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‘Movies Are Strange, Man’: Joaquin Phoenix Talks About Not Knowing What’s Next

I don’t know. Those are the three words that Joaquin Phoenix probably says the most during our interview. He may be one of the greatest actors of his generation — possibly, the greatest — but even he seems not quite capable of articulating just how it is he does what he does. That somehow feels right. We’re talking about Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, for which Phoenix won the Best Actor award at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. It’s a marvelous performance, but he speaks very little dialogue, and for much of the film we see him only in brief glimpses. During our chat, as the actor fumbles over his words — abandoning analogies halfway through, professing ignorance of his own talents, wondering if anything he’s done works onscreen — he reveals something of his art. Because so much of what Joaquin Phoenix does is about not knowing, both for us as viewers and for him as an actor. In his best performances, he gives off a sense of total absorption and aliveness. Everything seems possible and nothing feels predictable. No other working actor today seems more intuitive, more uncategorizable.

Don’t tell him that, however: Phoenix doesn’t watch his own movies. When I tell him how much I admired him in this film, he deadpans, “Maybe you have terrible taste.” Then when I respond that I’m a fan of his performances in general, he responds, “It looks like you do.” He says it cheerfully, but it’s also hard not to suspect that there’s some doubt in the back of his mind that he uses to rid himself of anything resembling self-consciousness or preciousness. That’s a perfect state of mind for You Were Never Really Here, Ramsay’s devastating and gripping alt-vigilante drama, in which Phoenix plays a hammer-wielding veteran who is paid to save kidnapped children and who brings all his rage and regret and self-loathing and desire for oblivion to the job. The actor is so convincing in the role that at first I was somewhat scared to talk to him. But the result was a fascinatingly open-ended discussion about acting, Ramsay’s brilliant film, as well as his turn as Jesus in the upcoming Mary Magdalene.

I’ve always found there to be something distinct about Lynne Ramsay’s characters — they’re very submerged and self-negating. You’ve worked with a lot of different directors. Was there anything about her approach that felt different to you?

Every director is different. I’ve never once felt like there’s one standard. But what is unique about Lynne…I don’t know how she worked on other films, or how she worked with other actors, but on this movie, something that we were really cognizant of was trying to fight the clichés of the genre. We didn’t really have a set way of doing things. I imagine there’s like a wildly different performance in there, in other takes, you know. Because each take was different. That was kind of a goal — to do things that might seem out of character or uncomfortable, and play with things, and improvise. We looked for a way of approaching each scene that just wasn’t traditional, wasn’t what you’d expect. If anything in the script felt like it was something that we had seen before, we’d try to change it.

Even though you’re the lead and the whole movie’s pretty much from your character’s perspective, we rarely see your face. Sometimes, we don’t even see you. There’s so much of the film where we’re watching a room that your character has just left. I’m sure some of that happens in editing, but was that always the idea behind the performance?

Yeah, a lot of that was in the script. Certainly Lynne set the tone for that from the very opening scene, creating this kind of mystery around this character — where you’re not really knowing exactly where you stand with him and who he is and what he represents. That was pretty evident in the screenplay, but I’m sure there’s stuff that she does in editing to magnify that or to lessen it.

But for you, as the guy who has to give that performance, what kinds of challenges does that present? When you know that your face is not actually going to be on screen much, or that you’re not going to have as much recourse to dialogue? Do you have to work on the character’s physicality, say, or his posture, or how you walk?

I think it’s a mistake sometimes, as an actor, to think about a movie from the filmmaker’s perspective. It’s hard not to be self-conscious, and it’s one of the struggles that you have as an actor. So, I don’t ask what size lens is there and how much of my body are you seeing. I just have to inhabit the space the way I feel is right. And how the filmmaker captures that or uses it is up to them. It was important to never feel certain of how I was going to behave. The crew was amazing — particularly the camera and sound department, you know, who have to basically follow you around and capture what it is you’re doing — but there really was this feeling that the moment you locked something in, it just started to die. So it felt like things would always have to change and you’d act differently. It was really important for the film and the energy of the character to work that way.

It’s also a pretty violent movie, but so much of what we see is the aftermath of the violence. There’s one fight near the end where we see the whole thing, but that’s about it. For the other scenes of violence, did you guys actually shoot a lot of that stuff and then cut around it in the finished film?

I haven’t seen the movie, so I’m not sure what’s in there, but it was intended that you didn’t see a lot of it. But there are probably other things that we shot and didn’t use. Lynne is a really amazing filmmaker because the more her back is against the wall, the stronger she gets, the better the ideas that come to her. She’s like this brilliant eleventh-hour kind of person. And it’s really astonishing because the story shifted throughout production. There were a couple times where I thought, “Fuck, we’ve painted ourselves into a corner and we’re totally fucked.” And she just came up with something at the last minute, you know, and it was really, really impressive. Like, the brothel sequence was originally conceived as something different, and then she got to location.… But that’s what happens; you imagine something in your head and then you have to react to the location. That’s part of what filmmaking is, right? It’s the imagination, and then it’s the reality of what you’re working with. She was great at just reacting to the environment and coming up with something that felt unique.

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The Psycho references, when you’re playfully doing the “eee eee eee” sound and air-stabbing your mom — were those always there, or were those improvised?

Does it happen upstairs in the bathroom?

It happens twice early on in the finished film — once when she’s actually watching Psycho on TV, where you do it playfully. And then up in the bathroom, when she’s yelling at you from the other side of the door, and then you do it again — and it’s slightly more sinister the second time.

We shot all of that stuff with the mom over, like, two or three days in the same house. We played around with different versions of me coming home — what that could be like. And it was three takes in or something when Judith [Roberts, who plays the mother] said that she was watching Psycho; it wasn’t written in the script. She just said that, and so I did the Psycho voice. But I didn’t know if that was the take that was going to be used, so then upstairs when we shot that other scene, it just came up again. And I didn’t know if we would use that version or not. You know, there’s probably like four or five different versions of those scenes, each different.

Those two little moments early on in the film really let us know that we’re watching something quite different from the average revenge drama. They’re funny, of course, but they’re also revealing about the mother-son relationship.

Yeah. Initially in the story there was an almost idyllic dynamic to their relationship, where I was this loving son.… But it seemed like as we got into it, the reality is that when you’re taking care of somebody like that, who has a lot of needs and is struggling, inevitably you’re going to feel frustration. We wanted to find ways to show that.

When you’ve got a character like this who is so wounded, with such a complicated and tragic backstory, to what extent do you have to connect to those kinds of feelings to feel like you’re doing justice to the part?

I don’t know. It’s a good question, it’s a fair question. Movies are strange, man. Sometimes, you hear the writer talk about it, and you read about some of this stuff. For example, we spoke to someone who actually does [hostage] extractions. He goes in with a team. Some of the stories that he told were impossible not to be affected by. But to be honest, sometimes you’re fuckin’ eatin’ Fritos, and you shoot a scene. [Laughs] And you want to take credit for stuff as an actor, but the truth is that it’s really the filmmaking, ultimately. Probably some of the greatest moments in movies the actor was just thinking what was for lunch. So, I don’t know, it’s hard to say. There are times where you feel affected by things, and it’s emotional. But there’s other times when you go, “This scene is shit, and this is not fuckin’ working.” Then somebody tells you a year later, “I really love that scene. It felt powerful.” And you’re like, “Oh, really?” It’s probably different on every movie. And I think you learn something from every movie — even if the lesson is “Well, let’s not do that again.”

There were parts of this film that were really challenging. Part of it is that we put in a lot of time, a lot of work in pre-production, and that’s about going all day long, into the night, going through and talking. Also, Jim Wilson, who’s the producer, was a really big part of that process. There were a lot of changes to the script, and when you spend your time thinking about one subject matter, it starts seeping into you. Inevitably you’re affected by it. But there are times where maybe it’s just that you’re emotionally available, and so you can go in and shoot a scene and be brought right into it. But, you know, there were times in the fuckin’ brothel where the hammer would bend, and I’d be carrying it in my hand and everybody would be laughing. And I’d go, “Oh, what the fuck’s going on?” You know what I mean? I hope it ends up being a tense sequence, but over the one or two days that we shot it, there were moments that were really tense, and there were moments where we were going, “This is a stupid line. How the fuck are we gonna say this? What is this?”

So, how do you get through that? You’ve talked about trying to avoid being self-conscious. How do you pull that off? Because you seem to do it pretty well.

[Long pause]

And I realize that probably makes you self-conscious too, me just saying that…

I don’t know. There’s not one approach. It depends on the scene. The important thing with this movie was — and I acknowledge I probably do this a lot — to feel comfortable enough to make a lot of mistakes. To be able to say there’s not one right way for him to behave. Again, it seemed like the key was not knowing what his reaction was going to be. I’m sure that sometimes we used just a really straight version of a given scene, but we filmed so many different versions. You just dive head on into that feeling. But sometimes, when you’re making a movie, yeah, your nerves wear off and you grow accustomed to it, or you get tired, or whatever. Maybe it’s a million things over the course of the six weeks. So you just go, “OK, well, this is fuckin’ shit,” and you go outside and you sit and you talk about it, and you try to connect again to what is meaningful about this moment — to try and uncover something that you can latch onto. I guess. I don’t fuckin’ know, man.

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In You Were Never Really Here, there’s a random shot, almost part of a montage, where you’re reading a book and you tear out a page as you’re reading it. Do you remember the motivation behind tearing that page, or even what book it was? It’s such a mysterious little moment.

I don’t remember the book. It was just sitting there. That was another day in which we were shooting stuff in the house, and we had all these different things that we talked about as possibilities. I don’t remember why that came up. Honestly, it was probably nothing. There probably wasn’t like a great idea behind it. Don’t know that it symbolizes anything. I think it was just in that moment, it happened.… We shot a bunch of stuff. We shot a thing with the knife [Phoenix’s character plays with a knife, balancing it in front of his face] and we decided to use that, and use this book. But I honestly don’t remember what occurred to me in that moment. Maybe it’s something that I read about somewhere, or something I did once. I don’t remember. I have no idea why I did that.

It’s a great little moment. It’s probably better that you don’t remember why you did it.

It is. I mean, those are the things that I’m most interested in and want to be open to. I’ve become less interested in mapping things out, as an actor, and making decisions. Or maybe I’m just not good at doing that. Maybe, like, once I’ve made the decision, in that moment, it becomes boring. It just feels dead to me if you say, “This is what we’re doing.” And so, it’s just trying to be open to inspiration and what happens in the moment — feeling comfortable enough to make those decisions.

I don’t know if it’s in there, but do I sing a song in the movie, to the mirror? At the Russian bathhouse. It was just another thing that we’d talked about. A song that my grandfather used to sing to me. We were just trying things in that moment, and I think we were always trying to figure out where the song might go. I don’t know whether it came from Jim or Lynne or both, but they said, “Maybe try it here.” Sometimes, you have something and you don’t know precisely where it goes or if it will work, but you just try to create the space to try those things.

It’s revealing hearing you talk about this. My job is to write about movies, and often I have to discuss why the filmmakers made certain decisions. But hearing you talk, it’s clear that so many of those decisions are intuitive. You don’t necessarily sit down and reason them out.

Yeah, I’ve had both experiences, and certainly, my preference is the more intuitive — because I do think that if you’ve done your work and you feel familiar with the character in the world, that’s…I don’t know, any analogy sounds stupid. It’s like you have all your ingredients, right, and so you know your basics, of what you’re going to put together. But in the moment, you try a few different.… Oh, man, I don’t want to say herbs or fuckin’ spices! That’s so terrible; I don’t want to use that analogy! But you understand what I’m saying. And that is a joy. When I was younger, I thought the whole key to good acting was figuring it out, and locking something in and nailing it. And I just find that repulsive now. It was really something that we went after on this — just trying to be available and open to what the scene might tell you. I like that way of working.

I haven’t seen Mary Magdalene yet; I don’t even know when it will come out in the U.S. But how exactly does one prepare to play Jesus?

Well, there is a lot of information to consume, and a lot of it seems to contradict each other. So you just start reading all sorts of shit, and you go, “OK, well, I like this, and I like that.…” For me, it was important trying to find true contemporary figures that I thought possessed qualities that I was interested in. We always think about the spirit and mythical side of Jesus, but I was trying to find the humanity. That’s what makes the crucifixion such a sacrifice, because if he was just spirit-body then it’s like, “Great, I’m goin’ back.” Oftentimes, for me, research is great. Like, it’s great to take in a lot of information; it will give you ideas, and you’ll try to focus on, you know, what your character fuckin’ ate daily or whatever bullshit it is, right? But oftentimes it’s not until I start experiencing something, at least for me, that I start feeling close to it. I don’t know what the process is, but sometimes I just have to start having the experience. There was this healing scene we did, and it wasn’t until Garth [Davis, the director] and I started talking about it when we were on set, and I was in wardrobe, and I was touching the sand, did I start thinking about it differently — sort of feeling it instead of having this idea that in some ways was…I don’t know, I don’t want to say polluted, but in some ways polluted by the research that I did. I had a particular idea, and then when I got there it started changing. And I’m sure there’s still pieces of that work that are in there, but then it becomes something else — and to me, that’s the ideal place to get to.

 

 

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ELECTRO AT THE CROSS

Peaches Christ Superstar. Savor this. Exalt this. Embrace the needling suspicion that life may irrevocably slide downhill from here. Electropunk experimentalist Peaches, known for bending gender and societal standards with lyrical flair and spandex contortions, brings her own special defiling of the Holy Trinity to the Society for Ethical Culture. The lawless lady performs all parts in Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s elaborate musical—Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and more—with ivories accompaniment from rapper/pianist Chilly Gonzalez. Tonight’s affair marks the American debut of the show, which premiered in Germany in March, but this still doesn’t fully answer the greatest question of the new greatest story ever told: How does this exist, and why didn’t it exist sooner? Also Dec. 12 at 8, Music Hall of Williamsburg, 66 North 6th Street, Brooklyn, musichallofwilliamsburg.com, $38

Sat., Dec. 11, 8 p.m., 2010

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Bloodline’s Goofy Puzzles

Faintly ridiculous but strangely watchable, director Bruce Burgess’s documentary explores the controversial theory that powered Dan Brown’s pulp juggernaut The Da Vinci Code: that the Catholic Church supposedly covered up Jesus Christ’s child with secret wife Mary Magdalene. While other investigative-nonfiction filmmakers pop blood vessels exaggerating the magnitude of their paltry findings, it’s some relief that Burgess, who serves as Bloodline‘s on-screen narrator, remains doubtful of the “proof” he uncovers, such as buried bottles in France with treasure-map clues leading to embalmed corpses. But considering that he has previously made films about Area 51 and Bigfoot, it’s hard to take his role as a skeptic that seriously—more likely, he just enjoys milking an audience’s conspiracy-theory fascination without having to worry about producing meaningful results. Despite the fact that several people who claimed to possess evidence about the cover-up have died under mysterious circumstances, Bloodline is less a gripping exposé than a goofy National Treasure–style puzzle film mixed with a sub–Nick Broomfield survey of some admittedly oddball individuals. But when Burgess tries to craft an ambiguous, even ominous ending out of his inconclusive study, it seems painfully ironic that a film questioning other people’s faith would ask us to take a documentary this slipshod at its word.

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Film

For many infidels, the Jesus movie of choice remains Cecil B. DeMille’s 1927 The King of Kings. This silent blockbuster was recently screened at the American Museum of the Moving Image in a stunning Eastman House archival print and is scheduled for cablecast May 25 on Turner Classic Movies. It’s also available on a Kino VHS. More daring than Life of Brian, it features a flapper Mary Magdalene (Jacqueline Logan) as the nearly bare-breasted vamp of the Nazarenes (and, it is naughtily suggested, Judas’s lady). The madcap vo-dee-oh-doh ambience subsides around the time that Jesus (H.B. Warner) restores a blind tyke’s sight. Not surprisingly, given DeMille’s own showmanship, The King of Kings is heavy on miracles. It’s also thoroughly American—sentimental yet tolerant. DeMille imagined Jews would be pleasantly surprised to learn that Jesus was one of them and was then unpleasantly surprised by organized protests demanding he redress the issue of Jewish culpability. Thus, after Jesus’s death occasions a full-scale earthquake, Caiaphas (sometime Yiddish actor Rudolph Schildkraut) runs into the temple and falls on his knees: “Lord God Jehovah, visit not Thy wrath on Thy people Israel—I alone am guilty!” Unlike many of the other interti-tles, this one is not sourced; it’s the gospel according to CBD. Mel ought to read it.

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Mass Hysteria

Growing up, I was a very idealistic young Catholic,” says Peter Mullan, director of The Magdalene Sisters. “I wanted to be Spencer Tracy in Boys Town; I wanted to be Jennifer Jones in The Song of Bernadette. That was what the Catholic Church was to me.”

But if the prelacy is longing for a Father Flanagan to rehabilitate their grievously tarnished image, those prayers won’t be answered this movie season. Winner of top prizes at the Venice and Toronto festivals as well as a Miramax distribution deal, The Magdalene Sisters is an enraged indictment of the Irish Catholic Church for their Magdalene asylums, where “wayward girls” were consigned to slave labor as laundresses. Equally inflammatory is Carlos Carrera’s The Crime of Father Amaro, which depicts a rural parish as a creaking hotbed of avarice and fornication; already the highest-grossing homegrown film in Mexico’s history, it reaches these shores on November 15. On the festival circuit, the Vatican has elsewhere taken a licking from Marco Bellocchio’s My Mother’s Smile, wherein a sympathetic Italian atheist is at once amused and infuriated to discover that his despised mama is up for sainthood, and from Costa-Gavras’s Amen, a testimony to Pope Pius XII’s complicit silence during the Holocaust.

In the past year, hundreds of Americans have broken their silence on the epidemic of sexual abuse in the church—most recently here in New York. Last week, just as the Vatican was about to publicly reject the U.S. bishops’ zero-tolerance proposals, 43 Catholics filed a class-action suit against leaders of the Brooklyn diocese alleging rampant molestation and concealment over three decades. While none of the new crop of apostate films addresses pedophilia, all of them illustrate the delusional arrogance and codified secrecy that make such trespasses—and getting away with them—possible in the first place.

The Magdalene Sisters offers, in essence, a purposefully grueling account of institutionalized child abuse: Irish teenagers, usually from poor families, could be locked away for years of physical and psychological torment to punish the crimes of being pregnant, being raped, being attractive. (Though the film transpires in the 1960s, the last Magdalene laundry shut down in 1996.) After the movie premiered to rave reviews not far away in Venice, the Vatican’s newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, launched an attack on director Mullan, accusing him of lies and hypocrisy.

“The Catholic Church’s capacity for denial will never cease to amaze me,” says Mullan, a Scotsman best known for his role in Ken Loach’s My Name Is Joe, which won him the acting prize at Cannes in 1998. “Or their cruelty—to disparage someone so much that their life simply doesn’t matter. I think the church’s view is, ‘Who are you? You’re just a little Irish girl. Somebody locks you up for 10 years, what are you complaining about—you’re still alive, aren’t you?’ ”

Gross misuse of power is likewise a main theme in The Crime of Father Amaro, Mexico’s entry for the foreign-language Oscar. An update of Eça de Queiroz’s 1875 novel, the film observes a young priest (Y Tu Mamá También heartbreaker Gael García Bernal) easily lured away from his vows, both by the irresistible charms of 16-year-old Amelia (Ana Claudia Talancón)—who soon finds herself pregnant—and the manifold perks of a holy station in a hierarchy propped up by drug-lord money.

Before Amaro‘s course turns irrevocably tragic, it adds a few giddy entries to the annals of apostolic erotica: the Song of Songs as foreplay talk, the confession booth as Inspiration Point (Amelia confides, “I caress myself and think about . . . Jesus”). “Much of Catholic art portrays a confusion between sacred love and carnal love—or a sublimation,” says director Carrera, citing Bernini’s famously hot-and-bothered Ecstasy of Saint Theresa. “The point of the vow of celibacy is to target all of these very strong feelings and redirect them toward purely divine love. But from this repression you also get sadism, perversion.”

The official reaction to The Crime of Father Amaro in overwhelmingly Catholic Mexico was apoplectic. The archbishop of Mexico City declared viewers of the film to be “in a state of sin,” while the anti-abortion group Pro-Vida went so far as to sue the government for permitting its funding and release. “It was not only the church and conservative organizations, but ministers and senators who condemned the movie without seeing it,” adds Carrera, who describes himself as “a nonpracticing Catholic—or a renegade Catholic.” “Pamphlets were distributed in churches saying the film promoted prostitution and drug addiction. After Vicente Fox, who is a devout Catholic, became president, the church assumed they would regain the position they had lost in the last century, and that simply hasn’t happened.”



Once upon a time in the U.S., bishops could recruit a Legion of Decency to force the rebellious young seventh art into line with the ascetic Production Code, and exhibitors could bemoan the springtime “Lenten slump” when guilty devotees atoned for their sins by avoiding the forbidden pleasures of the cinema.

Officials still persist in issuing moviegoing doctrine. The U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops maintains an online archive of reviews. (Autumn releases to win the coveted “O”-for-morally-offensive rating include the s&m farce Secretary and the Gallic musical catfight 8 Women.) To celebrate film’s 100th anniversary in 1995, the Pontifical Council issued a surprising list of canonical features that made room for reprobates like Luis Buñuel and Pier Paolo Pasolini; recently, Pope John Paul II reportedly told Gérard Depardieu that the actor would make a fabulous Saint Augustine.

How the church’s cine-authority has atrophied in recent years is evident in its unbroken chain of success in promoting those films it most wants to suppress. Mullan is positively gleeful about the reams of coverage The Magdalene Sisters received courtesy of the Vatican’s ire (“I mean, are you guys working for me?”), while Carrera deadpans, “We thought perhaps Pro-Vida could open a publicity office at the [Mexican] Institute of Cinema.”

This pair of dustups differs from most of the church’s art-censorship efforts, however, in that the target works do not quarrel with scripture or traffic in irreverence. They do not, say, parody the Last Supper, as does Buñuel’s Palme d’Or winner Viridiana (1961), which was banned in Spain and seized in Rome and Milan, or mock the Crucifixion, as does Pasolini’s La Ricotta (1962), which earned the Italian director a four-month jail sentence for blasphemy. Jesus isn’t gay (Terrence McNally’s Corpus Christi, 1998) or Alanis Morissette (Kevin Smith’s Dogma, 1999). Nor does he fantasize on the cross about domestic partnership with Mary Magdalene (Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, 1988) or plunge into a vat of urine (Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, 1989), and his mom isn’t adorned with elephant dung (Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary, 1999), and his canonized followers don’t make out in church with some girl in a slip (Mary Lambert’s “Like a Prayer,” 1989).

Rather, The Magdalene Sisters and The Crime of Father Amaro excoriate the church as a damaging sociopolitical force. “I never intended to criticize faith,” Carrera says. “This film is about the political institution that we happen to call the Catholic Church.” Mullan—who reluctantly labels himself “agnostic, I guess”—agrees. “The Vatican press condemns [The Magdalene Sisters] as an anti-Catholic film. It’s an anti-Catholic Church film, because the Catholics are the victims here. This is about exposing what the church did to Catholics, and it’s a pro-Catholic film in that respect.

“It was surprising to me that many of the women remained devout,” Mullan continues. “The ones I’ve met still go to chapel, which is a profound kind of rebellion, in a weird way—why would you remain a Catholic after that? They think, You’re not going to take that away from me. You took my whole fucking life away, but you’re not taking this—that’s my God.”



Sidebar:

The Pope Says ‘Dope’: The Vatican’s Favorite Films by Celluloid Sinners” by Jessica Winter

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NY Mirror

Hey, Dr. Laura—clarify this, witch. As for you, Mr. Pope, would you kindly
apologize to the millions of gays whose lives the church has ruined, too?


But on a lighter note: Former talk-show host Charles Perez has come out of the closet, and we might forgive the long wait since he was fairly eloquent defending gay marriage on ‘Larry King.’


Alas—on an absurd note—I failed in my efforts to marry ’N Sync at their Laura Belle party last week, but at least they didn’t take one look at me and sing “Bye Bye Bye.” The lovable moppets and I talked about way more substantive issues anyway. The slick one, Lance Bass, assured me that their new marionette theme is not a ripoff of/homage to Being John Malkovich—and unlike most teenie stars, at least he’s heard of Being John Malkovich. Meanwhile, the deep one, Chris Kirkpatrick, told me that “Bye Bye Bye” is “a cry out for men—an answer song to stuff like ‘No Scrubs.’ ” I thought he said no jobs, so I asked what it was like working with Kathie Lee Gifford on her chestnutty Christmas special. “She’s very God-fearing,” Chris said, “so she was really genuine and nice towards us.” I bet God’s scared of her, too.


There were no terrifying Patsy Clines at Cowgirl Hall of Fame’s annual Patsy look-alike contest, where I helped rate the parade of hip-swiveling imitators and chose a talented African American woman named Debbie Dangerfield for the top tiara. (“Bye, bye, bye,” we had to tell a poor nine-year-old contestant.) “Talk about overcoming!” exclaimed MC Brenda Bergman when the winner was announced, and Dangerfield chimed in, “Yeah, Patsy must be rolling over, but she was lying in one place for so long, don’t you think she should move?”


I generally just lay in one place during sex, so I was thrilled to come upon Hunkomania, a weekend revue at a place called 2 I’s, where male strippers expend almost as much sensual energy as Annabel Chong. The guys disrobe and act wildly interested in gaggles of bachelorettes who squeal their estrogen-laden hearts out—and I thought this only happened at the Gaiety. Among the theme-costumed studs performing the other night were a cowboy, a cop, a military man—virtually all the Village People. Alas, none of these boy toys came near me, let alone married me—not because I was press or a man, mind you, but because I wasn’t waving any bills. It’s all part of my new show, Cheapomania.


The big-money crowd stripped their wallets to attend the Public Theater’s recent gala benefit at Pier 60, which, hearteningly enough, will help allow me to get free Shakespeare in the Park. As a bonus, the evening’s honoree, Mandy Patinkin, told me he sports blackface in Broadway’s The Wild Party—I guess he’s sort of Eddie Cantor by way of John Wayne Gacy—and added of the demanding show, “I’m pacing myself so I can not drop dead.” Three nights later, sure enough, he had to bow out for a while to try to recoup his voice. One of the pressure points seems to revolve around bathroom access. “There’s no intermission,” Mandy had explained to me, “so it’s a pee-first kind of show.” Well, the other Wild Party musical has the right idea: They tinkle onstage!


Aida is a pisser—an attack on acquisitiveness and vanity that’s packaged in feathers and baubles and presold like a weekend at a theme-park resort. When you get to the musical’s ’60s-style fashion show, you start to realize this isn’t any sort of documentary on ancient Egypt. But Heather Headley‘s magnetic, and many will enjoy the sheer audacity of the extravagorgonzola—if more for its bitchy kitschiness than its preachy screechiness. The music is strictly from a
fromage sale, but at least Aida‘s bringing in a younger Broadway crowd than usual—people in their fifties.


Hitting just the right note, Cherry Jones is glorious as the rambunctious earth mother in A Moon for the Misbegotten, and she’s also in Erin Brockovich, in which Julia Roberts‘s cleavage saves a whole town. “Julia was fabulous,” Cherry told me at the play’s opening-night party. “She made a point of making me feel not just comfortable, but confident. She boasted that she was scoring points with her boyfriend [Benjamin Bratt] because he was going to get to meet the Heiress!” You’d think he’d be happy enough with Julia’s money.


I was delighted to get to meet another Broadway bright light, Maya Days, who’s Mary Magdalene in the revival of Jesus Christ Superstar, not to mention a one-woman wild party with perky hair and a vivacious mouth. Having grown up in Massachusetts singing Donna Summer songs to her grandmother, Days has played Mimi in Rent, had three top 10 singles in England, and seems like she could explode in any medium she chooses. One of her hits, “If You Buy This Record Your Life Will Be Better,” is an irresistible bit of bubblegum dance that starts with the hook from Madonna‘s “Material Girl” and goes on to sardonically spoof self-satisfaction and hype. (“I never knew life could be so fabulous,” Days exclaims over the break.)


Life’s fab all right—things seem to click for this woman in magical fashion. She told me that the producers known as the Tamperer heard her vocal on a cry out for men called “Wanna Drop a House on That Bitch,” written by a friend (“He was in love with this man who was married, so he wrote the song about the wife”). The Tamperer remixed it with a Jacksons song and came up with “Feel It,” her first hit, which happened simultaneously with Rent and was followed by Superstar—my favorite New Testament rock musical, and not something the pope needs to apologize for.


Discuss that show with Days, and she flings theater, biblical, and street lingo into the debate as if tossing a very dope salad. “Jesus—Glenn Carter—has a wicked voice,” she told me, “and Pilate—Kevin Gray—is giving you drama. He is so grand and so beautiful. In the show, he wears Nazi-type jodhpurs and boots, but then he has the Pilate crown thingie. He was, like, the fifth Phantom.” (Alas, I stopped going after number four.)


Mary Magdalene? “She is a fierce, fierce lady—the purest soul onstage because she’s the most honest. Even Jesus, when he sees Gethsemane, he’s like ‘I’m scared now. I’m not with this.’ ” But Mary is eternally ready—”and she’s a modern woman because she sings, ‘He’s just a man.’ ”


Days has even thought out how Mary’s different from Mimi: “Mary used to turn tricks to eat. Mimi turns tricks to get high.” Well, the gymnastically able actress performed tricks of her own on the high bar in Rent, and in Philadelphia, Equity said they’d close the show if she continued to be so brazen. “But in London,” she remembers, “the director said, ‘Equity doesn’t care if you fall and kill yourself. They just want a really good show. Just do what you want.’ That was great!” Oh, Maya! That’s it—end of Days. Well, end of Days interview. Beginning of Days.


Now get away, Dr. Laura, before someone drops a trailer on you, too.


musto@villagevoice.com

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NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Body and Soul

Ten years ago, it was The Last Temptation of Christ, Martin Scorsese’s passionate rendering of the existential gospel, in which Jesus imagines himself descending from the cross to achieve sexual union with Mary Magdalene. In 1994, it was Priest, Antonia Bird’s moving examination of a young cleric whose gayness erupts in a parish where sexual secrecy is the golden rule. And last week, it was Corpus Christi, Terrence McNally’s still unseen play about the disciples–and male lovers–of a messianic gay man named Joshua.

All these works were targeted by the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, all of them inspired death threats, and all became flash points in the culture wars. In each case, the forces of repression were repelled, but only after liberals mounted a fierce campaign. The Manhattan Theater Club, which pulled McNally’s play from its roster last week, cowed by threats of terrorism and loss of funding, reversed itself on Thursday, propelled by the even greater threat of a playwrights’ boycott. But lingering in the wings was a vow by the Catholic League to ”wage a war that no one will forget” if the show goes on.

This sort of rhetoric focuses the mind wonderfully. But it also obscures the reason why a tabloid account of McNally’s passion play produced such rage. It is part of a growing and potent repertoire of novels, dramas, films, and even music videos in which the body of Christ has sexual parts. These brazen works are emerging at the very moment when the mystique of the presidency is undergoing a similar shift, leading to a male panic not so different from that of the Catholic League. If the King of Kings and the commander in chief are both embedded in the web of ordinary desire, what does that say about society?

Call it blasphemy to portray Jesus as a sexual being, or call it the gospel according to Jenny Jones. But Corpus Christi is another sign that the ethic of sexual liberation has come so far–despite the power of organized repression and the trauma of AIDS–that it is now being codified into a theology. Inevitably, this funky dogma is amending the Greatest Story Ever Told. What began innocuously enough in Jesus Christ, Superstar, with Mary Magdalene’s lament, ”I don’t know how to love him,” has become a rush to desublimate the savior.

The new sexual code–love over probity–has deep roots in American transcendental thought. But it also makes for great television and talk radio, where what begins as shock-horror often ends as eager speculation. By now, the fact that no one has seen or read McNally’s play is beside the point. The concept of a pansexual Jesus is irresistible because it’s already present in the culture, an idea waiting to be made flesh.

”I can’t make the claim that Jesus had homosexual relationships,” says John J. McNeill, a Catholic priest and practicing psychotherapist. But McNeill does make the case for ”a homosexual love bond” between Jesus and John, whom the gospel calls ”the disciple whom Jesus loved.” ”John was the one who had the position of honor at Jesus’ right at the last supper, and leaned his head on Jesus’ chest,” McNeill writes in Freedom, Glorious Freedom. ”John was the one who stood at the foot of the cross with the women, when all the other men fled. And it was to John’s care that Jesus committed his mother.”

For teaching that Jesus felt an ”intimate affection” for John, and accepted such relationships between men, McNeill was silenced by the church in 1977. Ten years later, he was forbidden to counsel gay people. ”I could not in conscience obey that rule,” McNeill says, ”and as a result, the Vatican ordered the Jesuits to dismiss me.” But that allowed McNeill to resume speaking out, and today he is part of a growing movement in the church to change Catholic teaching on human sexuality, especially the idea delineated in a 1986 Vatican letter that homosexuality is ”an orientation to evil.”

”Over the past 25 years, there’s been a gradual integration of gay people into the Catholic community,” McNeill says–”but not in the hierarchy.” This line has been drawn in most Christian, and for that matter Jewish, denominations. There may be an embrace of gay people, but the doctrine that homosexual acts are sinful remains more or less intact.

Yet as the culture propels us to judge the meaning of sex by its relationship to love, it has heightened the tension between Christian attitudes that may always have been at war. The scholar John Boswell has produced compelling evidence of same-sex union rites in the early church, and recent research suggests that the Albigensian heresy, in the age of courtly love, embraced a gay-friendly sexual ethic. (The term buggery comes from a French word of that era for heresy.) Today, the theater and the tube are arenas of apostasy, and artists like McNally and Scorsese–not to mention Madonna–are crafting the stained-glass windows of the church envisioned by theologians like John Shelby Spong, the Episcopal bishop of Newark, who maintains that ”sexuality is at the heart of every debate in every Christian denomination.”

Like McNeill, Spong has been the target of ecclesiastic rage, in his case for commissioning a 1987 report that urged Episcopalians to reconsider their teaching about sexuality. Today, Spong is one of the strongest Christian voices for blessing gay unions and embracing a broader definition of family. ”Jesus might well have been married,” he
writes in Born of a Woman. ”Mary Magdalene is the primary female figure in the Bible. She is the chief mourner…and she is the one who claims the body of Jesus. These data certainly raise questions about her relationship to Jesus.”

Speculations about whether Jesus was straight or gay (or even bi) reflect the modern preoccupation with sexual identity. But they also transcend these rigid categories, and that may be the most liberating thing about the new theology: It points to a broader definition of desire. ”I wouldn’t be one to say that Jesus had sex,” says Delores
Williams, a professor of theology at the Union Theological Seminary. ”But you could say Jesus had a lot of erotic power, and that He evidenced a holistic sexuality involving the unity of parts.”

What would it mean if Jesus had a holistic phallus? ”The doctrine of original sin, the notion of humankind as naturally depraved, would be challenged,” says Williams. In its place, a new ethic of desire as the instrument of radical empathy might replace not only the Madonna/whore complex, but the stunting polarities of straight and gay. And what about the ultimate Western dichotomy–between body and soul? What would it mean if, instead of washing the feet of a leper, Jesus gave a hummer to a hustler with HIV? We may find out in Corpus Christi, God and the police willing.

Theologians can argue about whether this is sacrilege. But as the prophet Jenny Jones hath preached, it’s not what or who you do that counts–it’s the spirit you do it in.