At the risk of taking my readers into “Otalia overload,” I just wanted to post a follow-up to my column from a few days ago about the “breathtaking week” on Guiding Light.
Over 700 fans had the chance to talk to Crystal Chappell (Olivia) last week; the Big Purple Dreams site has the transcript here. Most of those questions, of course, had to do with Otalia. Here was one that I noticed:
Q: Do you feel a responsibility to the LGBT community in terms of the way you are playing this role, or are you just playing this as a “love story” without thinking that deeply about the social aspect?
CRYSTAL: Jill [Lorie Hurst, head writer] and I talked about “The Children’s Hour”. We’ve been talking about this for about 7 years.
I’m so thrilled as an actor to be able to tell a story that’s different and relevant. I have no control over how they write it but I knew they would take good care of it. And that was exciting. Yes, I do feel responsible but it’s also my responsibility to tell a good story. I have to learn to trust them. They’ve handled it well. Ellen pitched it as a love story with no labels. She wanted to reach out beyond the labels. (NOTE: This seems, to me, to be a crystal-clear reason why Telenext didn’t package or promote Otalia as a ‘gay storyline’.)
I was really, REALLY impressed at the fact that Crystal (and Jill Lorie Hurst) mentioned The Children’s Hour.
Why? Well, it means someone – finally, someone in daytime! – has really thought about and understood the history and the context of telling stories about LGBT people. And to fully explain the context of The Children’s Hour, I also have to mention The Celluloid Closet.
Closet was a book by Vito Russo, who was a film archivist. The book was later made into a documentary film featuring dozens of actors, and narrated by Lily Tomlin.
Russo was an openly gay man at a time where that was a rarity, and before his death from AIDS-related complications in 1990, he wrote The Celluloid Closet to capture the complete picture of LGBT people in film.
And that picture? Was NOT a pretty picture. Here’s a clip of Shirley MacClaine talking about her performance as one of the leads in the film version of The Children’s Hour. The clip also features writer and activist Suzie Bright.
One of the things that the book and film keep driving home is that even if LGBT people were allowed to exist in a fictional universe, their story was never allowed to be a life-affirming one.
Martha and Karen were the Olivia and Natalia of their time, but the revelations of those feelings cause reactions and a truly unhappy ending. Here’s a clip that summarizes that journey for Shirley MacClaine’s Martha. (It’s a big fuzzy in places; also, be aware that this is dark and graphic material, particularly after 3:30.)
If you were one of those people who didn’t understand why some of us were so upset with the Reese and Bianca story – why we would be so angry about Reese being shown kissing a man or being blinded in an injury – or why we’d be uneasy about the depiction of a lesbian being raped, I hope that this gives you some context and understanding.
Decades upon decades of stories about LGBT people were told in ways that forced those characters to be someone else other than who they truly and authentically were – or punished them for having the audacity to pick a different path.
It’s also the reason why LGBT fans – and any fan of fictional worlds with authentic characters – are drawn to stories like Otalia, like Kevin and Scotty on Brothers & Sisters, because we are able to see their lives. They may be messy lives, complicated lives, but they are fully realized ones.
And lest you think that The Celluloid Closet, published over 25 years ago, is outdated, think again. It’s true that many films have shown LGBT lives in a positive light, but most of those films are indie films, viewed primarily by a gay audience.
In & Out was perhaps the most mainstream LGBT-based film, but like Will & Grace, it was all played for comedy with characters that seemed to be gay in name only. For every Transamerica, there are many other throwbacks to unhappy endings.
Consider this: The last two LGBT-themed films nominated for an Oscar – Brokeback Mountain and Milk – both featured leading characters who were killed at the end of the movie.
And in that context, I hope you enjoy and appreciate the fact that in the fictional universe of Springfield, somewhere between the church and Company, the mini-mart and the motel, in the parking lots and park and in the gazebo, two women are finding their way together, a pathway that leads to each other – and a pathway that hopefully will not meet an abrupt and violent end.
P.S.: If you have a chance, read The Celluloid Closet or find a copy of the movie at your local video store or library (or on Netflix).
EDITED TO ADD: As someone elsewhere wisely pointed out, Shirley MacClaine’s 75th birthday is this Friday, April 24th.
To mark this occasion, Turner Classic Movies will show four of MacClaine’s movies on Friday. And yes, The Children’s Hour is one of them. It’s on at 6 pm (EST) – so if you want to see it or record it, check your TiVo (and your local listings).