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Tales Of The City
A review by Nicole Blizzard
On 10th, 11th and 12th January 1994, history was made in the US. It was on those nights when the Public Broadcasting Corporation (PBS) aired their most highly rated and most controversial program ever, and their most watched to that date.
It all began with this disclaimer: "Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City takes place in San Francisco in 1976. It is a chronicle of a particular place and time. Some of the material contained in this program may not be suitable for all audiences. Viewer discretion advised. Leisure suits optional."
Tales of the City first began as a short-lived series in a San Francisco weekly newspaper in 1974, the fictionalized account of a real-life phenomenon occurring at a local Safeway supermarket where, on Wednesday nights, hordes of swinging singles would gather in search of romance. Armistead Maupin went there to interview some of the participants for a story. When no one would talk to him, he created the fictional shopper, Mary Ann Singleton. She was a new girl in town who was just trying to meet someone nice.
The story was so popular, Armistead was asked to submit more episodes but unfortunately, the weekly folded five weeks later. Eventually, he pitched the idea to the San Francisco Chronicle and in 1976, the daily column Tales of the City began. It ran until the early 90's. In 1978, the first of six novels based on those columns appeared and it was simply called Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City.
The novel's central character, Mary Ann Singleton, is a twentysomething girl from Cleveland, Ohio who, after a vacation to San Francisco, decides she wants to live there permanently. The novel was revolutionary for its time in its sympathetic portrayals of homosexual characters (the author is himself gay).
Although optioned for movie rights as early as 1979, most companies wanted to dilute the homosexual content of the story for their audiences. Finally, in the early 90's, Britain's Channel 4 agreed to fund a six-hour miniseries and to film it exactly as written. The script was written by Richard Kramer (thirtysomething) and directed by Alastair Reid. The series first aired in Britain in the fall of 1993. The critical and popular acclaim there prompted PBS's American Playhouse to obtain the US rights and it was shown on January 10th-12th, 1994.
The series starred Olympia Dukakis (Moonstruck, Steel Magnolias) as Anna Madrigal, the enigmatic landlady of the funky boarding house at 28 Barbary Lane. The rest of the cast was largely unknown at the time, but many have since gone on to further acclaim. Laura Linney (Congo) played Mary Ann as a wide-eyed innocent who does not always know what to think of all the sexual freedom going on. The rest of the cast included: Chloe Webb (China Beach, Heart Condition) as Mona Ramsey; Marcus D'Amico as Michael "Mouse" Tolliver; Thomas Gibson (Chicago Hope, Dharma and Greg) as Beauchamp Day; William Campbell (Once and Again) as Dr Jon Fielden; Donald Moffat (John Carpenter's The Thing) as Edgar Halcyon; Barbara Garrick as Dee Dee Halcyon-Day; Stanley Desantis as the creepy Norman Neil Williams; independent film star Parker Posey (Party Girl, Clockwatchers) as Connie Bradshaw; and finally Paul Gross (due South, Murder Most Likely) as the amiable but amoral lawyer-turned-waiter, Brian Hawkins.
This was my, and many Americans', introduction to Paul Gross and a fine one it was. Brian Hawkins is an ex-lawyer who, as he says at one point in the second episode, ". . . really didn't give a damn about the green back dollar". He explains that he usually defended people who did not have any money because it was the causes that he was attracted to. His character has many layers that are slowly peeled away to reveal the true man. At first, Brian appears to be an attractive, callow and totally amoral man who is interested in only one thing, Sex. He works as a waiter and his life is a string of one night stands. However, as we get to know him better, we see that there is much more sensitivity and complexity than even he wants to admit to himself. There is a heart there.
The scene that best illustrates this point comes after Mary Ann stumbles upon the suicide of her colleague at a local Help Line. When she returns home after her discovery, she needs to talk to someone but no one else is home except Brian, so she turns to him. As they talk, Brian opens up. This short scene is the most revealing in that we learn about him, his past, and his suppressed compassion.
When Showtime and Channel 4 made the sequel, More Tales of the City, Paul was unable to reprise the role of Brian due to his commitment to the return of due South (Chloe Webb and Marcus D'Amico were unavailable as well). He said in interviews that he wished that he could have been available.
When Tales of the City ran originally in the US, there was a lot of criticism from several conservative congressmen about the depictions of casual drug use, language, nudity, the sympathetic portrayals of the homosexual main characters, and especially the scenes of Mouse and Jon kissing. To try and avoid some of the controversy, PBS distributed two versions to their stations: one edited and one unedited. In the edited version (which is the one occasionally shown on Bravo in the US as six one-hour episodes instead of three two-hour episodes), certain images (ie, frontal nudity) are electronically obscured and certain words are deleted. In the US, you can rent the unedited version at many video stores or buy it from several sources.
If you are not easily offended, I would highly recommend Tales of the City to you. It is truly wonderful. The books are also great although the original miniseries tie-in edition released in 1994 (with a picture of Paul Gross on the cover) is no longer available.
Reference: 8th January 1993 US TV Guide article, A Tale of the 70's, written by Armistead Maupin.
A review by Claire Renoir
Screenplay by Richard Kramer Directed by Alastair Reid
Olympia Dukakis as Mrs Anna Madrigal Donald Moffat as Mr Edgar Halcyon Laura Linney as Mary Ann Singleton Chloe Webb as Mona Ramsey (Babycakes) Marcus D'Amico as Michael Tolliver (Mouse) Paul Gross as Brian Hawkins Thomas Gibson as Beauchamp Day William Campbell as Doctor John Fielding Cameos by Mary Kay Place, Rod Steiger, Karen Black, Janeanne Garofalo, Parker Posey
When a new tenant moves in at 28 Barbary Lane on Russian Hill in San Francisco, Mrs. Madrigal's welcoming gift is a joint of marijuana. Life was never like this in Cleveland. Mary Ann Singleton (Laura Linney) goes to San Francisco on vacation in 1976 and never returns to Cleveland and who can blame her?
Mary Ann's new neighbors at Barbary Lane include: Mona Ramsey, an advertising woman and self-described "fag hag"; Mona's best friend Michael "Mouse" Tolliver, a homosexual man looking for love in The City's gay bars; Mrs Anna Madrigal, an eccentric landlady with a mysterious past; and Brian Hawkins, a handsome waiter who is doing his best to take advantage of the sexual revolution.
Mona helps Mary Ann get a job as a secretary in the advertising agency where she works for Edgar Halcyon who has an alcoholic wife, a miserable daughter married to the philandering Beauchamp Day, and six months to live because of his failing kidneys. While in the park, contemplating his situation, Edgar meets Mrs Anna Madrigal and the two forge an immediate connection that soon becomes love.
Paul Gross plays Brian Hawkins as a cad with an easy, sarcastic humor and a touch of melancholy. Brian seems to be coasting through life pursuing what comes easy for him - one night stands. Not really committed to anything, Brian is a good listener with a sharp mind and a good line but he smokes a lot of pot and concentrates on his abdominal muscles more than his conscience.
Brian might seem to be the antithesis of Constable Benton Fraser but there is more to him than you might think. He used to be a lawyer who didn't charge his clients. It was the causes he cared about. He sums up the series pretty well: "We all have secrets in this town, you just have to dig a little deeper for them."
A mysterious new tenant moves in at 28 Barbary Lane. Norman is a nerd who sells vitamins and takes care of his friend's young daughter on the weekends. Mary Ann feels sorry for him and befriends him. She feels comfortable around Norman because he's even more "out of it" than she is. Mary Ann soon finds out that Norman is not what he appears to be. I guess Brian was right about secrets.
There are a lot of references to the Hitchcock movie, Vertigo, in Tales of the City - the staircase Jimmy Stewart had to climb, the apartment building where Kim Novak's character lived, the museum that she visited daily, the painting she studied, the Golden Gate Bridge and the bay where she tried to drown herself, even the soundtrack music.
Tales of the City captures the spirit of the 70s - disco, casual sex, drugs, Mary Hartman, homosexuality, bath houses, roller rinks, the Average White Band, waterbeds. Like Robert Altman's film, Short Cuts, it peeks into the private lives of some fascinating and realistic characters in a culturally specific time and place and makes philosophical commentary on how our lives overlap and affect each other.
Originally shown as 6 one-hour episodes on British television in 1993, Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City was controversial when it debuted. Several of the then unknown actors have now become well known for successful television and/or movie roles - Thomas Gibson on Dharma and Greg, Billy Campbell on Once and Again, Paul Gross on due South, Laura Linney on The Truman Show.