Jeffrey (1995): Love in the ’90s Is Paranoid

JEFFREY (1995)

To view Jeffrey click here.

There’s something special about the wave of LGBT-friendly indies that swept into theaters in the mid-1990s, and it’s not hard to see why. Rapid changes were starting to take place in a community driven to fiery activism by the catastrophic onslaught of AIDS in the previous decade, and the news was becoming far more outspoken about relevant issues in that watershed year of 1994, when the United States started observing LGBT History Month and the military initiated its controversial “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. Filmmakers followed suit, with everyone from Hollywood to the most budget-constrained indies offering a wide variety of voices in films like The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994), Beautiful Thing (1996), Philadelphia (1993), The Celluloid Closet (1995), Happy Together (1997), Bound (1996), The Incredibly True Adventures of 2 Girls in Love (1996), Broadway Damage (1997), Chasing Amy (1997) and As Good as It Gets (1997). Not all those films have held up to scrutiny over the years, but when seen together and as part of the entire decade’s output, you could make a very strong case for the 1990s as the most vital one in the history of LGBT cinema.

Stuck right in the middle of all this is Jeffrey (1995), which American playwright and novelist Paul Rudnick adapted from his own 1993 off Broadway play about a young gay man dealing with dating with the specter of AIDS hanging over him in Clinton-era Manhattan. The original cast included such now-familiar character actors as John Michael Higgins and Bryan Batt, and while some cast reshuffling occurred by the time it went before the cameras for Orion Pictures, the stage version’s director, Christopher Ashley (who later ushered in the stage versions of Xanadu and Freaky Friday), was retained for the film. Batt was wisely retained, but numerous marquee-friendly names (at least among the more pop culture savvy) were brought in for the supporting cast including Patrick Stewart, Christine Baranski, Victor Garber, Camryn Manheim, Kathy Najimy, Sigourney Weaver, Nathan Lane and Olympia Dukakis. That’s probably the most impressive cast out of any gay-themed film of its era and a large reason why this received far more mainstream attention than was usual at the time, outside of the Oscar-winning Philadelphia and Priscilla.

Though there’s an obvious grim undertone to this story of a man swearing off sex during the height of the “silent killer,” Jeffrey stood out dramatically at the time as the first major release to treat a gay love story in the manner of a normal romantic comedy. There’s a fizzy, silly attitude at work here that came as a welcome palette cleanser of sorts after the (justifiably) angry and politicized films that were common before, not to mention the wave of now highly polarizing gay films in the 1960s and 1970s that had painted the culture as an emotional dead end (most famously the groundbreaking The Boys in the Band in 1970). The films I listed above had little interest in continuing those trends; here same-sex relationships could be shown as having the same joys and pitfalls as any straight one, and though a few hit some major bumps along the way, the fact that there was change in the air in movie theaters from coast to coast couldn’t be denied.

JEFFREY (1995)

I’m not sure how someone watching Jeffrey for the first time now will accept it without any context. Being HIV-positive stopped being synonymous with a death sentence a very long time ago now, and especially with online dating taking the place of bar culture, status disclosure has turned into another personality trait to be checked off on a list and has become a deal breaker with far less frequency. However, at the time this film came out, a lot of gay men were staying in the closet into their later years because of the widespread death, suffering and loss of friends to which they had borne witness, and the fear felt by Jeffrey was very much a real thing for those who hadn’t been participating in marches and public protests. Here he’s played by Steven Weber, a skilled theater actor and household name at the time for TV’s Wings (1990-1997), who was also seen getting doused with a firehouse of fake blood in Mel Brooks’ Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995) a few months later. At first glance he seems like an odd casting choice, but I think time has been kind to this decision as he now seems like a nice bit of counterprogramming to the younger, more club-ready male leads seen in later rom-coms like Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss (1998) or my pick for the zenith of the indie gay rom-coms that closed out the decade (and another great New York film), Trick (1999), which goes for a happier key while preserving the same Broadway-friendly vibe you find here. Though there are still dozens of films hitting festivals like Outfest every year, it’s a completely different cinematic landscape now where a well-crafted story about same-sex relationships gets very different critical attention than it used to (roughly the appearance of Brokeback Mountain in 2005 to the present day, most notably last year’s Moonlight). You also don’t tend to see that effervescent 1990s tone around anymore, which gives these films a bit of a nostalgic glow that most probably wouldn’t have expected at the time.

Now you can see how Jeffrey (and, on a far lesser seen scale, Broadway Damage) laid the groundwork for these films, and fortunately much of it is still fall-down hilarious (especially Jeffrey’s conversations with his parents, which you probably won’t want to have playing too loud). There’s also a genuine sweetness in its central romance, with Weber playing nicely opposite the effective Michael T. Weiss, who would go on to join his leading man in TV history as the lead of the NBC (and later TNT) thriller series, The Pretender (1996-2000). More significantly, you can see how Jeffrey and its portrayal of modern romance had an impact on television, particularly the American, Showtime-aired version of Queer as Folk (2000-2005), which ultimately resembles this film a lot more than its British namesake after the first few episodes. If you’re looking for something to watch for Pride Month, an early example of Patrick Stewart’s now very public and considerable comic talents or just something funny with a little swirl of sadness running through it, it’s definitely one to put in your watchlist.

Nathaniel Thompson

 

2 Responses Jeffrey (1995): Love in the ’90s Is Paranoid
Posted By swac44 : June 14, 2017 6:36 am

Thankfully, LBGTQ films can still be light and breezy. Just watched Chicago indie Signature Move, in advance of this week’s OUTeast Film Fest in Halifax, an enjoyable romantic comedy about a Pakistani-American woman who falls in love with a woman of Mexican descent, and the sport of masked Lucha Libre wrestling. Also features former Satyajit Ray player (!) Shabana Azmi as the mother who has to come to terms with a daughter who resists the traditional female roles in their culture. Keep an eye out for it!

Posted By SeeingI : June 22, 2017 4:02 pm

“Yoko Ono…to see the apartment!”

I haven’t seen this film since it was out, but every time Lennon’s widow comes to my consciousness I hear Patrick Stewart intoning her name!

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