Love! Valour! Compassion! (1997): Terrence McNally Play on Screen by Joe Mantello

Terrence McNally’s Tony Award-winning play, Love! Valour! Compassion! a perceptive, often hilarious look at love and life in the AIDS era, is so sharply written and bluntly entertaining that it almost overcomes in its stage-to-screen transfer the material’s theatrical sensibility and the static direction of Joe Mantello, who also staged the Broadway production.

Love! Valour! Compassion!
Love! Valour! Compassion! (film).jpg

Theatrical release poster

 

Grade: C+ (**1/2 out of *****)

Since virtually all the characters are gay men, and the milieu and humor are unmistakably pertinent to their specific subculture, the movie has a limited crossover appeal. Nonetheless, superlative ensemble acting should propel Fine Line spring release to the level of success achieved by the most popular gay-themed movies to date, Longtime Companion and Jeffrey.

Tyro director Mantello, who in his feature debut doesn’t reveal a particularly keen eye for the film medium, was greatly helped by his familiarity with the source material, and by the fact that McNally’s play was written in quite a cinematic manner, with walks in the wood, swimming in the lake, and other outdoor sequences built into the narrative. Still, McNally’s forte, as was demonstrated in other stage-to-screen adaptations, The Ritz, Frankie and Johnny–neither exciting as a cinematic experience–is in writing witty dialogue that reflects the unique lifestyles of his characters.

With minor alterations, Love! Valour! Compassion! the movie follows closely the stage production, which is structured around three long weekends–and three acts–Memorial Day, Fourth of July, and Labor Day weekends, as eight gay men, seven white and one Latino, gather in a beautiful country house to celebrate the holidays and share some painfully candid and humorous moments of their lives, which are inevitably dominated by a continuous concern with the lethal virus.

After a weak beginning, in which the host, Gregory (Stephen Bogardus), an aging dancer, narrates the history of his house, and a montage that introduces his guests, a moving tale of diverse friendships and relationship unfolds on screen. McNally doesn’t pretend to embrace the variety of contempo gay lifestyles, instead contending himself with an insightful examination of white, upper-middle-class, middle-aged men.

Most of the characters are coupled: Gregory lives with the much younger Bobby (Justin Kirk), his attractive blind lover, and John (John Clover), a nasty Brit hated by everyone, arrives with his latest flame, an Hispanic hunk, Ramon (Randy Becker), a not terribly educated dancer who projects overt sexuality no matter what he does or says. Longtime companions Arthur (John Benjamin Hickey) and Perry (Stephen Spinella) represent the most “straight”–and a bit dull–gay yuppies (an accountant and lawyer, respectively), who find it “very stressful” to function as role models in the gay community.

Gay Directors, Gay Films? By Emanuel Levy (Columbia University Press, August 2015).

Presiding over the group with his sharp tongue and incessant humor is musical-comedy buff Buzz (Jason Alexander), a chubby, balding guy, who’s HIV-Positive and is afraid of the lethal disease. In one of many genuinely touching moments, the tearful Buzz asks Perry, his oldest friend, to vow that he would hold his hand when he dies.

Not surprisingly, tensions are credibly provided by the two outsiders: Ramon and Bobby, who late one night engage in a brief sexual encounter that forces their respective partners to reassess their relationships. The arrival of James (also played by Glover), who could not have been more different from his misanthrope twin, provides a new companion for Buzz and a chance for a reconciliation between the two alienated siblings.

In its good moments–which are plenty–Love! Valour! Compassion! brings to mind the hilarious exchanges in a Noel Coward comedy, the achingly intimate revelations in a Chekhov play, the wistful playfulness in a Sondheim musical. As a slice-of-life, the movie is always engaging, even when it betrays its theatrical origins. The dialogue scenes, which often juxtapose a pair of characters and are based on one-liners and well-timed entrances and exist, are statically staged by neophyte helmer Mantello, who doesn’t take full advantage of the unique attributes of the cinematic vocabulary.

One long sequence, in which the characters disclose in first person narration their eventual deaths, should have been left in the editing room, for it’s unnecessarily downbeat and also arrests the otherwise natural flow of events. At the same time, this screen version contains some improvements over the play: There is less emphasis on frontal nudity, which was excessive and distracting on stage.

At once disciplined and exuberant, the ensemble acting is so felicitous that it’s not only difficult but downright unfair to single any out for special praise. Still, though Nathan Lane’s edgy presence and notorious delivery of punch lines is missing here, Alexander (the only new member in the film’s cast) gives an honorable performance as the central, funny-sad character. Glover shines in the dual role of the evil/good twins, employing an utterly divergent voice and distinctive mannerism for each part.

Other members of the inspired cast all rise to the occasion: Bogardus as the aging, stuttering dancer, Kirk as the erring lover, Becker as the Latino stud, and Hickey and Spinella, as the most stable couple. Tech credits are modestly serviceable and respectful of McNally’s text.

Directed by Joe Mantello
Produced by Doug Chapin
Screenplay by Terrence McNally
Based on Love! Valour! Compassion! by Terrence McNally
Starring
Jason Alexander
Stephen Spinella
Stephen Bogardus
Randy Becker
John Benjamin Hickey
Justin Kirk
John Glover

Music by Harold Wheeler
Cinematography Alik Sakharov
Edited by Colleen Sharp
Distributed by Fine Line Features

Release date
January 25, 1997

Running time
108 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $2 million
Box office $2.9 million

Grade: C+ (**1/2 out of *****)