I HEART CAMP! NO, NOT THE KIND WITH TENTS!
I have no taste. That’s the general consensus from my friends, who are by turns bewitched, bothered, and bewildered by my obsession with camp, especially when it comes to films and 80’s pop culture. Things came to a head last week when I invited some of them to a special screening in my house of the 2006 remake of The Wicker Man. For those unfamiliar with it, here’s a clip of some the movie’s greatest scenes. Enjoy!
"How’d it get burned? How’d it get burned? How did the Bees in my eyes get Burned?
There is absolutely nothing better than Nic Cage at his most spastic. The Wicker Man had Nic in full looney-tunes mode, along with the most unintentionally hilarious script to come along in many a moon. Plus it also had the great Ellen Burstyn looking like Braveheart’s crazy grandma.
Take the L out of Lover … and it’s over! *
*My undying love to whoever gets that visual reference.
So when I mentioned what movie we would be watching, that’s when the mutiny began. All I heard were angry rants of "Snicks, that movie is crap!" and "Why do you only watch terrible movies?" and "You need help, dude".
I tried explaining that The Wicker Man was not a run-of-the-mill bad movie. It was something special, something that only happens when the stars align and create a rare object for some gay men (like me) to gaze upon with awe and adoration. It was a camp classic.
But the question for this BEST.GAY.WEEK.EVER! is – what is "camp", and why do so many gay men enjoy it?
Webster’s Dictionary defines "camp" as:
1: exaggerated effeminate mannerisms exhibited especially by homosexuals.
2: something so outrageously artificial, affected, inappropriate, or out-of-date as to be considered amusing.
Before my friends stage a "camp intervention" and cart me off for deprogramming, let’s look at examples from both of these definitions …
1: Exaggerated effeminate mannerisms exhibited especially by homosexuals.
Sean Hayes, Jonathan Harris, and Darryl Stephens
When I read that definition, for some reason I picture Joe Friday from Dragnet solemnly intoning "Exaggerated effeminate mannerisms exhibited especially by homosexuals, ma’am." All three of the characters above can be considered "camp" in varying degrees. Whether it’s Jack McFarland (Sean Hayes) making an art form out of "jazz hands" on Will & Grace , or Dr. Smith (Jonathan Harris) calling the robot on Lost in Space a "bubble-headed booby", some gay (or ambiguously gay) characters have taken the description and run with it.
One of my favorite recent TV characters to fit this bill is Noah (Darryl Stephens) from the late Logo series Noah’s Arc, whose inherent campiness added to his, um … obvious appeal.
Next page! More camp characters, plus a look at some classic camp films.
Among the more well known camp characters in film history are Emory (Cliff Gorman) from The Boys in the Band and Agador (Hank Azaria) from The Birdcage, both of whom have their defenders and detractors, and then there are the camp characters anyone would be hard pressed to defend.
Gerard Butler and Rodrigo Santoro in 300
Sometimes camp is used to accentuate characters who are sinister or not to be trusted. It’s an easy way to send the message to the straight audience that this person is "not like us". In the film 300 the character of Xerxes is presented as a camp God, the better to heighten his cartoonish villainy. Films such as Freebie and the Bean and Vanishing Point introduced campy characters as objects as derision and hostility, and received cheers from the audience when they got their comeuppances.
2: Something so outrageously artificial, affected, inappropriate, or out-of-date as to be considered amusing.
What is a "camp classic", or more specifically, what is the difference between a camp classic and just a "bad film"? Well, It’s all about tone, and how far short the film falls from its goal, and … oh hell, let me put it this way: I know it when I see it.
I’ve pulled a few examples from my collection . Most people would consider these films awful, but I love them, and not in a ironic way … I honestly love them.
The Apple (1980)
Most people consider either Xanadu or Can’t Stop The Music to be the greatest movie musical of the 80’s, but actually those two films aren’t even in the top two! Here are the top five movie musicals from that decade:
5. Voyage of the Rock Aliens
4. Can’t Stop the Music
2. The Pirate Movie
1. The Apple
In Hollywood, timing is everything. One of the myriad of problems with The Apple is it was released far too late in the game to cash in on the wonderful tackiness of the disco era. By the time it was released in the States in November of 1980, the disco backlash was in full force. It didn’t help that it came out just a few months after the one/two punch of Xanadu and Can’t Stop The Music. Nonetheless, the release of The Apple would complete the Camp Trilogy.
They tried to make me go to rehab, I said "no, no, no"
Next page! A closer look at The Apple, plus more camp classics
We can’t discuss this movie without paying tribute to it’s director, the seminal flinger of 80’s
crap goodness, Menahem Golan. With his creative partner Yoram Globus, he helped shape the career of Chuck Norris, prolonged the career of Charles Bronson (including the infamous “naked killer” jawdropper 10 to Midnight), and gave us such guilty pleasures as Breakin’, The Last American Virgin, Lifeforce, and the “Ninja” series of films (including my personal favorite, the hilarious Flashdance inspired Ninja III – The Domination).
The films that shaped my youth
Any child of the 80’s can’t deny the impact that the Merchant/Ivory of wretched excess had on 80’s pop culture. It’s fairly obvious that Golan’s inspiration for The Apple was The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which by this time had become a cult phenomenon. Visions of midnight showings and Apple merchandise probably danced in his head, but the reception at the premiere of the film quickly put an end to that.
When it showed for the first time at the Paramount Theater in Hollywood, people hated the movie so much, they took the free souvenir soundtracks albums and threw them at the screen, causing thousands of dollars in damage. This was probably not the “audience participation” that Golan was counting on. The ironic thing is that The Apple has in fact gained a cult following …by lovers of camp.
The Lonely Lady (1983)
When The Lonely Lady was released in 1983, it became an instant camp classic, thanks to wonderfully sleazy filmmaking and the performance of Pia Zadora. The film swept the Razzie Awards, and when I saw it the next year on cable at the tender age of ten, my dormant camp genes awakened, and I knew that I had just witnessed something life-changing.
Leave Pia alone!
In a film filled with jaw-dropping moments, two stand out. After Pia’s character Jerilee (who is an aspiring screenwriter) has been used by the evil Hollywood system one time to many, she comes home and has one of the all time great movie freak-outs. She takes a fully clothed shower, destroys every knick-knack in her apartment and then hallucinates that the tiny talking heads of her enemies are coming at her from the keys of her typewriter.
As she starts to “spiral into madness”, the film takes it literally, and we see her image spiral around like a hypnotist’s coin. Seriously.
That pales in comparison to the finale (SPOILERS AHEAD) and the infamous scene where she wins the “Annual Film Award” for Best Screenplay, and concludes her acceptance speech with the line that forever sealed this film’s fate as a camp classic … “I don’t suppose I’m the only one who’s had to f**k her way to the top!”.
Next page! I love Doggie Chow, too!
Of course. How could I not include the most famous camp classic of the last fifteen years? Showgirls has been dissected numerous times to try and explain the hows and whys of its camp status, but I prefer to look at it like Stonehenge, or the Easter Island statues. The reason for its existence will never be completely agreed upon, and it’s best to just appreciate it as the wonder of the world that it is.
Okay, that was just too good not to comment on. If you want to know why Showgirls broke camp boundaries, you have to start with the performance of Elizabeth Berkley. I actually think she’s terrific; well, not in this, but generally. In this film she was so jittery and spastic, I was sure someone was standing just behind camera range with a cattle prod. But the real camp delight was Gina Gershon, who could do wonders with one eyebrow lift and a drawling “darlin”. From the dialogue howlers to the beyond-tacky wardrobe, Showgirls taught a whole new generation of gay boys to love camp.
The list of camp films is exhaustive, and spans every decade of cinema, so let’s turn our attention to television, and the cornucopia of camp that the boob tube is responsible for.
Hmm … looks like a typical workday at the AfterElton.com offices. Dynasty was another slice of 80’s Americana that made me who I am today. It was one of the first times I saw an actual gay character on TV, and sure, Steven’s sexuality was at the mercy of each week’s script, but I learned that if you were in an industrial accent and wore magic bandages, you could come back blonder, blander, and a foot taller.
The real reason we watched Dynasty was for the over-the-top drama and the divas. Alexis (Joan Collins) is the template for all soap divas, but I also loved the underrated Sable (Stephanie Beacham). The clip above is one of the greatest camp catfights on a show dedicated to camp catfights. When it comes to these battles, it’s always more fun to see dames than bimbos. But I have a feeling their stunt doubles were responsible for about ninety-seven percent of what you see on the screen.
Above you can see one of my favorite moments from this iconic camp show. How dare that guy call her “some broad on a skateboard”! Whether it was her wonder helmet-and-pads, or her wonder scuba outfit (remember that?), Wonder Woman became the crush for many gay boys. No matter who they get for the eventual movie, no one will ever be able to fill Lynda Carter’s boots … and bustier. What makes this clip classic? It’s disco-era Wonder Woman riding a skateboard. They would never attempt something so blatantly insane today.
Trilogy of Terror
Warning: SPOILER VID!
Next page! the voluptuous horror of Karen Black!
Long before Chucky the killer doll, there was Trilogy of Terror. The incomparable Karen Black starred in this 70’s shocker which had kids looking twice at their Zuni dolls for any sign of voodoo cursing. Of course looking at it now, it’s high camp, and elicits as many giggles as scares (egads, those fake teeth!), but it still stands out among the many bizarro TV movies of the 70’s. From the bad dubbing (screams erupt from Karen’s closed mouth) to the fabulous 70’s decor, Trilogy of Terror is a slice of camp heaven.
You know, no matter how many times I see Helen Hunt’s stunt double fly out the window in the Reefer Madness of Afterschool Specials, it never gets old. Between that infamous scene, and the zombified performance of Diana Scarwid (who looks like she’s terrified that Faye Dunaway will pop out of the shadows with a coat hanger), Desperate Lives is one of the all-time great camp TV treasures. What elevates it to that higher plane is its absolute sincerity in “teaching a lesson”, and what we learned is that you can’t trust hot blonde 70’s boyfriends. Oh, and be sure to watch the clip to the end …”wheeeeeee!”
Okay, so we’ve looked at some examples of camp in movies and television, and profiled a few camp characters, but what about those flesh & blood icons, the men and women who embody the ideals of camp?
Charles Nelson Reilly, Paul Lynde, Carson Kressley
Male camp icons almost always follow the same formula – bitchy men with acerbic wits. They usually appear as themselves, or a fictional version of themselves. Paul Lynde made camp attitude an art form, and no one has come close to replicating his style. Charles Nelson Reilly continued the tradition, and in this decade reality programming has given rise to a new breed, led by Carson Kressley (although they’re all just pale imitations.)
Divine and RuPaul
Drag icons Divine and RuPaul integrate camp into their exaggerated female personas (and you may be wondering why I haven’t mentioned the late, great Divine’s partner-in-grime John Waters. The truth is, I’ve never considered his films to be camp, rather they’re about camp, or even parodies of camp.).
Finally, to finish up our camping trip, let’s take a look at two of the greatest female camp icons of all time, and why we love them.
Next page! But ya are, Blanche, ya are!
When it comes to female camp icons, we could be here forever trying to list our favorites. Just a few examples are Eartha Kitt, Cher, Marlene Dietrich, Joan Collins, Diana Ross, Bette Midler, Judy Garland, Liza Minelli, and the list goes on and on. Whether it’s Diana in Mahogany, Cher with Sonny, or Marlene in male drag, all of these women have at one time or another gone deliriously over the edge, and that’s why we love them so.
Joan Crawford and Bette Davis
But two women stand out for me, and they joined forces to create a classic film before moving into truly high camp territory. By all accounts, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford hated each other, but they put aside their differences to give the world Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? It was their careers afterward that propelled them into the forefront of camp icons. Because both aging ladies needed and wanted to work, they had to take roles that were beneath them, but being the resilient dames they were, didn’t let that stop them.
After Baby Jane, Joan gave us the triple howlers of Strait-Jacket, Berserk,, and my favorite Trog, in which the Oscar winner was reduced to working opposite a caveman. Bette had a more varied career post-Baby Jane, but still gave us movies like Madame Sin (in which she played a cigar-chomping super-villainess), and
Burnt Offerings (which I still insist on defending even in the face of universal derision).
One of my favorite late-career Bette films was the kids camp classic Return From Witch Mountain. It was the sequel to Escape to Witch Mountain, which was a bigger hit, but was inferior to its follow-up in one important way … it had no Bette Davis.
In Return, Bette played the wonderfully named Letha Wedge, who’s using her fortune to finance dastardly experiments for the even more dastardly Christopher Lee. Bette was at her camp best, chewing the scenery and wearing fabulous clothes. And don’t get me started on that wig.
The "re-imagining" of the Witch Mountain movies comes out this week, and AfterElton.com recently spoke to one of the stars of Race To Witch Mountain, out actor Jonathan Slavin.
Next page! Our interview with Jonathan who says he’s campy!
Jonathan Slavin has had recurring roles on Summerland, Andy Richter Controls The Universe, and Inconceivable, and is a series regular on the new show Better Off Ted, premiering next week on ABC. We asked him about his new role, about being an out actor in Hollywood, and for this edition of BEST.GAY.WEEK.EVER! we wanted to hear about his thoughts about remaking one of the great kids camp classics of the 70’s.
AfterElton.com: Do you actually have a campy side?
Jonathan Slavin: Sure, absolutely! Those iconic ladies are just as iconic to me as they are to any of our people.
AE: You’re appearing in the upcoming Race To Witch Mountain, the re-imagining of that campy 70’s kids classic Escape to Witch Mountain.
JS: Yeah, I just saw it (the original) the other day, and had completely forgotten how much I loved it as a kid. The marionette scene, with them dancing with the puppets? Are you kidding me with that? Heaven!
AE: What’s your role in the new version?
JS: I play Gallagher, a rabid sci-fi fan who worships the Carla Gugino character. But I don’t know how campy it’s going to be, it looks like it’s going to be more action. But certainly the original is amazing. And that sequel!
AE: That leads me to my next question, because since we’re talking about camp, is there anything in the new version that approaches the camp of Bette Davis in Return From Witch Mountain?
JS: Oh come on! Nothing in the history of time is going to come close to equaling the camp of Bette Davis in Return From Witch Mountain. And those kids were in those crazy 70’s clothes, that little girl with that unfortunate mini-skirt/jumpsuit and those big clunky brown shoes through the entire thing. Amazing!
AE: You really remember the movie well, don’t you?
JS: Oh, well … no. I don’t know what you’re talking about. [Laughs] Okay, I might have seen it … a couple of times. The recently showed it as a double feature, and I remembered how much my brother and sister and I loved it when we were kids, and I though that maybe my nieces and nephews would like the Witch Mountain that I grew up with.
* Watch for the rest of our interview with the funny and outspoken Jonathan upcoming on AfterElton.com!
Some final thoughts on camp:
Susan Sontag: "The whole point of Camp is to dethrone the serious. Camp is playful, anti-serious. More precisely, Camp involves a new, more complex relation to "the serious." One can be serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious."
Nomi Malone: "It doesn’t suck".
Snicks: "I know it when I see it"
Next page! Shooting arrows at this week’s TV.
In My Humble Opinion
Brothers & Sisters – Blah, blah, blah, unshaven bleary-eyed Tommy, blah, blah, blah, Holly ain’t backing down, blah, blah, blah, Robert can’t play Wii bowling, blah, blah, blah, Nora lays the smackdown, blah, blah, blah, Scotty stands around, blah, blah, blah, wait a minute! I quite fancy this Ryan guy. He looks like Cat People.
Um … meow?
RuPaul’s Drag Race – I’m sorry I came to this show so late, but I like what I’ve seen so far. This week’s episode had Charo, and a surprising elimination as Shannel basically ousted herself. When Ru asked the ladies who should leave, Shannel nominated Shannel, because Shannel was not happy that no one could see how beautiful Shannel really was, and Shannel wanted to leave. So she did. I’m not sure if it was a strategy that backfired, but I was sorry to see her go. The final three are Nina, Bebe, and the under-qualified Rebecca.
Taste the rainbow
Ugly Betty – While I enjoyed parts of last week’s show, there was a lot that I could have done without. The entire "kitchen rumble" segments with the Suarez family trying to win money to buy the house was groan-inducing. And why bring on Cheyenne Jackson just to have him stand there and hold a sack of flour? On the plus side, Wilhelmina rode a bus … a public bus, and Betty’s new boyfriend Matt turned out to be not only adorkable, but rich!
Hi! My name’s U.B. Kwitis.
The Amazing Race – Is it any wonder this show wins the Emmy every year? Twists and turns galore, and both Team SuperGay and Team Deaf(gay) survive, thanks to a little sabotage from the deceptively cute Luke, who may earn the moniker "the sinister deaf kid".
Do I look sinister?
Next page! For your viewing pleasure.
For Your Movie-Going Pleasure
Um … not much. As we mentioned, there’s Race To Witch Mountain, but unless it has kids in brown clunky shoes and wide lapels, I’ll pass. Also opening is another remake, The Last House on the Left, but I am so tired of horror remakes that I automatically boycott them now. And then there’s Miss March, about a virginal teen blah, blah, blah Playboy Magazine. Maybe they’ll be an article.
For Your DVD Pleasure
There are two must-sees on DVD this week. Let’s start with a little movie you may have heard of …
Hot on the heels of Oscar wins for Best Actor Sean Penn and Best Original Screenplay for Dustin Lance Black, the DVD of Milk hit shelves this week. Strangely, the only special features are a couple of short docs about the making of, and some deleted scenes. Where’s the commentary? What gives?
Let the Right One In should be required viewing for any tween who thought the anemic Twilight was "cool".
For Your TV Viewing Pleasure
For you Anglophiles out there, Graham Norton returns on Saturday night to bring us laffs from across the pond. Graham can be very campy, but I’m not sure how campy this week’s guests — Duchess of York Sarah Ferguson — will be. Oh, wait, we’re talking English royalty so TOTALLY campy.
Sunday nights now exceed Thursday nights for gay viewing. In fact, I fear my DVR is going to overheat trying to record it all. So get your notepad/crackberry/iPhone ready to take notes. We’ve got the two hour premiere if Kings on NBC and in the second hour you’ll learn who the gay character is. Then we’ve got a new The Amazing Race, Desperate Housewives and a new Brothers & Sisters. If that’s not enough, there is a same-sex kiss on United States of Tara. No, it’s not with John Corbett.
Monday is a new RuPaul’s Drag Race, then on Tuesday we’ve got Adam Lambert in the lead on American Idol. Also on Tuesday, Orlando Jones joins Rules of Engagement in a gay role.
Wednesday is the premiere of Better Off Ted with the campy Jonathan Slavin followed by a new The Real World: Brooklyn and Make Me a Supermodel with only Shawn left in the running after Christian got dumped last week. Meanwhile, Thursday offers up a new Ugly Betty.
Big News! Since our Brothers & Sisters View Party livechat was so successful, we’re not only going to repeat that, but add a few more shows. We’ll be doing Viewing Party livechats on Sunday night for Brothers & Sisters and The Amazing Race. Some folks not on the East coast have expressed some frustration about not being able to participate so we’re going to do Viewing Parties at different times to give everyone a chance to get in on the fun.
The Brothers & Sisters Viewing Party will be at 10PM EST/7 PM PST while The Amazing Race will be done at 8PM PST/11PM EST. One suggestion for those folks in earlier time zones is to record those shows and then watch along with us as we snark away! But either way be sure to join us and join in!
But Wait, There’s More!
AfterElton.com reader joeyhegele sent us this terrific PSA from fatherhood.gov. It’s the perfect way to end, so enjoy it, and be sure to have the campiest BEST.GAY.WEEK.EVER!