Stephen Frears uses sexual politics as a metaphor for oppression

Posted on 07 Nov 2010 at 7:08pm

By Arnold Wayne Jones

Stephen Frears was sexy before sexy was cool.

Well, maybe not exactly. But over the British director’s long career in film, he’s often been at the forefront of frank sexual portrayals onscreen, often of the radical kind.

“You make me feel like a pervert!” Frears exclaims during a recent visit to Dallas.

That’s not the point, of course, but it’s also not something he denies. Frears first gained notice in the U.S. with My Beautiful Laundrette, a disarming story about an immigrant family living in London that expectedly injects a queer twist when the audience discovers the scion of the Pakistani clan is gay. His next film, Prick Up Your Ears, was a darker tale of gay life, chronicling the murder of playwright Joe Orton by his lover. (That was followed by Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, whose title alone got it banned from many multiplexes; in The Grifters, he kept Annette Bening naked most of the time.)

But Frears, who is straight, says that gay storylines have interested him because outsider stories of all kinds spark his artistic curiosity.

“I couldn’t give you a moment when I was asked to do a racy film or a family film,” he says. “There was only one film I didn’t do, where I said, ‘No — I’ve got kids.’ But I think in my own head, it has all to do with being in opposition, as a way of attacking Mrs. Thatcher. [I see] women and gays and immigrants as a metaphor for being oppressed.”

His newest, Tamara Drewe — now playing at the Angelika Film Center — has limited gay content but is nonetheless casual with its sexual free-spiritedness.  A small English village is a haven for artistic types, including a famous novelist and his patient wife. When a former local, Tamara, moves back to town (complete with a nose job and makeover), she sets off a series of escapades that are dramatic, comic, even tragic. The film, though, feels softer than some of his earlier films.

“You make me ashamed that I have gotten tamer,” he says. “But we don’t live in very radical times.”

Frears’ left-leaning politics have often emerged in his films, including The Queen, which netted his a second Oscar nomination. ” [Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair] was a very, very complicated figure. This absurd business of leading countries into war really changed the Labour Party. I’m not a monarchist, but in the end I think you could call me a ‘queenist’ — she reminds me of my mother.”

A queenist? He’s a man after my own heart.

Tamara Drewe is now playing at the Angelika Film Center — Mockingbird Station.

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