Things I Learned from the Movie Fame
It was late when we finished watching Fame. My cousin Sam was asleep on one of the couches in his parents’ TV room. I walked to the bathroom and I looked in the mirror. I am there, I thought. Or: That is my life. Or: That is the life I want to live. Or: That is me.
I think it was around 1992, which would make me fourteen. We were on the Northshore of Chicago. I had never visited New York City, but had dreamt of it all my life.
Was it my own doomed career as a performer that caused me to attach myself so whole-heartedly to the lives of the characters in the film? Was it the romance of triumph and failure and New York?
There is a beautiful scene near the end of the film that begins with a wide shot of Times Square. We see the passing cabs, the neon advertisements. In the horizon the Manhattan skyline is lit up for night. The soundtrack is not the urban cacophony one expects from the scene, but the quiet strumming of an acoustic guitar accompanying a soft male voice singing a love song.
The camera pans, and we see that a light is on in an apartment above a huge painted advertisement for Annie and the flashing neon sign for The Palace Theater. It’s our friend Montgomery (Paul McCrane), playing guitar near the window of his apartment. We enter the apartment on a medium shot of Montgomery, who shares the li’l orphan’s curly red hair and parentlessness. The camera zooms out, revealing a complete lack of furniture in the apartment, proof of his famous mother’s perennial absence. His two best friends, a straight girl and a straight boy, are out for the evening, falling in love without him. He is gay. He is in love with his analyst. He is all alone.
‘Cause I need to let you know that I might be needing your love, he sings.
The red neon flashes through the window. On—off. On—off. Montgomery sits on the sill, motionless except for his strumming.
Throughout Fame, New York throbs like the lighted sign in Montgomery’s window. Promise! Threat! Glory! Demise! On—off. On—off. Things are never as easy as they seem like they will be to these kids. All of the characters will learn that talent and hard work and desperate, clawing, desire will not be enough. The city will take them all in the end.
When Doris shows up for her first day of school, she drops her babyish headshots and they scatter all over the sidewalk: Whoever you think you are, you’ll end up flat and dirty on the sidewalks of New York.
Nobody is as confident as Coco, played by Irene Cara. She is sure that she has what it takes to make it—to have a name that people remember, as she sings in the title track. (Is there an irony to the fact that of all the wonderful young actors, she alone becomes famous, and it is for her role on the soundtrack rather than in the movie?) We hear her boasting about her glorious future while walking through Times Square with Bruno (Lee Carreri). But the camera knows better. The camera goes wide as the seedy late-seventies Times Square carries on with its own agenda, indifferent to Coco and whatever she thinks she might contribute. When Coco is flattered and conned into appearing in a porn film, it happens in Times Square. “Stick your finger in your mouth,” demands the smut director. “Like a little schoolgirl.”
You don’t know shit. That’s what New York says.
Once I walked onstage at the Schubert Theater. It was a Tuesday, between shows. I took a bow. Then I went back to my boss’s dressing room and refilled his mini-fridge with diet sodas.
Comedy can be pain, if you’re broke. You can live with your mother and two little sisters and say, “I live with three chicks.” Violence can trespass doors and walls. It cannot be locked out, but it can be locked in and it can be funny.
Ask any kid in the South Bronx what he wants to be when he grows up, what will he say? “I want to be an ex-junkie, man.”
Ralph Garci (Barry Miller). Maybe he was poor and I was never poor, maybe he was Puerto Rican and I was just an assimilated Jew, but both of us were liars. He would do anything to make anyone laugh.
The longest shot in the film follows Ralph and Doris (Maureen Teefy) down the steps into the subway. Ralph has just performed standup for the first time and the set went so well that he scored a regular gig. He rushes down the stairs, high from success, full of future. Doris steps onto a graffiti-filled train and he chases her down the platform, waving kisses.
Making people laugh beats dope, he says. It beats sex.
When I moved to New York City, Catch a Rising Star, the club where Ralph makes his debut, had closed down. I got onstage elsewhere. Pain can be funny. Sitting alone in a furnished house, singing a love song and accompanying yourself on a piano, these things and other things that mean loneliness, can make people laugh. Wanting, needing your love.
You just don’t have it
There is a scene in Somerset Maugham’s novel Of Human Bondage that I think of often. Philip is living in Paris, pursuing a career as a painter and he asks his teacher to assess if he has a chance as an artist. He begs for his honesty. His teacher’s reply? “...Take your courage in both hands and try your luck at something else. It sounds very hard, but let me tell you this: I would give all I have in the world if someone had given me that advice when I was your age and I had taken it.”
It. What is it? To have it or not is the obsession of every aspiring artist. I must give up everything for this, the artist thinks. And what if nobody is telling me that I have no chance?
There is a scene in Fame where Miss Berg (Joanna Merlin) tells Lisa (Laura Dean) that she simply doesn’t have what it takes to be a dancer; that letting her into the school was a mistake. She makes this pronouncement without apology, cruelly, betraying no empathy for Lisa’s position. It is only after Lisa leaves, when Miss Berg leans against the door, that we see to whom she is really speaking. She is, after all, a teacher in a high school. No one is throwing roses at Miss Berg. She is taking no curtain calls.
In a dramatic sequence that follows, we are made to believe that Lisa will throw herself in front of a subway car. In fact it is her tights, and not herself, that she tosses onto the tracks. Oh well—that’s her attitude. But what about Miss Berg? Her time to do something else has come and gone. Glory glory. Is it there for the taking after all?
I knew someone in high school who was, at one time, marginally famous among a very select group of people. I followed his career obsessively. I often fantasized that I would meet him somewhere with some wonderful news of my own fantastic career. I never did run into him, though. And I mostly had no news. Mostly, I worked.
In 1992, when I saw the film in my cousin’s TV room, I didn’t know anyone yet who had identified themselves as gay. Even as recently as that, if eighteen years can be considered recent, kids mostly waited until college to come out. This was generally accomplished by a series of painful conversations with one friend after another until, whether from newfound courage or sheer momentum, the gay youth of my generation had the last and most difficult confrontation, with the parents.
I want to show you a picture, said my friend Shale, home after his first semester at NYU. This is Sean. He is my boyfriend. Tears. Hugs: I feel so close to you now.
But, as I say, in 1992 I was only a freshman in high school, and the homosexuality in Fame seemed simultaneously tragic and frightening. The tragedy was what it meant about a person—that he had to eat lunch alone on the stairwell, that he had to sing to himself for company in his lonely apartment. Poor Montgomery. Beloved as he was by his friend Doris, he was nevertheless an outsider. Finding love, as I understood it then, would be impossible for him. This was heartbreaking to me because, despite my heterosexuality, I feared the same fate would befall me.
But then something happens at the end of the film, and I began to panic. Montgomery reveals that being gay is not defined only by sadness and loneliness, but also by sexuality. Why did I find this so sinister? Was it my youth? Was it homophobia?
We’re back at the comedy club and Ralph is high or drunk or, in any case, in no condition to make people laugh. This is familiar territory—bright lights and slurring, belligerence. Doris and Montgomery express concern for their friend and Ralph, wearing only a blazer over his bare chest, explodes. He accuses Montgomery of being after him. He calls him a faggot.
No!—thought my fourteen-year-old self. And my sixteen-year-old self. And my twenty, twenty-two, twenty-six-year-old self. This is not a slimy porno theater-midnight cowboy we’re talking about here, this is sweet, wise, soft-spoken Montgomery McNeil. Montgomery who loves Doris, who holds her arm and walks her down the street while she acts like a blind person, counseling her on an unrequited crush. Montgomery who says poignant things like, “Gay used to be such a happy kind of a word once.” And “Never being happy isn’t the same as being unhappy, is it?”
Then, during a scene that happens in the dressing room of the comedy club, after Ralph has disgraced himself onstage, ambiguity is introduced. It’s a crappy dressing room, with chairs piled up on top of one another, clothes hanging everywhere. Ralph sits shirtless, looking at his own reflection, dimly lit by two light bulbs, the only two of the row above the mirror that work. Montgomery emerges from the shadows. He is dressed in a checkered shirt, a wide swirling tie, linen pants. Combined with his curly red hair, the outfit makes him look like a clown, and makes Ralph seem even more naked.
First thing, Montgomery makes an off-color joke. A sexual joke. It has been Ralph’s responsibility to provide that brand of humor throughout the film, but now he’s too messed up to carry out his role, so Montgomery does it for him. In one way, it seems like a generous thing to do. In another, it seems that Montgomery is claiming some power for himself. He stands, sober, clothed, clownish, while Ralph is sitting, naked, sweating, high. Even as they leave the sexually charged small talk behind and shift into the current predicament—how do you know if you’re good—Montgomery distributes little bits of wisdom about actors and society while nearing ever closer to Ralph’s nude torso. Closer and closer he advances, eventually sitting down on a chair next to Ralph, putting a hand on his exposed shoulder. Then, quickly checking their reflection in the mirror, he lowers his chin down, resting it on Ralph’s shoulder, and wraps his hands around Ralph’s arms. Ralph continues talking, though he casts his gaze downward. Montgomery looks at Ralph and at their reflection in the mirror.
I never quite knew how to take this scene. Was Ralph correct when he accused Montgomery of being after him? The blocking of the scene would support that idea. Should I feel embarrassed for Montgomery? Ralph’s refusal to make eye contact with him during the embrace might indicate embarrassment. But why doesn’t he do something? Say something? Push Montgomery off? What is going on between them? The way I wanted to read it is that Montgomery loves Ralph and Ralph loves Montgomery enough to allow Montgomery to love him without losing his dignity. What I can acknowledge now, as an adult, is that something else may be happening in this scene, something about sex and domination. Maybe Montgomery wants Ralph, and maybe Ralph knows it. Maybe Ralph wants Montgomery, or what seems more likely, given Ralph’s established narcissism, is that what he wants is to be wanted.
I can take it even farther. At various points in the film, Ralph speaks at some length about the rough circumstances of his childhood in the South Bronx. He is most loquacious after being informed that a junkie has broken into his apartment and attacked his six-year-old sister. The film never makes the nature of the attack explicit, but it is clear that Ralph assumes that it was sexual. This is the reality of Ralph’s home life. Children must confront adult sexuality. There is something that seems habitual about the way Ralph looks away from Montgomery when Montgomery rests his chin on Ralph’s shoulder, which might suggest an early trauma. It may have been that in order to survive, Ralph needed to learn how to look away from men’s sexual dominance.
Or it could just be an intimate moment between friends.
The dressing room scene is the last scene in the film with dialog. Between that and the big final graduation number, there is only one brief scene in which we see Ralph, Doris and Montgomery being fitted for graduation caps. Ralph gives Montgomery a kiss on the lips that feels like a joke, but is it? Montgomery smiles. Doris walks away, complacent, silent. Did Montgomery steal her man?
Out Here On My Own
Just a really beautiful song. Irene Cara, skinny in that way that people really aren’t skinny anymore, sits at a piano, showing an unchecked earnestness that the self-protective Coco has never revealed before. She is on a stage, but the houselights are on, making the emotional charge of the performance feel less theatrical and more authentic. Doughy Bruno watches her, wanting her. She is singing a song that he wrote for her, and the song is about being alone. I dry the tears I’ve never shown. Out here, on my own. Theirs is a sweet estrangement, between the artist and the muse. Bruno can have her only through the music he writes for her, but in that way he can possess her more than any man. He is her consciousness; she is his voice.
But do I go too far now? It is, after all, a high school movie.
I used to be embarrassed about how much I loved this movie. A guilty pleasure is how I referred to it, as if it were something I might hide under my bed and consume when nobody was looking. It is a musical with a disco sensibility; it contains a scene where people in leotards dance on cars in Midtown traffic. These qualities seemed to epitomize the uncool. How could I simultaneously love this film and take myself seriously as a film viewer?
I am older now, and have given up on being cool. I can love the movie without footnoting my feelings about it with excuses. Director Alan Parker is no hack. The film is lit beautifully, and he is clever with the camera. The craft of the film feels right and effortless. Parker captures dazzling performances on two levels: of the young actors portraying characters in this film, as well as the acting, singing, dancing and music playing that those characters display with a joy so soaring that it feels perilous. We watch these characters confront the world and lose, but we retain faith in their talent. In the end, nothing is resolved, but we feel hopeful nevertheless. The words of the final song are Whitman’s: And in time, and in time, we will all be stars!
My first week in New York I went to a party at PS 122, which is the school where Parker shot most of the interiors of Fame. The school had been abandoned, but after it was converted into the fictional Performing Arts High School for the film, it gained a second life as an important venue for avant-garde performance in the eighties and nineties. The party I went to celebrated the work of the venue’s curator, who had been at PS 122 from the beginning and was retiring. I looked around at the famous faces I had only ever seen on video or on the back covers of their books and plays that I had read. I realized that beyond an individual man’s retirement, the party was a celebration of an entire era, once so vital, that was now passed. I looked around and I thought of Fame. My heart sunk. I had finally made it to New York, only to discover that it was over. I had missed it.
Oh Well, I thought, the same sentiment Lisa expresses about her rejection from the dance department. I helped myself to another crudité and worked up the courage to introduce myself to Eric Bogosian.
NOTE: This was originally posted on an old blog, but I’ve always had a thing for it.