This is the story of what happens when a fabulously rich and privileged 59-year-old man decides to tell the story of some the most despised and marginalized people in America.
Director Roland Emmerich is the very well-to-do son of the founder of a German garden machinery production company. He owns homes in London, New York, Los Angles and Stuttgart. As a teenager he traveled extensively throughout Europe and North America on trips financed by his father.
There’s nothing wrong with being fabulously rich of course, but it can become a problem if you’re putting yourself forward to direct a film about people who exist on your opposite scale.
When you’re that rich you can easily lose sight of how just cosseted you actually are. You know that poor people exist but they live outside your own experience, like characters in a book or a film. You know they are real but they are not your reality.
That’s the trouble with Stonewall, Emmerich’s generic biopic retelling of gay liberation’s Bastille Day. The film feels unreal from its opening frame, focusing on the wholly fictitious James Dean-like character Danny (played by Jeremy Irvine).
Emmerich seems to believe that it’s necessary to have a corn fed, straight acting smoldering mid-westerner protagonist, ostensibly to allow heterosexuals to empathize with his human struggles.
Another slightly less charitable way to say this is that Emmerich seems to believe that straight people need to see other straight-acting characters -- even when they’re gay -- to understand that they’re fully human. Nice, eh?
Apart from being insulting, this idea quickly becomes distracting too. Because of it there are only a few moments in Stonewall where a gay character actually gets to enjoy being gay. That’s because the director doesn’t want to alienate his audience. But it’s possible to tread too carefully.
Back in 1969, the year of the historic New York riots from which the film takes it name, there were daily police raids on gay bars. It was illegal to sell booze to gay customers, it was illegal to dress in drag, and anti-gay prejudice was everywhere.
As if that wasn’t a big enough drag in itself, then there were characters like Trevor Nichols (played by Ireland’s Jonathan Rhys Meyers) knocking around too. A well-to-do gay rights activist on the surface, after Danny hooks up with Nichols he quickly discovers that Trevor actually goes through all the latest hot young arrivals to town like a telephone operator through a phone book.
It’s not a flattering role for Rhys Meyers by any means. Playing a lounge shark with a romantic attention span that’s shorter than his undies, Rhys Meyers looks like a man who has stayed a little too long at the party and isn’t sure what to do now that dawn’s arrived.
After picking Danny up at the Stonewall, Trevor begins a short-lived affair with him, before Danny catches him in a clink with another blow-in. Their relationship lasts about seven days, which has to be a record, even by the free love flower power standards of 1969.
The 37-year-old Rhys Meyers is perfectly cast in the role and it’s a welcome return to form for him, especially after he was pictured looking disheveled and disorientated on a London street in May of this year.
The main problem with Stonewall has nothing to do with the Irish actor’s performance however. It’s simply the result of the director’s decision to follow Danny’s soap opera storyline and lose the significance of the larger Stonewall drama along the way, a disaster for a film that purports to tell the revolutionary tale.
Worse, it becomes evident early on that any one of the film’s supporting actors (most of whom happen not to be white) would have made a much more interesting lead character for this movie. They are underserved and under-used in this hackneyed male Dorothy visits Oz tale.
Because it turns out that Danny’s slim shoulders aren’t strong enough to carry this weak storyline on their own, and as the film goes on it becomes more obvious that he never should have been asked to.
Thrown out of his home for being gay and for sleeping with the local star football player of his high school year (Danny’s father, in a much too tidy twist, is the school’s coach), Danny fetches up in New York City with a suitcase and just a few dollars to his name.
But even when he’s sleeping rough Danny miraculously manages to wash and blow-dry his James Dean-style locks and look like he’s just stepped out of a salon. We never worry that he’ll be chewed up and spat out by the Big Apple because he’s just too gosh darn cute in adversity.
Emmerich has multiple opportunities to comment on the way that anti-gay prejudice can rip apart families and ruin lives, but when his camera approaches unvarnished reality it keeps moving on quickly, and the push and pull of this underwritten script ends up serving neither the character nor the about-to-explode revolution.
At the Stonewall bar the sulfurous manager Ed Murphy (played by Ron Perlman) pays off the mafia on one hand and the NYPD on the other to keep his profitable little gay bar afloat. Perlman looks and sounds like the film’s only emissary from the real world, and his presence reminds us of what a well written film about this subject and era could look like.
The tough as nails street kids that Danny encounters in Greenwich Village become his guides and protectors (people of color still seem to fulfill this role for white guys even in 2015). They introduce him to a greater world of freedom and fulfillment and one of them, an androgynous young thing called Ray played Jonny Beauchamp, even falls for him hard.
But tone deaf Danny tells his unrequited paramour that he’s much “too angry to fall in love,” which is one of the most memorable cop out lines I’ve heard in recent filmmaking. The audience groans at this and wonders why a smart kid like Ray would even bother mooning after such an obvious heartbreaker?
In the end Stonewall needs a real life director like Dog Day Afternoon’s legendary Sidney Lumet. Instead it gets a sci-fi director like Independence Day’s Emmerich. It’s a rough fit and the resulting film proves it.
If Stonewall has anything to teach us it might be this: we really don’t actually need a straight looking white guy actor to sell us a film about gay people. We just need a good director and a decent script.
Stonewall opened on September 25.