Of monsters and men

In which I can’t be expected to judge Rose Byrne objectively.

Apologies for the impromptu hiatus, but rest assured I was using my time away from this newsletter to see as much theater, stream as many horror films, and binge as much Housewives as possible to give me ample material for upcoming posts. And then I decided to inflict some capsule reviews on you, because, well, I’m impatient to get my thoughts out. More to the point, it’s been a while since I recommended theater, and I love getting to hear from people who saw shows I wrote about and ended up loving them. (Weirdly, I almost never hear from people who hated whichever show they saw on my recommendation, so I can only assume I have perfect taste!)

In this case, I decided to write about some plays I actually had mixed feelings about but that I still felt were worth seeing. On the other hand, I recognize that I have comps privilege, and not everyone has the time or money or interest required to see theater that I’d call “flawed but worthwhile.” Nevertheless!

Medea

The problem with me reviewing a play starring Rose Byrne is that I would literally gush about Rose Byrne in anything. She is one of the greatest actors working today — supremely underrated no matter how many accolades she’s getting. (I feel like at this point it’s become a Gay Twitter cliché that she should have been nominated for an Oscar for Spy, but, well, she should have been nominated for an Oscar for Spy.) Obviously I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see Rose Byrne do Medea, especially alongside the also great Bobby Cannavale, her IRL husband. It’s always fun seeing real-life spouses play a couple onstage, and even more so when the material is this fucked-up.

Naturally, people are very interested in this production of Medea, a new (loose) adaptation by Simon Stone. But when I’ve been asked for my thoughts, I haven’t been able to muster much past “Rose Byrne is amazing.” Because Rose Byrne is amazing, and it’s worth seeing Medea in the sense that one should never pass up the opportunity to see Rose Byrne onstage. That having been said, I’m not sure what this adaptation is trying to say exactly. If you’re going to do a modern take on Medea, you have to be very deliberate in avoiding the easy pitfall of misogyny. And while I admire Stone’s efforts to build compassion for the title character, she’s ultimately still a monster who inadvertently plays into some unfortunate tropes. If anything, trying to ground this classic myth in the real world of 2020 makes her climactic acts of violence that much harder to swallow.

Buy tickets to Medea here.

Dracula

Shout out to Classic Stage Company for the clever idea of doing new adaptations Dracula and Frankenstein in rep. I missed the latter, but I caught Dracula last week, and found myself charmed by Kate Hamill’s cheeky feminist reinvention of the story. Dracula has been — sorry — done to death, so I can’t say I was all that enthused about seeing it originally. (If CSC wanted to do a stripped-down Dance of the Vampires, however…) But even if this Dracula didn’t feel quite as revolutionary as it could have, it was still fresh and fun, and by the time we got to the play’s exciting new iteration of Van Helsing, I was pretty much under its thrall.

At the same time, while I was mostly entranced, I did occasionally find myself frustrated by this Dracula’s inconsistency. There are some tonal shifts that caught me off-guard: I’m all for a blend of satire and sincerity, but these moments didn’t feel particularly earned. This Dracula is at its best when it’s diving deep into absurdity. I didn’t mind so much that some of the themes were hammered home so unsubtly when the production as a whole felt larger-than-life — going broad allows for that sort of thing. And on the whole, it’s a lot of fun, underlined by Hamill’s note in the script: “There is no point in doing a vampire play if you can’t have fun in doing so. If you explore the glee, the darkness will also pop.” Wise words!

Buy tickets to Dracula here.

Hamlet

I feel about Hamlet the way I feel about Rose Byrne — my fandom is too deep and my adoration too intense for an objective review. To put it bluntly, I will pretty much always fuck with Hamlet. As basic as it may be to declare Hamlet one’s favorite Shakespeare, Hamlet is my favorite Shakespeare. Even the worst production is still Hamlet, and so I simply can’t be trusted when I recommend one. Which is my long-winded (and backhanded) way of saying that I really enjoyed the production currently running at St. Ann’s Warehouse, led by the phenomenal Ruth Negga in the title role. It’s Hamlet starring Ruth Negga! Part of me just wants to flail (and urge you to find a way to see it).

But despite my stanning, I can acknowledge where I felt the production faltered, aside from my feeling that Hamlet is simply too long (even in a slightly truncated version) to be performed without a second intermission. There were times when the show didn’t seem to have a cohesive perspective, resting solely on the strength of the material and Negga’s performance. And I mean, that’s plenty! But I felt like it could have used a more deliberate point of view. To that end, I will say that I thought the cuts made were smart, and helped create a truly haunting (if also, yes, sometimes aimless) production.

Buy tickets to Hamlet here.

Photo via BAM/Richard Termine.

Danny can’t wake up, Mrs. Torrance

In which I also return to the Overlook Hotel.

I’ve said this before, and I’ll keep saying it as long as it keeps bothering me, but the hardest thing about no longer working at BuzzFeed News is that I can’t update my ranking of Stephen King adaptations. I spent a very long time working on it — or, more accurately, I spent every waking moment watching Stephen King movies during a very bleak month two years ago — and it turned out so well, damn it. I am really quite proud of it! And now that I’ve finally seen Doctor Sleep and I’m watching The Outsider, I’m frankly devastated that I can’t add to the ranking. But I do have a newsletter, so I can at least ramble a bit here.

I’m sure I’ll have more to say about The Outsider once it’s over. I have an interesting relationship with that novel, because while I don’t think it’s one of Stephen King’s more memorable recent works, I read it with real attention to detail. I had been trying to nail down King for a profile for a year when I was told I could get an hour with him for a feature pegged to The Outsider’s release. So I know that book well, and it never really struck me as something crying out to be adapted. (As opposed to Doctor Sleep, which, more on that below.) And yet, so far, mostly by virtue of its casting, The Outsider is doing a good job of justifying its existence.

Strangely enough, my main issue with the series so far is the same issue I had with the novel — but for different reasons. While I was reading it, I felt like the pacing was off: I had the experience of always being several steps ahead of the characters, and I kept waiting for the plot to move forward so everyone could catch up. Now that I’m watching the show, I’m having the same sensation, but because at this point it’s following the plot of the book fairly closely, and I find myself waiting for the next thing to happen. From what I’ve read, the series will continue to diverge from the novel, so I’m excited to watch that happen. (Especially if it gets a new and improved ending, because woof.)

Speaking of endings, I am about to spoil the hell out of Doctor Sleep, the novel and the film adaptation, so go ahead and stop reading if you haven’t read/seen it. I actually love the ending of the book Doctor Sleep, which gave me real Carrie vibes (appropriate since it’s a sequel to another of King’s earliest novels), and it had a poignance that felt so well earned. The movie, on the other hand, goes full Kubrick’s The Shining fanfic, which is… a choice! But somehow it works, which is a testament to Mike Flanagan, who has quickly become my favorite adapter of King. It is completely batshit to have Rose the Hat taken down by, among others, the fucking twin girls in the halway. But the whole thing is such a love letter to King and to Kubrick, and it comes after two-plus hours of strong character-building and real pathos, that I just feel like, OK, go off, Mike Flanagan. Fanfic away.

If I have a gripe with anything about the changes made to the ending of Doctor Sleep, it’s in the killing of Dan Torrance, which is sort of a disservice to the character and his arc in the novel. Why set up Dan’s alcoholism and his heinous behavior if you’re not going to have the pay-off of him coming clean at the AA meeting? I mean, yes, his return to the Overlook does allow the film to delve into Dan’s fears that he will (quite literally) become his father, but the way it all plays out is actually a bit of a cop-out. He’s not really confronting anything — he’s just possessed by Jack’s spirit. In a way, it reminds me of an issue I’ve always had with the novel The Shining, less so with the film: that Jack’s violent, sadistic rampage ends up being attributed almost entirely to ghostly intervention and not his already toxic nature.

It’s funny, though. What works for me about Dan’s death in the Doctor Sleep movie is that it recalls the ending of the novel The Shining in a really satisfying way, with Dan sacrificing himself by letting the boiler explode and destroy the hotel, exactly what Jack does in King’s original Shining. Flanagan walks this very fine line between adapting a sequel to The Shining (book) and creating his own sequel to The Shining (movie), and I think he beautifully splits the difference by crafting an ending that only really works as a callback to the early King novel. What he loses in the emotional impact of Dan’s accounting of his sins, he gains in the satisfaction of giving King the ending to The Shining he always wanted — even while playing in Kubrick’s world. It’s a little messy, yes, but it’s also kind of brilliant.

Photo via Warner Bros. Pictures.

There’s still something inside me

In which I probe my history with “Freddy’s Revenge.”

This is not a review of Scream, Queen!, a documentary about Mark Patton, the star of the queer cult classic A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge. This is a newsletter — one that’s probably more personal than it should be — about why I can’t review the movie. And also why it was so important for me to see.

I’ve written a lot about Freddy’s Revenge over the years. The unfairly maligned sequel has been deeply important to me since I first saw it in college, an essential distillation and articulation of my identity as a gay horror fan that I didn’t know I needed until I had it. I touched on this in a 2013 essay I wrote for BuzzFeed — the title, “There’s Something Inside Me,” comes from one of Jesse’s exceedingly gay lamentations about Freddy Krueger’s presence — where I wrote, “That freak, that monster, that drag queen — that was Jesse. And I understood, because that was me, too.”

At some point after I first saw the movie, Mark Patton and I became Facebook friends, and through his posts, I began to get a sense of the lasting scars his experience with Freddy’s Revenge and with Hollywood at large had left on him. At the time, no one had really done any in-depth reporting on the movie or on Mark (aside from what was included in the 2010 documentary Never Sleep Again), so I reached out to see if he would be amenable to an interview. That conversation and subsequent correspondences, along with interviews with the creative team of the film, became an in-depth feature that BuzzFeed News published in 2016: “The Nightmare Behind the Gayest Horror Film Ever Made.”

It’s a good piece, I think. (I might be biased.) It was also not an easy reporting process all the way through. One of Mark’s sticking points — and this provides much of the conflict in the recent doc about him, which I’ll get to — was that Freddy’s Revenge screenwriter David Chaskin had intentionally written homoerotic subtext into the movie and had denied that for decades by putting the blame on Mark’s queeny performance when the film got “outed.” Chaskin, who finally admitted the subtext was deliberate in Never Sleep Again, remembers things differently. We spoke via email for my article, both because I wanted to talk to as many people involved in the production as possible, and because Mark was making specific allegations about Chaskin that I had to ask for a response to.

There is often a lot of back-and-forth in reporting, and this particular assertion — that Chaskin had spent 30 years “blaming” the movie’s queer coding on Mark — was impossible for me to prove conclusively. I did my best to present things fairly, and I think the piece is ultimately quite favorable to Mark. I’m not sure he felt the same way. When the article was published, his only comment, posted on Facebook, was that he was eager for the documentary to come out so that he would finally be able to tell his story on his own terms. His displeasure seemed clear to me, and we haven’t spoken since. As a journalist, it’s not my job to make the subject of a piece happy, but I’ll admit that I was disappointed that that was his takeaway.

There were certain things that I had pushed Mark on — and this was all on the record, and mentioned in the piece, so I’m not betraying anything by writing about it now. He said that he had proof of Chaskin throwing him under the bus, but that he was saving it for the documentary. I sympathized with his desire to, as he said, tell his story on his terms, but of course that put me in a difficult position. I could only say that he claimed to have that proof. Nevertheless, there was no denying the relentless homophobia he faced, or the way the straight men I talked to for the article seemed to dismiss it. The consensus from Freddy’s Revenge director Jack Sholder was that, while he had compassion for Mark, it was time for Mark to get over these perceived slights against him. And that perspective is very much on display in Scream, Queen! as well.

This is a long-winded explanation of why I put off watching the documentary for as long as I did. And I hope it doesn’t just read as ego: I told Mark’s story to the best of my ability, and I’m glad he shared more of it with filmmakers Roman Chimienti and Tyler Jensen, because his story is very much worth telling. If anything, my apprehension about Scream, Queen! was based on my frustration that I hadn’t been able to tell the story better, that as proud as I was (and still am) of that piece, it ended up letting Mark down. The documentary, despite having nothing at all to do with me, felt like a coda that I was both eager for and wary of.

When I finally got around to watching the movie, it was with the intention of sharing my thoughts, but I discovered there was a bit too much baggage in the way. As a writer, I’ve often been surprised by how much attachment and investment can come with the stories I tell, even if they’re someone else’s. I can’t stress this enough: Mark’s story is his and his alone, and I never felt any ownership of it simply because I once helped tell a part of it. What I did feel while watching the Scream, Queen! (and, indeed, while putting it off) was a slight sense of… maybe failure’s too strong a word. Let’s go with “regret that I was never able to cross the finish line with that piece.” Can’t exactly watch someone else do that, and put bias aside. At least, I can’t.

But since I’d never really told the story behind my story on A Nightmare on Elm Street 2, this felt like the right moment. (I also recognize that it might not be interesting to anyone who isn’t me, in which case… you’ve probably stopped reading by now!)

To be clear, regardless of whatever other feelings I have about the documentary, I’m glad that it exists. Mark is a horror icon who spent far too many years being treated like a shameful blemish on the Elm Street legacy, and I am grateful that he is finally getting his due — yes, on his own terms. What I will say (now that I’ve said I won’t say anything) is that watching Jack Sholder tell Mark to move on was tough to sit through. And that climactic conversation between Mark and David Chaskin didn’t really feel like closure to me. But I do hope it felt like closure for Mark.

And I hope that people continue to discover and embrace Freddy’s Revenge, a film that had a profound impact on the trajectory of my life and my work. If you haven’t seen it, and you’re still reading, do yourself a favor and let it work its magic on you, too.

Photo via New Line Cinema.

Congratulations to those men

In which I swear my allegiance to Florence Pugh.

I’m not going to yell about the Oscar nominations, in part because we did that yesterday, and in part because I don’t think my white cis male voice should be centered in a discussion of how the Academy continues to resist not centering white cis men. But because a sick, sad part of me misses being an entertainment journalist who is obligated to comment on these things, I decided I would at least inflict my category-by-category picks on you.

This is who I think should win, not who I think will win, although I may throw in the latter if I feel informed enough to say. And I’m only including the major categories, because life is short and I value your time. There will probably be some yelling, if I’m being honest — apologies in advance.

Best Picture:

Ford v Ferrari

The Irishman

Jojo Rabbit

Joker

Little Women

Marriage Story

1917

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

MY PICK: Parasite

I haven’t seen Jojo Rabbit or the car movie yet, but my feelings on the others range from intense affection (Little Women) to begrudging admiration (1917) to why-is-this-happening-to-me-personally (Joker). Parasite is the movie of the year, period. And I think it has a very good shot at winning, but what do I know.

Best Director:

MY PICK: Bong Joon-ho, Parasite

Sam Mendes, 1917

Todd Phillips, Joker

Martin Scorsese, The Irishman

Quentin Tarantino, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

We’re all talking about the Greta Gerwig snub, as we should, because it’s bullshit. But you know who also deserved a nomination? Marielle Heller for A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. Easily one of the best directors working today, and infuriatingly underappreciated. That having been said, I’m thrilled to support the equally deserving Bong Joon-ho.

Best Actor:

MY PICK: Antonio Banderas, Pain and Glory

Leonardo DiCaprio, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Adam Driver, Marriage Story

Joaquin Phoenix, Joker

Jonathan Pryce, The Two Popes

OK, fine, I’ll watch the pope movie. There’s no way it’s going to sway me from my top pick, though. Antonio Banderas and Pedro Almodóvar has long been a match made in heaven, but they’re both at their best here. (I wish Almodóvar had also been nominated for Best Director, but, well, I wish a lot of things.)

Best Actress:

Cynthia Erivo, Harriet

Scarlett Johansson, Marriage Story

MY PICK: Saoirse Ronan, Little Women

Charlize Theron, Bombshell

Renée Zellweger, Judy

I said I wasn’t going to yell about snubs, and then I started writing this and got angry all over again. Awkwafina delivered maybe my favorite performance of 2019 in The Farewell, which deserved so much more love than it got overall. With all due respect to JLo, this is probably the snub I’m most upset about. Happy to throw my support behind Saoirse, who has to win eventually, damn it. (She won’t this year, but nevertheless.)

Best Supporting Actor:

Tom Hanks, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Anthony Hopkins, The Two Popes

Al Pacino, The Irishman

MY PICK: Joe Pesci, The Irishman

Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Bet you didn’t see that coming. See, I contain multitudes. And Joe Pesci was really fucking great in The Irishman.

Best Supporting Actress:

Kathy Bates, Richard Jewell

Laura Dern, Marriage Story

Scarlett Johansson, Jojo Rabbit

MY PICK: Florence Pugh, Little Women

Margot Robbie, Bombshell

I love Florence Pugh. I love Florence Pugh so much that her nomination almost distracted me from the bullshit of JLo not getting a nod. In a perfect world, Florence Pugh would also be nominated for her starring role in Midsommar, which was my other favorite performance of the year next to Awkwafina’s. But that was never going to happen, so I can at least be excited about this one.

Also, while I think Laura Dern is wonderful and am fine with her winning, I thought her performance in Marriage Story was… not good (please don’t be mad), and wish she had been nominated for Little Women instead. She’s great in that! And like, pretty much everything else! Are we fighting?

Best Original Screenplay:

Knives Out, Rian Johnson

Marriage Story, Noah Baumbach

1917, Sam Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino

MY PICK: Parasite, Bong Joon-ho and Han Jin-won

I’m so, so glad Knives Out got a nomination. But also, Parasite deserves this (and the world).

Best Adapted Screenplay:

The Irishman, Steven Zaillian

Jojo Rabbit, Taika Waititi

Joker, Todd Phillips and Scott Silver

MY PICK: Little Women, Greta Gerwig

The Two Popes, Anthony McCarten

What Greta Gerwig did with Little Women is pretty remarkable: I remain so impressed with how she remixed the story without sacrificing any of its emotional weight and resonance, and delivered snappy dialogue without making it feel jarringly anachronistic. A lot of this has to do with her exceptional direction — cough, fucking cough — but at the very least, she deserves recognition for her screenplay.

Photo via Sony Pictures Releasing.

A ranking of the cats in the “Cats” movie by how much they fuck

In which I lift my leg for Mr. Mistoffelees.

If you’ve been wondering why I haven’t yet written about my #1 film of 2019, Cats — outside of 700 ill-advised tweets I promised to delete and then didn’t — it’s frankly because I’ve had too much to say. Like Smash before it, Cats is a beautiful (ghost) mess I’m incapable of shutting up about. I feared that if I started writing about Cats I would simply never stop. And yet, I couldn’t just let this moment pass without saying anything: After all, it’s our collective Cats-induced derangement that has kept that film in theaters. Screenings are quite literally selling out because people need to know if the shit they’ve read on Twitter is real (and also a lot of us just keep going back).

So anyway, I decided to rank all the cats in the movie Cats by how much they fuck, and I’m sorry. This is subjective and not literal (except when it is) and also subscribers in my family may only skim (no close reading). I feel like I need to reiterate that these are the cats in the movie, not the stage musical. I know Bombalurina is morally neutral in the original show, but she got a villain edit in the movie, please yell at Lee Hall and not at me. Also I left out the cats I couldn’t remember, with apologies to Coricopat and Tantomile stans. (Previously: A ranking of the songs in the 2019 Oklahoma! revival by how much they fuck.)

15. Macavity the Mystery Cat. What?? How could you rank Idris Elba so low? Here is the thing: the digital fur technology was especially unkind to Idris Elba’s perfect body. Here is the other thing: you can’t fuck if you’re not there. Macavity is post-sex. His only kink now is magic.

14. Growltiger. I feel like, at one point, Growltiger did fuck. (Regrettably, Cats makes it clear that he does have balls.) Very little fucking at this point, however.

13. Bustopher Jones. That moment when he’s guzzling ale or whatever and it looks like the GIF of Guy Fieri tongue-fucking a Pellegrino is honestly very sexual, but it’s also so upsetting that I would like to Eternal Sunshine it from my brain, and firmly state for the record that Bustopher Jones does not fuck.

12. Grizabella the Glamour Cat. Used to fuck, evidently. There’s a real slut-shamey vibe to her whole deal. Does not fuck now, but like, who knows what goes on in the Heaviside Layer?

11. Jennyanydots the Gumbie Cat. She sits and sits and sits. I feel like if she also fucked, Munkustrap would let us know.

10. Victoria the White Cat. A very sexy baby. But no. While I understand there is some sort of sexual tension between her and Mr. Mistoffelees, this is a ranking of the cats by how much they fuck, not by how much they nuzzle.

9. Bombalurina. This one’s a tough call: Cats clearly wants us to think that Bombalurina fucks, because they gave her… well, human breasts. She’s supposed to be evil and sexy, but her relationship with Macavity feels weirdly platonic. Like, maybe it happened once, but now they’re just really good friends who sometimes laugh about it when they’re high on catnip.

8. and 7. Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer. Oh, absolutely. ...Not with each other, pervs.

6. Gus the Theatre Cat. Here is where I remind you that being a person or thing who fucks is not always about literal fucking. So while Asparagus is very much past his prime — that’s kind of his whole thing — he’s got real stage presence. And you know what? No longer a terror to mice or to rats aside, he can still produce blood-curdling noises to bring on the ghost. Which feels like a euphemism?

5. Rum Tum Tugger. I mean, duh. Never forget that Rum Tum Tugger was once sued for being too sexy. Movie Tugger has the added benefit of being Jason Derulo. This one’s a no-brainer.

4. Mr. Mistoffelees. Suffers from performance anxiety, but who among us. While the heterosexualization of Mr. Mistoffelees remains one of the film’s greatest crimes, there is no denying that this cat fucks. Also, when Old Deuteronomy is breaking the fourth wall, Mr. Mistoffelees is, like, aggressively licking his lips, and it’s unfortunately very erotic.

3. Old Deuteronomy. There is no thirstier cat in Cats. When she lifts her leg for Gus? Thrilling.

2. Munkustrap. On the one hand, this is not a ranking of the cats in Cats by how hot they are. That is boring and reductive and not at all the point, especially when it comes to how much one fucks. On the other hand, Robbie Fairchild.

1. Skimbleshanks. Skimble, where is Skimble? Probably fucking. The overwhelming sexual energy of this tabby could single-handedly power a locomotive. Choo-fucking-choo.

Photo via Universal Pictures.

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