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Moulin rumba: Baz Luhrmann, creator of the fantasy musicals Moulin Rouge and Strictly Ballroom, redefines "gay sensibility" by including straight folks too. (The Hollywood Issue).

Is Baz Luhrmann the gayest straight man alive? "Well, I'm not sure how straight I am," cracks the Australian director of Strictly Ballroom, William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet, and the multi-Oscar-nominated Moulin Rouge. Luhrmann may be married to his production designer, Catherine Martin, but the devout bohemian in him steadfastly refuses to be compartmentalized: "I'm from Sydney. The rest of the world may think we're a nation of yobs, but our gay Mardi Gras is broadcast on national television, and families bring their lawn chairs out to watch it. When it comes to the gay sensibility, it's part of the fabric of our lives. We just go, `Yeah? So?'"

That sensibility, marked by intensely colorful costumes, elaborately detailed sets, and brash musical choices, saturates Luhrmann's three feature films, the first of which, Strictly Ballroom, receives a 10th-anniversary DVD release March 19. For those just now catching up to Luhrmann's work, Strictly Ballroom, a musical minus the singing, was the first in his "Red Curtain" trilogy of highly theatrical, emotionally charged films. The story of an upstart ballroom dancer (Paul Mercurio) and his frumpy novice partner (Tara Morice), Ballroom wore its rule-breaking heart on its sleeve while winking at the campier aspects of the ballroom subculture, such as dance routines with names like "the Fruity Rumba."

"It's completely about joy and the triumph over artistic oppression," says Luhrmann. "Yes, it's comically ironic. Yes, it's corny and silly, but it's also saying, `Come join in it with us.'"

Enough people joined in the silliness to make Ballroom one the highest-grossing films of all time in Australia and a breakout success in the United States, where it moved beyond art-house cinemas into suburban multiplexes. The next two films, Romeo and Rouge, grew from the same template. "All three films are connected," Luhrmann explains. "They're all based on a myth, you know how they're going to end, they're set in a heightened, exotic, fantastic world that's sort of familiar but also not, and there's a device that contracts the audience: dance, iambic pentameter, or song. It's been 10 years of work that's been an investigation and expansion of this cinematic language." And if they've grown in scale since then, Luhrmann's extravagant bohemian manifestos have become positively postironic. "You have to accept the contract and be open to it. In Moulin Rouge, when we say, `truth, beauty, freedom, but above all, love,' we mean every word of it. I believe in that absolutely."

Oscar voters believed it too, nominating the film for eight Academy Awards, including Best Motion Picture. Though his spouse, Martin, is nominated in the art direction category, Luhrmann himself was overlooked as a Best Director nominee. "I won't pretend that it's not disappointing, but in all honesty, for a musical to be nominated for Best Picture and to have helped create that, I can't be anything but happy about."

More than the prospect of awards, Luhrmann is most happy about resurrecting a type of "beautifully artificial" cinema for all to see, not simply the gay audience that seems stereotypically linked to it. "I'm honored when anyone finds joy in the films we've made, when they let it get to their hearts. But when we say that musicals are gay, then we'd have to say that from the 1930s to the 1960s, when musicals were the dominant cinematic form, that the entire United States was gay," he says, laughing. "The truth is that if you look at the things that people put into the 'gay sensibility' basket, you'll find that it all simply comes down to being open and emotionally connected, and if you call it strictly gay, then you exclude nongay people from enjoying it."

White writes about film for E! Online.
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Article Details
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Author:White, Dave
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 2, 2002
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