Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Secret TV Business

With ABC1's miniseries Paper Giants making the big splash that it did - I didn't get a chance to see it as it aired, but from what I've heard y'all better get used to seeing Asher Keddie win awards - I found it somewhat humourous that Quickflix chose to send me two made-for-TV movies this past week. One is much more famous than the other, but I suspect if more people knew about the lesser-known Australian one that they'd be inclined to check it out due to its cast.

Simon Baker, Jeremy Callaghan, Marcus Graham and Ben Mendelsohn

Secret Men's Business was made in 1999 and stars Ben Mendelsohn, Simon Baker, Marcus Graham, Jeremy Sims and Jeremy Callaghan as five school friends who come together after the death of a beloved teacher. A teacher who, by the way, basically ruined his career by taking the fall for a mistake that was the boys' fault. It's got some trite dialogue and the scope feels sadly stage-bound, but there's something in the way these men interact that is interesting. The idea that straight men are always competing with one another to prove who is the most macho, the most sexually superior and so on has been looked at better in other places, but the overt sexuality to Ken Cameron's direction gives Secret Men's Business a leg up. It doesn't shy away from presenting men as either sexually deviant (the stereotype) and sexually content; they're routinely seen undressed, touching each other and parading about showing off their bodies. We see more of Mendelsohn's skin than any of the women that swan in and out of the proceedings.

Simon Baker was beginning to break out at the time of this, having spent the majority of the 1990s on local soaps E Street, Home & Away and Heartbreak High before a small role in LA Confidential in 1997 lead him to greener pastures. In 2000 he received an AFI Award nomination for his role and was soon cast in The Guardian. Ben Mendelsohn, still looking baby-faced here at odds with his character, on the other hand has always been there in the Aussie film industry and remains to this day, but with his award winning role in Animal Kingdom being seen by a larger number of international viewers it will be interesting to see if people bother to investigate his amazing career. They both do fine work, better than Graham and Jeremy Sims who are working within much smaller character stereotypes, but it's the largely unheralded Jeremy Callaghan who impressed me the most as the meek "Ian Mooney". It's impressive in some aspects, but doesn't quite do enough with its subject (like, say, Men's Group). C+

For the record, Secret Men's Business is all on YouTube if you're unable to find it on DVD.

Whereas Secret Men's Business uses a very tight ensemble to tell it's story, Roger Spottiswoode went in the opposite direction with his Emmy Award-winning TV movie And the Band Played On. With a cast list and unfolding storyline that reads as the definition of "sprawling", this film is set mostly in the 1980s and tells the story of the discovery, and subsequent behind-the-scenes political wrangling, of AIDS. First amongst the gay community, then the Haitian community and then become a full-blown epidemic that knew no sexuality, gender or race.

It's fascinating to learn all the things that went wrong in the fight to control the disease as it swept primarily through America's gay culture. And not just wrong on the side of President Reagan, his government and organisations like the Red Cross (who chose not to spend money testing blood for AIDS "just because" some of the nation's supply had been tainted!), but also on the side of the gay people who refused to open their eyes to the catastrophe that was coming their way.

It stars Matthew Modine - you know, that one from Full Metal Jacket that isn't R Lee Ermey for Vincent D'Onofrio - and Saul Rubinek as scientists, but features all sorts of other actors. There are the respected thespians of Alan Alda, Lily Tomlin, Ian McKellen Steve Martin, Anjelica Huston and Richard Gere. And then there are the character actors that give so much energy to the peripherals of the film, Swoosie Kurtz (stealing best in film honours from Lily Tomlin), Charles Martin Smith, Glenne Headly, BD Wong, Richard Jenkins, Bud Cort, David Marshall Grant and, yes, even Phil Collins.

Curiously, And the Band Played On - I assume it's title is a riff on iconic gay pre-AIDS play/film The Boys in the Band - was released in the same year as Jonathan Demme's Philadelphia and while it's certainly a more brazen film than that one ever was, this was still 1993 and while characters may be more outward in their homosexuality, the film is still muted on expressing affection visually. For a film that tries so hard to expel the myths of how AIDS is passed between people, not one AIDS patient is seen kissing someone on the lips.

I'm lead to believe that Randy Shilts' book was a very big undertaking to adapt and that the screenplay by Arnold Schulman does a good job of condensing the saga down into a easily understandable 140 minutes. What casual everyday audiences made of the film at the time would be fascinating to find out, although I did find that Spottiswoode was... I don't want to say pandering, but definitely put a large focus on the non-gay aspects of the crisis. The scene with Swoosie Kurtz, for instance, feels like a moment to help those straight viewers feel included even if they didn't know what "the gay thing" was all. The best part of the film was the five minute epilogue set to Elton John's "The Last Song" over a montage of people, famous and otherwise, who died from or contracted the illness. It's direct and stirring in a way that hours of medical jargon - a subplot with Alan Alda is necessary part of the history of AIDS, but feels clunky in a film that's already heavy in exposition - simply can't do. Even though it was made in 1993, and much has happened in the near 20 years since then, And the Band Plays On remains a pertinent movie and one of the bravest TV movies I can recall. B


Outland Institute said...

I always thought And The Band Played On was a Titanic reference, but I know think you're right it's about Boys In The Band.

I remember getting it out from the video library - on VHS! I'm old! - and the blurb on the back of the box managed to describe the film without once using the words "gay" or "AIDS" which is a bit like describing - um - "Titanic" without mentioning boats or icebergs.

mickche said...

seen and own Secret Men's Business. At the time, Radiance and Erkinsville Kings were also released which were far superior to SM'sB.

Glenn Dunks said...

Mickche, definitely agreed about Radiance and Erskinville Kings, the latter which features Hugh Jackman's best performance outside of probably The Fountain.

Anonymous said...

The title is a reference to the Titanic, not to 'Boys In The Band'.