April 17, 2003

Under the Radar

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No one can really agree what makes a movie wonderful, films are two personal for that. We can, for the most part, agree on what makes a good movie: well written script, inventive direction and camera work, competent actors. And we can agree that a bad movie derives from the lack of those qualities. What, then, are we to make of Love! Valour! Compassion!, which has stock characters, a plot Roger Ebert charitably calls classic (ie, it consists of three acts and the emergence and resolution of a problem), occasionally good cinematography, the worst case of overacting ever, one trauma inducing scene, and a pair of truly great performances? This is not truly mediocracy. The bad elements do not lessen the essential artistry of the good ones, nor do the good ones save the rest from being crap. The film remains, a maddening present from Terrence McNally, who adapted his Tony Award winning play to the screen.

Love follows eight gay men (friends, lovers, and family) through a series of summer gatherings at the summer house of Gregory (Stephen Bogardus), a choreographer. Gregory shares the house with his ego and his habitually un-faithful lover, Bobby (Justin Kirk), who is blind. One of the characters, upon arriving, observes: “what kind of statement do you think that makes about his work, living with a blind person?” The characters, for the most part, are easily identifiable types and not especially interesting. McNally is more than capable of crafting fascinating individuals, but for the most part he fails to do so here. One of the reasons for his failure is that he makes his characters gay archetypes first, and people second. There’s The Couple (John Hickey and Stephen Spinella), for example, a pair of Volvo driving yuppies, who are pretty much the only functional characters in the movie and certainly the most boring. There’s also, horror of horrors, Jason Alexander as the showtune buff. And, at one point a semi-naked Jason Alexander. This would be the traumatic scene. It’s not enough the man can’t act (although he’s not the worst in the cast, that honor goes to Kirk) they have to inflict his hairy back on us too.

And then there’s John Glover, who belongs in another, better, movie. Glover has the role of twins, John and James. Yes, one of them is nasty and the other is nice. It’s that kind of movie. Why imply anything when you can spell it out for the audience in 72 point red font?

Dual roles are historically disastrous. It’s hard to create one believable character, let alone two. It’s harder still to make each a believable person, noticeably different in manner and speech from the other. It’s practically impossible to do this and give a performance so mesmerizing the audience will watch you and not spend their time trying to figure out the trick behind your appearing on screen in two places at once. Glover accomplishes all this and more.

It is a truth pretty much universally acknowledged that villains are more fun to watch than heroes, especially ones so noble as James, who spends most of the movie dying heroically. And suffering with patience Job would envy. And displaying flashes of gentle humor. And speaking with a British accent. It is so very tempting to hate James. But Glover, through sheer force of will, keeps James from being a cardboard saint and makes him a person.

He works equal wonders with John, who is so bitter, so corrosive, that he poisons every situation in which he finds himself. Glover has a face which loudly suggests that he used to be beautiful, a very long time ago. As John, he looks a bit like Dorian Grey, eaten from the inside out by his own bile. Glover’s made a career of playing over the top baddies, people who are Ee-ville (try the Sir Alec Guinness pronunciation for the full effect). He can chew the scenery with the best of them. He doesn’t do that here, keeping John on a permanent slow burn; human and petty and pitiable at his worst. And when he finally does erupt (twice, and the first time, when he explains what ‘fuck you’ really means, should serve as warning for the second) he is genuinely scary. He wishes someone a horrible death in something approaching a hiss, so much venom behind each word that you’re amazed when the victim doesn’t keel over on the spot. The thing of it is, John is, at times, very funny, very right, and downright likeable.

As amazing as each performance is, taken together, they’re almost incredible. The brothers are English, but John’s been in the US 20 years longer than James, and his accent is noticeably softer. James is frail and wasted with illness, John has a lean and hungry look. We never doubt that we are watching two very different people, and the pay off is the one scene they share. The self-awareness John reveals in their encounter, an almost death-bed scene, is painful to watch: “you got the good soul. I got the bad one.” As written, the line is a melodramatic, soap opera-esque pronouncement. But Glover delivers it with such absolute conviction, such simmering frustration, and with such fear in his eyes that it rings excruciatingly true. Would that the same could be said for the rest of the movie.

Archived article by Erica Stein