This past week a good friend of mine introduced me to the BBC show called Beautiful People. Beautiful people is a two season long British sitcom (very loosely) inspired by the memoirs of Simon Doonan, the creative director of the upscale department store Barneys. The show is a riot, and it wears its campiness (and gayness) on its sleeve, like a rainbow sticker. It also has a lot of heart. I have now seen all of Season 1. Because I promised my friend I would not watch Season 2 without him, watching the rest will have to wait.
About three episodes in, I realized that I recognized one of the actresses; it was Tameka Empson from Beautiful Thing. Empson played Leah, the tough, Mama Cass-loving, teenage burnout. It took another episode for me to realize that the show’s writer Jonathan Harvey also wrote Beautiful Thing–both the movie and the original stage play.
If there are any LGBT teenagers out there reading this blog post, please know that the rest of this post is directed with you in mind.
Beautiful Thing is perhaps the most important movie I ever saw. My first experience with it was reading a review of the movie in the New York Times back in 1996 when it was first shown in American theaters. I remember that I badly wanted to see it, but was afraid to because of the implications; it would be admitting that I was indeed gay, something I was not ready to do.
By the time I was a sophomore in college, I had come out. My life was not particularly happy, and it would be years before I started to feel better about myself. Nevertheless, Beautiful Thing helped me tremendously. There was a bodega on the same block as my dorm that rented out movies, and they carried Beautiful Thing. I rented it and watched it eight times in the next five days. It became my lifeline. The subtitle of the movie is “An Urban Fairytale,” and (despite the unsubtle pun) that’s exactly what it is. I felt like Jamie and Ste (and by my extension me) were going to live happily ever after, and that is what made the movie so meaningful. The movie also introduced me to the music of Cass Elliot, a talent who died far too early. I am unable to separate my feelings about her voice from my feelings about the movie, and I still cannot listen to “Make Your Own Kind of Music” without weeping a little bit. Beautiful Thing was the only thing that lifted my depression. Needless to say, I bought the movie.
Since that time, life has gotten better, at least for the most part. I am no longer scared or confused about sexuality. I do not need Beautiful Thing anymore; the last time I watched it (about six years ago) I fell asleep. I had just begun my current relationship, and I was in a much better place.
My relationship with Beautiful Thing was like a supportive teenage romance (if such a thing exists); it was very passionate for a while, but an end was inevitable. At the split there were no hard feelings, just fond memories. Nevertheless, there is going back; the void that it once filled closed for good.
I have yet to see a gay-themed romance that is anywhere near as good as Beautiful Thing. Only Pedro Almodóvar’s “All About My Mother” (a movie of gay-sentiment if not theme) and Queer as Folk (the British original, not the horrible American remake) have affected me in the same way.
And now there is a fourth: Beautiful People. Once again, and without me realizing it, Jonathan Harvey has come through for me. He created a world that, despite the pain and conflicts, is also a warm and loving place. And ridiculously funny too. Watching the show was like being introduced to a new friend.
Most television shows out there that have prominent gay characters are made for straight people to watch. Will and Grace is the absolute nadir of this genre; I could not stomach that show. I have the same ill will toward Glee (and with the American version of Queer as Folk.) All three of those shows sacrificed story and character for a politically correct message: gays are people too. Beautiful People is the show Glee wishes it could be. The superiority of British gay-themed shows may be a cultural thing; British sitcoms are generally able to be riskier than American ones (Absolutely Fabulous comes to mind.) Also because there are not as many episodes to make, each episode of a (good) British show can be crafted with more care.
So dear gay teenager who is hurting, consider this my advice to you. Rent Beautiful Thing, All About My Mother, and, if you can get it, the British Queer as Folk (for the love of God, skip the American version.) Find Beautiful People on YouTube (don’t watch it on Logo). Watch them all twice. Three times, if you need to.
And to Jonathan Harvey, should you ever come across this post. Thank you. For everything.
Music I listened to while writing this post: Patricia Kaas “Faites Entrer Les Clowns”; John Denver “Life is a Sad Song”; Cass Elliot “Make You Own Kind of Music”; Cass Elliot “Welcome to the World”; The Mamas & the Papas “Go Where You Wanna Go”; Cass Elliot “California Earthquake”; The Mamas & the Papas “Dedicated To The One I Love”; Cass Elliot “It’s Getting Better”; The Mamas & the Papas “Monday, Monday”; The Mamas & the Papas “Move in a Little Closer, Baby”; The Mamas & the Papas “Words of Love”; The Mamas & the Papas “California Dreamin'”;The Mamas & the Papas “Look Through My Window”; Dusty Springfield “Of All The Things”; Cass Elliot “One Way Ticket”; The Mamas & the Papas “Creeque Alley”;