Monday, July 28, 2008

Widely Loathed "Partners" Debuts on DVD

"Why didn't we read the screenplay before we signed the contract?"

A hundred thousand years ago, when I was a half-closeted high school student, I went to the bookstore with my dad and saw a copy of Vito Russo's "The Celluloid Closet" wedged on a shelf in the movie section. The store didn't have the greatest selection of books about movies: there were a lot of those short, fat video guides with entries that are only a sentence or two long; slender volumes that promised to help you become the next Quentin Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez (one written by Rodriguez himself); the obligatory Leonard Maltin and Roger Ebert collections, and that was about it.* I'd heard of "The Celluloid Closet" before, mostly because of the documentary it inspired, and the book's cover image of Louise Brooks and Alice Roberts dancing in Pandora's Box called to me. I knew I had to read it.

It took a few months, but I finally acquired a copy off the Internet, and when it arrived I pored over it like a Talmudic scholar. Many of the movies Russo, an activist and film historian who died in 1990, savaged in the book weren't available at my local video store. The ones he hated were the ones I wanted to see the most, just to know if they were really that bad. The picture that accompanied a vitriolic description of a 1982 comedy called Partners was especially intriguing -- i
t showed Ryan O'Neal and John Hurt bickering in the aisle of a grocery store. As far as images go, it was fairly benign. Could Partners really be that bad? Sure, O'Neal looked a bit ridiculous in his super-tight clothes, but there were countless stills in "The Celluloid Closet" that were more offensive: Ray Walston's garish transvestite killer from Caprice, Michael Greer in The Gay Deceivers and a prison rape from Fortune and Men's Eyes come to mind.

The text told a different story. Russo referred to the film as "insensitive to the point of slander" and drew quotes from a seemingly endless supply of negative reviews. (Rex Reed called it a "crime against humanity," which he'd know a thing or two about following his involvement in Myra Breckinridge.) He was particularly fond of this assessment from Inquiry magazine critic Stephen Harvey:
"Picture this: A lot of Jews have been murdered and a gentile cop is teamed up with a Jewish cop who's fixed his nose and changed his name and they go into this mysterious Jewish community and every Jew they find is pushy, foul-mouthed, vulgar, greasy, aggressive and a gold digger."
When I read that Legend Films, in conjunction with Paramount, was set to release Partners on DVD last week, I couldn't believe it. (The American DVD market is the damnedest thing: Only rarely can you find the Jacques Rivette or Shohei Imamura films you're looking for, but a special anniversary edition of something like Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers is always just around the bend.) I'd managed to track down VHS copies of tripe ranging from By Design to A Different Story to the Gordon Willis freak show Windows, but I'd never nabbed a copy of Partners. It went straight to the top of my rental queue, and I finally watched it the other night.

Credited to La Cage aux Folles screenwriter Francis Veber, Partners had a sitcom-thin premise befitting its director, TV legend James Burrows (who, perhaps out of guilt, went on to direct all 194 episodes of Will & Grace). Hunky gay muscle models are being murdered in Los Angeles, and the police department dispatches two of their own, a womanizing sergeant (Ryan O'Neal) and a meek, closeted records clerk (John Hurt), to infiltrate the gay community in order to find the killer. They're given a purple Volkswagen Beetle and instructions to pose as a couple, an idea that repulses O'Neal but gradually appeals to Hurt, who enjoys his role as happy homemaker -- he cooks, he cleans, he irons O'Neal's underwear -- even though his partner uses the word "faggot" so freely he makes Archie Bunker look like the executive director of GLAAD.

O'Neal's character is portrayed as a boor, but one we're supposed to laugh at and root for. Even after the obligatory scene of him experiencing homophobia at the hands of a fellow cop, he insults gay characters without giving it a second thought; it's the kind of unfettered nastiness that strips the handful of scenes that feature O'Neal enjoying a life of quiet domesticity with Hurt of any charm they might have possessed. The Hurt character (or, as Russo put it, "John Hurt's doe-eyed timid faggot") is just as one-dimensional. Not only does he huff and brood when O'Neal's girlfriends drop by, he's depicted as too nelly to hold a gun without dropping it. Hurt does what he can to bring a measure of dignity to the role, but there's no room for dignity in Partners.

After watching the film, I reread what Russo wrote about it more than 20 years ago. Back then, he called Partners, along with Making Love, Personal Best and Victor/Victoria,
"too straight for gay audiences and much too gay for conservative straights." I wonder if that would hold true today. If you remade Partners with Adam Sandler or Vince Vaughn in the O'Neal role, and Kevin James or Ben Stiller in Hurt's, you might be looking at a $30 million opening weekend.

* There was also, if I might go completely off-topic for a moment,
a single copy of Pauline Kael's "5001 Nights at the Movies," a magisterially thick tome that listed for $35 and was out of my price range. Still, in my heart, that book belonged to me. Each time we went shopping I'd check to see if it was still there, noting with disapproval every new spot of wear that appeared on its cover and spine, until one day it was gone and I rued the purchase of every $5 detective novel I bought that could've brought me that much closer to enjoying sentences like this favorite, from a review of Joseph Losey's Mr. Klein: "The title may sound like a Jewish detergent, but nothing gets washed away in this unsatisfying French quasi-thriller, set in Paris in 1942, during the Occupation." Oh, Pauline. You were such a fucking idiot sometimes when you reviewed gay-themed movies, but you always made it up to us when you really hated, or truly loved, something.

And Now a Word from Our Sponsors