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Boys on the Side

 

The Plot

The Characters

Themes/Questions
to be discussed:

Race
How is the ‘racial issue’ presented?

Homosexuality (Lesbianism) vs. Heterosexuality
Why/how can Whoopi Goldberg play a (accepted) lesbian?

Aids
Which aspects make Robin an untypical/typical HIV-positive?

Love/Friendship
How is their developing friendship justified?

Female stereotypes
Which stereotype(s) does Holly represent?

Violence
How is Violence presented and how do the women react?

Where are the men?

 

An Afro-American lesbian singer, an HIV-positive ‘white-white’ and a naive cute pregnant blonde are heading out west in search of their destiny. Each of the three women have completely different reasons to be on the road but all share a steadily growing friendship. Their compatibility helps them overcome problems such as a violent drug dealer, a homicide, HIV and a Tucson cop named Abe Lincoln. The journey takes them from New York through Pittsburgh to Tucson (Arizona), where they settle down. In the end one passes away, one marries and the third hits the road towards Los Angeles.

 

Themes/Questions to be discussed:
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Race

How is the ‘racial issue’ presented?

Whoopi Goldberg is one of the few black women to have any sustained career in Hollywood where the economy functions to keep black performers in marginal roles. Goldberg is one of the few black performers that can present the racial issue without seeming to be offensive towards the white majority. She draws attention to the difference without judging. One reason for her being well perceived may be her looks which differ from the usual Hollywood ideal; while other actresses draw attention to their sexuality Goldberg seems ‘de-sexed’ and succeeds in ‘masculine’ roles (such as in Boys on the Side, Eddie, Kiss Shot, etc.). Whoopi Goldberg is a black female that does not generally attract men; therfore she is accepted for how she acts and not for what she is. (Ed Guerrero writes that the Hollywood cinema has depicted black sexuality ‘in the most distorted and perverse terms and images’ pointing as an example to the ‘Black woman’s routine construction as the sign of the whore’, but as Whoopi Goldberg does not necessarily look ‘sexy’ to a white male audience, this problem does not arise with her). Whoopi Goldberg is in the position to point out the racial issue because she is not ‘ a black female performer’ but ‘Whoopi Goldberg who is black’.

The racial issue is not heavily shown in this movie; however, there are a few more or less sharp comments concerning this topic.

At their first meeting the Jane de Luca character calls Robin ‘the whitest human in America’, referring to her singing ‘Close to You’ (The Carpenters) in a song contest and her favorite movie ‘The Way We Were’. She seems aggressively against a companionship with such a woman and shows with this behavior a strong amount of prejudices. (This could be understood as a mentioning of the black racist movement against whites in the States, but it would lead to far to discuss this thought here.)

Later in the movie, Elaine, Robin’s mother, seems mildly shocked when she learns that her daughter lives with a black lesbian. We do not know if it is the fact that Jane is black, a lesbian, or both that bothers Elaine. However, since she does not dramatize her feelings, the audience never knows if Elaine just gets used to this situation, or if she sees and appreciates the feelings between her daughter and Jane, or if she does not dare showing her concerns about the black lesbian friend of her beloved daughter.

The fact that Whoopi Goldberg is black and still a highly accepted superstar helps deal with the race issue in a natural way. It is now no longer relevant to the audience whether a person is black or not.

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Homosexuality (Lesbianism) vs. Heterosexuality

Why/how can Whoopi Goldberg play a (accepted) lesbian?

The lesbian characters in Boys on the Side are presented as ‘de-sexed’ and masculine (the main lesbian character is black), while the heterosexual characters are played by pretty and feminine (white) actresses. The sexual desires of the lesbians are unspoken and their loving is only paraphrased while there are plenty of heterosexuel love-scenes.

Both, lesbian and heterosexuel characters experience a kind of punishment for their gender and sexuality: Jane de Luca falls in love with heterosexual women and is therefore rejected by them and lonely. The Holly character has to pay for her flirting and lust with first being beaten by her violent boyfriend and then being arrested by her cop-boyfriend. The Robin character has to endure the ultimate punishment—she dies of Aids. Yet, the ending is a positive one for the heteros: Holly marries; Robin dies and is relieved of her pain, while the lesbian character hits the road with a lonely heart.

Whoopi Goldberg is the one actress who is able to point out two critical roles in one part, she is black AND a lesbian (not only in Boys on the Side, just recently she played a black lesbian female cop in The Deep End of the Ocean). Roger Ebert states in his review of Boys on the Side that Whoopi Goldberg deals with her character’s lesbianism in a way that can perhaps be called good manners: Yes, she is gay, but she does not believe in imposing her choice on others, and it is only gradually that we realize what the stillness of her heart can contain. What he forgets to mention is that this ‘politeness’ is probably the only way to handle homosexuality in a Hollywood movie. The lesbian character would not be well received by the audience if she were a radical feminist shouting out her sexual situation. These days, homosexuality is accepted as long as it is not put on display. It is mostly considered ‘bad taste’ if one names those things. Whoopi Goldberg plays such an homosexual, who shows that it is neither tolerance nor equality she is looking for, but a quiet acceptance of her nature. (The only obvious way in which Jane chooses to show her homosexuality is her ‘cross-dressing’, which means that she puts an effort in dressing in a rather masculine or even neutral than in a feminine way.)

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Aids

(listen to a sample of real audio: "Everything You Want")

Which aspects make Robin an untypical/typical HIV-positive?

The movie handles the topic of Aids in a way similar to its dealing with the ‘racial issue’ and homosexuality. The ‘problem’ is there, action is performed around it, but the disease itself is never discussed. Still, we get to see the pain and suffering it can cause. The audience does not learn where Robin got the deadly disease from; we can only assume that she was a ‘good girl’ who got infected by some ‘jerk’ she trusted, or she ‘had to pay’ for the only ‘mistake’ (a one-night-stand) she made in her life. This thought leads us to the answer of the question in which Robin is a typical and at the same time untypical HIV-positive. Robin is, to repeat, a ‘good girl’. She appears to be quiet, calm, a bit narrow-minded (in the beginning of the movie) and introverted. How can such a nice white girl end up dying of Aids? It is striking for us to see that the deadly virus is not a fair punishment of God for those who did wrong. In our minds, Aids is still connected with drugs, homosexuality and a wild sex-life. Contrary to her friends, Robin does not fit into one of those stereotypes; still, she has to die. Scientific articles tell us that Aids is becoming more and more a ‘normal’ disease, killing ‘normal’ people. In that light, Robin becomes a very typical infected person as ordinary people like ‘you and me’ can be ‘hit’.

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Love/Friendship

(listen to a sample of real audio: "Somebody Stand By Me")

How is their developing friendship justified?

Jane, the black lesbian singer, has strong feelings for her friends Robin and Holly. She is in love with Robin, but as Robin is ‘straight’, she is rejected by her. This does not stop her from loving her as a friend. Jane’s love and friendship for the other women is strong, supporting and loyal. She says: "I am not going over a cliff for you two – so just forget it", which is a quote from Thelma and Louise, reffering to the ending of the movie when the two friends chose to die together. Jane would never do such a thing; she would do everything for her friends, but she would always choose life to death. Still, she tries everything to help her friends in every way possible. She provides a family-like environment for Robin, and by not exposing her desires, she makes Robin feel beloved and secure. Jane really only focuses on the demands of her friends which is shown when she tries to hook up Robin with a bartender (which does not work out).

By standing up for Holly — first against Nick, later against Abe, and finally in the court room — she has to face difficulties which she cannot overcome. Robin must take over and perform Jane’s good intentions. Robin loves her two friends in a quiet and subtle way; still, she is always there to fix problems when they need her. What seems to be a white conservative narrow-minded woman in the begin, turns out to be a strong character and a true friend. Robin’s friendship to Jane develops during the movie and grows into a deep love where it does not matter anymore what gender or color the beloved one is. When Jane fails to help Holly, Robin comes in and — what nobody expected — succeeds. Only her sensible behavior can settle the problems with Nick (at least for a moment), and it is her who stands up in court and is able to vision their friendship in a way that is not satisfying but touching and trustworthy. "There is something that goes on between women", Robin describes the bond that unites them.

While it seems that both, Jane and Robin reflect and philosophize about their feelings, it seems that Holly is ‘only’ living them. Holly lives and loves in a child-like way. She accepts the friendship with the two other women and depends on them and trusts them without thinking about it. She has a positive and sparkling bright personality that shows love in every movement. She says she loves Nick but this does not stop her from beating him with a baseball bat and falling in love with a Tuscon cop soon after. Her love for the cop Abe and his sense of justice which he takes all too literally bring her to prison and she endures even this sentencing in the name of love. (For Abe wants to marry her and cannot tell a lie.)

The three women needing each other and their friendship provides a protection against the environment. Robin needs the other women to make her feel safe and beloved in her last months of life. Holly has such an irresponsible personality that she needs her two friends to take care for her and look out for her. When she marries Abe, he assumes the responsibility for her and Jane is ‘free’ to leave. Jane cannot live her dreams of a sexual and loving relationship with Robin so she chooses to reduce her desires to ‘only’ a platonic love and friendship for Robin. Also her friendship to Holly is growing as she feels like Holly needs her and Robin to get through life. The movie shows in a quiet and tender way how strangers can become friends, and friends can become like family.

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Female stereotypes

Which stereotype(s) does Holly represent?

The Holly character is a vivid, bright, irresponsible, helpless and immature person. She is cute and sexy, sweet and gullible. She has a wild and crazy love-life, flirts a lot, and falls for men easily. Holly is surpressed by men and still needs them to define herself. She is beaten by Nick and still defends him when Jane blames him for taking drugs. Then she is sent to jail by Abe, and still she tries to understand his feelings and trusts him. With her giving birth to a black baby, we are all convinced that she must be a ‘whore’—a ‘good whore’ with a golden heart but still a whore. She seems to not know better than to be a ‘slave’ to her lust and love for men in general (which is a typical Hollywood cliché). She is a very interesting character because even if the attention in Boys on the Side is drawn to Jane and Robin as they perform the serious emotional scenes, it is Holly whose spirit somehow puts the three women together into a family. It is she who obviously depends on the others and makes them share the responsibility for her. Considering Elise Eliot’s (Goldie Hawn) statement in The First Wives Club about the only three ages for women in Hollywood, Drew Barrymore as Holly definetely is a babe, a superbabe with a good attitude.

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Violence

How is Violence presented and how do the women react?

Violence in Boys on the Side is always connected with the Holly character, who is the least mature female character in the story. Nick, Holly’s drug-dealing boyfriend, performs an outstanding example of male brutality, which is perfectly set in contrast to Robin’s calm reason. Holly’s and Jane’s reactions to this physical violence are violent too. While Jane chooses verbal offense, Holly knocks Nick unconscious with a baseball bat. Later he dies of his injuries.

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Where are the men?

As the title suggests, the men in Boys on the Side are on the side. Lets have a brief look at the various male characters throughout the story.

  • There is the music partner of Jane who leaves her and does not want to go to LA with her.
  • Nick, the brutal drug using and drug selling boyfriend of Holly, a typical wifebeater, he has to die but haunts Holly into the courtroom where she is sentenced to prison.
  • Some men appear without words, they are only shown as flirt-partners of Holly.
  • Robin’s father and brother appear in her memories, and the audience only learns that her brother’s death was very hard and traumatic for her.
  • Abraham Lincoln, a straight, dumb but friendly and polite cop who loves Holly and wants to marry her and, as already mentioned, sends her to the courtroom for men-slaughter, is perceived by Jane, Robin and the audience as an (nice) idiot.
  • The bartender who falls for Robin can only try to step in the plot and help/(physically)love Robin. He is rejected and has then no importance in the movie anymore.
  • Elaine’s spouse has nothing to say or do but to be at her comfort. It is only in the very end of the movie that he tells her to ‘shut up’, which is only funny because as he has such a minor role that nobody ever expected him to say such a thing (especially not to Elaine!).

 

USA, 1995, 117min.
Rated R, Color
(available on videocassette
and laserdisc.)

Producer:
Herbert Ross
Steven Reuther
Arnon Milchan

Director: Herbert Ross

Screenwriter: Don Ross

Jane DeLuca (Whoopi Goldberg)

Robin (Mary-Louise Parker)

Holly (Drew Barrymore)

Elaine (Anita Gillette)

Abe Lincoln (Matthew McConaughey)

Nick (Billy Wirth)

Linda Froewys Burke

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comments: by Teresa Malek
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