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Taking Woodstock given realistic Queer star
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Taking Woodstock given realistic Queer star

by Gary M. Kramer - Special to the SGN

Taking Woodstock
Now Playing


Oscar-winning director Ang Lee's latest film, Taking Woodstock, is a warm, affectionate comedy based on the memoir by out writer Elliot Tiber (nee Teichberg). The film, written by James Schamus, stars comedian Demetri Martin as Tiber, a closeted Gay man, who finds himself while trying to save his parent's failing Catskill's motel in the summer of 1969. Coordinating with event producer Michael Lang (a seductive Jonathan Groff), Elliot soon becomes instrumental in bringing the three-day festival of peace, love and music to the Bethel, NY region. His efforts, both a blessing and a curse, are also a cause for comedy to ensue.

In a recent interview, Martin expressed a bit of trepidation about playing Elliot in his first acting gig. "I got [Elliot's] book and read it. The memoir that he wrote is pretty graphic about his coming of age, sexually. Knowing that Ang did Brokeback Mountain, I was like, 'I'm not Gay, or a trained actor, I think you might have the wrong guy.'"

But screenwriter (and Focus Features head) James Schamus assured the comedian that the film would focus more on the weeks prior to the festival and Elliot's relationship with his family, and less about Elliot's homosexuality.

Nevertheless, Martin was concerned about portraying the character truthfully. He confesses, "Any qualms I had were more about my ability to portray [Elliot] believably. Not that I can't seem like a Gay person, but simply, that there's a difference between kissing somebody you are in love with or have a huge crush on and [acting]. I want to really sell that. When I saw that in the script, I thought that might be tricky."

Yet Martin rises to the challenge, making his Elliot likable and endearing as he comes of age. Elliot's sexuality is never in question; it is just not the main focus of Taking Woodstock.

Schamus explains that Queer sexuality is a secondary function of the film's plot. What is more, this strategy is part of a greater arc that began in films Schamus's Focus Features has produced and distributed that depict how attitudes towards homosexuality have changed over time.

He recounts, "[Ang and I had] already done the 'coming out' story with The Wedding Banquet. Oddly enough, I felt like Brokeback Mountain was a movie where being Gay was a problem, and you had to deal with it. In [Gus Van Sant's] Milk, the problem was homophobia. Being Gay is fine. We're happy we're Gay. Homophobic assholes suck. Then we got to Woodstock, and I thought, 'How about just have the main character as Gay? He's our hero. So what?' And that's part of what he has to deal with. There's homophobia, he's in the closet - it's part of the story."

Director Ang Lee concurs. For him, Elliot's homosexuality was as important an element in Woodstock as it was for Wedding Banquet and Brokeback Mountain, with one significant difference.

The Oscar-winning filmmaker says, "In the other films [Banquet and Brokeback], being Gay was the central issue - particularly in Brokeback. I like that the [Gay characters] are outsiders, not fitting into society. I very much identify with them. Plus they are simply great stories that move me."

With Woodstock, the element of sexuality is included because Tiber, the author, is Queer.

"I didn't avoid it, but I didn't want to make too much out of it, either," Lee explains about how Tiber's sexuality is presented in the film. "It's just part of the whole big party. It just exists that he's Gay. Like he's Jewish."

He adds, with a laugh, "Not that I have anything to say about [being] Jewish."

However, Schamus does not want to give the impression that Elliot's sexuality is not an issue, but rather that it's a non-issue. The film's presentation of Elliot's affairs - he has a slight romance with a construction worker at the festival, and a threesome with a couple he drops acid with - are tastefully, discreetly done.

He says, "It was important that we showed that through the course of this one weekend that there were people around who were angels to Elliot, like Vilma (Liev Schreiber) and others who would say, 'Be yourself, this is what [the festival] is all about.'"

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