“Parting Glances,” the 1986 stunning debut of writer-director Bill Sherwood, tackles AIDS, an urgent issue that could not have been ignored in a film made about gay life in the 1980s, especially in New York City.
Set on the Upper West Side, the story depicts 24 hours in the lives of three gay men, who form a most intriguing triangle, though not a ménage a trois. “I intended the film as an homage to New York and also to the gay community, which, in spite of the AIDS crisis, continues to be such a life force,” said Sherwood.
“Parting Glances” was not the first gay yuppie picture, but it represented a significant contrast to such inconsequential fare as “Making Love” (1982), which presented a fake romantic portrait in a fake setting.
Parting Glances was one of the first gay movies not to deal with the problem of coming out, which dominated most gay fare of the 1970s and 1980s. Sexual orientation has long been resolved when the story begins, as the youngest character, a Columbia freshman, says: “Your dick knows what it likes.”
Sherwood showed the audience a “new world” through the eyes of its own denizens. Moreover, unlike the masochistic and self-loathing “The Boys in the Band” (1970), written by a gay playwright but directed by a straight man (William Friedkin), “Parting Glances” is ultimately upbeat–despite its AIDS theme.
Fully rounded lives are presented through the break-up of a relationship. Structured as a romantic triangle, the script packs everything into 24 hours in the lives of Michael (Richard Ganoung), an editor, and his lover of six years, Robert (John Bolger), an official working for an international health organization. Michael and Robert enjoy a comfortable lifestyle: they live in a nice apartment, listen to Brahms, go to dinner parties, have regular sex. But Michael is feeling a little too settled; something is missing from his life, and he’s still tormented by his first love, Nick (the very young Steve Buscemi), a rock singer dying of AIDS.
When the tale opens, Robert is preparing to leave for a long stint in Africa, allowing Michael to reflect on their bond. This triggers flashbacks to Michael’s love for Nick, who represents a wilder, more reckless past. Michael drops by at Nick’s to cook, clean, and listen to his sardonic musings. He brings him a record of Don Giovanni, and Nick gets stuck on the part where Don Giovanni goes up in flames, refusing to repent. Similarly, in the film, Nick declines to renounce his past. Sherwood makes Nick the moral center–the suffering spirit of modern gay life–the proud, unrepentant person with AIDS.
Michael, sort of a gay everyman, is poised between his former and current lovers, between a thrilling, dangerous past and unexciting domesticated present. Complicating the issues is a potential new lover, Peter, who works in a record store. When Michael meets Peter, he sees a 1980s variation on his youth, except that Peter is apolitical and unformed drifting from one party to another looking for adventure. Peter may be more comfortable with his sexuality, but he’s also less interesting than Michael or Nick.
Sherwood attempted something ambitious, as the Village Voice critic David Edelstein noted in his review: “Crafting sort of the State of the Union for the AIDS era, a look at where gay men have been, where they might be going, and the uneasy ground on which they stand.” Wishing to restore reality and dignity to gay lifestyles, usually depicted sensationalistically, Sherwood treats gays as ordinary people who, like their “straight” counterparts, work, argue and reconcile. Sherwood broke new ground: For the first time, gay men could watch themselves up onscreen and like what they see. Rather than being hysterical or sentimental about AIDS, the film is elegiac: Parting Glances, like the later Longtime Companion, ends with a lament for a bygone, free-spirit past.
Motivated by the public’s “astounding ignorance” of gay lifestyles, Sherwood claimed: “One of the problems Hollywood has had dealing with this subject is that it’s usually approached so gingerly.” He cites the film Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985), which takes one hour for the characters (played by William Hurt and Raul Julia) to kiss, and then it’s set up to shock the audience. “This is why I had the men kissing right from the start, to get it over with right away and allow us to get on with their interaction with other people and with what’s going on in all their lives.”
Indeed, the movie’s opening scene is attention-grabbing: A sturdy, blue-eyed jogger bounds past a man who’s reading a book. He kicks him playfully in the butt and nuzzles his neck. A moment later, the two-step into their apartment and the jogger paws the reader. The reader wants no part of it, but the jogger gives him a lingering kiss and the reader succumbs. The camera then follows them to the bedroom, where their sneakered feet entwine. In the next shot, the door of the shower opens and the couple stand amidst steam, with the jogger’s arms around the reader. The jogger and reader are Robert and Michael.
Sherwood wanted to strike a universal chord, to show that gay and straight men are not all that different, which was a novelty at the time, considering the stereotypical portrayal of gay men in the mass media. A Soho cocktail party provides him the opportunity to turn gay and straight stereotypes upside down. The only person seen cruising is straight–he’s caught in the bathroom with a German artist while the latter’s husband fumes outside the door. And it’s a gay man, Robert, who advises a female friend on how to maintain a difficult relationship.