Love! Valour! Compassion!

New Line Home Entertainment, 1997

Joe Mantello

Terrence McNally
from his play

Jason Alexander, Stephen Bogardus, Stephen Spinella, John Benjamin Hickey, Randy Becker, Justin Kirk, John Glover

Rated R, 110 minutes

Summertime Blues
by Michael D. Klemm
Posted online, April, 2009

You can find its roots in the plays of Anton Chekhov and trace its lineage from Uncle Vanya (1899) through films as diverse as Jean Renoir's 1939 Rules of the Game, Ingmar Bergman's 1955 Smiles of a Summer Night (and Woody Allen's 1982 homage, A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy), to John Sayles' 1980 Return Of the Secaucus Seven and Lawrence Kasdan's 1983 The Big Chill. There will always be movies about friends gathering for a weekend in the country and the best of the gay variations on this theme is the film version of Terrence McNally's acclaimed play, Love! Valour! Compassion!

Love! Valour! Compassion! opened Off-Broadway at the Manhattan Theatre Club in 1994 before transferring to Broadway in 1995 and winning the Tony for Best Play. For the 1997 film, McNally himself adapted the screenplay and the play's director, Joe Mantello, assembled most of the original cast to reprise their roles. The family reunion was almost complete but Nathan Lane was making The Birdcage and so the important role of Buzz Hauser went to Seinfeld's Jason Alexander. There will be more about the cast later.

The action takes place over three holiday weekends; Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, and Labor Day. The milieu is Gregory Mitchell's large country home on the lake. Gregory (Stephen Bogardus) is a noted dancer and choreographer. Now in his 40s, his body is showing the scars of a long career. He is at work on the magnum opus that he knows that he will never be able to dance himself. He is also staging an AIDS benefit for which he has talked his friends into donning ballet tutus to perform a segment from Swan Lake. He lives with his much younger, and blind, lover, Bobby Brahms (Justin Kirk).

And now, their guests: Arthur Pape (John Benjamin Hickey) and Perry Sellars (Stephen Spinella) are gay professionals who have been together for 14 years. ("We're role models," Perry confesses, "It's very stressful.") Buzz Hauser (Jason Alexander) is Gregory's costume designer. He is the most flamboyant of the bunch. A fountain of musical theatre trivia, he is the tragic clown and he is living with AIDS. Gregory's rehearsal pianist, John Jeckyll (John Glover) is a failed composer and an angry British ex-patriot. John's date (or trick) is a hot, young, Latino dancer named Ramon Fornos (Randy Becker) whose flirtatious nature ignites chaos. They will be joined later by John Jeckyll's twin brother, James (also masterfully played by Glover). James is a teddy bear compared to his brother, and a shared HIV status brings him and Buzz together.
Love! Valour! Compassion! is one of those tales where not much happens in the way of action but emerges as a feast for the emotions. The setting is an idyllic one even if there is a snake or two in the garden. John is often a pariah (Perry is unable to stand him) but everyone loves Ramon - or at least drools over him. Ramon's youth, and his habit of shedding his clothes, is a constant reminder to the others of their advancing years. Ramon is attracted to Bobby and he silently sneaks up on him one night, when everyone else is asleep, and seduces him in the dark kitchen.
In other films, this tryst might constitute the main plot but this is an ensemble comedy-drama in which all of the characters are on a level playing field. Love! Valour! Compassion! is a tender and lyrical meditation on the lives and loves of these comrades. It is completely driven by its fine actors and its exceptional dialogue. Subtle flashes of character co-exist with the expected bitchy one-liners, and the realism is striking. A fine sense of humor keeps the film from becoming maudlin. On their 14th anniversary, Perry begins his declaration of love to Arthur - in front of all their friends - by saying "I'm married to the best man in the world, even if he doesn't put the toothpaste cap back on and squeezes the tube in the middle..."
The film is loaded with such moments. A role-playing interlude between John and Ramon turns serious when John, lost in a reverie, flashes back to his teens and remembers Padraic ("the Irish spelling"), who was 17 and his first sexual encounter. It is an amazing monologue and, before the scene overstays its welcome, the mood is broken when John discovers Buzz and Perry crouched in his closet and listening to every word. Arthur confesses that "I'm butch. One of the lucky ones. I can catch a ball. I genuinely like both my parents. I hate opera. I don't know why I bother being gay." In act three, when James' condition worsens, an angry Buzz yells, "I want to see a Sound Of Music where the entire Von Trapp family dies in an authentic Alpine avalanche."
Two of the film's best scenes, happily, are the two most celebrated moments from McNally's play. There is a lovely interlude in which Buzz and James are beginning to fall in love. At Buzz's request, James opens his shirt to show him his carposi lesion. It is one of the most heartbreaking scenes in all of queer fiction when Buzz leans forward and touches, and then kisses, the lesion on James' chest. Later, most of the men will dress in ballet tutus to rehearse the number from Swan Lake. James joins the dance but collapses. The rehearsal continues while each of the men delivers a monologue in which he tells the audience how he will die. Two of the principals will die from AIDS complications but McNally is also reminding us that death awaits us all. The seriousness is undercut by the background images of the men looking both ridiculous and graceful as ballerinas.
Their friendships are celebrated but, as you can see, there is also an air of mortality hanging over this group. A major theme involves people living with AIDS and the "survivor guilt" of those who escaped the plague. Perry feels this guilt the most, while Gregory deals with it by planning benefits. During the interim between the writing of this play, and the making of the film, great advancements in AIDS medications had been made - prompting some clueless reviewers to call the movie "dated." I disagree (just as I object to the charge that Rent is also dated) but I suppose, in some ways, that Love! Valour! Compassion! has become a bit of a period piece. Consider, however, the new super-resistant strains of the virus. Combine this with a general public apathy from those who weren't out in the 80s, and the film's topic is still worthy of our consideration and should serve as a wake up call.
The play was also noted for its groundbreaking, but not gratuitous, nudity. The film includes this as well. There's Gregory and Ramon diving nude into the lake, Ramon sunbathing naked on the raft, and Buzz serving drinks outside while wearing nothing but an apron. The play's ending is retained as all the men go skinny dipping in the lake, and this midnight swim evokes the nude swimmers in the homoerotic paintings of Thomas Eakins.
Love! Valour! Compassion! has been compared to Mart Crowley's seminal play, The Boys In the Band (1968 - film, 1970); some mean this as a compliment, some don't. Aside from both featuring a gathering of eight gay men, the two have very little in common. Nobody whines and gnashes their teeth over being gay in the McNally version and the principals don't spend two hours sniping away at each other. There is a brief moment when the young Ramon invokes The Boys In The Band by declaring that we don't love each other because we don't love ourselves and I think this was a deliberate nod. The big difference between the two shows, however, is the absence of all that self loathing in Crowley. If any of McNally's characters, like John Jeckyll, are nasty or unhappy, being gay has nothing to do with it.
For reasons that I have never been able to fathom, many modern moviegoers and reviewers often spew contempt for films adapted from stage plays, even the ones that are "opened up." Mike Nichols opened up Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? from its single living room setting to even include a bar down the road and people still called it stagey. Love! Valour! Compassion! is a good example of a very theatrical stage play that translated into cinema quite nicely. On stage, the play ran for close to three hours and the fourth wall was continually broken as each character spoke directly to the audience, often with asides that commented on scenes that were still in progress. These flourishes are eliminated in the film, or re-written as dialogue, and the adaptation works brilliantly.
The cast is excellent. Few film versions of plays retain most of the original casts and Love! Valour! Compassion!, like A Streetcar Named Desire, is unique in this regard. I was, at first, apprehensive of Jason Alexander playing Buzz and - when I saw it on its first release - it was difficult to get his Seinfeld character out of my mind. Seeing it again twelve years later has removed that baggage and Alexander does a very nice and, for the most part, understated job as Buzz. John Glover is brilliant in the dual roles of the brothers Jeckyll. Each is a unique character in his own right, and Glover excels as a prick and as a tragic heroine. Stephen Spinella originated the role of Prior Walter in Angels In America and Justin Kirk played Prior in the HBO mini-series of Angels.
I have very few complaints with the film rendition of Love! Valour! Compassion! Some of the music cues are bad, and there a couple of times when Jason Alexander queens it up a bit too much as Buzz. Inexplicably, the resolution of Gregory and Ramon's story arc is missing in the movie. If it was ever filmed, it needs to be included in a future director's cut or, at least, as a deleted scene on a special edition DVD.

I have a long history with Love! Valour! Compassion! I have seen it staged twice here in town by Buffalo United Artists. I saw it onstage a year before I saw the movie and the play was a first for me in many ways. I had just recently discovered the outstanding theatre scene here in Buffalo, and BUA's production was the first major gay-themed play that I had ever seen live on stage and it also was the first with such unabashed nudity. If the movie had destroyed this most cherished of plays, the dormant Bette Davis in me would be awakened and I would be trashing it up and down, believe me. Some films are just forgettable entertainments while others really engage the emotions. Love! Valour! Compassion! is one of the jewels of queer cinema.


More on Terrence McNally:
Common Ground

Justin Kirk also appears in:
Angels in America

Stephen Spinella also appears in:

The Normal Heart

Joe Mantella also appears in:
The Normal Heart