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Wriggling free of a '50s 'Straight-Jacket'

To hide his true desires, a star marries. Quality is uneven, but the picture evokes its period well.

November 26, 2004|Kevin Thomas | Times Staff Writer

Richard Day's "Straight-Jacket" is a high camp take on a gay '50s movie star who marries to protect his image. The obvious inspiration is Rock Hudson, but this is no film a clef. Not only was Hudson's story different except for his brief marriage but he also was a shy, low-key and unpretentious man.

Matt Letscher's Guy Stone is all arrogance, but amusingly self-knowingly so, and overflowing with the pride that inevitably goeth before a fall. "Straight-Jacket" has an abundance of delightfully bitchy dialogue and a serious subtext, especially now that for gays the first decade of the 21st century is beginning to seem like a new dawn of the oppressive '50s.

Whatever pleasures it holds, "Straight-Jacket" is highly uneven. Whereas Letscher, the film's linchpin, has the look of a clean-cut '50s star, right to the cleft in his chin, and is a versatile, assured actor, his costar Adam Greer, in his film debut as an idealistic young writer, is hopelessly stiff -- and that's not the film's only miscasting: Jack Plotnick is way too lightweight as Guy's nasty rival for screen roles.

Carrie Preston, who plays the naive studio head's secretary married off to Stone, is a skilled actress, but Day requires her to go over the top to a degree that seems downright cruel. Faring a lot better than the game Preston is Michael Emerson as Guy's loyal, well-spoken, truth-telling butler. Eric Blore couldn't have played the role better. There is much that is fun and pertinent in "Straight-Jacket," although in its entirety the film probably is most kindly viewed as an overexerted farce.

Guy, in his 30s, loves being a movie star and especially the ease with which it allows him to pick up a succession of handsome young men. When studio head Saul Ornstein (Victor Raider-Wexler) assures him the role of Ben-Hur, his tough, shrewd, highly protective manager, Jerry (Veronica Cartwright, the film's strongest presence) urges him to be more discreet, but Guy counters by asking what's the point of being a movie star if you can't get sex? He heads off for a gay bar -- and into a vice raid. The only way to squelch the publicity is to find a trade-off: the announcement of Guy's impending marriage -- to Saul's airhead secretary, Sally Bright (Preston), already an ardent Stone fan.

Guy manages to keep marriage from cramping his lifestyle until he agrees to a quick picture in advance of the "Ben-Hur" start. He plays a coal miner turned labor organizer to protest dangerous working conditions. The Red Scare, however, is underway, and Guy presses the writer, Rick (Greer), upon whose novel the film is based, to do the studio-ordered rewrite.

The satirical tone with which Day depicts the absurdities that resulted in the ugly confluence of anti-gay and anti-communist hysteria is not that much of an exaggeration, and production designers Mark Worthington and Kristen McCarron and costume designer Jim Hansen and their staffs quite believably evoke the period on what was surely a very modest budget.



MPAA rating: Unrated

Times guidelines: Strong sexuality, language, adult themes and situations

Matt Letscher...Guy

Veronica Cartwright...Jerry

Carrie Preston...Sally

Adam Greer...Rick

Victor Raider-Wexler...Saul

A Regent Releasing/here! Films presentation of an SRO Pictures production. Writer-director Richard Day. Based on his play. Producer Michael Warwick. Cinematographer Michael Pinkey. Editor Chris Conlee. Music Steve Edwards. Costumes Jim Hansen. Production designers Mark Worthington, Kristen McCarron. Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes.

Exclusively at Laemmle's Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 848-3500.

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