Love! Valour! Compassion! owes a lot to the works of Anton Chekhov, and to films like Jean Renoir‘s Rules Of The Game (1939), Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles Of A Summer Night (1955), Woody Allen‘s A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (1982), and Lawrence Kasdan‘s The Big Chill (1983); all of them about a group of friends gathers during the summer, a stranger upsets the dynamics of the group, people make love.
It is structured like a rather old fashioned three-act play, made fresh by the fact that all the characters are gay. Gay playwright Terrence McNally won a special Tony Award last Sunday for “Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre”, and it’s his tory of a gathering of a group of friends on a June weekend at a country house. They gather again in July and again at the end of summer. In Act One, the characters are introduced and their problems are established. Act Two brings conflict and crisis. Act Three, truth is revealed and there is resolution; some of their relationships dissolve and some strengthen, and new ones are formed.
It is all very conventional; new ground is not broken. But, the specter of AIDS hangs over the story, which is one of the ways it makes it so different than Mart Crowley‘s The Boys In The Band (1970), its spiritual cousin (The Boys In The Band was also a Tony-winner last weekend). Some of the characters are on their best behavior and others behave badly, and at the bittersweet ending, it is revealed who will die, who will live, who will live happily and who will be sorrowful and sorry. It is all sort of traditional.
Yet, Love! Valour! Compassion! is dynamic and penetrating. It is all about the characters and dialogue, filled with excellent performances.
The great Joe Mantello, directed the recent Broadway revival of The Boys In The Band, directed the original Off-Broadway production of Love! Valour! Compassion! in 1994, and when it transferred to Broadway the next year, and here he makes his film directing debut. He is more focused on performances than visual flourishes, although it is a handsome movie. It is also touching record of gay life during second decade of the plague, but it also comes across as universal. That is its strength, I think.
At the start, the narrator, Gregory, a famous choreographer, played by Stephen Bogardus, gives a tour of his rambling old lakeside home. He’s proud of the architecture and the furnishings, saying: “I hope you appreciate the details“. Gregory lives there with his blind lover Bobby, played by Justin Kirk. Their guests include the caustic British composer John Jeckyll, played by the always excellent John Glover, and John’s new boyfriend Ramon (Randy Becker), who is a Latin hunk. There is also a Musical Theatre queen, Buzz (Jason Alexander); and a couple, Perry (Stephen Spinella) and Arthur (John Benjamin Hickey), who are celebrating their 14th anniversary.
Ramon becomes the catalyst for the drama. In an early scene, he encounters the blind Bobby feeling a tree, and then quietly puts himself in Bobby’s way. Soon the two of them are grappling in the kitchen at night, and when Bobby confesses his infidelity to Gregory, their relationship is put into turmoil. Ramon continues to find trouble, although he is not a bad person, just a young and more concerned with pleasure than commitment.
John’s and Ramon’s relationship is only about sex; John is a bitter misogynist who likes to be apart from others, smoking cigarettes and brooding. In the second part, his twin, James, arrives to join the group. Both characters are played by Glover, who won a Tony Award for his dual role on Broadway and gives the two best performances in the film. Both Jeckyll brothers are so perfectly acted that we easily see them individuals, even in their scenes together.
James is sweet, the twin that one everyone likes. John is bitter and caustic. John tells James: “You got the good soul, I got the bad one”. Later, he asks: “What’s the secret of unconditional love? I’m not going to let you die with it”. It’s Alexander’s Buzz who finds and shares that secret, and the film’s sweetest scene is a hushed conversation on a shaded porch between Buzz and James.
The Boys In The Band, the first frank big studio film about uncloseted gays, is all about how the characters “became” gay, how they feel about being gay, and how they accept their gayness. It is a kind of group therapy session with cocktails. Love! Valour! Compassion! has no angst over its characters’ sexuality, their gayness isn’t an issue. It is simply how they love, or fail to love each other, not who they love.
Mantello used the original Broadway cast with the exceptions of Anthony Heald and Nathan Lane who were replaced here by Spinella and Alexander .
As we have more and more television series where LGBTQ characters are not in conflict with their sexual identity, The Boys In The Band plays as a period piece. Although Love! Valour! Compassion! is nearly a quarter century old, it remains a touching, insightful film with themes we can all identify with: loneliness, jealousy, need, and generosity.
I give it an A. Love! Valour! Compassion! is a perfect Pride film experience.