SPECIAL FRIENDSHIPS: BURNT LITTLE FINGERS
This is the twenty-eighth chapter of Special Friendships, Steven Freeman's unpublished book about the depiction of close friendships between men and boys in film, which is introduced here.
Burnt little fingers
Boys are not supposed to have such emotional entanglements of course. This is contrary to their programming. It interferes both with their recruitment to heterosexuality — a campaign that has acquired manic dimensions over the last generation, as though the heterosexual world were fighting some desperate rearguard action — and with the proper devotions of young males to “the fairer sex”. Boys should reserve their heart pangs for horses and dogs, if not for a classmate of the Becky Thatcher variety, and when they presumptuously attach themselves to adults, only grief can come of it. This at least seems to have been the thesis underlying “BURNING SECRET” (88), the debut feature of British director Andrew Birkin.
It was a remake of “BRENNENDES GEHEIMNIS”, a short story filmed twice before in 1933 and 1975, and follows Edmund, an asthmatic 12-year old boy who is taken to a health spa by his bored mother (Faye Dunaway – awkwardly miscast). Here he quickly falls under the spell of a charismatic German baron, and the man seems at first to reciprocate the boy’s eagerness to get acquainted. A Special Friendship seems about to bloom.
Gradually, to his horror, the boy realises this was only a ruse to seduce his mother, and he runs home to father in bitter mortification. But he does not strike back at the baron by reporting his mother’s indiscretion. He retains her honour. Father puts two and two together nonetheless, and respects his son all the more for keeping silent about it.
Birkin makes of this fairly simple infidelity tale a more complex and interesting psychological puzzle, because Alexander’s wooing of Edmund begins before the baron has even clapped eyes on Sonya, the boy’s mother, and is certainly not a fiction in the boy’s mind. Edmund becomes intensely jealous as the man’s attention shifts to his mother - “He’s my friend. I met him first!” he protests to her later – and the more they try to cut him out of the frame, the more he digs his heels in, insisting on tagging along. A mausoleum full of 17th century Bavarian landscapes? “They’re my favourite” declares Edmund firmly.
Finally, in grief and despair, the boy rounds on Alexander in their hotel foyer. “What have I done that you don’t want me anymore?” he wails. But for the baron, a survivor of the horrors of World War I, all human feeling is extinguished. Only the chase remains, only the winning, and once the prize is won he loses interest in it. Son or mother, no difference. There’s a telling sequence where the camera cross-cuts from Alexander and Sonya in passionate embraces to close ups of Edmund’s face, thrashing on his pillow in the ecstasy of a severe asthma attack. It can be read, of course, as the boy’s psychic anguish at the act of infidelity taking place, or more controversially, as a phantom orgasm. And make no mistake, it is certainly shot that way.
David Ebert conveys very well the boy’s emotional confusion, his sense of affront and disenchantment, and Klaus Maria Brandauer is suitably beguiling and amoral as the baron, but man/boy/mother triangles are, it seems, even more fraught than the all-male variety. Andrew Birkin, who went on to make the intriguing “THE CEMENT GARDEN” (92), had already shown his quality with a superb British TV serialisation, which we will have to save for last, being the most incisive and true exploration of the mystery between men and boys ever put on camera.
It drew scant comment at the time but the same Birkin, his screenwriter hat on, gave the cinema just about as scandalous a man/boy compact as censor boards would allow, and not in his disappointing “KING DAVID” (85) where the boy David, beloved of King Saul, is conspicuous by his absence, but in the woebegone threadbare climax to the “OMEN” trilogy. “THE FINAL CONFLICT” (80) gives Antichrist Sam Neill (pre-“JURASSIC PARK” fame) a smouldering, luscious boy bride in the shape of Peter (Barnaby Holm, son of Ian). At first his interest seems to be in Peter’s mother Kate (Lisa Harrow), but the dialogue has already made evident his detestation of “the female gash”, so when he does bed her he rolls her over to do it boy-style. Perhaps Birkin was mischievously inverting the betrayal in “BURNING SECRET” – boy seduced and spurned in favour of his mother becomes mother seduced and spurned in favour of her son – so we later see The Common Enemy of Man conducting secret wedding vows with the smitten Peter, 12. Before their Hellish honeymoon, however, mum puts a stop to that nonsense by stabbing Neill in the back in a deserted church. Erm.. cue the second coming.
This cheap and risible cash-in on the box office hit “THE OMEN” (76) had no budget to give us an Apocalypse, so instead we get a parody of the “slaughter of the firstborn”, with demonic Boy Scouts wheeling prams away, etc, to dispatch the new Messiah – even though scripture plainly foretells he will return in adult shape. And rather than bringing Jesus back in person to see off the son of Satan (which I believe the original script requires) it has him done in by a jilted single mum, saving her son’s virgin bottom from His Dark Purposes. Sadly for her, Peter has already been done in – also by a symbolic stabbing in the rear – by priest Rossano Brazzi, mistaking him for Damien. Despite having Damien tell Kate earlier in the film that “most people think of Evil in terms of their own petty perversions” but true Evil is a thing far more pure and ethereal, Birkin then proceeds to caricature the Antichrist as a closet sadomasochist, misogynist and pederast. Give me a break!
While there have been many more man & boy friendship titles than man & girl ones, few indeed have approached the intimacy of “LEON” (94), which was actually more of a “LOLITA” story than the two films of Nabokov’s novel. By which I do not mean the relationship is explicitly sexual — it wasn’t in either of the two “LOLITA” films for that matter — but that the emotional candour of the friendship between an illiterate contract killer and an orphaned girl neighbour transcends the barriers of their age difference. The domestic scenes between them, sometimes erotically charged, just as often not, have a spontaneity that many comparable titles of the man/boy school lack. This is partly a testament to two excellent performances (Jean Reno and Natalie Portman), but it also expresses the innate discomfort of film-makers about scenes of real tenderness between males, regardless of their age. Society has always recognised, as I said at the outset, that boys intuitively need adult male companionship, yet by the same token it shrinks from over-familiarity between them. “LEON” was a brave and commendable film, given the Jesuitical social climate in which it was made, and we must root hard to find a comparable film in the same-sex camp.
Way back in 1933, no eyebrows were raised to find young street urchin Swipes McGurk (Jackie Cooper) casually living with tavern-owner Wallace Beery in “THE BOWERY”, even when Beery makes a point of warning the boy against having any dealings with “skoits”, or when he coshes a woman over the head for trying to insinuate herself between him and the kid. The moment Beery begins expressing an unhealthy interest in Fay Wray, the boy storms out of their shared apartment and — moves in with rival tavern-owner George Raft. A man/boy/man triangle then, amusing in its matter-of-factness, the three of them ultimately marching off to war to escape the clutches of females. But one can’t gloss over the brutish insensitivity of the principal characters, locked in their pointless masculine games, like the heroes of many a John Ford film. By trying to present the viciousness of 1890s ghetto life as an endless round of high-spirited tomfoolery, “THE BOWERY” is as dishonest and morally questionable as “THE GODFATHER” in its portrayal of Mafia life. And though his studio frequently cast Beery in such man-and-boy roles, it’s no secret that he thought kids unworthy of serious notice, and it shows. His bashful aw-shucks charm is a paper-thin charade. He flatly ignored Cooper on the set.
In 1941 “HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY” contained a Special Friendship so understated it was easy to miss it amid John Ford’s whimsy-whamsy nostalgia of Welsh mining folk. The relationship between Huw (Roddy McDowall) and the new young preacher to the village (Walter Pidgeon) is more implied than shown, and obscured by Huw’s deep devotion to his father (wonderfully played by Donald Crisp) and Pigeon’s wooing of Huw’s older sister. Nevertheless it is there, particularly when the boy’s legs are paralysed one winter. Love can make the lame walk, apparently, and since Huw is no altar boy or fragile delinquent to be rescued, this one cannot be written off as easily as the canon of redeemer priest films already mentioned. Mining, like seafaring and the wild West, was a masculine domain, and Ford had a reputation as a “man’s man” director, yet his film concentrates more on domestic trials and tribulations, and an industrial dispute, than it does on the sombre world of the pits, where men’s lungs were destroyed and backs broken, while the mine-owners comported themselves like landed gentry. It made McDowall a boy star, though he’d appeared in UK films for several years before this, and the film so enchanted audiences that it beat both “CITIZEN KANE” and “THE MALTESE FALCON” for the Best Film Oscar that year. No doubt Spencer Tracy clucked again.
In the 1970s true boy stars were on the endangered species list, but one came along who made his bones in remakes of those wet-hanky classics “THE CHAMP” and “LITTLE LORD FAUNTLEROY”. Ricky Schroder went on to do his quota of Special Friendship titles, such as “THE EARTHLING” (80), shot in Australia with William Holden, and — more interesting to us — “SOMETHING SO RIGHT” (TV 82), in which he played a troublesome 13-year old Going to the Bad, but salvaged by his relationship with “Big Brother” James Farentino, the film an undisguised recruiting sergeant for that US scheme which encouraged adult men to befriend and mentor young boys on an intimate personal basis, rather than threatening them with prison for doing so. Like all American TV movies of the period it was saturated with artificial sweeteners, but generally recognised as above par, portraying a credible human relationship and one that was a positive social good, running in adjunct to the nuclear family. When an affair develops between Farentino and Schroder’s divorced Mom, the boy is naturally incandescent, displaced — like David Ebert in “BURNING SECRET” — by of all people his mother! The film was blind to the ironies of that, needless to tell, and resolved the conflict in the most predictable way, simultaneously ratifying the man/boy closeness by converting big brother into stepdad.
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Sam Hall, 15 March 2022
I disagree with Steven Freeman that Burning Secrets should be rated one of Andrew Birkin's "interesting misfires." I thought the film a beautifully realised bildungsroman, a work that sits comfortably beside Birkin's brilliant The Lost Boys.
I'm not sure I've seen a film where a boy actor so successfully nails the vital make-or-break lead role. A couple of small early moments between Edmund and the charismatic Baron were signature stuff from Birkin, similar in humour, subtly and depth to the kind regularly found in The Lost Boys.
Extraordinary that this is David Eberts only acting credit. His performance had more depth and range than one usually gets even from the more talented child actors. If one focuses on and follows his journey in this film -- as one is clearly supposed to -- then it is very compelling stuff. The way Edmund develops some inner strength and maturity after being casually discarded by a man he'd fall for -- chaotically and childishly but nonetheless positively -- it was unexpected and very convincingly and movingly brought off. The child does have to die, and perhaps that process is more dependent on the child's character than we like to think.
Everyone thinks Faye Dunaway a dud in this movie. Dud casting decision and dud acting. I'm not convinced. Again, this is the boy's story and the characters are filtered through his worldview. Dunaway reminded me a little of Hamlet's mother Gertrude -- and Hamlet at Edmund's age may have been similarly disposed toward his mother. Strains of incest are important to both stories. I think the oddness of her role in this movie might not have been inadvertent -- or at least it turned out not to be an impediment.