“Fifth of July”
The Broadway Theatre Archive Production
I had almost forgotten what a powerful addition to the canon of gay drama that this recorded version of the Broadway play is. I had also forgotten that I have the DVD of the original so I got it out and had another look at it and realized again just how strong it really is.
This is the story of Ken Talley, 32, strong, good-looking and a Vietnam vet with both legs shot off seven years earlier. He is cynical as we can expect. Jed, his lover, is bigger and stronger, a gardener and a good listener. On Independence Day 1977 Ken’s home in Lebanon Missouri receives visitors and most of them are part of past relationships, both pre- and post-Vietnam and this means that a long will be talked about.
The show highlights Swoosie Kurtz’s Tony Award-winning performance and this 1982 recording of it preserves what is likely to remain the definitive production of Lanford Wilson’s highly acclaimed play. Originally presented on PBS’s American Playhouse, the videotaped performance retains director Marshall W. Mason’s original 1978 staging for New York’s legendary Circle Repertory Company, while allowing TV director Kirk Browning to “open up” the play with outdoor exteriors of Wilson’s Lebanon, Missouri, setting in the summer of 1977.
It is in Lebanon that Kenneth (Richard Thomas), a disabled Vietnam veteran, is reunited with several friends from their days as student activists, reflecting on their past, present, and future with varying degrees of trepidation, hope, and wisdom.
What makes this play so important is the casual portrayal of an openly gay couple (Jeff Daniels is wonderful as Kenneth’s supportive lover). College friends, who once agitated for a better world, find themselves looking for a way to revive their dreams. Lanford Wilson, the playwright, is a modern day Chekhov, as we see in “Fifth of July”.
I first saw this film 20 years ago when it was shown on television and I was blown away by it. The cast has real chemistry, is uniformly excellent and the story is not predictable. Here is drama with a few laughs thrown in. Having been witness to the turbulent sixties and the unpredictable 70s, this play really spoke to me. All of the action occurs during a two day period and it is during that short period that the pertinent histories of the relationships and characters are revealed as needed through the amazingly believable and agile dialogue.
It is a credit to director Marshall Mason that he was able to mould these immensely talented actors into such a cohesive and convincing ensemble. Jed Jenkins and Kenneth Talley, long-time partners living in Talley’s boyhood home. The depiction of this gay couple is wonderful. We see them as two guys who happen to be gay and love each other. Both Jeff Daniels and Thomas play their roles with ease and sensitivity. Throughout the play, one is continually convinced of the integrity and simplistic, devoted faithfulness of Jed’s character. The tenderness of the scene on the porch, after Kenneth has fallen, quietly and ever so beautifully convinces the audience of the profundity of the love these two share.
All of the performances are great but I must mention Swoosie Kurtz as Gwen. She walks away with the entire play in her pocket. The role of Gwen is the most flamboyant (and probably most fun to play) of all the characters. Gwen comes from lots of money and is, at the time of the story’s telling, an aging hippie. She continues to pop quaaludes and snort cocaine as her persona depends on them, but as the story unravels, we see that she is not nearly as dumb as she pretends to be or as her husband believes she is. Kurtz is stunning in the role.
This film is an excellent introduction to one of our best American playwrights. He wrote this wonderfully sweet, bitter, funny, and ultimately enjoyable play and this film captures all of those qualities. It is openness about what some considered taboo subjects is amazing in 1982. AIDS hadn’t been fully discovered just yet and we have a gay couple who are not threatened by the ravages of disease, like so many post-discovery films. This is about an American family, disrupted by the Vietnam War and the radical dreams of the 1960s–the desire to be different than the generation before. The actors represent real people with real agendas.
For those of us who were young when the play’s characters were young (in the Vietnam war era), we relate to the idealism and disappointment of that time. There is sentimentality here and it reminds us all too well of how it once was.
I am not sure but this might just be the first movie with a gay couple whose sexuality is neither the focus or the melodrama of the story. It was just there, it wasn’t “in the way”, and it presented a gay couple as they truly are – just part of the family like everyone else. We are invited to join the family, and as we watch we feel as though we’ve become a part of the characters’ lives. When the movie ends, we feel as if we have lost family.
This is the trailer of a later production.