We are about sixty minutes into “Licorice Pizza“, Paul Thomas Anderson’s overrated ode to the Valley circa 1973. Our hero, aided by his older “girlfriend” and a bunch of hangers-on, has now turned his attention to selling water beds, and LA being LA, he runs into erstwhile hair stylist, Barbra Streisand‘s boyfriend, and soon to be big-time movie producer Jon Peters (played by Bradley Cooper). Peters has a gay assistant who is a cringe-worthy, over-the-top gay stereotype to the max. For a second, I could not believe what I was seeing and hearing. Here is a mincing queen with movements so exaggerated he could have Tourette’s syndrome and a sibilant S that could be heard from Encino to Toluca Lake. On the phone to Barbra (natch!), he is bringing her up to speed on Jon’s doings (he is also a gossipy little snitch) and it is his only scene. His only raison d’etre is to give the audience a cheap laugh. He is the pathetic fag with no backstory and no character arc. Interestingly, and thankfully, what I heard at the screening I attended, were a few nervous and uncomfortable titters. He is “played” by Sia’s choreographer Ryan Heffington – shame on you Ryan.
Growing up gay in the seventies and eighties, I had to steel myself for moments like this in every movie that I saw. And from “Vanishing Point” (1971) to “A Touch of Class” (1973) to “Mandingo” (1975) to “The Eiger Sanction” (1975) to “Teen Wolf” (1985) to “Once Bitten” (1985) with its haunting refrain “Fag Alert – fags in the shower, fags in the shower”, the degradation just kept coming. It had been a while, but Mr. Anderson, being the dickwad that he is, brought it all back.
And this is not the first time. For some reason Anderson has bit of a fixation with same-sex attraction. In his 2002 movie “Punch Drunk Love”, Adam Sandler’s character has to endure the slings and arrows of his family calling him a fag at every opportunity.
To be fair, there are other gay characters, real and imagined, in this movie. It being 1973, they are all in the closet, but they are treated with sympathy and respect. However, this disparity only makes the earlier display appear all the more egregious.
It is also interesting to compare Anderson’s careless take on the vicissitudes of queer life and the carefully calibrated career of his partner Maya Rudolph who is half-Black (her mother was the great Minnie Riperton). Would Anderson dream of insulting Black people the way he insults gays in this carefree, shaggy-dog look at seventies California? I don’t think so.
After the screening, there was a Q&A with Anderson and his cast. I could have stayed and asked him what in in God’s name was he thinking and what was he trying to achieve in those 2 minutes. But I was just too disgusted and upset. I could not even look him in the eye.