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Movie Review

'Stonewall' Shows the Bonds of Gay Love in Divisive Era

July 26, 1996|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

On the evening of June 28, 1969, the police conducted one of their routine raids of Greenwich Village's Stonewall Inn, a seedy, Mafia-controlled hangout for drag queens. Maybe it was the heat, maybe it was Judy Garland's funeral, just held uptown, that provided the crucial spark. But this time the queens, so long at the mercy of the underworld and a corrupt, brutal police force, stood their ground and fought back. After five days of rioting, the modern gay liberation movement was born, and the way gay men and women, not only drag queens, perceived themselves would be changed forever.

"There are as many Stonewall stories as there are drag queens in New York," says LaMiranda (Guillermo Diaz). "This is my legend." This is a shrewd, terms-defining opening for "Stonewall," a movie in which events building up to the riots provide the background for two love stories.

Ideally, Martin Duberman's landmark work "Stonewall," in which the lives of six actual individuals unfold against a complex and detailed social history, should have laid the foundation for a monumental documentary. This film instead is a self-described "fictionalization" of Duberman's book, written by Rikki Beadle Blair.

Since the Stonewall riots were as major an event in the lives of gays as Rosa Parks' refusal to sit at the back of that Montgomery bus was for blacks, Blair and her director, the late Nigel Finch, could not hope to please everyone, especially on a relatively modest budget. Except for a crucial lapse in the way the riots are depicted, they have by and large succeeded in what they set out to do. They've done their homework, touched lots of bases and shown how severely the lives of all gay men and women were proscribed before Stonewall.

The arrival of Matty Dean (Frederick Weller) in Greenwich Village sets the story in motion. He's a brash, headstrong young man who's come to New York to participate in a groundbreaking gay rights demonstration to be held in front of Philadelphia's Independence Hall. It is to be a sedate, dignified affair, sponsored by pioneering gay rights organizations. Matty innocently enters Stonewall, gets caught in a raid and winds up in a romance with the gutsy LaMiranda, who bravely withstands humiliation from the cops.

Matty also becomes involved with a handsome, preppy type (Brendan Corbalis), a participant in the Philadelphia demonstration. Meanwhile, Vinnie (Bruce MacVittie), the mob guy who runs the Stonewall, is deeply in love with the striking, witty, tough-minded Bostonia (Duane Boutte), a tall, muscular drag queen who is den mother to the Stonewall ladies. (Although this couple is fictional, some of the Mafiosi, according to Duberman, did in fact become involved with their clientele.) One of the film's key inspirations is to punctuate the film's various episodes with lip-sync drag choruses, performed by Bostonia, La Miranda and others.

Because Matty is the film's key figure, it's too bad that, as played and written, he couldn't have had more charm and less obnoxious presumptuousness. (It would have been a big help had Weller simply not been required to adopt a grating drawl.) Yet Weller is fine when his role permits, and he's surrounded by some knockout actors. Boutte and MacVittie dazzle as the heartbreaking couple they portray, and the handsome Diaz is the film's linchpin as the resilient yet vulnerable La Miranda.

Peter Ratray is outstanding as a trim, well groomed, middle-aged gay man, the innately conservative leader of an early homophile group. (The real-life counterparts of Ratray's character did not look kindly upon the Stonewall riots and the formation of the defiant Gay Liberation Front that followed.)

Loaded with vintage songs and carefully detailed, "Stonewall" looks and sounds great and creates an entertaining meld of fact and fantasy with a sure-fire mix of humor and pathos.

Lamentably, however, it devotes only its final five minutes to the riots themselves and then only their onset, never suggesting, even via a printed statement, their scope, duration and enduring significance. All the gay men and women who joined the brave drag queens in standing up for their rights at Stonewall deserve more commemoration than this short shrift.

* Unrated. Times guidelines: There is strong language, some nudity and some discreet lovemaking.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

'Stonewall'

Guillermo Diaz: La Miranda

Frederick Weller: Matty Dean

Brendan Corbalis: Ethan

Duane Boutte: Bostonia

Bruce MacVittie: Vinnie

A Strand release of a BBC Films and Arena NY presentation. Director Nigel Finch. Producer Christine Vachon. Executive producers George Faber, Anthony Wall. Screenplay by Rikki Beadle Blair. Cinematographer Chris Seager. Editor John Richards. Costumes Michael Clancy. Music Michael Kamen. Production designer Therese DePrez. Set decorator Charles Ford. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes.

* At the Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (213) 848-3500; University 6, Campus Drive across from UC Irvine, (714) 854-8811; and Los Feliz 3, 1822 N. Vermont Ave., (213) 664-2169. Opening next Friday at the Hillcrest Cinemas, 3965 5th Ave., San Diego, (619) 299-2100.

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