Are Dennis Quaid and Ellen Barkin the sexiest couple in American cinema of the 1980s? Hadn’t seen The Big Easy since it came out and it’s even better than I remembered, even taking into account the low quality of the version available on Amazon Prime. I don’t have time to review the film properly so this is more a listing of thoughts and a file of elements that I might return to at some point and that some of you might find useful. Girlfriends have told me how this is a ‘wallow’ film for them, many of them having seen it more than twenty times, and I think the easy heterosexuality, the sexyness (which felt transgressive when I first saw it), the romanticism, and the playing of the leads has something to do with it.
It’s hard to remember what an enormous impact Dennis Quaid made in this film. But here is Libby Wexman-Glaner to remind you:
I used to follow Libby’s column avidly in Premiere. There was no one who made me laugh so much and so hard about movies. I didn’t know Libby was really a pseudonym for Paul Rudnick, a writer who worked on the screenplays for The Addams Family(1991),, Sister Act (1992), The First Wives Club (1996), and other comedies with a camp bent. He had a big hit off-Broadway with Jeffrey (1993), described as ‘the first comedy about AIDS’. My friend Ben Baglio tells me that reading about The Big Easy, ‘I see that Charles Ludlum has a small role. And that got me to remembering his Ridiculous Theatrical Company in Greenwich Village which he ran with his partner Everett Quinton. I saw them in The Mystery of Irma Vep, which Ludlum wrote. Ludlum succumbed to AIDS shortly after I left New York. Pleased to see Quinton is alive and well. God, it really was a terrible time. This terrible time is not evident in The Big Easy. It’s noir about many things but not about love.
Recently I’ve been reading Tracy Tynan’s Wear and Tear: The Threads of My Life. Aside from being the daughter of Elaine Dundy and the great Kenneth Tynan, she was an accomplished costume designer, married to Jim McBride, the film’s director, and she designed or put together the clothes for The Big Easy. This is what she has to say about the wedding dress at the end:
A great film, with a great score of zydeca and Bayou music — hearing Aaron Neville in this film singing ‘Tell It Like It Is’ still gives me chills — some of the most charismatic performers of 1980s American cinema — one weeps to see how great Ellen Barkin is here and how little and badly American cinema used her subsequently– and one of the greatest sex scenes ever. Also a film whose direction make it add up to even more than the sum of its great parts. A film to revisit.
I endorse the following letter from Ben Baglio. Please circulate if it is something you also can get behind:
It has recently been announced that the Britten-Pears Foundation, which comprises the estate of the composer Benjamin Britten and his lifelong partner, the singer Peter Pears, is going to merge with Snape Maltings, which comprises Snape Maltings Concert Hall, the Aldeburgh Festival, and the Britten-Pears Young Artist Programme. The new organisation is to be renamed The Benjamin Britten Foundation, thus excising Peter Pears’ name from the title.
Britten and Pears were a couple from 1939 to Britten’s death in 1976. They lived together for decades before homosexuality was partially decriminalised in 1967. Britten composed numerous song cycles for Pears, and all of his many operas were written with Peter Pears’ unique voice in mind; Pears originated the title role of Peter Grimes, Britten’s first international operatic success, Captain Vere in Billy Budd, and Aschenbach in Death in Venice, Britten’s most overtly gay opera. Britten and Pears founded the Aldeburgh Festival with Eric Crozier in 1948, they developed the Snape Maltings Concert Hall together in one of the first examples of repurposing former industrial buildings, toured the world as singer and accompanist, and set up home in Aldeburgh, Suffolk and played host to artists and musicians of international stature. Their final residence, The Red House, is today a museum open to the public and contains the Britten-Pears Library, their extensive archives, and the large collection of artwork Peter Pears acquired during his lifetime (1910-1986). At Britten’s death in 1976, Queen Elizabeth II, who had befriended the couple, wrote to Peter Pears to express her condolences, in much the same way she would have written to a prominent straight couple that had suffered a bereavement. Britten and Pears are buried side by side with matching headstones in the Aldeburgh churchyard.
Both Snape Maltings and the Britten-Pears Foundation have in latter years been very supportive of LGBTQ activities. The London Gay Men’s Chorus performed at the concert hall at Snape in 2017, and the BPF organised a full reading of the Wolfenden Report as part of its 50th anniversary commemoration of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality, as well as mounting an exhibition on Britten and Pears’ life together.
It is perhaps in light of the support shown to the LGBTQ community that the decision to drop Pears’ name from the new organisation is most concerning. Renaming the new organisation ‘The Benjamin Britten Foundation’ seems to sidestep the issue of Britten’s homosexuality altogether. And while ‘straightwashing’ is not the intended purpose of the rebranding, in effect the new name consigns Peter Pears to the status of an associate of Britten and denies his central role not only in Britten’s life and works, but in the work they did side by side. It seems a regressive step, and certainly one that would have horrified Britten, who viewed Pears as his muse and companion.
The following quotes give some indication of the depth of feeling between the two men:
“….I do love you so terribly, & not only glorious you, but your singing….What have I done to deserve such an artist and man to write for?
….But, I love you, I love you, I love you _ _ _”
Britten to Pears. 17 November 1974
“….it is you who have given me everything, right from the beginning,….I am here as your mouthpiece and live through your music – And I can never be thankful enough to you and to Fate for all the heavenly joy we have had together for 35 years. My darling, I love you P.”
Pears to Britten. 21 November 1974
There is still time to challenge this decision and to encourage the merged organisation to find a name which continues to celebrate this unique and historic partnership. Could you perhaps either do a news feature on this and encourage readers to write to Roger Wright, Chief Executive, Snape Maltings and Sarah Bardwell, Chief Executive, Britten-Pears Foundation. (I can provide contact details and further background if you would like.)