The passage of the “Marriage Equity Act” in New York in the early summer of 2011 gives Beginners a special resonance. The story is a simple but painful one: after a lifetime of living in the closet, an elderly man reveals that he is gay. Based on a true story, Beginners refers to the well-known museum director, Paul Mills who died in 2004. Mills was very important in the art circles of northern California. It was he who realized in the early 1950s that the Bay Area was the site of an independent response to Abstract Expressionism in New York City. It was he who brought together the Bay Area painters in 1957 at the Oakland Museum exhibition’s “New Bay Area Figurative Painting.” Spotting and creating a new art movement became an important role for museum directors and curators and the show that Mills put together was of historical significance.
In 1970 he moved to the museum in Santa Barbara and continued his concentration on California art. The museum website states that Mills was “a flag designer and enthusiast who initiated the Breakwater Flag Project for the harbor in Santa Barbara. Who knew? Upon the death of his wife, Jan, Mills started a new life as a gay man in 1999. Sadly he died of cancer four years later. Beginners begins with the brief life and sad death of “Hal,” the surrogate for the real life museum director. The highly fictionalized story of a son supporting his father’s new life as an authentic person stars two of the best actors from England, Christopher Plummer and Ewan McGregor, who are, as always, excellent in their roles.
I do not approve critics who criticize art for not being what s/he wants it to be. I feel that art should be judged on its own merits, in its own terms, as it stands. That said, despite the presence of a sexy French love interest and a talking dog, the film is boring. I sat through the entire movie because I paid for it and wanted to get my money’s worth. Sadly, in pursuit of exploring the gaiety of being gay, this film took a slightly patronizing approach to an older man re-entering the contemporary world of gay life and discovering the joys of “house music.” Like Lady Chatterley, “Hal” finds a younger lower class man to awaken him into his true nature and the old man seems to have been able to make the transition from straight to gay without any psychological turmoil. True, northern California at the Millennium had no issues with gay people, which brings us to an unanswered question—-why was this man in the closet so long.
“Oliver’s” parents were married in the dark decade of the 1950s, in the shadow of the poison of the McCarthy hearings and witch hunts against homosexuals. The fifties was also a decade of conformity by a culture that wanted to get back to “normal” and to stay out of trouble. For a gay man, the closet was the only choice for a safe life and many women married these men, knowingly—in the case of Oliver’s mother—-or unknowingly. For a woman the fate of being single, an “old maid” was as socially reprehensible as it would have been for a man to admit he was gay. For these couples, marriage was an arrangement. Whatever children that resulted from these unions of convenience stood as guarantees that the secrets of the family were safe. It is still widely believed, even today, that if a man is married and has children he is not gay.
These marriages could be respectful and affectionate and practical, but they would also be empty of what people, men and women, had come to expect—romantic love and passion. One can understand, given the political and social climate of the fifties and sixties, why Oliver’s parents remained married. But by the 1970s gay men, in and out of California, were eyewitnesses to the liberation of gays and lesbians. True, in the eighties, there was regression and suppression of the rights of all and any minorities, including the rights of the majority—women—but in California being gay was accepted. In real life Paul Mills was living in the arts community, a community that was and is full of successful and openly gay people in the university town of Santa Barbara. One of the mysteries that the film does not answer is why did the marriage, so obviously unhappy, drag on long after the need to live in the closet had passes? The only answer can be the psychological closet that kept the generation of the fifties trapped, in denial, in unhappiness, in emptiness.
The strength of social prejudices against gay men persists, and there are countless men who disguise themselves as “straight” and, like the former governor of New Jersey, do real harm to other innocent people in the process. The film shows the wife’s aching unhappiness and her empty existence but “Hal” takes no responsibility. He merely says blithely that the wife was are that Hal was gay and she wanted to marry him. So the victim is blamed for her fate—being trapped in a marriage of deprivation that she willfully chose. Not a word is said of why Hal should agree to such an arrangement, but it is clear that marriage to a woman who was his “beard” would give him cover in a period of prejudice. One can only imagine that the wife could not have born the shame of revelations and the humiliation of the divorce.
And here is where I think the movie missed the opportunity to explore some powerful issues that are still painfully pertinent in American life. California (where there is widespread acceptance of the GLBT community) and New York (where the right to marry is recognized as a civil right) are not the rest of America. We are living in a nation where an apparent candidate for president spies on gay people, runs screaming from lesbians and who has a husband who uses federal money to “cure” gays who he perceives to be “barbarians” who must be “disciplined.” We are also a nation where one of the most popular sit-coms, Modern Family, features a gay couple who as adopted a child. Despite the vital role popular culture has played widening the acceptance of gay people, there are places in America where gay men and women life in the closet.
To live in the closet is to live an unauthentic life, dedicated to appeasing the bigotry and inhumanity of a group of people who are increasing looked at askance. The anti-gay forces resent being referred to as “haters” and have seen their organizations recognized as “hate groups” on par with the Klu Klux Klan. The tragedy is that an uncounted number of men and women are forced to live in shame and fear, trapped by the ugly bigotry of self-righteous and cruel forces. If Beginners can join the ranks of a growing number of films that present gays and lesbians as spouses and parents who love and care for each other and their children, then this film will have done a good thing. The Kids are Alright was not shown in certain parts of the country and was, undoubtedly, not shown on local cable channels lest local sensibilities be disturbed by seeing gays portrayed as human beings. Beginners is a feel-good film that skims over the dark and disturbing discrimination that was so powerful that a good and decent man had only four years to live his real life.
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette
The Arts Blogger