I didn’t accomplish much in April. Now it’s May.

Oh yeah, I did ask my girlfriend, Aimiee, to marry me, as threatened in my last Sugar Water column. And the answer was no, but don’t start crying for us just yet.

See, she wants to marry me, but as she put it, “If gay couples can’t legally marry in Illinois, why should straight people like us have that right? Plus you abandoned Xing, our seven-year-old adopted Chinese son who’s actually our daughter, in Nebraska right before that safe-haven law was changed last November, which brings up a wide range of trust issues.”

All I have to do is convince the Illinois Supreme Court that gay marriage isn’t a threat to the moral fiber of our state — or Chicago’s chances of hosting the 2016 Summer Olympics — and Aimiee will be my wife. Of course, at the beginning of April I was pretty crushed since there seemed to be no way Illinois would legalize gay marriage, but suddenly its corn-fed neighbor Iowa was down with hot man-on-man lifelong commitment and kinky girl-on-girl sacred vows.

Yes, Iowa and Vermont accomplished something much more important in April than writing a new Sugar Water column. But they’re welcome to sub for me at any time while I watch syndicated reruns of Boston Legal to prepare for my Supreme Court appearance. Unfortunately, the recently canceled “dramedy” hasn’t taught me a thing about how the law actually works.

William Shatner doesn’t play a starship captain on this spin-off of The Practice, but he might as well since it’s so far removed from reality. The attorneys at Boston Legal‘s fictional firm are constantly being arrested or sued, and that’s when they’re not suing each other just to kill some time. In real life you’d take your business elsewhere if it weren’t for the fact that they win 99 percent of their cases, thanks to sanctimonious courtroom speeches delivered by James Spader that employ zany one-liners and statistics from the latest issue of Newsweek in equal measure. In the final episode, which aired last December, Shatner and Spader’s characters went before the U.S. Supreme Court to defend their right to marry each other even though they’re not gay.

More on fictional characters who take male bonding to new heights in a minute, but first, back to nonfictional U.S. law. Early last month Vermont and Iowa became the fourth and fifth states to legalize same-sex marriage, and April 27 was the first day in Iowa in which gay couples could receive marriage licenses at courthouses across the state, thereby bringing same-sex marriage to the midwest before more traditionally liberal states like Illinois. Therefore the overused cliché “How will [insert name of social movement, movie, new music genre] play in [insert name of midwestern ‘flyover’ state with lots of farmland and supposedly uptight white Christians who think sex is just for procreation]?” can officially be retired by culturally enlightened pundits on both coasts.

On April 28 the Chicago Sun-Times‘s front page featured a photo of newlyweds Kentaindra Scarver and Veronica Spann exchanging a kiss after exchanging vows, at which point hell was unleashed on earth, or at least on the Sun-Times‘s switchboard and e-mail inboxes. According to the paper, many readers were offended and took the popular “What about the children?!” line of reasoning.

But an editorial addressing the controversial photo mentioned a recent New York Times/CBS poll that showed 57 percent of Americans under 40 are in favor of gay marriage, as opposed to 31 percent over 40. (A report issued last Monday by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life noted that “nearly six in 10 former Catholics who are now unaffiliated say they left Catholicism due to dissatisfaction with Catholic teachings on abortion and homosexuality,” according to the Associated Press.)

Unfortunately, those 57 percent under 40 aren’t buying newspapers anymore, so if the Sun-Times wants to keep its core subscribers happy, it’d better start Photoshopping some dudes into those lesbian-marriage photos. Or would offended readers settle for a compromise? Say, Elton John in a Carmen Miranda getup?

There’s irrational anger on the other side too, of course. On April 19 the nationwide-but-only-if-you’re-under-40 celebration of Vermont and Iowa’s Supreme Court rulings came to a screeching halt at the Miss USA Pageant in Las Vegas. That’s when Miss California, Carrie Prejean, was asked by pageant judge and semi-famous gay person Perez Hilton if “every state should follow suit.” Prejean, whose home state legalized gay marriage last June only to see it rejected by voters via Proposition 8 five months later, answered, “We live in a land that you can choose same-sex marriage or opposite marriage. And you know what — in my country, and in my family, I think that I believe that a marriage should be between a man and a woman. No offense to anybody out there, but that’s how I was raised and that’s how I think that it should be — between a man and a woman.”

Alternative-lifestyle-lovin’ America was outraged. Just where did this attractive blonde woman get off, and could we watch? Yes, we could! On YouTube, in fact.

Richard Roeper tried to be a voice of reason in the Sun-Times a couple days later by making readers aware that Miss California’s views on gay marriage are pretty much the same as President Obama’s. So there you go — Roeper’s a racist. It’s no wonder his paper filed for bankruptcy in March — no one but homophobes and me read it.

But although I wish Mr. Roeper all the worst in my desperate attempt to get noticed on the Internet, I agree with him, and while I’m at it I’d like to take another controversial stance: America’s centuries-old prejudice against attractive blonde women needs to end now. For too long we’ve made hilarious jokes about their lack of intelligence while ignoring the fact that they weren’t bred to think in the first place. They were bred to be attractive and blonde and win pageants that no one cares about until they think they believe something, at which point their belief turns into a nervous answer that spreads across the World Wide Web like Coppertone on a taut, tan stomach.

All I’m saying is, don’t blame Miss California. The girl can’t help it — she was born that way.

I’m pretty sure most of you are still thinking about bare midriffs and cocoa butter, which means I can gracelessly segue into talking about Running Scared, the 1986 action-comedy starring Gregory Hines and Billy Crystal as Chicago cops. But unlike the black-guy, white-guy partners in other ’80s “buddy-cop” movies — Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte in 48 Hrs. (1982), or Danny Glover and Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon (1987), for instance — Hines and Crystal’s characters don’t start out hating each other. They may bicker like an old married couple, but there’s a lot of love between them. A lot.

And though they both have female love interests in the film, they didn’t fool me during a recent viewing: detectives Ray Hughes (Hines) and Danny Costanzo (Crystal) are forgotten heroes of the silver-screen gay-rights movement. It’s time to set the record straight, so to speak, about their place in film history.

When I first saw Running Scared 18 years ago, I thought Hines and Crystal’s banter was funnier, and their chemistry more natural, than Glover and Gibson’s in Lethal Weapon. Still do, in fact. When I watched it again in March I mostly wanted to see how many Chicago landmarks I could identify now that I’ve lived in the city for six years, but what I ended up noticing much more than famous buildings and Picasso sculptures was how Running Scared takes the homoerotic undertones of buddy-cop movies and, well, runs with them.

I see it as sneaky subversion, a way for the filmmakers to comment on the conventions of the genre while still reaping the benefits of action-comedy entertainment. Ray and Danny may be partners on the police force, but they also come across as “partners,” two men who can’t imagine not spending every waking minute together.

For example, early in the movie they meet a woman named Maryann (Tracy Reed) at a bar. Danny desperately wants to impress her and make her laugh, but she’s only interested in Ray. The next morning Danny uses his key to his partner’s loft to let himself in, and proceeds to wake up Ray and Maryann by blasting a police-motorcycle siren. Rude, yes, as well as juvenile and bordering on stalker behavior, but this is a movie, so all’s forgiven once Ray sees that Danny’s brought donuts. Since Maryann isn’t a cop, she isn’t as easily placated with fried dough; as she gets out of bed and shows off her backside to both men, she says to Ray, “I think your friend’s jealous.”

Yes, but not in the way you’re thinking, lady. (The flames of jealousy don’t subside — the next time Danny lets himself in uninvited, he interrupts Ray and Maryann’s lovemaking to let Ray know that his ex-wife has been kidnapped by the bad guys. Maryann immediately shrinks into the background.) These guys are overcompensating, waiting for the day when they can openly declare their love and no longer have to put up with attractive blondes like Carrie Prejean.

Ray and Danny spend time with about a dozen Miss California types later in the film when they’re forced by their captain (Dan Hedaya) to take a vacation. They decide to visit Key West, Florida, because, as Ray says, “It’s as far south as we could get without having to speak Spanish.”

Stop lying to yourselves, closeted ’80s movie characters!

I didn’t know when I was 15 and I first saw Running Scared that Key West “has long had a sizable homosexual population,” according to a 1988 New York Times article by Jeffrey Schmalz, and that “for years it was the home of the playwright Tennessee Williams, who was gay. But it was also a base for [Ernest] Hemingway, the very symbol of macho. And life here sometimes seems caught in a tension between the two worlds those writers represent: the gay and artistic on the one hand, the working-man machismo and the military on the other. The key is home to three military bases, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard.” But once I bought the Village People’s Greatest Hits compilation a few years later and listened to their song “Key West,” I knew something was up. (No, something wasn’t up with me because I bought a Village People album. Don’t change the subject.)

The montage of Ray and Danny snorkeling, yachting, and moped-ing with various women in Key West is accompanied by Michael McDonald’s “Sweet Freedom” on the soundtrack. Again, there’s some sly subversion going on here, with the filmmakers commenting on the characters’ masculine and feminine tendencies through their environment. Or am I reading too much into it?

After a brush with death at the hands of “the first Spanish godfather of Chicago,” Julio Gonzales (Jimmy Smits), Ray and Danny become afraid of dying young. Because of the AIDS epidemic that gripped the U.S. in the ’80s? No way — if they were afraid of that, they wouldn’t be trying to bang as many anonymous women as possible in Key West to prove how un-gay they are. And just because they make plans to retire to Florida together in their mid-30s to open a bar — they sign their business loan at a bank while wearing roller skates, half shirts, and short shorts — doesn’t mean they’re more than friends. Or does it?

The Key West sequence in Running Scared is similar to the opening of 1987’s Three Men and a Baby, where it’s established that Tom Selleck, Ted Danson, and Steve Guttenberg live together in a penthouse apartment despite the fact that two of them are pushing 40 and Selleck, who’s a successful architect, could clearly afford a place of his own. It’s also immediately established that these guys are knee-deep in women just so viewers don’t get the idea there’s any funny business between them.

Even better than the Key West scenes in Running Scared is an almost entirely female-free sequence in which Ray and Danny take a joyride in Gonzales’s Mercedes while a song called “Man Size Love” plays in the background.

“Man Size Love” is performed by popular ’80s R&B group Klymaxx.

It was written by a Rod (Temperton, who composed Running Scared‘s synth-heavy score and is responsible for most of the songwriting and production on the soundtrack album).

And on DJ Paul T’s blog you can find the 12-inch version.

That is one heady brew of phallic ingredients (or is it a package?), and I haven’t even mentioned yet that Running Scared is directed by a Peter.

Peter Hyams, to be exact, the journeyman Hollywood director who, like John Badham (Saturday Night Fever, WarGames, the 1987 buddy-cop movie Stakeout), has directed lots of movies in lots of genres. But because he’s never been adored by critics or made any huge box-office hits or even been identified as having a distinct visual style (though he has doubled as cinematographer on every movie he’s directed since 1984’s 2010, a rarity in Hollywood), it’s easy to look at his resumé and think his movies magically directed themselves.

Hyams is best known for science-fiction films like 2010, Outland (1981), and Timecop (1994), but he also directed the thrillers Capricorn One (1978) and The Presidio (1988), the fantasy-comedy Stay Tuned (1992), and a Harrison Ford romance called Hanover Street (1979). Maybe he was trying to clue us in five years before Running Scared with the Sean Connery film Outland: only in space can men express their true nature without being judged. Or maybe by working with Connery again in the San Francisco-set The Presidio, Hyams wanted to make it clear that James Bond is a total queen. I mean, did 007 really need to sleep with all those women to prove his manhood? Give it a rest, sister. (Hyams’s big-screen directorial debut, the 1974 kinda-sorta buddy-cop movie Busting, stars Elliott Gould and Robert Blake as L.A. vice-squad detectives; in a controversial scene that’s played for laughs, they go undercover as gay men in order to raid a gay bar.)

Because Hyams has never gotten much love from critics, despite working steadily from the late ’70s through the early part of this decade, I’m going to give him sole credit for the under-the-radar gay agenda of Running Scared.

Here’s my theory: Hyams was under a lot of pressure at the end of 1984 to make 2010 a hit at the box office and please critics who would be comparing the film to its predecessor, Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 sci-fi classic, 2001: A Space Odyssey. I doubt Hyams, who also wrote the screenplay and produced the film, thought he could top 2001, or wanted to. Several reviews I read of 2010, which is based on Arthur C. Clarke’s novel, point out that Hyams concentrated on story and character for the sequel, whereas Kubrick focused on overarching themes of evolution and technology — the most interesting character in 2001, by far, is a talking computer.

Reviews for 2010 were good but not great, and the only Oscar nominations it received were in technical categories like Best Visual Effects. MGM, the studio that financed it (as well as Running Scared), couldn’t brag about 2010‘s box-office performance, either: it topped out at $40 million, sandwiched between Revenge of the Nerds and Breakin’ on the list of 1984’s highest-grossing films. Though it has its admirers, 2010 is considered a footnote in film history compared to 2001.

I bet Hyams poured his heart and soul into that movie. If it had been a huge success, he would’ve immediately landed on the A-list of Hollywood directors. But it wasn’t, and it must’ve hurt when he realized he’d be directing genre flicks, not prestige pictures, for the rest of his career.

Then again, genre flicks are often more viscerally entertaining than prestige pictures, and they need directors who can get the hell out of the way and deliver what audiences want. That doesn’t mean a mainstream veteran like Hyams can’t have fun with subtext and stereotypes, though. Besides, if you were following up a serious-minded science-fiction film about the great unknown with a movie that centers on two wisecracking Chicago cops who spend all their time together, wouldn’t you want to see how much you could get away with?

Hines, who died of cancer in 2003, and Crystal deserve much of the credit for Running Scared‘s success as a comedy. It was Crystal’s first starring role in a movie after his single season on Saturday Night Live, and the film highlights his talent for impressions, including a variation on his “Fernando” voice from SNL when he makes a prank call as a police informant. But the movie never stops in its tracks to let him do a stand-up routine — Hyams seems to enjoy the challenge of directing his first comedy, but he knows it’s an action-comedy, so the pace never flags. (A former jazz drummer, he knows a thing or two about rhythm and timing.)

Interestingly enough, though the film includes two memorable action set pieces — a shootout in the Helmut Jahn-designed James R. Thompson Center, which had only recently opened when Running Scared began filming in Chicago in the fall of ’85 (back then it was called the State of Illinois Center), and a car chase that eventually makes its way onto the city’s elevated-train tracks — the comedic elements are far more memorable because of Hines and Crystal’s chemistry. (Joe Pantoliano also has some funny scenes with the two leads as a thug named Snake.) You get the feeling they became fast friends on the set and remained friends long after, even if Hyams plays with the notion that their characters’ friendship is deeper than they realize.

Here are some other examples of Running Scared‘s director having a field day with macho buddy-movie clichés and conventions:

(1) After adrenaline-charged chases that climax in the arrests — or deaths — of major suspects, Ray and Danny light up cigars.

(2) When Danny wants to evade a lawyer at the police station, he asks his partner to cover for him. The lawyer can’t locate “Danny” at first, so he asks Danny himself for help and is told he should check the ladies’ room, where Ray, posing as Danny, is hiding.

(3) After they return from Key West, committed to changing their status as partners from “police” to “business,” the detectives worry even more about protecting themselves from dying young, especially after Danny’s gun goes off in the police precinct’s locker room while he’s surrounded by men in various states of undress. At that point they start wearing bulletproof vests on assignments that might turn violent.

(4) Both Ray and Danny are forced to give Gonzales their pants after they surprise him in bed at a woman’s apartment and he surprises them by taking a hostage. Ray would rather die than give away his trousers. “That’s what he wants anyway,” he tells Danny. “And there’s a certain dignity in that. As long as we keep on our pants!”

(5) Any suggestive shots of trains going through tunnels? Almost — before Ray and Danny’s vehicle hops on the Red Line “el” tracks, it enters the subway. Inside their vehicle are two suspects, a priest and a nun who’ve supposedly smuggled Colombian cocaine back to the States for Gonzales. The partners are aggressive and rude to them, thinking they’re decoys who are only posing as a man and woman of the cloth.

(6) When Ray wants to see Maryann a second time, he tracks down her address and pretends to arrest her for unpaid parking tickets in front of her rich lawyer boyfriend, who conveniently happens to be a jerk. Ray then takes her to his and Danny’s favorite bar, where the bartender asks Danny, “What’s with you? You couldn’t find a girl to arrest?” Ray answers, “He’s saving himself.” (The next time Ray wants to see Maryann, he has the boyfriend arrested on false charges. Your tax dollars at work …)

Danny’s ex-wife, Anna (Darlanne Fluegel), lets him know early in the film that she’s getting remarried — to a dentist. We never meet the fiancé, which makes it easier to not think of him as an actual person with actual feelings once Anna reunites with Danny at the end of the film and answers Ray’s question “What about the dentist?” with a flippant “Who?”

Oops, did I just spoil the ending? Not really. It’s 1985, after all, and guys like Ray and Danny aren’t ready to come out yet. Before the Thompson Center showdown with Gonzales they begin backpedaling, talking about all the things they don’t like about Florida, including the fact that it doesn’t have any pro baseball or basketball teams. But by the end of the decade the Miami Heat and Orlando Magic will have joined the NBA, boys, and by ’93 the Marlins will be playing baseball in the Sunshine State, with the Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays to follow in ’98. Don’t give up hope just yet!

When Ray and Danny return from Key West and start wearing bulletproof vests and calling for backup, their captain tells them they have “short-timer’s disease”: they’re already looking forward to retirement and getting careful, which isn’t good since “careful gets you killed in this business.”

The only way to cure themselves of the disease is to stop thinking so much, whether it’s about who they’re shooting or who they’re sleeping with, and they definitely like shooting people. If they retired to Florida they wouldn’t be able to do that anymore, but being openly gay cops in Chicago would be even harder.

In the end Ray and Danny take the road more traveled and continue running scared from their true feelings. Hyams freezes on a shot of them and Anna walking away from Gonzales’s dead body as the Rod Temperton Beat Wagon’s “Never Too Late to Start” cranks up on the soundtrack — these partners still have plenty of time to acknowledge who they really are to each other. When all’s said and done, Ray and Danny don’t prove to be two of gay cinema’s finest, but for their advancements in the field of buddy-movie sexual liberation, they at least deserve a commendation.

The beginning of the next decade will be “the year we make contact,” according to 2010‘s tagline. But with Maine and New Hampshire moving closer to legalizing gay marriage, and a decision on its future in California due from that state’s Supreme Court in June (the approximately 18,000 same-sex marriages that were legalized before Proposition 8 passed weren’t overturned), maybe 2010 will be the year the tide begins to turn in many other states. It may not be what Arthur C. Clarke had in mind, but for many gay couples it would be “something wonderful,” as Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) says in anticipation of the film’s big-bang ending.

It certainly won’t be the End of Days, Hyams’s 1999 film in which the future governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, has to stop Satan (Gabriel Byrne) from impregnating a New York single gal on the last day of the millennium. What sounds worse, America — your daughter telling you she wants to marry another woman, or telling you she needs to move back in so you can help her raise the Devil’s bastard?

If America is progressive enough to elect a biracial president, surely it’s progressive enough to legalize same-sex marriage in many more states by the end of the next decade and produce mainstream buddy-cop movies that don’t have to hide their hot man-on-man eternal devotion.

Speaking of which, I should probably go pick up Xing in Nebraska. I don’t want Aimiee to think the only guys worth marrying are the ones that aren’t allowed.

Village People, “Key West” (from 1988’s Greatest Hits)
Ready for the World, “I Just Wanna Be Loved” (from 1986’s Running Scared soundtrack)
Jamie Lidell, “Figured Me Out” (from 2008’s Jim)
Safri Duo featuring Michael McDonald, “Sweet Freedom [Remix]” (from 2002’s Sweet Freedom EP)

About the Author

Robert Cass

Robert Cass lives in Chicago. For Popdose he's written under the Sugar Water, Bootleg City, and Box Office Flashback banners and collaborated on the series 'Face Time with Jeff Giles and Mike Heyliger.

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