Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Prayers for Bobby (Lifetime, 2009)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The night before Charles and I ran Prayers for Bobby, a Lifetime TV-movie based on the true story of Mary Griffith (Sigourney Weaver), a heavy-duty Christian (Presbyterian, though the denomination wasn’t specified in the film itself and Charles was especially bothered by the contradictory signals sent about what sort of church these people were part of: at times it seemed Episcopal, at times Baptist and at times Mormon — the last mostly in the person of the two quite young men the minister sent to Mary to explain things later) who went ballistic when she learned her younger son Bobby (Ryan Kelley) was Gay. She found this out in 1979 and immediately enrolled him in a “cure” group and a therapy program with a psychiatrist (who came off looking surprisingly like an aging John Denver in drag), along with such other attempts at changing him as posting hand-written cards with verses from the Bible all over the house.

The 17-year-old Bobby found himself ostracized from their entire family in Walnut Creek, California until a distant cousin invited him to Portland, where he found a circle of friends and even a potential boyfriend, David (Scott Bailey) — though it’s not clear from this story whether he actually ever had sex either with a woman (when he’s first introduced it’s in the cab of a pickup truck with a girl who’s willing to go “all the way” for him, only he draws back and, taking a long jump to the wrong conclusion, she’s convinced he’s got another girlfriend) or a man before, overwhelmed with the guilt feelings induced by his crazy family and in particular by his mom’s insistence that he has a “choice” to be Gay or not and that by choosing to “indulge” his “sin” he’s jeopardizing not only his own salvation but his entire family’s as well, he takes a beautiful back flip off a freeway overpass into the path of an 18-wheeler truck, which kills him instantly.

This happens about halfway through the movie and the rest of it deals with Mary’s slow awakening, first through reading the pro-Gay book Bobby had tried to give her during his lifetime and then meeting with the pastor of the local Metropolitan Community Church, at first arguing with him and then being convinced that the Bible doesn’t issue a hard-and-fast condemnation of homosexuality and the verses that have been cited as such have to be read in an historical and social context. Overcome by her own guilt that by not learning all this sooner and being genuinely supportive of his son and the path he did not “choose,” she helped kill him (it’s interesting in a way that on two consecutive nights Charles and I watched movies, this one and Vaccine-Nation, about parents who inadvertently contributed to their children’s demise, suffered from it and ultimately became activists in the hope of helping keep other children from meeting the same fate), she tears her way into pro-Gay politics and has her big coming-out moment when she attends a meeting of the Walnut Creek City Council and testifies in favor of the city granting a permit for the town’s first Pride event:

“‘Homosexuality is a sin. Homosexuals are doomed to spend eternity in hell. If they wanted to change, they could be healed of their evil ways. If they would turn away from temptation, they could be normal again if only they would try and try harder if it doesn’t work.’ These are all the things I said to my son Bobby when I found out he was Gay. When he told me he was homosexual, my world fell apart. I did everything I could to ‘cure’ him of his ‘sickness.’ Eight months ago, my son jumped off a bridge and killed himself. I deeply regret my lack of knowledge about Gay and Lesbian people. I see that everything I was taught and told was bigotry and dehumanizing slander. If I had investigated beyond what I was told, if I had just listened to my son when he poured his heart out to me, I would not be standing here today with you, filled with regret. I believe that God was pleased with Bobby’s kind and loving spirit. In God’s eyes, kindness and love are what it’s all about. I didn’t know that each time I echoed eternal damnation for Gay people each time I referred to Bobby as sick and perverted and a danger to our children. His self esteem and sense of worth were being destroyed. And finally his spirit broke beyond repair.

"It was not God’s will that Bobby climbed over the side of a freeway overpass and jumped directly into the path of an eighteen-wheel truck which killed him instantly. Bobby’s death was the direct result of his parents’ ignorance and fear of the word ‘Gay.’ He wanted to be a writer. His hopes and dreams should not have been taken from him, but they were. There are children, like Bobby, sitting in your congregations. Unknown to you, they will be listening as you echo “amen” and that will soon silence their prayers. Their prayers to God for understanding and acceptance and for your love but your hatred and fear and ignorance of the word Gay, will silence those prayers. So, before you echo ‘amen’ in your home and place of worship. think. Think, and remember a child is listening.”

Though the Walnut Creek Councilmembers vote down the Pride permit 4-1, Mary Griffith has her own personal epiphany when she goes to San Francisco in 1984 — presented in the movie as a far longer journey than the mere 25 miles it is in real life (one contributor noted the absurdity of her packing a suitcase to make the trip, and Charles said it was just a $7 BART ride away, though I think what writer Katie Ford, adapting Leroy Aarons’ non-fiction book, was getting at was the long psychological distance between those two points in Mary Griffith’s life even though geographically the distance may have been quite short) — and marches in the parade with the P-FLAG contingent. There’s a short segment at the end with the real Mary Griffith, white-haired but still looking close enough that Sigourney Weaver’s casting seems to make sense and not just be Lifetime’s effort to get a movie star (albeit one on the downside of her career) to bolster their lineup) and still fighting the good fight for Queer acceptance and love.

Prayers for Bobby is an inherently powerful story that could have been even more powerful if writer Ford and director Russell Mulcahy had trusted in its power — as it is the film is all too frequently overwritten and overdirected (notably in the time-disorienting “flanging” effects that are supposed to represent first Bobby dealing with the trauma of his own realization that he’s Gay and second his mom’s dealing with the trauma of her realization that her homophobia helped kill him) — but I was crying by the end of it even though the next morning, when I looked it up on, I found myself getting angry that there was a link to the Web site and an article on that site by Scott Bailey, who played the potentially supportive boyfriend David, proclaiming what a wonderful experience making the movie had been for him despite his own heterosexuality.

That just flashed me back to my anger when an earlier version of the Harvey Milk story was proposed with Robin Williams to play him and I wrote a letter to the Los Angeles Times saying that casting a straight actor as Milk made about as much sense as casting a white actor as Martin Luther King, Jr. I’ve suffered through straight guy William Hurt and straight guy Tom Hanks becoming the only two people to win Academy Awards for playing Gay men — and the fact that when the Milk story did finally get made it was with another straight actor, Sean Penn, in the role, doesn’t make me any happier about that project or more inclined to see it. (Is he considered an “honorary Gay” because he was once married to Madonna?)

Nor did the fact that the supposed “great Gay love story” Brokeback Mountain also starred two straight guys, the late Heath Ledger (who even fell in love with and had a daughter with Michelle Williams, who played his wife in the film, before his prescription drug abuse first drove them apart and then did him in) and Jake Gyllenhaal. (At the same time, Ian McKellen lost the Academy Award he deserved for playing Gay director James Whale in Gods and Monsters, I suspect because the Academy’s homophobes looked at him on their ballots and sniffed, “A Gay man playing a Gay man — that’s not acting!”) Aren’t there enough Gay actors in the world that we have to suffer through straight boys and girls playing us? When can we finally start seeing some movies in which we play ourselves?