Archive Review: The Beebo Brinker Chronicles

From October 2007:

The early 60s are very much in the air these days – the new Hairspray flick barely scratches the surface. One of the most critically acclaimed television series of 2007 is AMC’s Mad Men, a stylish and smart (if somewhat chilly) nighttime soap about a New York advertising firm in the year 1960. The Beebo Brinker Chronicles surveys that era’s Manhattan from a very different angle: the Greenwich Village lesbian underground of the late 50s and early 60s.

Beebo has more authentic period credentials than the AMC soap: it’s based on a steamy series of lesbian pulp novels actually written between 1957 and 1962. Author Ann Bannon’s melodramatic, noir-ish coming-out tales have been embraced by three generations of gay readers.

These characters may be self-loathing by today’s standards, but Bannon portrayed real gay people in a more rounded and humane way than any other fiction of that era. This was a time when the gays and lesbians of Greenwich Village began breaking the old rules, setting the stage for the Stonewall riots in the late 60s. And Bannon’s descriptions of lesbian love-making are so viscerally sensual that they have been the catalyst for untold sexual awakenings.

Beth and Laura, secret lovers in college, go their separate ways after graduation: Beth marries and has children (much like Bannon herself), Laura moves to New York. They pine for each other, but they find themselves entangled in the web of the titular Beebo Brinker, a loquacious and wildly confident butch barfly with a soft spot for young lesbians fresh off the bus.

Coauthors Linda Chapman (Gertrude and Alice) and Kate Moira Ryan (25 Questions for a Jewish Mother) have done an amazing job of condensing three of Bannon’s books into a dramedy that runs just over ninety minutes. They gently kid the pulpy melodrama of Bannon’s dialogue, while always making sure that her sharp psychological portraits are rendered with lots of flesh on their bones.

Personally, I would have liked a little more over-the-top gusto and a slightly heavier wink in the performances than director Leigh Silverman has elicited from her superb cast. To my taste, David Greenspan portrays older, affluent gay man Jack with just the right juicy fruitiness. Carolyn Baeumier strikes a similarly frisky series of stances as several characters, notably the busty, trashy Lili and embittered, blowsy novelist Nina.

Anna Foss Wilson endows the titular super-butch with abundant swagger and tremendous self-confidence. Marin Ireland plays the seemingly less interesting Laura with great feeling – Laura is the character who changes the most in the course of the story, and Ireland is equally convincing as a naïve girl and an utterly sophisticated woman.

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