“There’s a million ways to tell a story — realism is the dullest,” says a character in Richard Glatzer’s first feature “Grief.”
Even with the film’s occasionally frenzied tenor, befitting of its setting in the production offices of a “Divorce Court”-esque daytime show called “The Love Judge,” the line is rife with irony, particularly in retrospect considering Glatzer would come to be known in his future collaborations with husband and creative partner Wash Westmoreland — “Quinceañera” and the recently Oscar-nominated “Still Alice” – as a humanist of the highest order. Yet in the story of Mark, a TV writer who grieves the loss of his boyfriend who died of AIDS while waiting for a promotion that may never come from his homophobic bosses, Glatzer blended the very real and chilling spectre of the AIDS epidemic over the gay community with a broad workplace comedy set almost entirely inside “The Love Judge” offices.
“I liked the idea of juxtaposing real sorrow with the absurdity of daily life,” said Glatzer, when asked whether his 1993 dramedy belonged to the New Queer Cinema with the likes of more angry, serious-minded fare such as Todd Haynes’ “Poison” and Gregg Araki’s “The Living End.” “For me, it was more interesting to glimpse Mark’s despair at the office rather than see him at home, crying himself to sleep at night. And I relish having “Circus Lesbians” [a wild court case that goes before “The Love Judge” in the film] interrupt the drama, which is not to take anything away from the edgier tone of the films you mentioned. Edgy was in the air back then and I miss it now.”
At least for one night in Los Angeles, that feeling was in the air once more as Outfest and the UCLA Film and Television Archive screened “Grief” at the Billy Wilder Theater in Westwood as part of their Legacy Project screening series on January 31st. Bringing together original cast members Craig Chester (Mark), Carlton Wilborn (Mark’s flirtatious officemate Jeremy), Mickey Cottrell (the Love Judge), Westmoreland onstage and Glatzer, who appeared via Skype due his ongoing battle with ALS, the evening was a rare opportunity to see the film on the big screen – in fact, UCLA’s Head of Public Programs Shannon Kelley admitted before going on a search for the 16mm print that was shown, all they had was a VHS copy in the archives – but also a chance to slip back into a time period that may too easily be forgotten.
“It’s not a horror story about AIDS,” said Chester, who was a rare actor at the time to be openly gay and made the most of it with turns in such films as “Swoon” and “I Shot Andy Warhol.” “What strikes me now is that it’s such a time capsule of the mentality of that time. I remember when we were shooting it, thinking [AIDS] is going to be here with us for the rest of our lives and there was this wartime mentality. The thing that’s so beautiful about the movie is that it’s just this slice of life about living in that time and have this be part of your day-to-day reality, adjusting to this new normal.”
Westmoreland, who first met Glatzer just as “Grief” was coming off the festival circuit, agreed, adding, “I think Richard really came up through AIDS activism and was very involved in fighting for dignity for people living with HIV and AIDS. His experience of Donald [Berry, his boyfriend whose death helped inspire “Grief”] and his experience making “Grief” were very much about what a young generation was forced to deal with issues around illness and issues around dignity for people living with diseases. It shaped his life view and now living with ALS and working with “Still Alice,” a lot of those same issues came into play. The reason I think “Still Alice” is touching a lot of people in the Alzheimer’s community is because it looks where a lot of people don’t want to look.”
Glatzer, then a TV writer for many shows including “Divorce Court,” hadn’t actually planned on making “Grief” or even becoming a director until having a conversation with producer Ruth Charny who suggested there was likely something to be mined from his experiences with the daytime TV show, which as Glatzer noted was “a favorite of Andy Warhol’s.” Glatzer had fiddled around with film – the screening of “Grief” was actually preceded by his 1991 documentary short “Glamazon: The Barbara Lemay Story” about the trans carnival dancer – but Charny’s encouragement led him to make something he would call “embarrassingly autobiographical [with] characters that are largely amalgams of people I knew at the time.” The result not only touched audiences, demonstrated by its win at the San Francisco Lesbian and Gay Film Festival in 1993, but as Wilborn recalled, the people who made it as well.
“Getting to play Jeremy was interesting for me because I was diagnosed HIV-positive in 1985 and most of my adult life, even up until probably seven, eight years ago, I was very private about it,” said Wilborn. “So to get the opportunity to play a role where the character was more courageous to speak out and to take a stand when I wasn’t was one of the reasons it was an interesting opportunity for me. I got to find my strength silently as somebody else and it was this quiet, brewing encouragement for me to finally catch up to Jeremy.”
The event was largely a lovefest for Glatzer, with many in the crowd being close acquaintances of the filmmaker or people who actually worked on the film, making them as ready to give answers during the Q & A portion of the evening as they were to ask questions. A camera operator who teamed with Glatzer on “Glamazon” was brought to tears in seeing “Grief” today, reminiscing about how Glatzer tirelessly fundraised for Act Up Los Angeles at the height of the AIDS crisis, using his club connections to set up parties that would bring in money for the cause. Sally Kirkland, who noted she had worked with most of those assembled onstage at one point or another, asked whether the film was improvised at all, to which there was a resounding no, given the film was shot in a mere 10 days in the Hollywood Athletic Club building on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. Still, all the actors described Glatzer as being incredibly generous with them.
“Richard was always a great audience on set,” said Cottrell, who got Glatzer’s eyes to light up while describing how he based his crotchety judge character on one of his favorite actors Lionel Barrymore. “[Richard] was always thrilled with the performances. Not just me, but watching him and other people shooting and watching Richard react, it was always special to see the glee that performances brought to him.”
Glatzer explained how it was actually seeing drag queen Jackie Beat, who sent her well-wishes for last weekend’s event from a cruise ship she was performing on, in action that led him to casting her in the role of Jo, the indomitable boss whose impending departure leaves an opening for Mark to take her job.
“In the early ‘90s, I promoted a night club and lots of the people who worked on ‘Grief’ were people I knew from the club,” said Glatzer. “When I was writing the script, I had every intention of casting a woman to play Jo, but one night at [the club] watching Jackie perform, the idea just came to me what if Jackie played Jo realistically as a woman? Jackie was game, so we went for it. Such is the joy of making a movie on $40,000.”
Chester remembered how Glatzer invited him, Wilborn and the other actors to his house to rehearse before getting to the shoot, letting the cast bond and become friends, which he and Wilborn agreed helped the energy on set immensely. He also spoke about how playing a version of Glatzer turned out to be quite helpful rather than intimidating.
“Any questions I had about the character, I would just go ask Richard about himself,” said Chester, who laughed now about how real the film felt in retrospect having now worked in writers’ rooms himself as a TV scribe. “Richard and I had gotten to know each other quite well before shooting and as an actor, there was a lot of freedom and there just was a lot of love. Watching this movie now, there’s a scene on the roof where I have to break down and cry and I remember shooting that scene and we were losing light and it’s like ‘You have to cry now, Craig! We’re losing light!’ I remember the pressure, but because Richard and I had such a special relationship at that point, he knew exactly what to do and what to say to me to get to that place emotionally.”
When asked by someone in the audience how they dealt with discrimination in the film business, both Chester and Wilborn reflected on their struggles within the industry after becoming openly gay, but Chester turned the question back on the reasons that led Glatzer to make the film.
“Richard faced [discrimination] working at his job,” said Chester. “It was actually a difficult character to play because it’s the anniversary of Mark’s lover’s death, then there’s AIDS phobia and he’s up for this promotion and these guys JNR [the fictional production company in the film] are homophobic, preventing him from getting the promotion. But Mark was internalizing his own issues. He hasn’t been tested [for HIV], and he’s afraid to and at that time, there was this idea that job could be stressful and it might be bad for my health. These are things going throughout the film, and all that stuff really happened in Richard’s life.”
Although Glatzer was largely limited to preprogrammed responses on his iPad given his current fight with ALS, he couldn’t help but interject triumphantly, “I did get promoted, though!”