Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss
Reviewed in August 1998
Director: Tommy O'Haver. Cast: Sean P. Hayes, Brad Rowe, Richard Ganoung, Meredith Scott Lynn, Paul Bartel, Armando Valdes-Kennedy, Carmine Giovinazzo. Screenplay: Tommy O'Haver.

Photo © 1998 Trimark Pictures
Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss opens with a voice-over prologue that posits before the viewer the terms "straight" and "gay," proclaimed in great big magic-marker letters that scream out at us and demand attention, definition, and mutual relation. In fact, the narrator tells us, the film will interest itself in discovering "what these two words mean, if they mean anything at all." They sure do mean something, all right, but not necessarily in opposition to one another, since Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss, the writing and directing debut of Tommy O'Haver, may be fairly described at least in part by both terms. To the extent the film is "straight," it is simple, unconfrontational, and even trapped within conventions of romantic comedy that take some of the sparkle out of the picture's unfolding, particularly towards its end.

But to emphasize such shortcomings is silly and unfair, because Screen Kiss is such a puckish, engaging, cheerfully entertaining picture that it revives the original connotations of "gayness"—namely conviviality, winsomeness, and consistent brightness of mood—even as it wraps an enthusiastic bear-hug around "gay" as a sexual and stylistic term. All of which means, yes there are barbed one-liners, yes there are drag queens, and yes yes yes, they are all funny. Funny "ha-ha" not funny "weird." Enough with the vocab lesson!

Billy (Sean P. Hayes, who's currently in those Pepsi "Pop Culture" adds), is a Los Angeles-based romantic who lives in an almost literal dream world. He is so immersed in his primary day-to-day fantasies—that his photographs (mostly Polaroids) will prove popular and financially rewarding, that the glorious Hollywood fables of romance and success are not only fairy tales, and that he will finally meet Mr. Right—that his mind frequently floats into dream sequences that look and sound just like Tinseltown set pieces. Some are musicals, some are romantic charmers. They're all upbeat, even though the realities of Billy's life at the moment are that his artwork has just been turned down by a potential exhibitor, he has no reliable source for next month's rent, and he is currently sleeping with Fernando (Armando Valdes-Kennedy) even though the man is, in Billy's euphemistic terms, "already committed to something else." Something else's name is Peter.

It is while listing off these minor catastrophes to his (obviously) platonic female roommate George (Meredith Scott Lynn, who also has a co-producing credit) that he first meets Gabriel (Brad Rowe), a coffee-shop waiter with a face and a manner to match his angelic name. The neat twist of O'Haver's picture is that Billy and Gabriel's moment of introduction, rather than being the obvious precursor of happy times to come, is quite possibly the beginning of even greater confusion and despair for poor Billy. And not the Sleepless in Seattle kind of despair where he mourns the distance of Mr. Right even as he (and we) recognize that hey, it's a comedy, and they're eventually going to get hitched. Nothing about Gabriel is certain, least of all his sexual leanings, and Billy has a field day analyzing and projecting himself into Gabriel's vague statements about his own relationship history and current romantic situation. Sure, he has a girlfriend, but he met her in San Francisco of all places, has obviously moved away from her now, and...well, he loves the movie Cabaret.

If all of this sounds a bit hokey and over-familiar, then I should make clear that both the charm and the earnest appeal of O'Haver's film result from his complete compassion for Billy's predicament and his relinquishing of any director's privilege of further knowledge or insight into Gabriel's hazy identity. Unlike in, say, The Birdcage, the show-tunes references and other clichéd signposts of homosexuality are not just clichés assembled around a character who has already been clearly portrayed to us as gay, nor are these traits themselves, as in the bizarre and hamstrung In & Out, the very material out of which the film attempts to construct a character's orientation. Kevin Kline's high school teacher "became gay" in that screenplay out of the sheer accumulation of so many behavioral particularities (fussy dress, a fluid wrist) and personal affinities (for bowties and Barbra, among others).

In Billy, by contrast, and more in the spirit of real life, Gabriel's musical tastes and physical vocabulary are, at best, circumstantial evidence at which Billy yearningly grasps while still admitting that his lust (love?) object's orientation is still very much a mystery, and very much in danger of being radically misjudged by so biased an appraiser as himself. An older friend of Billy's named Perry (Richard Ganoung) hovers around his smitten pal reminding him of how often he has left his hormones unchecked and gotten himself into awkward predicaments by rosily refusing to acknowledge that his crushes might be straight—or otherwise, and maybe even harder to admit, were gay but were attracted to other men.

Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss sets up this is-he-or-isn't-he dynamic early and economically, and despite a bit of fudging in the writing of Gabriel's character—a straight guy would probably be less tolerant, even inviting of Billy's attentions; a gay man less deliberately elliptical in his phrasings—the project rolls along with unrelieved buoyancy and comic zest. A coterie of dolled-up lip-synchers contribute some sweet and rousing renditions of Nina Simone and Petula Clark anthems, and the central plotlines of Billy's recruitment of Gabriel into his Perry-sponsored photography project and subsequent jealousy as Gabriel is noticed by other photographers and would-be seducers are pleasant and unpretentious although, it should be noted, O'Haver demonstrates an uncommon willingness to let the tense moments between Gabriel and Billy, as they feel each other out in their own ways, remain tense and uncertain, rather than dodging the anxiousness with quick laughs or distractions, as happens in most comedies of this type. (Then again, my point is that there aren't many comedies of this breezy, well-governed type.)

O'Haver knows and recognizes the rather humble limits of his screenplay, and though he remains playful and clever at experimenting with form—several sequences are related as a series of Billy's Polaroids, and self-conscious techniques of irises and fades in and out purposefully recall the fizzy comedies of the 30s and 40s—he never lets the picture or its overall tone get away from him. Where I took exception to Billy is in its vulnerability to the perennial Hollywood syndrome of separating the protagonist from the romantic partner who is more than available, even pining away, and would be a much more logical, deserving, and affectionate partner than the airbrushed dreamboat that all the tongues are wagging about. Comedies from The Philadelphia Story to Pretty in Pink have relied on this trope of the wise-counseling friend who is disbarred from the central romance plot, but it's always a shame to see the sorry or compensatory hand that is clumsily and briskly dealt the dewy-eyed observer.

Not that this means Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss ends in a way you could predict from the beginning, or even fifteen minutes from the end of its 95-minute run. Everyone in the cast does well by their role, especially the twinkly-eyed Hayes; like Janeane Garofalo in The Truth About Cats & Dogs, Hayes contributes such a winning performance that many audience members may find the film's vectors of idolization miscalculated and decide instead that Gabriel should be so lucky to land a dreamboat like Billy. To his credit, Rowe makes Gabriel neither predictably vapid nor disproportionately charming. He fits the physical bill of the role to a well-filled-out tee, but as for personality, he endows Gabriel with a warm but casual friendliness that makes Billy's attraction easy to understand but his enduring admiration and pursuit rather less so.

I will be interested to see if Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss is the beginning of a rewarding comedy career for Tommy O'Haver, or if this deft and rather personal-feeling film was the one story he really needed to tell, followed thereafter either by undeserving copies of his blueprint here or by no new films at all. Hayes, at least, should be guaranteed the notice of a casting director or two, but he faces the danger of quick typecasting that would shortchange the talent and appeal he demonstrates here. Whatever the future of its creative team, Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss is an easy film to appreciate and one not to be taken for granted: positing entertainment as its sincerest ambition and actually giving pleasure in all the ways, or nearly all the ways, it intends to. Hollywood should deliver more candy kisses of the type O'Haver busses us with here. B

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