The Provincetown Film Festival returned with all live screenings and events this year, and the buzz came back! Celebrity appearances by the likes of Bowen Yang and Parker Posey, interviews in the inimitable style of John Waters, parties, local heroes and even a controversy or two sparked the week, and a good time was had by most. For me, the biggest buzz came in the awarding of “Best Documentary” to filmmaker Jean Carlomusto for her lovingly made “Esther Newton Made Me Gay.”
Full disclosure: Jean and I were pretty good friends in my later New York years, but I would tout this film anyway. Seven years ago, she blew up this same festival with “Larry Kramer: In Love and Anger,” which can still be streamed on HBO. Jean Carlomusto makes her films with heart, with grace, and with integrity; her Kramer biography was proclaimed for showing him “warts and all.”
Likewise, her portrait of Esther Newton unveils a living, breathing human being, a masculine of center, femme-loving, dog-loving, brilliant and articulate woman who is now over 80 and participated fully in the screenings and events. Esther’s family, poodles, and former and current girlfriends add richness to the texture, so much so that her partner, Holly Hughes, when asked about what it was like to be involved in a film about her real life, quipped, “At some point I had to ask how many more exes we were going to excavate.” If you aren’t familiar with Esther Newton, you should be. Regardless of what stripe of the rainbow flag you represent, Esther is an essential part of your history.
Fascinated by the drag queen scene while in graduate school in Chicago, she “wrote the book “ on camp in the form of her dissertation, long before Susan Sontag’s work on the same. A butch lesbian in academia well before one could be out,
she was attacked and disrespected for presuming to do her anthropological studies right in the United States and to focus on queer subcultures. The film’s title is a play on “Margaret Mead Made Me Gay,” Newton’s book on how the anthropologist motivated her studies on her own communities.
When the feminist movement swept the lesbian scene out of the closets and into the streets, it was a great step forward, but we also had to hear that butch/femme is “not a thing” anymore, that such an identity is not essential to who one is but is merely a regressive imitation of heterosexual life. Bravo to Newton for calling bullshit on this notion and so many others, which hardly makes one popular in the moment. In other words, Esther Newton was ages before her time.
Today, Newton’s dissertation on camp has been reprinted, and her book on Cherry Grove (the queer neighbor of the more male and upscale Pines in Fire Island), as well as her newest, “My Butch Career,” are as necessary as ever. Start by streaming the film while you can, and you will want to know more.
Review: Janet Prolman
Janet Prolman was born in Boston, Massachusetts, where her mother nicknamed her “my little queer.” She has also lived in North Carolina and New York. A lover of short stories, theater, music, and performance, she knows the lyrics to almost every song or advertising jingle she’s ever heard. Now on Cape Cod, she enjoys kayaking and frequenting Provincetown.