Jonathan Groff, best thing about TAKING WOODSTOCK
TAKING WOODSTOCK made me fully realize that Ang Lee needs to 1. shorten the length of his films and 2. stop making films with gay central characters. Ironically, his best film remains his early THE WEDDING BANQUET, which was funny, lightly unpretentious and observant. The drollest moment was when the parents of the Chinese gay man leafed through a photo album of the wedding which supposedly restored him to heterosexual normalcy and came upon a page featuring him with his Caucasian lover. After sentimentally cooing over images of their son with his “proper” female mate, the forced, demure silence with which they turned this particular page hilariously spoke volumes. Perhaps the presence of actor Mitchell Lichtenstein, who is really gay, in the cast, contributed something to the authenticity of this film, something Lee has never been able to recapture when tackling such subjects.
May Chin, Winston Chao and Mitchell Lichtenstein in Ang Lee’s best film, THE WEDDING BANQUET (1993)
In TAKING WOODSTOCK, Demetri Martin plays Elliot Tiber, the New York interior designer who suddenly find himself the organizer of the most famous rock concert in history. The fact that he is gay is revealed about half-way through the film and it is, indeed, a total revelation, as up to this time, he has seemed no more than an amiable kid, as innocent and unworldly as Henry Fonda, making his screen debut in the 1935 THE FARMER TAKES A WIFE. Why, exactly, a New York decorator of the 1960s should be such a wide-eyed bumpkin is a mystery known only to Lee and his habitual screenwriter, James Schamus. Henry has some rather chaste, flirtatious scenes with a handy festival hunk, but little else really indicates his sexual difference. Granted, this is some forty years ago, but, then again, it was the free-wheeling, open 1960s, wasn’t it?
Worst drag queen in film history: Liev Schreiber (holding real-life son Sasha – “SEE, I’M STRAIGHT!”)
Lee compounds this with a major error in casting: Liev Schreiber as a transvestite character, Vilma. Johnny Depp’s far more convincing – and sexy – turn as a piece of cross-dressing jailbait in Julian Schnabel’s BEFORE NIGHT FALLS must have set some official seal of performance cool for actors to do gay drag for pay, enabling even the most unlikely of them to don wig and frock and camp it up to a fare-thee-well. But come on! Does anyone really want to see the hulking, lantern-jawed Schreiber trying it? He certainly seems to be enjoying it; I just wish I could, too.
I was in that rare minority who did not fall head over heels in love with the interminable, turtle-paced and lugubrious BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, which was, simply, a gay movie made by straight men. How anyone could believe that sex scene which, when it finally, finally occurred, consisted of zero foreplay, a little spittle and swift forced entry which, instead of engendering any kind of real pain on the part of receiver Jake Gyllenhaal, seemed to inspire instant ecstasy. The only conclusions I could draw from this was that either it wasn’t Jake’s first time at the rodeo, or that the late Heath Ledger was hung like a gerbil.
Jake ‘n Heath: No Lube Necessary
At a promotional screening for the film, I asked Lee how he went about directing this, and he said that, being very shy when it came to scenes like this, “I just let the actors do what they want.” “Oh boy, was this ever obvious,” I thought, “and how revealing of everyone’s utter ignorance of gay sex on that set. And aren’t you supposed to be the DIRECTOR?!” I told the Lee that what I liked best about his film were the sheep – who really gave the most natural, convincing performances – a sincere remark which didn’t go down so well with him.
Sexuality aside, TAKING WOODSTOCK starts off well enough, as a rambunctious, colorfully cast period comedy, filled with screwball characters like a hilarious Eugene Levy as Max Yasgur, who provided the festival’s real estate, Imelda Staunton (overdoing it) as feisty Henry’s mother, Dan Fogler as an arty actor, and young Broadway matinee idol Jonathan Groff (SPRING AWAKENING, HAIR) who, in a glamorous turn as Woodstock producer Michael Lang, registers lusciously on film, like a Botticelli angel with his hippie halo of curls, and gave this particular gay viewer something to really exult over in his few scenes. It might have been a fun enough romp through counterculture history but, as with BROKEBACK, RIDE WITH THE DEVIL, THE ICE STORM and SENSE AND SENSIBILITY, Lee’s logy sense of pacing drags the film down. Henry has an encounter with as a pair of Woodstock hippies (Paul Dano, Kelly Garner) who turn him on to drugs in their trailer, and this acid trip feels about three days long, a whimsically psychedelic directorial conceit from which the movie never quite recovers. Once more, Lee’s self-conscious need to make what the great critic Manny Farber once described as Termite Art defeats his purposes.