EACH TIME I VISIT my parents’ house, sometime around day three either my mother or I will suggest we watch Sense and Sensibility. It is a classic mid-’90s prestige drama: directed by Ang Lee, costumes by Jenny Beavan and John Bright, produced by Sydney Pollack. Everyone in the cast is at their absolute peak: Hugh Grant just post–Four Weddings and a Funeral, Emma Thompson just post-Branagh. Kate Winslet’s star is born alongside virtuosic turns from Alan Rickman, Hugh Laurie, Imelda Staunton, and Gemma Jones. Thompson also wrote the screenplay; it is flawless.
There is a point in the film, normally near Harriet Walter’s line, “Edward is entirely the kind of compassionate person upon whom penniless women can prey,” when my mother’s brownies are always done. She doesn’t need to pause the movie, she just drifts into the kitchen and returns with a plate of brownies and a cup of each person’s favorite tea. My father says he has grown a bit sick of it, but nevertheless, this is our movie. Thompson’s phraseology is our familect. Whenever anyone in my family has to name a musical key, we always suggest F major.
Films, performers, songs, and artworks often find special (and unplanned) significance in our lives, and LGBTQ+ artists and critics study these unexpected parallels often; two new queer memoirs reflect on these cultural parallels in at turn of the 20th century, moving into the 21st. In Films of Endearment: A Mother, a Son and the ’80s Films That Defined Us, Michael Koresky recounts a 16-month experiment that he and his mother, Leslie, embarked on in recent years in which they revisited a series of movies from the 1980s with which they had varied, sometimes inexplicable, always close, relationships. As he writes his way through the pair’s personal retrospective, he recounts pivotal moments in his adolescence, his mother’s adulthood, social change over the past 40 years, and the many gentle pains that come with age as our bodies and consciousnesses change. It is the things that surround us — our houses and our VHS tapes — that remind us of simpler times.
For Michael and Leslie, movies have always been “a way of life, a totalizing force that informs our experiences and interactions,” he writes. “When you love movies so desperately, you see the world differently through them and because of them.” Growing up in different generations, the author and his mother had different relationships with the art form; in her childhood, Leslie did not have the copious tapes that Michael would watch over and over in the 1980s. Many of these films Koretsky has watched dozens, perhaps hundreds, of times. He claims he has seen Dirty Dancing perhaps as many times as he has brushed his teeth. (I’ve only seen it once, and honestly, I didn’t get it. The friend who had excitedly showed it to me said once she watched it five times in a single day. Different things hit us all differently, I suppose.)
A gay man born on the cusp of Gen X and the millennial generation, Koresky carefully observes how aspects of film and popular culture hit him at just the right time. He dissects with ease the segmentation of the decades, and thus, the separations between (micro)generations’ experience of narrative, style, glamour, and sex. As a film viewer who came of age in the 1980s, his conception of the movie star solidified watching the faces of Meryl Streep, Jessica Lange, Kathleen Turner, Sigourney Weaver, Whoopi Goldberg, and Michelle Pfeiffer. Had he been a decade older, he writes, he might have fallen for Jane Fonda, Ellen Burstyn, or Jill Clayburgh. Those born a decade later, who came to their cinephilia amid the films of the 1990s, might feel the same for Julia Roberts, Kate Winslet, Juliette Binoche, Julianne Moore, and Cate Blanchett.
Throughout film history (and before, on the stage), great actresses have loomed large in the consciousnesses of queer men, what Nathaniel Rogers of The Film Experience calls “actressexuality.” I know this affliction well; I can’t think of a single favorite movie of mine that has a male lead. All the films that Michael and Leslie chose for their retrospective also focus on women — and they were chosen because these were the films they most loved. “I found not only their femininity appealing but also their strength,” Koresky writes of these women, “She may not have even known it, but my mother was teaching me the importance of fortitude. In identifying with these women on-screen, I was implicitly positioning myself against the accepted ideas of what and who a young boy was supposed to be.” There is an important recognition in the examination of beloved artifacts of culture that we’ve drunk in over the years — the joke often repeated from this film, the way she flips her hair in that one, the vision of what happiness is in the third — that comes to an acute focus when a gay man realizes he has borrowed his understandings of gender, behavior, and power from women in film.
There are moments in Films of Endearment that recount, joyfully, moments from the Koresky family’s life over the decades: childhood memories, holiday traditions, an invocation of Leslie’s first date with Michael’s father (they saw Funny Girl in the cinema, from which I can only conclude Michael was destined to be gay). There are segments — about Joan Micklin Silver’s 1988 Amy Irving rom-com Crossing Delancey and Nancy Meyers’s and Charles Shyer’s 1987 Diane Keaton vehicle Baby Boom — that are pure (delightful) family idiosyncrasy. And there are passages in the book that, through the lens of the generous critic’s sight, break the heart. In his chapter on the Jessica Lange film Country, a 1984 drama about the rapid decrease in family farms across the US, Koresky writes that watching the film today forces him to witness “the slow disintegration of a way of life; to watch the process of a country transforming forever.”
Koresky ties this to a discussion of the systemic hollowing out of the middle class the country has seen in the years since Country’s release. His father’s illness cost the Koresky family tremendously, and Leslie’s dreams of a comfortable retirement and leaving her house to her children are gone. Works of art speak from and of their time, and revisitations cannot actually transport us back in our lives; they can only provide us with memory, with sensation, with evocation. These films do this for Michael and Leslie, and Koresky generously allows his readers to see who the Koreskys are, and more importantly, how the Koreskys see.
A recent much-liked tweet that made the rounds on Gay Twitter read “Gay people are like ‘you don’t get it I’m OBSESSED’ then they make you watch the worst movie you’ve ever seen.” I’m not sure if this phenomenon is universal, but the look on my poor husband’s face after I made him watch Death Becomes Her implies that this assertion may be truer than not for many millennial queers. In her new memoir The 2000s Made Me Gay: Essays on Pop Culture, comedian Grace Perry retraces her journey through the first decade of the 21st century, a period that also coincided with her introduction to popular culture, her coming out, and her coming of age. Perry dedicates the book to the “loving memory of the GChat era,” a generational call-out so painfully relevant to my own process of entering adulthood that I promptly descended into multiple group chats to share the pain of reading this piquant dedication. Perry and I are nearly the same age, we sit just in the center of the millennial generation (those born between the years of 1981 and 1996), and, though our pop culture preference Venn diagrams only partially overlap, our experiences of adolescence through the Bush years serve as eerie mirror images of one another.
Whereas Koresky’s book documents a journey two people take to remember their life and times together, Perry’s revisits a host of TV shows, films, albums, books, and trends that she embraced through her adolescence and early adulthood, from the Real World to Mean Girls, from Katy Perry’s carefully marketed flirtation with bisexuality to the Relatable Teen Emotion in Taylor Swift’s Fearless (2008), from early decade placid Angeleno lesbians of The L Word to late-decade wholesome white gays on Glee. These have all aged quite differently: Mean Girls has been updated to a new generation for Gen Z in its Broadway incarnation, and many scenes from The L Word and Glee are just too painful to watch today.
And yet, Perry argues throughout, these cultural products served — and continue to serve — vital purposes for the young queers who grew up watching them every night. She relates each film, album, or series to an experience in her life. Some of these are trivial, some devastating, and as the book continues, Perry illustrates how these works have framed her expectations for life, love, and acceptance. Perry establishes early in her book that she does not want to rate these properties retroactively for any sort of wokeness. So what if Garden State profoundly “duped” her when she was a teen with its enshrining of cishet white mediocrity? (Don’t worry, Grace, I too fell for that movie hard.)
When we struggle to recognize our lives in art, we accept what little pieces of culture we feel reflect our experiences. We look for lingos that speak to us in ways that don’t feel they need constant translation for us to understand. Remembering her near-daily viewings of the bootleg DVD of Mean Girls the summer before she began high school, Perry writes that she liked the film not “because I actually thought it was an accurate depiction of high school,” but rather “because I felt the jokes respected me.” That’s important: hearing your language is important.
As she does with many of the cultural properties she analyzes, Perry relates her experience with Mean Girls to a concurrent event in her life, in this case, her Catholic high school education. She discusses Mr. Baird, her Catholic ethics teacher who introduced her to St. Augustine, the famed moralist whose name is repeatedly invoked to get young Catholics to behave, and maybe, to hate themselves just a bit. And in a series of elegant writerly flourishes, Perry relates St. Augustine to Lindsay Lohan, a human being who was treated with prolonged ferocious contempt by the entirety of American culture in the same decade she gave us the gift of Mean Girls.
Today, perhaps even in the time since Perry’s book went to press, critics, news outlets, and individuals have just begun to self-assess and to atone for the cruelty with which they treated Ms. Lohan during the aughts. Since her maltreatment in the media began in 2004 and 2005, American culture’s ability to discuss issues of consent, mental illness and substance abuse, bodily autonomy, and ingrained heteronormativity and misogyny have begun to mature. We collectively cringed looking back on the aughts-to-teens treatment of Britney Spears as discussed in the 2021 documentary Framing Britney Spears, the racist and sexist discussions of Jennifer Lopez in her first romantic go-round with Ben Affleck, or the brutal quotes about Lohan from Perez Hilton and SNL that Perry chooses to highlight. Many of these comments would never be said today; these events feel both recent and decades old.
Teens today are certainly far queerer than they were when Perry and I were sad, gay kids in Catholic schools, watching bootlegged DVDs on their computers or sitting in front of the family television set, where Koresky dreamed of being Jennifer Grey. But if we are going to continue to have relationships with delicious films and fabulous actresses in the future, we need to find ways to practice our love of culture and our actressexuality in ways that are, frankly, much less toxic. Lindsay Lohan’s sexuality was never on her own terms, and, nearly a decade later, Kristen Stewart faced enormous backlash for her queerness before eventually, painfully, being allowed some grace. By contrast, in the second half of the 2010s, Tessa Thompson’s queerness found some wider public acceptance, even as the whispers of polyamory and “throuples” have thrown Disney for a loop. In some ways, Perry writes, “the way celebrities came out as queer over the 2010s eroded the whole idea of the closet altogether.”
Perry’s decade came two decades after Koresky’s, and here we are in the 2020s, two decades after hers. Kate Winslet, whom I permanently see as a teenager experiencing first heartbreak in Sense and Sensibility, is now playing a grandmother on prestige TV (ironically, these two characters share a first name). Movies from my youth — and from Koresky’s and Perry’s — are already getting remakes. Leslie Koresky’s VHS tapes are obviously long obsolete, and Perry’s DVDs are about 10 years out of date as well. While their projects are different in structure and tone, Michael’s and Grace’s books bring their reader back to an experience of their youth, of their family, of their struggle with themselves and with their worlds. I know and love a lot of these movies. A lot of this, I get. And though some of these moments of pop culture — Crossing Delancey and Glee — mean nothing to me, their evocations in these books further demonstrated the unpredictable paths that these objects of culture take.
Journeying with these writers down their paths of remembrance toward an understanding of their deep love for these items of culture, items inextricably tied to their selfhood, their loss, and their joy, is nothing less than a privilege. It is critical vulnerability of the highest order. If either author sees this review, I can only hope they discover Sense and Sensibility, so I can give them back something beloved of mine in return.