15 Camp Film Classics Every Gay Must See
By Michael Musto
MON, 2017-07-31 10:22
Let me dim all the houselights and return to my favorite topic—campy films that you absolutely have to experience in order to attain your gay card. Some of these are campy because they’re trying to be, while others happen to be inadvertently hilarious epics that are so-bad-they’re-good, and that’s what makes them a camp. Whatever the case, go watch them immediately:
Mommie Dearest (1981)
Is it the movie that destroyed Faye Dunaway’s career or the one in which she shone most brilliantly? It’s hard to say, since she won the Golden Razzie for Worst Actress and was the runner-up for the New York Film Critics Best Actress award the very same year. She’s certainly a full throttle Joan (way before Jessica Lange in Feud) as she swivels her shoulder pads, raises her already raised eyebrows, and tortures daughter Christina. The mix of fashion show, tell-all, and Greek drama has long been irresistible to gays, whose nervous laughs always turn into shrieks of horror. Bring me the axe? No, bring me Mommie Dearest. (Faye lovers can also check out The Eyes of Laura Mars, Puzzle of a Downfall Child, and just about everything she ever did).
Valley of the Dolls (1967)
Based on Jacqueline Susann’s sensational best seller, this glimpse at the ups and downs of three show biz lovelies (Patty Duke, Sharon Tate, and Barbara Parkins) is camp heaven, as they succumb to drugs, despair, and old battleax Helen Lawson (Susan Hayward, who replaced Judy Garland, who was the basis for Neely O‘Hara, the character Patty Duke plays. Oh, never mind). “Broadway doesn’t go for booze and dope” is just one of many glorious wisdoms in this rivetingly trashy psychodrama with music. Just mute it whenever the men are onscreen—or whenever they talk about “fags.” (Also check out Jacqueline Susann’s Once is Not Enough, an unintentionally riotous romp involving incest, lesbianism, and alcohol. And for a non-Susanne gem, The Oscar is one of the funniest bad movies ever made, right up until the climactic scene at the Academy Awards. And no, it didn’t win any).
You saw the aforementioned Feud. Well, this is the movie at the core of it—a brilliantly funny and dark tale of rival sisters, played by real-life arch-enemies Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, who brought all their mutual loathing to the screen and then some. The sight of Bette in pin curls, singing “I’ve Written A Letter to Daddy,” is spine-chilling, as Joan emotes up a storm while being served non-traditional meals like rat and parakeet. Gay character actor Victor Buono is the outcast who agrees to play piano for Jane’s comeback, only to realize he’s stepped into some very horrible shit. The success of this film not only reignited the stars’ careers, it led to a spate of other horror films with old ladies, which I call “Granny Guignol.”
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
As bitterly married associate professor and earth mother George and Martha, Liz Taylor and Richard Burton are brilliant, bringing their off-screen dynamics to their banter, bitchery, and occasional warmth. Mike Nichols’ adaptation of the Edward Albee play is a searing, black-and-white exploration into the barren lives of childless couples at war with sense and sanity. (Sandy Dennis and George Segal play the younger twosome who come by for a drinkie and probably wish they hadn’t). By the end of the film, you’ll be calling your boyfriend “swampy” while humping the hostess.
“Do you know where you going to?” Yes, to any revival house showing this film, a gorgeous campfest with Diana Ross as a famous designer in brocaded kimonos whose man (Billy Dee Williams) is a flop, though she gives up everything in order to be with him and be a good retrograde gal. Anthony Perkins is along for the ride as a crazed gay photographer (a real stretch), and the whole thing is so ridiculously offensive, I’ve seen it 5,000 times.
The Concorde … Airport ’79 (1979)
What a flight full of kooks in this, the final Airport flick. There’s Martha Raye continually running to the bathroom to relieve her weak bladder. Jimmie “J.J.” Walker doing the same, but to get high and play sax. Andrea Marcovicci as a Russian gymnast in love with newscaster John Davidson, probably because they seem to have the same hairdresser. (Mercedes McCambridge, as Andrea’s manager, disapproves from across the aisle). Charo walking aboard with a chihuahua, claiming it’s her seeing eye dog, and telling the flight attendant “Don’t mis-con-screw me.” And Ingmar Bergman actress Bibi Andersson as a hooker trying to make co-pilot George Kennedy feel wanted. You want the thing to crash! Oh, and I forgot Avery Schreiber as a Russian athlete with an adorable deaf daughter! Oy!
Auntie Mame (1958)
Rosalind Russell repeats her stage triumph as the flamboyant socialite who surrounds herself with cracked but lovable people (like the repressed—but not for long—Agnes Gooch) and who has to prove she can mentor her young nephew. In other words, she’s a gay man! Best line: “Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death.” But Auntie Mame provides a rich meal. (And for less logical laughs, try Mame, in which Lucille Ball croaks out the score and the screen suddenly goes fuzzy whenever she’s in closeup. We could all use her cinematographer).
The Boys in the Band (1970)
Mart Crowley’s landmark play about a bitchy birthday party that turns extra ugly was an early look at gay men and their camaraderie and cattiness. (And I always felt it owed a big debt to Virginia Woolf?)The movie captures the excellent stage cast (especially Leonard Frey as the withering Harold and Cliff Gorman as the swishy Emory, aka Connie Casserole) and though things get icky, this was the perfect comment for its time, when gay men weren’t afforded the right to be carefree. William Friedkin (who went on to do The Exorcist and Cruising) directed.
The Killing of Sister George (1968)
This is an over-the-top version of a play about a soap opera actress (Beryl Reid) who’s about to be fired, and her dependent younger girlfriend, Childie (Susannah York), who becomes less dependent when Coral Browne swoops in as a predatory S&M lesbian. The whole thing is gross and reactionary, but kind of enjoyable on a camp level. Robert Aldrich (Baby Jane) directed.
Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkley) is a showgirl with a lot of angst, but she’s headed all the way to the top of the Las Vegas heap, especially as she battles scene queen Crystal (Gina Gershon) for the crown, stairways and all. Paul Verhoeven’s film of Joe Eszterhas’s script is insane, with loony references to rape and AIDS, in between all sorts of lap dances and underwater blow jobs. I resisted this film at first before realizing it’s some kind of classic, for sure. Sample dialogue: “Must be weird not having anybody cum on you.”
Steel Magnolias (1989)
A slight play by Robert Harling becomes a full-scale diva-thon, set in a Louisiana beauty parlor. The chirping Southern women are played by Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine, Olympia Dukakis, Julia Roberts, and Daryl Hannah—and the fun is in the casting, the interplay, the bitchery, the caring, and fortune cookie wisdoms like, “I would rather have 30 minutes of wonderful than a lifetime of nothing special.” This is a straight movie for gays.
Funny Girl (1968)
Barbra Streisand recreated her Broadway role of 1920s entertainer Fanny Brice, and proves to be the greatest star indeed. Her ugly-duckling-turned-swan glamour, electric personality, self-deprecating humor, and pathos “(My Man”), all while pining for a hot but hopeless man, makes this essential viewing for any serious homosexual.
The Rose (1979)
I will hereby commit heresy and say that this film is not very good, and also that, while it supposedly riffs on the Janis Joplin legacy, I don’t see any clear connection (except for the obvious descents into booze, drugs, and wailing). But still, it gave Bette Midler her biggest star vehicle at that time, and most gays don’t see anything wrong with it. Do check it out, with medium expectations.
A singer (played by Mariah Carey) is stardom-bound, but still has to deal with the mother who forgot her. The only redeeming value is that this film came out in the wake of 9/11 and people desperately needed a laugh. (But for true ineptitude, try The Room, easily the most enjoyable film ever made that thinks it’s good. James Franco has done an upcoming movie called The Disaster Artist about the making of it, and it looks scarily accurate).
Imitation of Life (1959)
Fannie Hurst’s melodramatic novel becomes a lush soap opera starring Lana Turner as a heat seeking actress, Juanita Moore as a noble black woman and Susan Kohner as her daughter who passes for white. The treatment of the serious racial issue does manage to crawl through the kitschy gloss, and actually proves effective—also made in 1934, with Claudette Colbert.
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