When I think of spirit, I think of cheerleaders, and when I think of cheerleaders, I think of the 1999 Jamie Babbit film “But I’m a Cheerleader” – a perfect reason to revisit this movie.
When it was released, this film was a big hit in LGBT circles — and among my friends specifically. Ellen Degeneres had come out just two years before and her show was soon canceled. Matthew Shepard was murdered in a horrific hate crime one year prior. It was not a very uplifting time in the LGBT community.
So it was refreshing to watch a movie made for “us” that didn’t feature the main character wallowing in self pity about being gay. In fact, this film was a COMEDY! It stars Natasha Lyonne as a cheerleader whose parents and friends suspect is a lesbian. Her Melissa Etheridge posters, tofu eating habits, and the way she stares at women cause the people in her life to stage an intervention and send her to an ex-gay camp for teens.
Watching this film again today actually filled me with a bit of sadness that I don’t remember having when I saw it initially. Parents rejecting their gay kids is an awful and heartbreaking occurrence that happens way too often in real life. But Brian Wayne Peterson’s script and Jamie Babbit’s directing turned this idea on its ear and mined it for comedy gold. It is an over-the-top and incisive take on the horrifying idea of ex-gay conversion…and it made a bonafide gay movie star out of Clea DuVall!
Many folks in the LGBT community have great loyalty to actors and directors who “show up” for us — who direct gay films, play gay characters, and write gay scripts. I definitely continued to cheer on the folks who made this film and watch where their careers took them next. I love thinking about the lineage of “But I’m a Cheerleader” and tracing the LGBT media that grew out of the talent involved with making this film. If you have been wondering what some of these folks went on to create, you’re in luck! Here are some of the film’s “offspring” you can check out today.
“Orange is the New Black” (2013-present)
There are several queer characters at the heart of this show. Main character Piper Chapman was incarcerated after transporting drug money internationally for her then girlfriend Alex Vause. But one of the most exciting appearances is that of Natasha Lyonne playing Nicky Nichols. To see Lyonne here onscreen with her wild mane of blond hair and her acerbic wit is a delight. Whenever Lyonne showed up in roles after “But I’m a Cheerleader” I was always excited and OITNB is no exception.
“D.E.B.S.” (2004) and “Transparent” (2014-present)
Andrea Sperling (ex-wife of director Jamie Babbit) was a producer on “But I’m a Cheerleader” and went on to produce one of my favorite queer movies “D.E.B.S.” This gem, directed by Angela Robinson, is about an academy for young female crime fighters where a promising young student falls for the villainous Lucy (the film’s tagline is “They’re crime fighting hotties with killer bodies”). Sperling later went on to produce the Amazon hit series “Transparent” – the current season of which was released earlier this month on Amazon. “Transparent” stars Jeffrey Tambor as transgender woman who lives in LA and learns to navigate her identity (and her self-absorbed grown children) as someone who has recently transitioned. Sperling has been an out lesbian in Hollywood for many years and I have always appreciated and respected her for this. And I’m thrilled that she is still making work about LGBT folks.
“RuPaul’s Drag Race” (2009-present)
In “But I’m a Cheerleader” RuPaul Charles plays Mike, a ex-gay counselor at the True Directions conversion camp. Arguably, Charles has some of the best comedic moments in the film. By the time I saw “Cheerleader,” I had already known of RuPaul from his work as a prominent drag queen at “Wigstock” (the event and the film) and from his work promoting MAC cosmetics. Even in 1999 I was tickled by Charles’ casting in “Cheerleader.” Fans of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” (Logo’s drag queen completion show) will likely delight in seeing Charles act out of drag in his “Cheerleader” role. In or out of drag, Charles has always been pushing the boundaries of gender performance. On a recent episode of “RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars”, Ru tells the contestants, “I’m a marketing genius! I marketed subversive drag to 100 million muthafu**as in the world.” I couldn’t agree more — as Mama RuPaul would say, “Can I get an Amen up in here?”
“The Intervention” (2016)
Clea DuVall knew exactly what she was doing when she cast herself and Natasha Lyonne as a queer couple in her recent directorial debut. Here DuVall plays on our longstanding love and nostalgia for all things “But I’m a Cheerleader.” What a joy to see these actresses reunited onscreen! It’s almost as if DuVall was saying, you always wondered what happened to Megan and Graham…well here they are! And for a triple dose of nostalgia, DuVall casts “Cheerleader” cast mate Melanie Lynskey in the film as well. But DuVall’s delightful first feature is more than just a “Cheerleader” reunion. It’s a solid first foray into writing and directing and I look forward to seeing what she does next. And I would not be disappointed if she again enlists the help of some of her “But I’m a Cheerleader” family.