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Should Gays Flatten Travolta’s Hairspray?

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It’s official, hell has frozen over. Gays are boycotting a musical?

Make that one gay. Washington Blade managing editor Kevin Naff told MSNBC last week that he won’t be seeing the big screen musical Hairspray when it opens next month and he encourages others to do the same. "Travolta, a prominent Scientologist, has no business reprising an iconic gay role, given his [religion's] stance on gay issues. It's well known that Scientology rejects gays and lesbians as members and even operates reparative therapy clinics to 'cure' homosexuality." Naff said.

Several media outlets picked up this silly tidbit and by Friday the film’s executive producer and the director of the original 1988 film, John Waters, responded to the New York Daily News. “First of all, he is playing a loving mother, not [the late gay politician] Harvey Milk.” Waters commented.” I'm all for gay troublemaking, but is this journalist going to police the religion of all actors? Do we boycott Nicole Kidman because she's Catholic?" Waters went on to praise Travolta and the new version of the film.

So who’s right? I think Waters and Naff are both missing the mark here.

As a movie nerd, I hold the original film in high esteem. Sure, many Waters purists consider this his “selling out” movie but I think it’s one of his best written. Not only does Hairspray brilliantly satirize 1960’s Baltimore and the hypocrisy of segregation but it also gave film lovers a star-making performance by Ricki Lake, a lovely swan song for Divine as Edna Turnblad (the role Travolta now plays), and Ric Ocasek and Pia Zadora as beatniks! Nobody makes camp like Waters but this time out he did it with real heart, quotable dialogue, and fully developed characters. So it baffles me that a cinematic update is necessary.

Sure, I get the whole was-a-movie-now-it’s-a-musical thing. I don’t think the world really needs musical versions of movies like Sunset Boulevard, The Color Purple, and Legally Blonde but if it makes more people go to the theater, then so be it.

I am opposed, however, to turning a hit musical that was originally a film back into a new version of the film. The 2005 bastardization of The Producers should have permanently put a stop to this trend. Still, hope springs eternal in Hollywood when it comes to squeezing every last dime out of a successful property. Previews for Hairspray present a slick, safe, family friendly musical packed with stars for every demographic. Look it’s the kid from High School Musical! Look it’s Queen Latifah!

While fans of the musical might be jumping out of their seats, the film’s loyalists are likely to groan, “Where’s Debbie Harry?” Waters has made a killing off the stage musical and his endorsement of the new version seems to be one of fiscal stability and not one of nonbiased opinion.

The only boycotting that should happen concerning this movie is one that calls for an end to remakes and unoriginality. Hollywood is convinced that moviegoers don’t want fresh, inspired films. But sleeper hit likes Hot Fuzz, Knocked Up, and Pan’s Labyrinth are proof positive that audiences are ready to embrace films that aren’t sequels and rehashes. The Broadway world echoed this sentiment earlier this month when Grey Gardens and Spring Awakenings both swept the Tonys. In spite of this, the trend of turning toys, television shows, and theme park rides into splashy films shows no sign of letting up. And it’s inevitable. Fine. But do we have to embrace every hackneyed remake? I say no and Hairspray might be where I put my foot down.

Where Naff’s hissyfit is concerned, I think the gay community has bigger fish to fry than Travolta. As a gay man, I think issues like the denial of basic civil liberties, workplace discrimination, and hate crimes are just a tad more important. Reprogramming homosexuals is a crock that intellectuals have long snickered at, so to slap Scientology on the wrist seems to be more about a cry for publicity rather than a call to arms.

The jury is still out on whether I’ll personally go see Hairspray. On one hand, my inner Divine fan poo-poos the notion of watching Travolta and tween hotties potentially destroy my beloved cinematic memories. On the other hand, my inner movie musical dork sort of loves the idea of Stephanie Zinone and Danny Zucko finally on screen together!

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About Sean Paul Mahoney

  • “proof positive that audiences are ready to embrace films that aren’t sequels and rehashes. The Broadway world echoed this sentiment earlier this month when Grey Gardens and Spring Awakenings both swept the Tonys.”

    Actually, Grey Gardens disputes your point as it was based on a 1975 documentary by The Maysles Bros. but I’m sure most of the audience members didn’t know either.

  • Sean Paul Mahoney

    El Bicho, you are absolutely correct. My mistake.
    I’ve heard it’s a great film and certainly better source material than the Interview with Vampire musical!

  • Knowing that Scientology rejects gays and lesbians is a heavy no against the movie, however, I understand your point that the GLBT community has “bigger fish to fry”. Knowing that the movie will only be more alluring if boycotted is a step backwards and seeing the movie only because it is being boycotted wont lure fresh minds to the theater. I don’t like his beliefs but as you said he isn’t playing the character of Harvey Milk so I don’t see the damage this movie will cause. He Travolta himself went into the world and verbally bashed gays than I would not see the movie.

  • Ivan Jimenez

    I’m sorry but I have gay friends that are gay and Scientologist. I wonder where the heck this entire Scientology anti-gay concept is coming from because they are not true.

    Simply Hubbard like always is being misquoted. Those quotes are from old Dianetics books that are not part of Scientology. Scientology like all religions has evolved. There have never been Scientology clinics to cure gays; in fact there isn’t a single process in Scientology that treats gayness. I challenge any gay person to go to a church of Scientology and tell them that you are gay. You will find out that you will be accepted the way you are. Scientology is very big on being faithful so if you are promiscuous you will be in problem regardless if you are gay or strait.
    I other words we are not talking about reality we are talking about a myth or a stereo type. Is like saying that all Muslims are terrorist or that all Jews are good with money. Is true that Scientology is about finding out who you are so in theory you could find out that you are gay. Whatever, it doesn’t matter. But this falsehood needs to stop.

  • Sean Paul Mahoney

    Ivan, thanks for your comment although it has nothing to do with the topic at hand. For the record, I’m not continuing a “falsehood”. I’m nearly commenting on a statement from Kevin Naff.

  • SteveK

    Telling some gay men you shouldn’t be promiscuous may be like telling Jimmy Carter there’s no more toothpaste, but it’s the same message given a straight person in Scientology. It’s about what’s in the best interest of your survival, not your sexual orientation. I’ve known several gay Scientology members and there are no clinics to “cure” them; but every member wants the restoration of his own personal choice and freedom from his extra baggage, whatever he or she decides it may be: It’s about restoring self-determinism to the individual, not shsming or coercing him into being what he is not. He’ll discover that on his own as he recovers his own unique spiritual identity as a being. That’s a far cry from being anti-gay.

  • sr

    This could be some serious sandbox material.

  • Terry Givens

    I won’t be seeing the movie simply because I don’t care for Travolta’s acting. He always strikes me as being extremely hammy. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed one role he’s been in. The only movie I enjoy with him in it is Grease, and that’s only due to Olivia Newton-John and the supporting cast.

  • Ruvy in Jerusalem


    Your whole article simply outlines in bright red-orange letters what anybody should understand clearly about creativity, and creative writing. There is very very little of it.

    My kids watch rip-offs of comic books The Crow, Daredevil (which ripped off cinematic ideas from The Crow), Smallville, the zillionth rip-off of Superman etc.

    If I wasn’t a writer myself, I would find it a lot more entertaining. But these guys telegraph the endings in the first few minutes, whether they intend to or not.

    Creative writing? Sholem Aleichem was a creative writer, writing what was viewed as comedy 100 years ago. Or was he? He sat on trains running from Minsk to Warsaw and recounted conversations he had heard or had remembered, weaving a little plot into them. But the makers of Fiddler on the Roof couldn’t handle the real tragedy and pain that ran through Aleichem’s writings, and schmaltzed it all up with sugar and lard. By the time Haim Topol was in the movie version in the 1970’s the real story had been lost to a Hollywood fairy tale.


    Was it entertaining. Hell, yes, it was entertaining – especially to the Jews who still remembered riding on trains from Minsk to Warsaw – the tragedy and pain of their lives had been converted to peaches and cream. Starvation and intestinal worms converted to sugar cakes! Of course it was entertaining. They lapped it up!

    But was it creative?


    As King Shlomo wrote three millennia ago in the Book of Kohelet, “there is nothing new under the sun.”

  • sr

    Does this have anything to do with that other movie. Cant remember the name of it. Bent over hill or something like that.

  • Sean Paul Mahoney

    Terry, I totally agree! His ham-fisted performances are tiresome to say the least. Pulp Fiction was the last good role he had, in my opinion.
    Ruby, you’ve made an excellent point with Fiddler on the Roof. Thank you. It illustrates the point perfectly.

  • Dr Dreadful

    Ruvy, I’ve read Shalom Aleichem and seen Fiddler on the Roof and enjoyed both, although they don’t bear much resemblance to one another. I loved that the book doesn’t try to be a coherent narrative, but delves into many aspects of life for Tevye and his family and neighbors. It’s the perfect coffee-break book – you can read a little anecdote from it and then put it away again without losing the thread.

    With the movie, Norman Jewison achieved quite a feat as I don’t really like musicals. Sure, the treatment was schmaltzed up a bit, but I admire the film for its refusal to conform to Hollywood convention. You talk about screenwriters telegraphing endings, Ruvy, but Fiddler is the only musical I can think of that doesn’t have a happy ending. You keep expecting Tevye to relent, as he did with his other two daughters, and accept his daughter’s marriage to the Gentile. When he doesn’t, you anticipate a father-daughter reconciliation, but that doesn’t really happen either. And you certainly don’t expect the film to end with Tevye and his people’s expulsion from their home, even though you know it’s true to real history. So I admired Jewison and the screenwriters for providing us with a realistic ending, which preserved the film’s integrity. It sticks in the mind and doesn’t get forgotten as just another happily-ever-after story.

    Also, Topol is the spitting image of my late Dad, so there’s another reason for me to have a soft spot for Fiddler!

  • Sean Paul Mahoney

    Dr Dreadful, you bring up an excellent point.
    When it comes to musicals the ones that succeed are the ones that are blessed to have a director who have a distinctive voice. Like Jewison, Rob Marshall with Chicago, and Bob Fosse with Sweet Charity and Cabaret. The director of this new version of Hairspray has a mixed bag of a resume. But we shall see when the film comes out.

  • Dr Dreadful

    Also, Ruvy, I think you’re being a little harsh on the creative process. I too am a writer. As Sean just pointed out, works that succeed – be they novels, films or plays – are those that have a strong voice running through them. Aleichem may have merely jotted down the conversations he overheard on trains, but it is the voice of Tevye that holds everything together and makes the book a work of real creativity.

  • Ruvy in Jerusalem


    As far as musicals and movies go, when you talk about Fiddler on the Roof, you are talking top quality productions by competent writers, producers and directors.

    But let’s take Tevye’s fate. In the book, he just leaves. His wife dies, and he was supposed to go to Palestine – but he goes to live with his daughter, whose husband (Motel the tailor) has died.

    And he didn’t live in Anatevka – that’s where his rich customers lived.

    In the 1965 musical, the Czar’s ukase comes down in 1905 abolishing Anatevka – and the rabbi explains to the young man who was asking “wouldn’t this be just the right time for the messiah to show up?” that they’ll just have to await the messiah elsewhere – an eerie prefiguring of what happened 40 years later to the Jews in Gush Qatif…

    In the movie, when the Czar’s ukase comes down abolishing Anatevka, the go to America! Jewison stuck in the “redemptive” opportunity of living in Babylon in the West as the happy lining in what appears to be a sad ending. So much for realism.

    Schmaltz, schmaltz and more schmaltz.

  • Ruvy in Jerusalem


    I’m not being harsh on the creative process at all. I know just how hard it is to be creative.

    The voice of Tevye is technique – technique that can be learned and applied. I learned that technique from reading Isaac Babel. Even in translation from the Russian, the powerful technique Babel applied in his stories comes through. And I’m sure you’ve had your own teachers, whose techniques you’ve learned modified and applied.

    But creativity? That is a horse of another color, harder to acquire and keep than the gold of a goblin.

  • STM

    While we’re on that theme, what about Mel Gibson, who grew up in Australia (up the street from my place and I still have what’s left of his sleeping bag in the shed) but was born in upstate NY?

    Mel, strangling and mangling a Scottish accent in Braveheart and playing the Aussie-accented patriot (actually a traitor, from where I stand) in, well, The Patriot – and managing to stereotype those uncomplaining English in the process.

    Ban him, I say. Boycott all of Mel’s movies – or at least do yourselves a favour by a) wearing earplugs (you don’t need a script to understand the action), and b) taking one of those little blindfold things they give out on airlines and stick it on when the hairy Scottish buggers (I believe they used Irishmen for the film) lift up their kilts to the triumphant English.

    Mel’s great line in Braveheart, as he was being hung, drawn and quartered, should have been: “Aye, you can remove three-quarters of my brain cells, but you’ll never take my Aussie accent”.

  • Dr Dreadful

    Ruvy, I agree with you that technique is key to good writing, but I still think you’re wrong to come down so strongly on the creative aspect.

    Since writing’s been around for at least 4000 years and storytelling undoubtedly for much, much longer than that, it’s a very rare author indeed who can create something absolutely original. For the rest of us mere mortals, the creativity is in deciding what techniques will set off our material to the best effect.

    Now Aleichem could have elected simply to set down the conversations he heard as a piece of light journalism, a series of vignettes of rural life. But with the introduction of Tevye as the unifying character to whom all these things happen, and the theme of give and take that runs throughout the book, it becomes something quite different: a piece which, although based on real-life events (as all creative writing is, at some level), exists on its own terms as a literary work.

  • The Broadway version of Hairspray is a blast, and for the most part very true to the spirit of the original film, which has a devoted cult but was not seen in theaters by all that many people (one reason to remake it?).

    The main thing I miss in the Broadway adaptation is the original music, great, nearly forgotten dance singles like “The Madison.” The new score is fun, but it would be great if they restored a couple of the oldies in the film.

    I think the folks defending Scientology are a bit off: L. Ron Hubbard had a troubled gay son and a very bad attitude toward homosexuality, reflected in his “religion.” And there are definitely some Scientologists who have wanted to “clear” themselves of their gayness, possibly including Mr. Travolta. But unpleasant as this is, it’s a distant side issue for this particular movie, no?

    But it’s true that John Travolta does not carry the same gender-bending panache as Divine or Harvey Fierstein.

  • Pretending that Scientology is not anti-gay (!), how about just the cynicism of watching a film that is so rah-rah about being yourself, civil rights and doing what’s right not what’s right for your career…that is performed in part by John Travolta and Queen Latifah??? cough cough. At one point, Travolta’s character warns Tracy, “Men will always choose their careers first, Tracy.” Indeed!

    Hey, handyguy: I liked the original’s music, too. What about “Hairspray” by Rachel Sweet?