.

Originally published in Just Out, Oct. 7, 2005

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Imagine That: Yoko Ono visualizes world peace

Q: Name a gender-bending Beatles tune.

A: "Get Back" ("Sweet Loretta Martin thought she was a woman / But she was another man"), "Polythene Pam" ("She's so good-looking but she looks like a man / Well you should see her in drag dressed in her polythene bag"), "I Am the Walrus" ("Boy, you been a naughty girl / You let your knickers down") and "Lovely Rita" ("The bag across her shoulder / Made her look a little like a military man").

We also would've accepted "The Ballad of John and Yoko," which features the lyrics, "The newspapers said she's gone to his head / They look just like two gurus in drag."

• • •

It turns out Yoko Ono is pretty queer-savvy for a 71-year-old. Sure, she was tight with Andy Warhol, Allen Ginsberg and Keith Haring, but she's become quite the LGBT ally in her golden years.

Last year Yoko and Yo La Tengo collaborated on the rousing "Hedwing's Lament/Exquisite Corpse" for the Portland-produced charity album Wig in a Box. And last month she reached the top of the dance charts with a same-sex version of 1980's "Every Man Has a Woman Who Loves Him."

"Suddenly, the [Bush] administration started saying that they're going to change the Constitution?" Yoko told me from her New York office. "They thought that would be very hot to put it in there, so that people had to deal with that instead of any other issue. It's a good political move, but it was used for that, in a way. It's really a human rights issue, so then I had to stand up — I felt that I really had to."

As if that's not enough reason to win our hearts, she recently updated "Give Peace a Chance" for Wake Up Everybody, a compilation to benefit America Coming Together. Could it be that, more than four decades into her career, one of pop culture's most misunderstood artists is finally getting her due?

"It was funny because when I made 'Walking on Thin Ice' and I just finished the track, John said, 'It's your first No. 1, Yoko.' I thought afterwards, 'Well, you were wrong,'" she said. "We were both knd of people who saw the future."

That's an understatement. I told her how I've been obsessing over John Lennon's 1984 prophecy "Nobody Told Me" since the "re-election" of President Bush. ("There's UFOs over New York / And I ain't too surprised.") But even spookier is the single's flip side, "O'Sanity," where Yoko sings, "I don't know what do do with my sanity / When the world's at the verge of calamity." I wondered if she still feels this sense of looming doom.

"Yeah," she said bluntly. "But I think we can still hack it. I think we can move it and survive."

But how, Yoko?

"Visualizing — that creates reality. This is an age where it's very difficult to focus on something because there's so many gadgets around out there, but we just have to, even if it's just for two seconds a day. Just focusing on that — that we are going to be all right, and we are going to survive, and we're going to have world peace. It's going to be a beautiful world….

"Ninety percent of the world is really wanting world peace, and they're peaceful people. Only 10 percent is messing up the whole place with their violence and loud mouths and all that."

Pretty positive perspective coming just six days after the 24th anniversary of her husband's assassination. I didn't want to pry, but I gently asked if Dec. 8 continues to be a difficult day for her.

"It was getting OK, and then this year it was very difficult for some reason," she said. "I'm just being my best every day, being alive, searching inside of my soul more than searching outside."

• • •

We never did get around to talking about "The Ballad of John and Yoko," but as a man from the press, I'd like to borrow a line from the 1969 classic: "It's good to have the both of you back."

Happy Xmas, Yoko.

Originally published in Just Out, Dec. 17, 2004

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Brokebacklash: Hollywood tells homos, 'Whoa, cowboy!'

I know what you're thinking: Get over it.

But with the April 4 release of Brokeback Mountain on DVD, I still find myself trying to wrap my head around the film's shocking ending. And I'm not talking about Jack's untimely death.

Leading up to the Academy Awards ceremony March 5, every indication was that Brokeback would be named Best Picture: It received the most nominations, it won the top prize at the Golden Globes, and it swept the Producers/Directors/Writers Guild awards.

Of course, leading up to the 2004 election, every indication was that Americans would fire Dubya, so my crystal ball must be foggy. But this is Tinseltown! I figured those Hollywood liberals would proudly embrace this moment to tell 1 billion viewers worldwide that the year's best film was about two cowboys in love.

Instead, the academy honored Crash, a supremely mediocre melodrama about a topic that Spike Lee handled much better 16 years earlier with Do the Right Thing.

I explained this to my straight friends using terminology they could understand: Imagine the Pittsburgh Steelers going up against the Peoria Podunks, leading 72-0 until the fourth quarter and then losing the game on a bad call from the ref, who didn't even see the damn play.

Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan was more direct: "For people who were discomfited by Brokeback Mountain but wanted to be able to look themselves in the mirror and feel like they were good, productive liberals, Crash provided the perfect safe harbor. They could vote for it in good conscience … and not feel that there was any stain on their liberal credentials for shunning what Brokeback had to offer."

Annie Proulx, who penned the novella that inspired Brokeback, responded to the snub with a scathing Guardian column about clueless film industry voters, "many living cloistered lives behind wrought-iron gates or in deluxe rest homes, out of touch not only with the shifting larger culture and the yeasty ferment that is America these days, but also out of touch with their own segregated city…. Next year we can look to the awards for controversial themes on the punishment of adulterers with a branding iron in the shape of the letter A, runaway slaves and the debate over free silver."

So what went wrong? There are several possibilities:

The rural thing. Academy members can relate to Los Angeles (Crash) more than Wyoming (Brokeback).

The hype thing. Brokeback came with months of tremendous expectations, so voters might have been underwhelmed, while Crash came out of nowhere.

The gay thing. My worst fear is that the suffering of gay people simply doesn't elicit sympathy from homophobes.

Conservative academy members like 89-year-old Ernest Borgnine didn't even bother watching their screeners: "I know they say it's a good picture, but I don't care to see it. If John Wayne were alive, he'd be rolling over in his grave."

Tony Curtis, 80, who seemed to have no problem with cross-dressing in Some Like It Hot, sniffed: "This picture is not as important as we make it. It's nothing unique. The only thing unique about it is they put it on the screen. And they make ’em [male gay lovers] cowboys…. Howard Hughes and John Wayne wouldn't like it."

Or perhaps these vapid celebs watched it and thought: "Eh, 20 years in a loveless marriage? Tough shit — I've been in a loveless marriage for 40!"

None of the above. A Hollywood insider friend of mine — who happens to work for a recent Oscar winner — insists the upset had nothing to do with queers. She says Lionsgate orchestrated a shrewd campaign to basically buy itself an Oscar: The studio seduced academy members by mailing 13,000 DVDs — a $4 million effort for a film that cost $7.5 million to make.

Ultimately, this is what you get when you seek validation from an awards show. Good cinema is good cinema, and Brokeback Mountain certainly doesn't need a trophy to prove that. Besides, now it can join the ranks of other Best Picture losers like Citizen Kane, The Shawshank Redemption and Pulp Fiction instead of being listed alongside overrated crap like Shakespeare in Love, Braveheart and Gladiator.

And technically the awards season ended with a victory March 27, when Brokeback was honored by the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. Director Ang Lee's classy acceptance speech exuded warm fuzzies instead of sour grapes.

"To end our Brokeback journey here tonight is like coming home," he said. "The fact is this: that Brokeback Mountain has helped to change the world…. When the world is made better for one gay or lesbian person, it's made better for everyone."

Originally published in Just Out, April 7, 2006

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Madonna 101: A cheat sheet for the unconverted

Madonna's had some strange bedfellows in her 47 years: Jean-Michel Basquiat, Warren Beatty, that Oscar date with Jacko.

But try this one on for size: President Bush. The two have more in common than you probably imagined.

They both know how to manipulate religion for maximum gain. They’re both unapologetic. They both have Daddy issues.

Most importantly, they both know how to energize their base when the chips are down. Dubya, stung by sinking polls, nominated Samuel Alito to the U.S. Supreme Court to appease his Bible-banging supporters. And Madonna, stung by sinking sales, has recorded her gayest album yet … to appease her butt-banging supporters.

Confessions on a Dance Floor is a cutting-edge, nonstop mix of euphoric party music that demands attention from the opening track, “Hung Up,” which makes clever use of a sample from Abba’s “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight),” to the shameless but irresistible “I Love New York.”

Madonna’s popularity may be waning among youngsters, but her gay fans are here to stay. Let’s take a look back on the many faces of our beloved spiritual leader.

The Boy Toy (1983-1985)

Shocks the world with her bustier-and-crucifix look. Inspires a flock of “wannabes,” a word that would be added to the American Heritage Dictionary in 2000. Musical achievement: “Into the Groove.” Cinematic achievement: Desperately Seeking Susan. Deep thoughts: “The world is in such bad shape at the moment, who wants to hear about it in songs? They want songs about falling in love and being lonely” (Melody Maker, 1983).

The Wife (1986-1988)

Marries paparazzi-phobic actor Sean Penn. Shocks the world with bad acting. Musical achievement: “Open Your Heart.” Cinematic achievement: Shanghai Surprise, a bomb co-starring her husband. Daddy issues: “Don’t you stop loving me, Daddy / I know, I’m keeping my baby” (“Papa Don’t Preach,” 1986).

The Bisexual Fag Hag (1989-1991)

Shocks the world with Vatican-denounced “Like a Prayer” (costing her a deal with Pepsi) and MTV-banned “Justify My Love.” Hangs out with queers Rosie O’Donnell and Sandra Bernhard (allegedly stealing her lover, Ingrid Casares). Musical achievement: “Vogue.” Cinematic achievement: Truth or Dare, a documentary of backstage bonding with gay dancers on her Blonde Ambition tour. Daddy issues: “You never loved me / You can’t hurt me now / I got away from you” (“Oh Father,” 1989).

The Slut (1992-1994)

Adopts the S/M persona of Dita. Sleeps around with NBA stars. Shocks the world with a profanity-laced appearance on Letterman. Starts her own label, Maverick Records. Musical achievement: Erotica, arguably her best album. Cinematic achievement: Body of Evidence, a supposedly erotic thriller shot in Portland. Literary achievement: Sex, an adults-only photo book. Deep thoughts: “Can you make a fire without using wood?” (“Where Life Begins,” a 1992 ode to cunnilingus).

The Mother (1995-1996)

Shocks the world by cleaning up her act, with a concerted effort to start a family. Hooks up with Carlos Leon and gives birth to Lourdes Maria. Musical achievement: Something to Remember, a compilation of her best ballads. Cinematic achievement: Evita, which earns her a Golden Globe. Deep thoughts: “I don’t think I’ll ever make another selfish decision as long as I have her” (The Associated Press, 1996).

 The Guru (1997-1999)

Embraces yoga and Kabbalah, Judaism’s mystical tradition. Experiments with electronica. Musical achievement: “Beautiful Stranger,” an Oscar-snubbed pop masterpiece from Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. Deep thoughts: “In the form of a man up to the shoulders / Holding a conch, discus and sword / Thousand headed, white / I bow respectfully / Peace” (English translation of 1997’s “Shanti/Ashtangi”).

The Brit (2000-2005)

Marries Limey filmmaker Guy Ritchie and gives birth to Rocco John. Shocks the world by taking up pheasant hunting in her adopted England. Hangs out with fashion designer/Beatles heiress Stella McCartney and actress/Apple mama Gwyneth Paltrow. Adopts the Hebrew name of Esther. Musical achievement: an acoustic performance of “Don’t Tell Me” on Letterman showing off her new guitar skills. Cinematic achievement: Swept Away, a bomb directed by her husband. Literary achievement: The English Roses, the first in a series of children’s books. Daddy issues: “My father had to go to work / I used to think he was a jerk / I didn’t know his heart was broken / Not another word was spoken” (“Mother and Father,” 2003). Deep thoughts: “I don’t want people to dress like me anymore. Now, I want them to think like me. Dress like Britney Spears and think like me, and everything will be fine” (People, 2003).

The Cougar Philanthropist, 2006-present

Dates men half her age … not that there’s anything wrong with that. Shocks the world while promoting her album MDNA by making a cheeky reference to MDMA. (“How many people in this crowd have seen Molly?”) Signs unprecedented $120M tour deal with Live Nation and $40M record deal with Interscope. Launches the projects Raising Malawi (which has built 10 schools to educate thousands of children) and Art for Freedom (a global digital initiative designed to fuel free speech). Adopts David Banda Mwale and Chifundo “Mercy” James. Cinematic achievement: W.E., a bomb directed by her. Musical achievement: the most-watched Super Bowl halftime show in history, drawing more viewers than the game itself by a 16 percent margin. Deep thoughts: “The ones that said I was talentless, that I was chubby, that I couldn’t sing, that I was a one-hit wonder — they pushed me to be better, and I am grateful for their resistance” (Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction speech, 2008). Daddy issues: I was raised in the Midwest, and he is the personification of Midwestern values. He gave me the work ethic that I have. If Im a hard-working girl, that never stops. Its because of him (Detroit Free Press, 2012).

Originally published in Just Out, Nov. 18, 2005 (updated content added Jan. 21, 2014)

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Sweet Dream Come True: A long-awaited chat with Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart

As anyone who’s come near me in the past quarter-century already knows, I love Eurythmics. Would I lie to you?

At a time when MTV was churning out cookie-cutter bands, Eurythmics broke the mold with Annie Lennox’s gender-bending appearance, Dave Stewart’s synth-driven creativity and the unique sound that resulted (“icy cold European music with a soulfulness about it,” as he puts it).

I was Member No. 966 of their U.S. fan club. I exchanged lengthy letters with pen pals across the continent. Their 1986 gig at Memorial Coliseum was my first concert ever.

But as a sexually confused teenager, I kept quiet about my fanaticism for fear of drawing extra attention to myself. This was during middle school in Salem, and I wanted to blend in, not stand out.

When I finally decided to “come out” as a Eurythmite during high school, it was a liberating experience that gave me an early indication of what it feels like to be true to yourself. As a suicidal adolescent, I felt empowered by these lyrics from “You Have Placed a Chill in My Heart”: “Don’t cut me down when I’m talking to you, ’cause I’m much too tall to feel that small.”

Before long, my hopeless devotion to Dave and Annie became common knowledge among friends. I even quoted from “The King and Queen of America” in my 1990 commencement address: “We’re gonna build a little satellite, we’re gonna make it fly…and all of them aliens are gonna find out who we are.”

So you can only imagine my excitement at the opportunity to interview Stewart, who called to discuss his latest endeavor, The Dave Stewart Songbook—Volume One, an ambitious career retrospective for which he assembled a 30-piece “Rock Fabulous Orchestra” to reinterpret his vast catalog. The two-disc set includes songs from his underrated solo material (including the instrumental hit “Lily Was Here,” featuring a memorable sax line from Candy Dulfer), his writing/producing collaborations (Tom Petty, Sinéad O’Connor, Mick Jagger) and his series of dynamic duos: Eurythmics (with Lennox), Vegas (with The Fun Boy Three’s Terry Hall) and Platinum Weird (with incoming American Idol judge Kara DioGuardi). The infamous multitasker is not only taking the show on the road, but he’s also written an accompanying coffee table book filled with his celebrity photographs, some of which are on display through October at New York’s Morrison Hotel Gallery.

“If I was just to play over and over again the same songs and tour the world, I could be very jaded at this time in my life,” says Stewart, fresh off celebrating his 56th birthday with some time in the studio alongside dyke songwriter Linda Perry (Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful”) and veteran producer Glen Ballard (Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill). “But now I’m really excited.”

For someone who fields phone calls from Ringo Starr, Nelson Mandela and Deepak Chopra—not to mention his lofty title as Nokia’s “Change Agent,” to help shape the future entertainment distribution model—Stewart remains remarkably grounded. “When I was younger, oh my God, I would’ve never believed in a million years I would be sitting in a kitchen strumming a guitar with Bob Dylan.”

It’s that type of easygoing attitude that probably helped Stewart as he was courting controversy in the early days of Eurythmics. After all, a lot has changed since “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” topped the U.S. singles chart 25 years ago this month. Today we have Katy Perry singing about kissing girls with nary a gasp—a far cry from the 1984 Grammy Awards, where Lennox stunned the crowd by performing in drag.

“It was like we were playing each other’s muse,” Stewart says. “To Annie and myself, everything was boring. When the punk movement came, it was like, ‘OK, that’s the end of rock ’n’ roll as we know it.’ We wanted to be androgynous in a way…almost like performance art. We never thought we’d have anything to do with the pop charts.”

Although Stewart is married with four children, he has fond memories of London’s oh-so-queer New Wave scene.

“Once you got into this idea of playing with sexuality, it actually brings out stuff within yourself. It opens up a door into another world,” he shares. “We met loads of gay people—you know, Steve Strange and all these characters that were around. Boy George came bouncing into our dressing room; he had long hair, and he’d ironed it so it went sort of horizontal into a 3-foot circle around his head. I remember Quentin Crisp did a [fake] wedding ceremony with me and Nona Hendryx.

“We really threw ourselves into it. We played in gay clubs like Heaven in London, and we met some of the most inspiring people and had a real feeling of community about it.”

Originally published in Just Out, Sept. 19, 2008

Monday, January 6, 2014

Delayed Gratification: The truth behind Lily Tomlin’s long, strange trip out of the closet

Lily Tomlin is full of surprises.

Did you know, for example, “back in the old early feminist days in the ’70s,” she worked with a bunch of women in Eugene on what would become her signature show, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe?

You also might be surprised to learn that the Emmy, Tony, Peabody and Grammy winner—who didn’t officially come out in the press until 2001—has been openly gay for her entire career, only nobody was paying attention.

Jimmy Radosta: What was the biggest inspiration for all of your characters?

Lily Tomlin:
Living in an old apartment house with all kinds of people and growing up in a black neighborhood and having parents from the South and living on the farm in the summers, then coming back and living in inner-city Detroit.

We didn’t have a TV until I was 10, so radio was very important to me—just listening to those characters on the radio and the whole scenario of people relating just by their voice. I just put shows on from the time I was probably 7 or 8 years old, and I tried to make the other kids in the old apartment house be in the show.

I was mad for it. I was moved and amazed and horrified and loving the way people behaved.

JR: I was pleasantly surprised that your 2005 Portland show directly identified your sexuality, considering you’d previously kept that aspect of your life quiet. What prompted you to address it in recent years?

I go back to the early ’70s. I was on Laugh-In. I got literally famous because of Ernestine. There was no tabloidization of the news, and people didn’t write about anything that personal, unless it was conventional.

Everybody in the industry was certainly aware of my sexuality and of Jane [Wagner, Tomlin’s partner since 1971]. We always worked together. In fact, I remember when we were doing a special together in the early ’70s, one of my writers, who was a really great person, but she said to me, “You know, I think you and Jane should come to work in different cars.” [Laughs] I said, “Well, why would we do that?” So she was concerned that people were talking about us and somehow it was going to hurt us.

I’ve told this story, too, to illustrate the difference in the culture: It was ’73 and I was on the Carson show, and Johnny, knowing full well, he said, “Don’t you ever want to have children?” The audience just stopped dead, because even that short time ago, it was very unorthodox and suspicious for a woman to say in public that she didn’t want to have children. It just wasn’t accepted. And I said, “Well, Johnny, if you mean do I want to bear children biologically, I don’t!” The audience was pregnant with tension, and to break it I said, “Who has custody of yours?”

In ’75 they offered me the cover of Time to come out—because they needed a gay story, not because they wanted me to come out or because they were going to do anything particularly correct about gay life. For me at that time, it was sort of like when they asked me to do “Ma Bell” commercials as Ernestine when I first went on Laugh-In; I literally burst into tears when they told me and didn’t take the offer. It was a different time; I came out of the ’60s, and we thought your integrity as an artist was the most important thing in the world.

Nothing’s going to happen except in its time—that’s been my experience in this life.

JR: Was the decision to address it now slightly politically motivated?

In interviews I always reference Jane and talk about Jane, but they don’t always write about it. [When Time and Newsweek printed simultaneous articles] one of them said I share a house with my friend or my roommate or something, Jane Wagner, and one said I live alone. They both knew who I lived with and why, but they didn’t print it.

I don’t even like to talk about this because it sounds windy: My mother was very Christian and Southern—she was a wonderful woman. My brother’s gay—we’re both gay—and it was a source of great, uh, pain for my mother. Not that she didn’t love us and was devoted to us, but it was awkward for her with her Southern family. [Chuckles] She was just happy not to read it in the paper.

In fact, in ’71 or something I did a big interview in The New York Times; it was just when Maria Schneider had been in Last Tango in Paris—she was young girl and had a much darker, European kind of image—and she said something like, “You could say that I’ve slept with 50 men and 20 women.” So I just happened to be interviewed after that interview ran, and I told my interviewer, “You can say I’ve slept with 50 women and 20 men!”

When I was doing the album Modern Scream, I got that call to go on the cover of Time. At that time The Boys in the Band came out; Cliff Gorman played one of the gay guys in that movie but was straight in his personal life—every interview he did, he made sure everybody knew he was straight. So I just flipped all the things he said in interviews. The interviewer, played by me also, is saying things like: “Lily, you play a heterosexual woman in Nashville. How did it feel seeing yourself on the big screen making love to a man?” And I said: “Well, I’ve seen these women all my life. I know how they look.” [Laughs]

That was my protest for thinking Time could co-opt me. I wanted my work to be acknowledged. I got on the cover anyway two years later.

I didn’t want to be known as a gay comedian; I wanted to be known as a human comedian. I don’t think gay people’s experience as humans is so different from any other humans. I was never secretive, but I never held a press conference.

JR: You’re turning 70 next year, but your energy seems unstoppable. Do you have a secret?

No, I think I was just born this way. You could say that about most everything!

Originally published in Just Out, May 30, 2008

Icon on Icon: Lily Tomlin dishes about working with gay legends

Cher (1999’s Tea with Mussolini)

I was on her TV show, too. I’ll tell you a really funny story about Cher. I had to take a different plane home from Italy, and Jane [Wagner] rode home with Cher. Cher was just distraught because she didn’t think she looked good in Tea with Mussolini, and of course she looked quite beautiful.

Jane was comforting her and saying: “Cher, I think you’re overreacting. You really look wonderful.”

And Cher turns and says to Jane, “Well, you don’t think LILY looks good, do you?!” [Laughs]

Cher is one of the most down-to-earth, candid — you can’t help but enjoy her. She’s just so out there in some incredible, individual way.

She sent me one of her books, and she wrote: “Lily, you’re the best. But I’m the greatest.”

Bette Midler (1988’s Big Business)

There’s a kind of brassy innocence about Bette. And she’s so smart. Every day she was reading a new book while we were working; in fact, I remember her reading And the Band Played On.

We were having a hard time with Jim [Abrahams], the director — he’s a sweet guy, but he kept telling us we were too big, we were too broad, and trying to make us take it down. And I said: “Jim, you’ve got to let Bette and me do what we do. You hired us to do this.”

I was getting so unconfident from not knowing what to do or not to do that I brought an acting coach on the set. I didn’t want to embarrass Jim; he knew she was there, but I didn’t make a play about it. So she would send my makeup and hair people — she would put Post-Its under their scarves saying to me, like, “That was good, do that, don’t be afraid to do it” and so on.

Bette’s standing over there with a cigarette and she looks over between takes, and suddenly out of nowhere, she finally sees what’s going on and she says, “I want some of those fuckin’ Post-Its!” and just blows everyone’s cover in a second. She’s kind of spectacular.

At that time [Midler’s daughter] Sophie was just a toddler — she’s grown now and graduated Yale, I think, and looks just like Bette — and she was looking for a new nanny. She said, “I interviewed this woman, and I like her, but she told me she wasn’t responsible for Sudden Infant Death.” [Giggles]

I said, “Well, you’re not going to hire her?”

She said, “Well, I’m going to interview her again.”

I said, “Get in injunction right now! Don’t let her near the house!”

For someone so brilliant as she is and so amazingly funny and conversant in so many things, she would sometimes do the most surprising, endearing, naïve things.

Dolly Parton (1980’s Nine to Five)

Well, Dolly’s not innocent. Dolly’s as sassy and saucy as they can be. So sharp and knows what she wants and she doesn’t suffer fools, although you’d never know it — she’s just as charming as she can be! But rather than show that she’s put out, she’ll just disappear, she’ll just get whisked away.

She’s another one that’s spectacular. I saw Dolly at her first concert. It was ’77, and I was friends with Sandy Gallin, who was her manager for a long time and really engineered her crossover from country to mainstream. She played at The Bottom Line in New York, then she came to see me in Appearing Nightly. You knew right away she was just dynamite.

Jane Fonda (1980’s Nine to Five)

She’s another one that’s innocent, but her innocence is very different. Her innocence is so girlish, so good. When she throws herself into something, it’s just amazing the commitment. She absolutely just gives her all and is tireless about asking other people to help or be a part of it.

[In 1979] Joan Baez had run an ad in The New York Times that I had signed, which was against the Vietnamese government because of the boat people and everything. Of course, Jane and Tom [Hayden, her then husband] were very pro-Vietnamese government at that time because they felt that the war was immoral and so on — as did Joan, but she still, being a pacifist, was against any kind of inhuman treatment. And so was I.

Everyone who signed that ad got a letter from Tom and Jane sort of chastising us for playing into the hands of the military or something. I never said anything to her about it.

[Later, on the set of Nine to Five] she and Dolly and I had really bonded and become great friends. Jane was going to do Norma Rae as a benefit for one of her charities, and she says, “Lily, I want you to join the committee.”

I said: “Well, do you think it’s something really good? Should I sign on to it? Because I always like to do whatever you or Joan Baez ask me to do!”

She pulled away. She just blanched. She didn’t know what to say to me.

I just laughed and said, “I’m just having fun with you.”

We’re still good friends. Dolly has the Nine to Five musical coming out here in L.A. in September. [Allison Janney of The West Wing will star as Tomlin’s character, Violet.]

Madonna (1992’s Shadows and Fog)

I didn’t lay eyes on her. I don’t know that much about Madonna personally. I think one time years ago, maybe during The Search [for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe], Sandra Bernhard brought Madonna backstage for a minute. But there were so many people, I never really got to engage with her at all.

I may be making that up. I can’t remember. It seems like that’s what happened.

Someone told me once that [Greta] Garbo came to see me in Appearing Nightly, my first show. I was just stunned, and I ran out to the street hoping I would catch her. She was in the back seat of her car with the driver, and all she did was … just kind of throw me a kiss or something.

I thought: “I must’ve dreamed that. I don’t think that could be true.”

But then later a fellow at the gay center here in L.A. told me he saw her there that night. Whether he’s hallucinating or not, I don’t know.

Originally published in Just Out, May 30, 2008