| May 19, 2015

Joel Schumacher’s 1999 film, Flawless, would have fit right in during the era of Boys in the Band (1970) and La Cage aux Folles (1978). Its highly problematic dual approach to sexuality and gender identity might have at least given visibility to those who desperately needed it in the 1970s. But by the turn of the “New Millennium” something more respectful or responsible than this was probably in order. It’s a film out of time and largely unloved today, presumably most unloved by the very people it tried to provide visibility through the central character of Rusty (Philip Seymour Hoffman).

Screenwriter/director Schumacher casts Rusty, the emcee of an all-drag cabaret show, as a homosexual, a transvestite, and transgender all at once. By conflating these three identities (at least two of which aren’t exactly compatible as presented), Schumacher’s portrayal of this queer character likely speaks to few specifically, while allowing the film to potentially offend broadly. This is in no small part because of the almost exclusively broad, comic portrayal of gay men and transvestites from titles to credits.

This broad approach to queerness is then countered by some good old-fashioned homophobia, replete with the predictable slurs and insults spewed from the mouth of our other central character, Walter (Robert De Niro). Walter, a former security guard, lives across the way from Rusty, at whom Walter shouts homophobic slurs from his window. After Walter suffers a stroke during a totally random mob altercation in their building, though, Walter reluctantly turns to Rusty for singing lessons that will aid in his rehabilitation. The two then form a sort of friendship that does indeed offer up some genuinely touching and endearing moments. As Walter comes to accept Rusty and his friends, Schumacher shows us that they truly become better people for it—Walter for accepting Rusty and Rusty for helping Walter in spite of his bigotry.

Does this excuse the film’s nonchalant presentation of such disgusting non sequitors as, “If you can take a dick, you can take an insult”? I don’t know about that! Yet, despite my recognizing the film’s problems and despite my disdain for the almost exclusively comedic portrayals of gay men/transvestites/any queer identity in the film, I can’t bring myself to hate it. If this same film, with its message of acceptance and friendship, came out in the 1970s, it might even be considered a queer cinema classic along the lines of a La Cage. Who knows? Plus, Hoffman does some predictably stellar work with the material he’s given, De Niro’s emphasis on the physicality of a man recovering from a stroke is highly commendable, and the supporting cast members all clearly approach their roles with reverence.

Then again, perhaps Flawless needn’t have come out during the 1970s to be noticed. Perhaps all it needed was a bit more camp (and a tad more accuracy in terms of the identities being carelessly conflated, I might add). It has all the makings of a brilliantly campy romp. You’ve already got a film in which a transvestite and a bigoted stroke victim team up to fight off a crew of gangsters in the climax. It’s got the foundation of a brilliant exploitation, buddy adventure movie, but Schumacher allows some stereotypical characters, awkward drama, and depictions of militant homophobia overshadow anything that might make the movie a perfectly respectable, campy success.

Still, if you’ve a keen interest in all sorts of queer cinema as I do, Flawless is certainly worth checking out, if for no other reasons than the stellar performances and the fact that the filmmaker behind this particular queer film is at least himself gay. Typically millions aren’t thrown at such a project with a gay filmmaker at the helm, but this time it was—and we’re talking Ang Lee money here!

Flawless debuts on Blu-ray today from Olive Films, who’ve also simulatneously re-released the film on DVD. The film predictable looks much better on the Blu-ray than it had on the previous DVD release. There is unfortunately a fair amount of noticeable speckling at times throughout the film, but the source materials are in otherwise good shape as evidenced by the otherwise sharp and vibrant transfer.

About the Author:

Jef is a writer and educator in Chicago, Illinois. He holds a degree in Media & Cinema Studies from DePaul University, but sometimes he drops it and picks it back up again. He's also the Editor-in-Chief of FilmMonthly.com and is fueled entirely by coffee (as if you couldn't tell).
Filed in: LGBT, Video and DVD

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