SPECIAL FRIENDSHIPS: CUCKOOS IN THE NEST
This is the sixteenth chapter of Special Friendships, Steven Freeman's unpublished book about the depiction of close friendships between men and boys in film, which is introduced here.
Cuckoos in the Nest
While family ties may legitimise what critics usually please to call “improbable” man/boy liaisons, some family ties are more tenuous than others, and some are downright fictitious. When Doug McKeon, 12, is dumped on his grandparents so that mother Jane Fonda can take a vacation with her current boyfriend, in “ON GOLDEN POND” (81), he and grandfather Henry Fonda meet as brittle strangers, and it is the working through that barrier which forms the crux of the piece. Al Pacino’s five kids in “AUTHOR! AUTHOR!” (82) are not his at all (aside from the eldest, Eric Gurry) but the by-blows of his absentee wife Tuesday Weld, and his struggle to keep them together as an ersatz family without any legal right of custody provides the drama to shore up the often awkward domestic comedy. Steve McQueen may be nominally “part of the family” when he hares off with young Mitch Vogel in grandfather’s yellow Winton Flyer for “THE REIVERS” (69), but the dialogue reveals there’s no actual blood kinship between them either. It’s OK for them to go skinny-dipping together, or roost at a Memphis whorehouse, because they are “brothers” in some looser sense, raised under the same roof. McQueen chaperones the boy on one of those so-called “rite of passage” adventures (though his motivation is more selfish than that) but the director, and the film, are more interested in the antics of McQueen and Rupert Crosse than in Vogel’s passage, so that the only echo we hear of a rich Huckleberry Finn boyhood yarn comes from Burgess Meredith’s narration, straight from the pen of Faulkner, and in John Williams’ lush Oscar-nominated score.
In RKO’s “LITTLE MEN” (40), Jimmy Lydon may be devoted to his ne’er-do-well pop, a reformed con artist, so that he deeply resents their separation when pop is forced to put him in Kay Francis' sweetness-and-light boarding school, but what Jimmy doesn’t suspect is that he was a foundling "bequeathed" to the man by a dead crook friend, and no relation to him whatsoever. Family ties like these are token ones at best. “TI KNIVER I HJERTET” (“A Knife in the Heart”, Norway 99) plays with this theme more subtly. The central boy is befriended by a vaguely dangerous young stranger whose interest in him remains highly ambiguous until the film reveals finally (which the boy never suspected) that the man is an elder brother he never knew he had.
“SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION” (93) also played with the theme – is Will Smith or isn’t he a wild oat Donald Sutherland sowed in his youth? – but it seems to have escaped all reviewers that this plot was a straight crib from an earlier Italian film. In “BUGIE BIANCHE” (79) the charming, handsome youth Ronnie Valente (16 or 17) presents himself one day at the door of childless Max von Sydow and wife Virna Lisi, announcing himself as Von Sydow’s “son”. Initial suspicion and scepticism melt away because the boy is so attentive and ingratiating, his companionship so refreshing. Later, when a posse of indignant couples the boy had previously adopted show up demanding to see him, Von Sydow and Lisi facilitate his escape. Von Sydow remonstrates with Valente for living his life as a serial impostor, but the youth reacts with some annoyance, explaining that he has brought them the gift of his company for a brief while, and must now simply move on and find another couple to adopt. He suggests, in parting, that if they enjoyed having an instant son about the place, they might want to take a leaf from his book. As the end credits roll, the couple set off happily to tour a Venetian piazza in search of a suitable candidate. The film’s homoerotic undercurrents are clear – Valente settles into his filial role with the deftness of a high class courtesan – he’s simply a “rent boy” who keeps his trousers on.
One who didn’t keep his trousers on filled the son’s part in “OLIVIER OLIVIER” (91), an intriguing little mystery tale in which a faintly precious 9-year old boy disappears on a short cycle ride to his grandmother’s, the recriminations over which pull his family apart. Six years later, the detective who investigated the case is now working in Paris, and stumbles across a 15-year old “rent boy” he becomes convinced is the missing child. The gangling youth (Gregoire Colin) is reinstated with his doting rural parents, and an older sister who at first dismisses him as bogus, but later accepts him too as the child given up for dead. Is Olivier Olivier or isn’t he? The film keeps us guessing on that point until the final reel. It’s a typically French film, personal, intimate and candid, but the dénouement is slightly forced. And it anticipated a whole welter of films in the nineties which suddenly decided homosexual boy prostitutes were good box office.
The same wheeze as “BUGIE BIANCHE” lay behind “IL EST GÉNIAL PAPY” (France, xx), in which a much younger boy (Fabien Chombart) appears one day at the door of Guy Bedos and declares himself to be the grandson he never suspected he had, a cue for much pre-“HOME ALONE” slapstick mayhem. Victorian literature in particular, I think, had a penchant for these tortuous and improbable family connections, their plots awash with undiscovered sons, daughters, brothers, fathers. Before “OLIVER TWIST” is snatched off the street by Bill Sykes, let’s not forget, he is first snatched off the street by kind old Mr Brownlow. It is only much later, after the boy has become a fixture in his home, that either of them begins to suspect Oliver’s mother was Brownlow’s long lost daughter.
And when all these absentee dads and grandpas have claimed their share of the crop of boys in need, we shouldn’t forget uncles. Both “UNSTRUNG HEROES” (1995) and “SECONDHAND LIONS” (2003) played the same eccentric bachelor uncles card as “CACHORRO”, someone with whom the boy could be parked while mum is expiring of cancer or otherwise indisposed. “MITT LIV SOM HUND” (“My Life as a Dog”, Sweden 1985) did so too, and the TV adaptation of “My Uncle Silas” with Albert Finney. The weirdo uncles of Diane Keaton’s film were (a) clinically paranoid and (b) compulsive hoarder, but still able to furnish the boy with a new sense of his own identity and will, which his parents had signally failed to do. The social misfit uncles of “SECONDHAND LIONS” were (or were they?) the husks of intrepid adventurers from the 1920s (Michael Caine and Robert Duvall), but just what the doctor ordered for a boy with (yet again) self-esteem lower than a snake’s armpit. And of course Anton Glanzelius in Lasse Halstrom’s film must be usefully distracted by a panoply of rustic eccentrics while his mother (and beloved dog) die miserably back home. These are all “life-affirming” tales with a vengeance of course, but they incidentally portray boy living quite nicely thank you outside the strict parameters of the family home. And neither “UNSTRUNG HEROES” nor “SECONDHAND LIONS” felt obliged to provide a woman in the household as “guarantor” (Wasn’t it Quentin Crisp who once observed acidly that we can’t all be someone’s “nephew”..?)
When is a family not a family, we may permit the question, and does it really matter anyway? Blood is simply a mechanism for carrying oxygen around the body. Kindredship of spirit is rather more important than that. But whether or not you accept such an argument, this discrete canon of films – in which boy is unceremoniously dumped into new surroundings to live with strangers – never permits a whisper of criticism of the mother who deposits him there. Likewise the canon of “abusive stepfather” films (“HOLLOW REED” a prime example), in which the sufferings of boys at the hands of mom’s latest bedmate never for a moment imply any criticism of mom’s appalling taste in men.
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