November 15, 1996 in Seven

‘Stonewall’ A Gay-Rights Love Story

By The Spokesman-Review
 

If you were to ask a typical Spokane audience to react to the word “Stonewall,” you’d likely hear mention of a certain Civil War soldier.

This is not meant as a criticism. The Stonewall riot of 1969 doesn’t exactly hold the same place in mainstream American history as any number of brilliant Southern generals.

Even a gay Spokane audience might not be unanimous in its knowledge of the New York club that saw a notable battle between gay men and lesbians and the New York Police Department. Ignorance of history has nothing to do with sexual preference.

But at least a slight knowledge of the incident is important to understanding Nigel Finch’s film “Stonewall,” which is a “fictionalization” of the book by Martin Duberman. And, in fact, a slight knowledge of the incident is precisely what “Stonewall” provides.

Still, that little is enough. For Finch’s film hits what is important, and then it goes on to offer more. It is not meant to be a documentary; on the most basic level, it is a love story.

Or stories, to be specific. The main one involves Matty Dean (Frederick Weller), a big ol’ gay country boy come to the Big Apple. He wastes no time hooking up with drag queen LaMiranda (Guillermo Diaz) and his/her friends.

When the cops bust the club at which they’re partying, which is called the Stonewall Inn, Matty comes to feisty LaMiranda’s defense. He gets a broken nose for his troubles, but he wins LaMiranda’s heart in the process.

Matty is not just a farm boy, however. He, more than anyone else in the film, is committed to changing society. When LaMiranda and her friends spoof his activism, he turns to a more mainstream-friendly gay group that wants to ease into the spotlight.

But that group has its limitations, too. And, ultimately, Matty is drawn back to the Stonewall on the night of Judy Garland’s death, a night that wrists will straighten more than enough to beat back police batons.

The film employs a number of subplots, including the struggle of a club owner (Bruce MacVittie) to reconcile his desire for “normalcy” with his love for a towering black drag queen named Bostonia (Duane Boutte). There is the Columbia professor (Brendan Corbalis) who introduces Matty to the mixed pleasures of gay life on Fire Island. And there is the activist group which, ironically, is served liquor at every bar in New York - except for the Stonewall.

All these side stories add to the film’s texture, as do the opening minutes that show film footage of the actual club and the lip-sync musical numbers that serve much the same function as a Greek chorus (although they’re far more entertaining). But none take precedence over the love story between Matty and La Miranda.

That story, underscored by the powerful performances of both actors, provides “Stonewall” with the human quality that documentaries so often overlook.

Like most movie versions of history, “Stonewall” doesn’t relate the exact reality of what happened at that gay club on that one fateful night. But it relates the spirit, and it suggests what the future will bring.

As LaMiranda says, “We’re as American as apple pie.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: “STONEWALL” ***-1/2 Location: Magic Lantern Cinemas Credits: Directed by Nigel Finch, starring Guillermo Diaz, Frederick Weller, Brendan Corbalis, Duane Boutte and Bruce McVattie Running time: 1:38 Rating: Not rated (but is equivalent to an R for sexual situations, violence and language)

OTHER VIEWS Here’s what other critics say about “Stonewall:” John Anderson/Newsday: A menage a trois of fantasy, melodrama and faux-documentary, “Stonewall” - the late Nigel Finch’s riff on the riot that accelerated gay liberation - is, much like the drag queens who populate it, defiant, and defiantly contemptuous of acceptable behavior. Which is exactly why it works so well. Kevin Thomas/Los Angeles Times: Lamentably, however, it devotes only its final five minutes to the riots themselves and then only their onset, never suggesting, even via a printed statement, their scope, duration and enduring significance. All the gay men and women who joined the brave drag queens in standing up for their rights at Stonewall deserve more commemoration than this short shrift. Stephen Holden/New York Times: Where (Martin) Duberman’s book followed the lives of several real-life participants in the Stonewall rebellion and the movement it inaugurated, the movie has made them into fictional composites who are forced to carry too much symbolic weight. Chris Hewitt/St. Paul Pioneer Press: “Stonewall’s” actors are always solid, but the script is not. Writer/director Nigel Finch, who died before the movie was completed, can be melodramatic and didactic. And the film’s central device - a group of drag queens functioning as a Greek chorus, if you can imagine a Greek chorus in push-up bras singing “Jimmy Mack” - is jarring. Michael Janusonis/Providence Journal: Director Nigel Finch’s film, based on Martin Duberman’s book, mixes moments of power and poignancy with long stretches of hackneyed melodrama. In the end, though, it’s a moving and fascinating piece of social history which is valuable, and not just to homosexuals, as a history of how the gay pride movement came to be. It’s also an eye-opening and sometimes quaint look at the way things used to be in America … and not so many years ago … when bigotry was part of the law. Robert W. Butler/Kansas City Star: … there’s no arguing that Nigel Finch’s “Stonewall” is a touching, romantic and remarkably funny melodrama that follows several fictional characters through the weeks leading up to the big incident. Eleanor Ringel/Cox News Service: What the movie does especially well is present the tensions that arise in any movement between different factions.

This sidebar appeared with the story: “STONEWALL” ***-1/2 Location: Magic Lantern Cinemas Credits: Directed by Nigel Finch, starring Guillermo Diaz, Frederick Weller, Brendan Corbalis, Duane Boutte and Bruce McVattie Running time: 1:38 Rating: Not rated (but is equivalent to an R for sexual situations, violence and language)

OTHER VIEWS Here’s what other critics say about “Stonewall:” John Anderson/Newsday: A menage a trois of fantasy, melodrama and faux-documentary, “Stonewall” - the late Nigel Finch’s riff on the riot that accelerated gay liberation - is, much like the drag queens who populate it, defiant, and defiantly contemptuous of acceptable behavior. Which is exactly why it works so well. Kevin Thomas/Los Angeles Times: Lamentably, however, it devotes only its final five minutes to the riots themselves and then only their onset, never suggesting, even via a printed statement, their scope, duration and enduring significance. All the gay men and women who joined the brave drag queens in standing up for their rights at Stonewall deserve more commemoration than this short shrift. Stephen Holden/New York Times: Where (Martin) Duberman’s book followed the lives of several real-life participants in the Stonewall rebellion and the movement it inaugurated, the movie has made them into fictional composites who are forced to carry too much symbolic weight. Chris Hewitt/St. Paul Pioneer Press: “Stonewall’s” actors are always solid, but the script is not. Writer/director Nigel Finch, who died before the movie was completed, can be melodramatic and didactic. And the film’s central device - a group of drag queens functioning as a Greek chorus, if you can imagine a Greek chorus in push-up bras singing “Jimmy Mack” - is jarring. Michael Janusonis/Providence Journal: Director Nigel Finch’s film, based on Martin Duberman’s book, mixes moments of power and poignancy with long stretches of hackneyed melodrama. In the end, though, it’s a moving and fascinating piece of social history which is valuable, and not just to homosexuals, as a history of how the gay pride movement came to be. It’s also an eye-opening and sometimes quaint look at the way things used to be in America … and not so many years ago … when bigotry was part of the law. Robert W. Butler/Kansas City Star: … there’s no arguing that Nigel Finch’s “Stonewall” is a touching, romantic and remarkably funny melodrama that follows several fictional characters through the weeks leading up to the big incident. Eleanor Ringel/Cox News Service: What the movie does especially well is present the tensions that arise in any movement between different factions.


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