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Screen gem.

From Stonewall to Warhol, independent film producer Christine Vachon told authentic lesbian and gay stories in 1996

If anything is a constant within the roller-coaster world of gay and lesbian independent filmmaking, it is the determined presence of producer Christine Vachon. She started 1996 with a double bang: a pair of premieres at the Sundance Film Festival for Mary Harron's I Shot Andy Warhol and the late Nigel Finch's Stonewall. Vachon then shepherded two more films through the creative minefield: a straight one, artist Cindy Sherman's Office Killer; and a gay one, Tony Vitale's Kiss Me, Guido.

Since her first feature, Todd Haynes's 1991 landmark Poison, Vachon has produced ten movies. In the process she has earned respect in the independent film world - and helped put gays and lesbians on Hollywood's radar screen. As 1996 ended Vachon spoke to The Advocate about the state of gay and lesbian filmmaking before flying the coop for London, where she's now in production on Haynes's Velvet Goldmine.

"It's hard to say where we're at," Vachon begins. "I always have the same problem with how to qualify 'gay and lesbian' film. It's always amazed me that people think the so-called gay and lesbian audience wants something different than the so-called straight audience. They don't."

Vachon believes all audiences, gay ones included, want heroes, love stories, and, sometimes, sheer fantasy. So for her it's not a reflection on gays that The Celluloid Closet and Stonewall didn't fare as well as the glossy big-ticket The Birdcage.

"I thought The Celluloid Closet would do a little better," Vachon says. "It's such a crowd pleaser. But a documentary is a documentary, and most people go to the movies to see a story." Besides, she argues, "does the success of a film like The Birdcage really mean there's wide acceptance of so-called gay and lesbian films? I don't think so. A few things remain clear: The public fascination with drag queens hasn't come to an end and shows no sign of ever coming to an end. And the sort of lesbian chic that's hitting movies like Bound hasn't really jelled in a way that's made people open up their pocketbooks."

Assessing her own performance this year, Vachon gives herself guardedly good reviews. "For me, 1996 was reasonably successful," she begins. "I Shot Andy Warhol did pretty well, and Stonewall didn't really do as well as I thought it would."

In fact, Vachon's year was riddled with disasters beyond her control. "The Samuel Goldwyn Co. went belly-up - that was kind of a big blip," she deadpans, speaking of the distributor for I Shot Andy Warhol "We didn't really take advantage of Warhol's success at Sundance because we didn't have a distributor behind us." American Playhouse, the backer of three of Vachon's films, folded next. Says Vachon: "That was really catastrophic." And her own work hit some bumps. Though Vachon says Stonewall did well enough to be considered a success for its distributor, Strand Releasing, she feels the film's release date - long after most cities' gay pride celebrations - may have hurt its box-office performance. She also blames the hostility of some gay viewers. "Stonewall at heart is a love story," she says. "People berated it for not being political enough. I've really had enough of that argument, and it came exclusively from gay white men. I think it's so ridiculously obtuse not to see that making a drag queen a sexual creature is about as political as you can get."

For Vachon, questions like these are part of the ongoing gay debate about "how you posit a politically correct gay image," she says. "The outcry about Basic Instinct was from gay white men. My lesbian friends and I thought it was great: a rich bisexual woman killing men. Gay white men are trumpeters of the political theory of the moment, and that's good and bad. Sometimes they're spot on, and sometimes they don't see the forest for the trees."

At any rate, pleasing gay and lesbian audiences is not Vachon's principal agenda. "I've never made a film that satisfied the gay and lesbian community at large," she says. "I don't think that's possible." She also admits to occasional frustration at being called a lesbian producer. "Why can't it be just producer?" she asks. "Or great producer? If it inspires somebody, OK. I don't want to hide it, but it's not the be-all and end-all of the work I do."

Vachon herself "didn't really think about" being a lesbian while growing up in New York City. "At the High School of Music and Art, where I went to school, people were openly gay," she says. "You were supposed to be an oddball if you went there."

Saying she had a boyfriend she "liked very much" in high school, Vachon laughs when she recalls her days at Brown University, where she majored in art semiotics. "It was very chic to be bisexual," she says. "We all called ourselves that. But I had a boyfriend in college. It wasn't until I came back to New York that I started dating women and men. Now I'm with a woman that I don't plan on leaving ever. To call myself bisexual would be an affront to her because it means there's a possibility that I would go out with some guy, and that would never happen. So I'm a lesbian."

For Vachon, committing to a relationship is the real coming-out. "Being a lesbian has less to do with whom you're actually sleeping with than negotiating the mundane: getting a hotel room when it's two women, meeting someone's parents, buying property without being able to get married," she says. "I came out as a lesbian when I decided that I really wanted to spend the rest of my life with this woman."

That woman is graphic designer Marlene McCarty, who met Vachon four years ago while creating the tire credits for Tom Kalin's Swoon. They have been together ever since. It's tough to create space for a relationship, says Vachon, "but I realized early on that I want to be successful, but I don't want work to be my whole life."

Although she hesitates to predict the course of 1997 for gay and lesbian film, Vachon herself is reuniting with two directors whose names are closely linked with her own. Velvet Goldmine, Haynes's third film, tracks the glam-rock community through the '70s. And Kalin's long-awaited second feature, about Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith, will be shot in the spring. Vachon is also awaiting two more scripts from her stable of talent: Dan Minahan (who cowrote Warhol) is finishing a script about fashion designer Halston, and Harron and Guinevere Turner are cowriting a biopic on pinup legend Bettie Page.

As to the future success of gay- and lesbian-tinged cinema, Vachon declines to make predictions. "I honestly believe that good work prevails," she says. "I'm not saying everything is equal and everyone has the same opportunities - that's nonsense. But I just have to believe that if you write a good script, it's going to get made. Otherwise, I would kill myself."

RELATED ARTICLE: 1996 a year in film

During the past year we enlivened every genre: farce, documentary, independent cinema, film noir, and even a mainstream blockbuster.

French Twist Directed by Josiane Balasko (Miramax) February

This French hit updates the tradition of bedroom farce, lesbian-style. Alain Chabat plays a cheating husband whose adoring mate (Almodovar star Victoria Abril) seems content until a sexy diesel dyke (Josiane Balasko) arrives, falls for this neglected housewife, and sets out to win her heart. Though these three begin as stereotypes, the film cheers them on as they break up, make up, and wake up to a world of possibilities.

The Birdcage Directed by Mike Nichols (United Artists) March

It took only 18 years for Hollywood to remake the 1978 farce La Cage aux Folles, about a gay club owner, his drag-queen lover, and his straight son, who's marrying the daughter of a conservative politician. Even with Robin Williams and Nathan Lane as the lovers, The Birdcage may seem tired to gay audiences. Yet it flexes more muscle than its French predecessor. Where La Cage goes for slapstick, the remake takes the issues deeper. It opens with a drag version of "We Are Family," and soon it's clear that the family to be part of is the one behind the Lavender Curtain.

The Celluloid Closet Directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (Sony Pictures Classics) April

Based on the 1981 book by Vito Russo, this documentary lives up to Russo's legacy. With clips from more than a hundred movies, Closet offers a telling history of how lesbians and gays have been portrayed (often as sick or vicious) on film. Epstein and Friedman avoid a diatribe against Hollywood, however; instead, witty commentary explains the context in which these films were made and what they meant for both gay and straight audiences.

I Shot Andy Warhol Cowritten and directed by Mary Harron (Orion/Samuel Goldwyn) May

Actor's actor Lili Taylor takes us inside the brilliant, twisted mind of Valerie Solanas, the disturbed lesbian who shot Andy Warhol in 1968 because he'd misplaced a script she hoped he would produce. Jared Harris is a striking Warhol; Stephen Dorff, a pretty good Candy Darling.

Stonewall Directed by Nigel Finch (Strand) July

When gays think of Stonewall, we picture queens in heels throwing rocks at cops; we rarely wonder about their lives beforehand. Indirector Nigel Finch's portrait of the 1969 riots, a curious reversal goes on: We meet gay characters but see almost nothing of the famous queens-and-cops melee. Well-shot and punctuated with high-style musical numbers, the film has appeal. But Finch's AIDS-related death leaves his final project feeling sadly incomplete.

Bound Directed by Larry and Andy Wachowski (Gramercy) October

Go figure. Two straight directors and two straight stars produced the hottest lesbian movie of the year. This postmodern film noir pits femme bombshell Violet (Jennifer Tilly) and bad girl Corky (Gina Gershon) against Violet's not-too-bright mobster boyfriend. Object: a clear path to lesbian love, oiled by $2 million in stolen money. The dialog's dumb, but the action's smart. And Tilly and Gershon ignite together in sizzling sex scenes certified by lesbian sexpert Susie Bright.
COPYRIGHT 1997 Liberation Publications, Inc.
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Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:The Year in the Arts 1996; includes list of gay films released in 1996; film producer Christine Vacon
Author:Huisman, Mark J.
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Date:Jan 21, 1997
Previous Article:Big books, big bucks.
Next Article:One singular sensation.

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