In 1994, PBS ran the 90-minute documentary Before Stonewall about events leading up to the 1969 riot outside the Stonewall Inn in New York's Greenwich Village, an incident regarded by some as the beginning of the modern Gay Pride movement in America. The late filmmaker Nigel Finch has taken another approach to the subject. His Stonewall is a "fictionalizing" by screenwriter Rikki Beadle Blair of Martin Duberman's book about the riot, and it uses the identity of its narrator--a drag queen--as an excuse to employ a tone of gushy, romantic yarn-spinning.
The turbulent event is made the backdrop to a pair of old-fashioned love stories. The fortunes of two gay couples are followed up to the night of the riot. Matty Dean (Frederick Weller), a boy from the sticks, shows up in New York looking for adventure and whatever comes his way, like a gay, idealistic Joe Buck. He soon falls in with the crowd at the Stonewall, a drag club regularly busted by vicious, homophobic cops.
Matty begins a romance with LaMiranda (Guillermo Diaz), the Puerto Rican drag queen who also serves as the hopelessly romantic narrator. But he also joins the Mattachine Society, an early gay-and-lesbian-rights group whose strategy is to legitimate gay rights in the public eye--it advises members to dress in mainstream clothes at demonstrations. Matty becomes attracted to a strait-laced fellow member (Brendan Corbalis); LaMiranda suffers nobly, if she does say so herself.
Counterpointing this tale of proud, avowed gays in love is the sadder story of Bostonia (Duane Boutte), a lovely, authoritative drag queen who has fallen for the Stonewall's closeted, mob-connected manager, Skinny Vinnie (Bruce MacVittie). The two are genuinely in love, but Vinnie can't conceive of coming out.
Stonewall sings the low-budget blues at times. Since Finch was unable to acquire the actual Stonewall as a location, much of his scarce funding was spent re-creating the bar and the street outside it. And it shows--the riot scenes toward which the film builds are rather slight--they aren't likely to threaten the reputation of Sergei Eisenstein's Strike.
Still, the movie has a huge, angry heart, and it's likely to mean a lot to a lot of people. All of which is fine, but in the interest of critical thoroughness, some grouch ought to note that the melodrama of the invented plots is laid on a little thick, and its relevance to the historical material is tenuous; the most tragic event in the film could have happened as easily today as in 1969.
Stonewall is most interesting when it throws us a curve in the midst of the persecution, as in the scene where Matty and several friends take a Village Voice reporter out drinking and loudly announce that they're gay at every bar, hoping to illustrate the New York law against serving alcohol to gays. Amusingly, no bartender observes the ordinance.
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The film's suggestion that history is just fodder for the ephemeral daydreams of drag queens is Finch's prerogative, but it has the potential to trivialize the very real, often painful efforts of early gay activists. The riot took place the day that Judy Garland was buried, and, in the end, the film has no stronger message than this: Don't mess with drag queens in mourning for Judy Garland.
--M. V. Moorhead
Directed by Nigel Finch; with Guillermo Diaz, Frederick Weller, Brendan Corbalis, Duane Boutte and Bruce MacVittie.
(At Valley Art Theatre in Tempe.)