Paul (Dillahunt), Marco (Leyva), and Rudy (Cumming), would-be family

I came out as a lesbian in Boston in 1977, into a subculture of women’s bars, women’s music, women’s theatre, and feminist newspapers and political activism.  To my relief, I became part of a thoughtful, creative community that formed itself against the era’s dominant culture, which mostly sneered with dismissive antipathy at lesbians and gay men.

The most visible LGBT movement has at present turned its attention to assimilationist issues like marriage and the military. But a few decades ago,  when I came out and when Any Day Now is set, gay and lesbian politics had a utopian impulse and a radical commitment to change social relations.  In the 70s, the movement boasted more intersectional activism, in which gender, race, class, and sexuality were considered equally important in the struggle toward equality for all.  Activists theorized the rights of a diverse LGBT people to live in sexually, culturally, and domestically reimagined ways.

Travis Fine’s film Any Day Now parses the dismal political climate against which the movement dreamed its dreams, when to be out was impossible if you also wanted to hold on to your job and move through dominant culture unscathed.  The film evokes the stakes of what it meant to be white gay men from 1979 into the early 80s in West Hollywood by telling the story of a couple trying to adopt a child with Downs Syndrome who’s been abandoned by his drug-addicted, negligent mother.  The film is a sober, necessary reminder that not that long ago, the courts could discriminate against lesbians and gay men with utter (as opposed to relative) impunity.

Cumming as Rudy

Alan Cumming gives a bravura performance as Rudy, an arch but compassionate out gay man who lives down the hall from the drug addict, Marianna (Jamie Anne Allman, who played the morally corrupt sister, Terry, on The Killing).  Rudy notices her son, Marco (Isaac Leyva), wandering their building’s hallways with a long-haired blonde doll clutched in his arms when Marianna kicks the boy out of their apartment so that she can have sex with one of her drug-peddling johns.  After Marianna is arrested for possession, Rudy takes Marco in, determined he won’t get lost in the cold bureaucracy of Los Angeles’s social services.

Although he aspires to be a “real” cabaret singer, Rudy works as a female impersonator, lip-syncing to disco tunes at a gay bar.  Rudy’s act is lively and fun, but he’s really a torch singer.  Marco helps him mail demo tapes to LA cabarets, and one eventually bites, employing him to sing two nights a week.  By the film’s end, Rudy’s cabaret performance—with songs Cumming delivers beautifully—expresses all his longing, loss, and heartbreak.

At the start of his personal crusade to adopt Marco, Rudy meets Paul (Garret Dillahunt of television’s Raising Hope), a divorced man just coming out, on Paul’s first visit to the club.  Director Fine shows Paul sitting in his car, working up the courage to join the group of men wandering in and out of the bar.  When he finally manages to go in, Rudy spots him instantly and the two form a quick, loving bond.

Paul and Rudy get ready for court

Paul is a straight-acting assistant district attorney who Rudy enlists to advocate for his guardianship of Marco.  Their crusade becomes personal, as Paul’s affections for Rudy and Marco deepen quickly.  The two men move in together with the boy in tow and proceed to face a series of humiliating court and social battles in their effort to keep Marco and to protect their very fragile family.

The sad story moves predictably, with homophobic judges, lawyers, and district attorneys becoming ever more mercenary as they conspire to keep the two men from adopting Marco.  The poor boy is shuttled from foster homes to institutions, where he clutches his doll and cries himself to sleep.  Rudy’s promises that he and Paul will come for Marco turn out to be false, despite their best intentions, as the courts in the early 1980s—pre-HIV/AIDS but far before the civil rights victories of the 90s and 2000s—have no intention of letting the couple become Marco’s parents.

When the DA conspires to reduce Marianna’s jail time if she’ll reassert her parental rights, Paul and Rudy’s case is dismissed and Marco goes back to live in the apartment he insists isn’t his home.  Marianna returns to her drugs and her tricks and Marco is once again banished to the hallway.  In the film’s heart-breaking climax, he wanders out of the building, into the street, down to a bridge, and the camera watches him disappear, clutching his ubiquitous doll, never to be seen again.

Fine adapted the Any Day Now screenplay from a story inspired by true events, but the film advances in somewhat contrived ways.  Spectators might be as incredulous as the prosecuting attorney (played by Gregg Henry as resolutely unsympathetic) that Rudy and Paul decide to live together two days after they meet, or that Paul, after so recently coming out, would devote his life and sacrifice his career for his relationship with a drag performer and a stranger’s child.  But these believability issues pale in front of the cast’s empathetic performances.

Playing a 70s-style couple

Cumming can be a flamboyant actor, who sometimes mugs for the camera in ways that make him seem imperious.  (Though his performance as the aggressively ambitious but always disadvantaged Eli Gold on The Good Wife is smart and funny.)   In Any Day Now, Cumming jettisons such shtick for a restrained and effective performance as a gay man living an underground life who’s suddenly thrust into a public court system that judges him harshly.  Watching Rudy try not to be quite so gay in front of judges and lawyers who openly despise him is wrenching, and demonstrates Rudy’s determination to parent a child who no one else wants.

Marco (Leyva), happy with Rudy and Paul

Leyva is lovely as Marco, a placid, affectionate kid who loves dancing to disco and eating donuts and does his homework without complaint.  Cumming and Dillahunt are warm and kind with him, careful to treat the boy with respect and dignity.  The film, though, pities Marco just a bit, using him as the abject disabled kid through whom Rudy and Paul can prove their humanity.  Any Day Now, that is, might be an incisive portrait of gay life in the 70s, but it won’t win awards for how it portrays a disabled boy.

But at the same time, Fine doesn’t create a triumphal narrative at Marco’s expense.  Rudy and Paul aren’t exceptional parents; they’re quite ordinary, although more unobtrusive and discreet, given that they have to pretend to be cousins when they’re out in public with Marco.  The film simply suggests that their love is as good for Marco as that of any straight parents to whom he might be assigned.  The prosecuting attorney, however, insinuates that Rudy and Paul have already compromised Marco because he carries a doll.   The prosecutor relies on strict gender assumptions and overlooks Marco’s much longer term attachment to his companion-doll to press his case against the gay couple.

Rudy and Paul’s relationship is an open secret.  Even Paul’s boss, the district attorney (played as smug and cocky by Chris Mulkey) can read the signs of intimacy they try—to no avail—to hide, and he punishes them for it accordingly.  The tragedy of Marco’s loss is the cruelty of a system that wouldn’t let gay men parent him.  It’s the tragedy of history, when out gay men and lesbians were regularly torn from birth children they’d had in straight marriages, and when queer couples couldn’t dream of adopting kids.  Although laws have since become less stringent, gay adoption and custody continue as vexed, litigious issues.  Any Day Now reminds us that we can’t take our gains for granted.

Any Day Now is filmed in grainy stock meant to lend the story a documentary feel as it captures the grit of gay life in the 1970s.  The colors are muted and the apartment settings where Marianna and then Rudy live with Marco look washed out and tired.  Paul’s place is a step up, decorated in the brown earth tones popular in the 70s.

The white men wear long sideburns and the African American lawyer, Lonnie (Don Franklin), who’s the last to take Rudy and Paul’s case sports an Afro that looks unfortunately silly.  The one sympathetic woman in the film—Marco’s special ed teacher, Miss Flemming—is played as a liberal, peasant-dress-wearing Hippie by Kelli Williams.

The effort to recall that moment, with all its sartorial excess and earnest, urgent politics is commendable. Any Day Now reminds audiences that being counter-cultural in the 70s, after the heyday of the 60s, really wasn’t cool.  And being gay even less.

The Feminist Spectator

 

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