When I’m asked what my favorite film is, my answer almost invariably surprises people. It’s not one of the all-time greats like Casablanca. Nor is it a boffo comedy that mirrors my off-kilter sense of humor like Drop Dead Gorgeous. It’s not even one of those quintessential gay films like Paris is Burning.
By Paul Hagen
No, my favorite of all is an unusual little dramedy called Playing by Heart.
I don’t particularly care for its title. It bears all the hallmarks of a studio focus group in which a bunch of morons were asked: “Which of the following generic collections of words tells you that this would be a great date movie?” However, the film itself defies this sort of pitch-to-the-lowest-common-denominator logic. The bulk of it consists of seemingly unrelated pairs of people having tricky conversations about the nature of their complicated relationships. Yet it makes me laugh out loud and cry every single time.
The cast is stacked with huge stars. Angelina Jolie is a vivacious young actress stalking Ryan Phillipe through LA’s nightlife. Gillian Anderson is an emotionally damaged theater director being romanced by an utterly charming Jon Stewart. Madeline Stowe is carrying on a clandestine affair with Anthony Edwards. Sean Connery and Gena Rowlands are a couple re-hashing the conflicts of their marriage in light of a late-in-life crisis. Dennis Quaid keeps approaching stranger after stranger (among them Patricia Clarkson) with increasingly contradictory life stories. And Ellen Burstyn is the mother of Jay Mohr, whom she has only just discovered is gay and on his deathbed with AIDS.
The film also ended up at the center of a memorable evening with my mom. For a variety of reasons, my very Catholic mother was one of the last people to whom I was able to summon up the courage to come out. (Believe it or not, I had actually been working at Metrosource for several years by that point — all the while referring to it as a “lifestyle and entertainment publication”). Despite the fact that I was ostensibly hiding my sexuality from her, starting very early in my teens we started having a series of “hypothetical” arguments in which I began to crusade on behalf of gay rights and she very pointedly objected.
When I decided to show her Playing By Heart, I was a little trepidatious about whether she could handle the Ellen Burstyn/Jay Mohr plotline. Yet some part of me was so desperate for her to see a mother and son re-figure out their relationship after the revelation of his secret sexuality that I charged ahead. What I had utterly forgotten about was that one of Dennis Quaid’s scenes takes place in a gay bar and features Alec Mapa playing a VERY sassy drag queen named Lana. When Lana sashayed onscreen, it threw Mom into a tizzy. “Why would you try to get me to watch such a DIRTY movie?!” she wanted to know. I very strenuously objected to her categorizing of the film as such and eventually got her to (reluctantly) return to the couch and finish watching. In its final scenes, we both sobbed as we watched Ellen Burstyn recite the end of Goodnight, Moon to her dying gay son. I think of that as the night she finally began to accept that there would be no Mrs. Hagen for me.
Cinema is so often the best tool for creating moments of connection like this. Mom and I had spent years arguing about the rightness or wrongness of homosexuality, and no matter how voraciously I argued my side nor how many times she shouted to heaven for God make me understand hers, neither of us budged. But sitting there, watching the end of my favorite movie together, we were able to silently agree that mothers and sons should do everything in their power to figure out how to love one another — no matter what.
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Last modified: July 27, 2017