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On the Day Gays Stood Up to Fight

Zen Boa: As drag queen LaMiranda, Guillermo Diaz dresses up for the gay-rights revolution in director Nigel Finch's "Stonewall."

'Stonewall' film recalls famous gay-rights battle

By Richard von Busack

THE STONEWALL riots began a few short nights after Judy Garland's death on June 22, 1969--the Manhattan police certainly chose the wrong moment to pick on those drag queens! The customary police rousting of transvestites at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village was interrupted by the customers fighting back. This skirmish has become, in legend, the shot heard 'round the world for the gay-rights movement.

Stonewall, which helped to replenish the world's dwindling supply of freedom, seems a natural subject for a movie, preferably a big, gaudy, celebratory one: John Waters crossed with It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad World. The late director Nigel Finch's Stonewall is a quieter affair, as befits the director of the very earnest British film The Lost Language of Cranes.

The script by the young English playwright Rikki Beadle Blair is instant dramaturgy (boy meets boy, boy loses boy) studded with the all-too-occasional wisecrack. The Stonewall Inn, by serving drag queens, ignores a New York law against selling alcohol to known homosexuals. Since so many people had never known that they were homosexual until after they'd gotten drunk, the problem of enforcing such a law is obvious. Fresh-off-the-bus hotspur Matty (Frederick Weller) goes to the bar, and protests when the police arrive for their usual harassment ritual.

Matty gets his nose bashed and is sent to jail, where he meets LaMiranda (Guillermo Diaz), a drag queen. The two fall in love, despite LaMiranda's protestations that she "doesn't do love." Matty is busy trying to work within the system, involved as he is with gay-rights activism, but LaMiranda is more interested in putting on lipstick. Matty falls temporarily for the superficially revolutionary Ethan (Brendan Corbalis), before he and LaMiranda are reunited in time for the riot, when the earnest and the frivolous join in common cause to fight their oppressors.

Stonewall works best in its sequences of the nascent gay-rights meetings in rented basement halls. We get a good sense of how underground it all was when we see these few protesters picketing with coats and ties on so that passersby don't consider them freaks. Comparing these sequences to the gay-pride parades of today imparts a vertiginous sense of how much life has changed.

Finch was on his deathbed from AIDS when the movie was in its final cut, which makes it difficult to criticize Stonewall. Even so, Blair's penchant for the obvious is worth noting. There is still a great film to be made about Stonewall; we're seeing the first of it, but we haven't seen the last of it.

Stonewall (Unrated; 98 min.), directed by Nigel Finch, written by Rikki Beadle Blair, based on the book by Martin Duberman, photographed by Chris Seager and starring Frederick Weller and Guillermo Diaz.

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From the July 25-31, 1996 issue of Metro

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