December 13, 2010

Queer Review: The Ritz

The Ritz is a 1976 film directed by Richard Lester. It's probably most remarkable for being one of the earlier films that does not portray gay men as completely disturbed, mentally ill, serial killers etc. Rather it's progressive attitude - for the time - presents gay men merely as sex obsessed buffoons or stereotypical effeminate queens. A small step forward, but a step nonetheless I guess...

The premise of The Ritz has Gaetano Proclo (Jack Weston) on the run after his brother-in-law, mob boss Carmine Vespucci (Jerry Stiller), orders a hit on his life. After asking a cab driver to take him to the last place where he could be found, Proclo finds himself at The Ritz, a gay bathhouse, thus setting up a night of misunderstandings, mistaken identities, and "comic" hijinks.

The acting is arguably The Ritz's strongest asset. Jack Weston is fun to watch as the bumbling Proclo. Rita Moreno is also a hoot as lounge singer Googie Gomez, who mistakes Proclo for a big shot producer. Another notable performace comes from F. Murray Abraham who plays an older queen and somehow manages to give the character some dignity in the midst of all the chaos.
Richard Lester (who would later go on to direct Superman II and III) directs and manages to keep the film from going completely off the rails, in spite of the best efforts of the storyline.

The Ritz is more interesting as a historical artifact then it is as a motion picture. Many bathhouses were forced to close during the AIDS crisis, so therefore lavish places like The Ritz no longer exist. The Ritz is, well, ritzy. Today most bathhouses are crummy rundown affairs and while exceptions exist, they are exceedingly rare. Furthermore, the film can be seen as demonstration of societies slowly changing attitudes towards sexuality. While it's portrayal of gay men is not entirely positive, it's worth noting that Proclo is presented as being open minded, while his evil brother-in-law is clearly homophobic. Someone could make the argument that the movie paved the way for the far superior Victor Victoria, which came out a few years later - although I leave that to someone with a better knowledge of film history than myself.

To finish this up, The Ritz is neither a terrible film nor a great one. It's a product of it's time and while it could have been better, it could also have been a lot worse. There are at least a few laughs to be had, but there's too little here for me to offer a whole hearted recommendation.

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