boys on the side
Written: Don Roos
Directed: Herbert Ross
It occurred to me when looking at the gaps in my archive that there were some serious classics of the lesbian film genre missing in action.
Floating to the top of the pile is this enormously underrated pure Hollywood feature that many overlook as being just another Thelma and Louise like road movie (hilariously Whoopi Goldberg makes a joke early in the film that she’s not going over a cliff with these women). Actually, it is quite a lot more than that.
Truly, the start of the film is fairly boring. We have a contrived setup where Jane (Whoopi Goldberg) a bar singer, is fired from her job and decides to drive cross country to LA to seek out fresh opportunities. She meets Robin (Mary Louise Parker) who is advertising for a companion to drive to the west coast. We are unsure at first why Robin is undertaking this journey, and it actually takes a good portion of the film for this to become clear.
Not until a good fifteen minutes into the film where we meet Holly (Drew Barrymore) does the action really begin. Holly is embroiled in a domestic dispute with her drug dealing boyfriend, and the trio’s efforts to escape from him forms the reason for the three of them heading out on the lam, the easygoing road trip turning into a rapid escape from the law.
For reasons I won’t reveal (in case you’re one of the four people who hasn’t seen this movie) their road trip is cut dramatically short in Tucson, Arizona, and the three women stop, re-assess, and stop running to make a life together, driven by the bonds of friendship that rapidly form between them.
Jane is the solid centre of the film, with Whoopi Goldberg putting in the kind of performance more akin to The Color Purple and Ghost rather than some of her hideous slapstick efforts. We learn early on that Jane is a lesbian, and the ramifications of this resonate throughout the film.
Though there isn’t a single lesbian kiss or scene in the movie, this is a lesbian film with every fibre of it’s being. Instead of being about sex, it explores the emotional side of the relationships that form between women. In case we are uncertain of the lesbian street cred, Jane’s birthday celebration scene with the cameo by the Indigo Girls should remove all doubt!
Mary Louise Parker showed early in her career that she isn’t afraid of pushing the emotional limits. She’s the beating heart of the movie – the frail, unexciting woman with a secret that will tear this threesome to shreds. Her performance is pitch-perfect. Sometimes just a roll of her eyes, or a pursing of her lips, is enough to convince us of everything she’s feeling.
Let’s not forget Drew Barrymore as Holly. Up until this point in her career she’d made a living out of playing ditsy, blonde bimbos with no character. Her manic presence brings the trio firmly together, the little sister that must be cared for who holds them all together when everything else is falling apart.
Watching this again after so many years I was shocked at how well it holds up. What they are wearing is appalling of course, especially Jane who has been dressed in the classic “I’m a 90’s lesbian” boxy jacket and ill-fitting pants wardrobe, but everything else still just works. The emotion is palpable, this film can make people cry as readily as something like Beaches or Dead Poet’s Society. Plus, let’s not forget the classic female-driven soundtrack that still rocks, it’s one of my all-time favourite film soundtracks.
For a film that was written, directed, mostly produced and shot by men, this is a film specifically for women. I put that down to an amazing script, and performances by the leads that took what could have been melodramatic, sappy material and lifting it to an unexpectedly high level.
After weeping for a solid twenty minutes at the end, we are lifted away to the uplifting strains of Melissa Etheridge crooning over the end credits and all is OK with the world. I’m a huge fan of this classic, and it’s one to revisit over and over again.