We don’t properly appreciate Australian filmmaker P.J. Hogan. He’s best-known for helming the sharply subversive romantic-comedy My Best Friend’s Wedding, which dares to end not with Julia Roberts wooing her ex away from his perky young bride, but with her bittersweetly waltzing with her gay best friend (Rupert Everett in his breakthrough turn). Movie lovers might also know Hogan for his daring debut, Muriel’s Wedding, a deeply quirky comedy that gave us Rachel Griffiths and Toni Collette and an ABBA revival. But besides this dynamic duo, the world is far too unaware of Hogan’s works, which are alive with wild turns, brilliant casting, and a lightly campy joie de vivre.
Hogan has given us a beautiful and astonishingly underrated Peter Pan, the wacky but heartwarming Mental, the deliciously lovely yet deranged The Dressmaker, and the star-studded, sweet and bonkers Unconditional Love, which is loosely inspired by true events and intertwined with jaunty songs like “Always On My Mind,” “Getting To Know You,” and “I Can’t Smile Without You.”
Yesterday, 73-year-old singer/songwriter Barry Manilow came out as gay, and the response around the world was a collective shrug, in part because Manilow’s sexuality has been a sort of open-secret for decades, and a bit because the stigma of coming out has decreased considerably in America, even over the last decade. More surprising and sad was that Manilow felt he had to hide his 40-year relationship with his partner from his fans, so he wouldn’t “disappoint” them. And that revelation reminded me of a Hogan’s eccentric rom-com about a middle-aged mom, the sexy singer she obsessed over, and his secret lover—not only because of its hidden homosexual romance, but also because Manilow himself has a cameo in its sing-a-long finale!
In Hogan’s Unconditional Love, Kathy Bates stars as Grace Beasley, a happy-go-lucky housewife who takes great pleasure in singing to her infant grandson, lunching with her feisty daughter-in-law (the hilarious Meredith Eaton), and caring for her whiny children and dishwater dull husband (Dan Akyroyd). So when her husband abruptly leaves her, Grace is on the brink of breakdown. The only thing that seems like it can pull her through is the promise of seeing her favorite singer, a sequin-draped Victor Fox (Jonathan Pryce glittering and divine), perform when he visits Chicago. But when that concert is cancelled because the flamboyant performer’s been murdered by the city’s notorious Crossbow Killer, Grace impulsively flies to England to attend Victor’s funeral. There, she stumbles upon the hostile Dirk Simpson (Rupert Everett), who claims he’s the famous singer’s grieving partner. However, Victor’s estranged siblings insist the younger man’s just a seedy gold-digger, and that while their brother may have dressed in his mother’s dresses, he was certainly not gay!
An overwhelmed Grace is pushed to pick sides. From this complicated tangle of emotion and agenda, Grace blooms, as does a very special friendship.
Unconditional Love takes the story of the true late Liberace and his closeted lover, and transposes it onto a Misery premise—obsessed fan breaking social boundaries—but with a heartwarming twist. Victor meant the world to both Dirk and Grace, and Hogan’s film respects both. Through a strange twist of fate and Grace’s sheer force of will, these lonely lovers find a bond that will not only allow them to heal from their heartbreaks, but also inspire them to chase down this nefarious Crossbow Killer!
If you love a truly WTF movie, you’ll love Unconditional Love. It’s Hogan at his most Hogan: campy, wild, big-hearted. Bates ditches the darkness she’s made a big part of her brand to play a mother so open-hearted and vulnerable that you just want to bundle her up in your arms and stroke her summery blonde hair, protecting her from any hurt. (Especially the hurt that asshole Aykroyd dumps on her!) Everett, on the other hand, gets to revel in his signature snark, barking at Grace when she first turns up on Dirk’s door. And then, through her incorrigible kindness, he softens, keens, and decides to wear the dazzling clothes of his dead lover to lay a trap for Victor’s murderer.
As foil to Grace—who is routinely treated like a doormat by her family and ignored completely by the wider world—is Maudey, her loud and defiant daughter-in-law, whose blend of bold fashion choices (leopard print trench coat) and being a little person means the world “never stop(s) seeing” her. Bullying but loving, Maudey cheers Grace on from afar, and when it comes to that killer confrontation, she dons a red raincoat to join Grace and Dirk because of Don’t Look Now: “Nobody messes with a dwarf in a red raincoat.”
Both Manilow and Julie Andrews appear as themselves to sing with Grace at various points. And did I mention the crossbow killer is played by a floppy-haired and scrawny Peter Sarsgaard? I cannot emphasize enough how utterly odd this movie is.
Joyful yet punctuated with compassion and pain, it’s a dizzying and delightful watch. But amid much mayhem and merriment, there’s a tragic reveal. After having hid their relationship for 10 years, Victor was finally ready to tell the world, his last words being, “A life lived in fear isn’t much fun.” Sadly, because of the intervention of the Crossbow Killer, he never had the chance to come out. But thanks to those who truly loved him, Victor’s true self is revealed posthumously, and his legacy becomes one not only of song and sex appeal, but also of being an inspiration to gay youth.
I thought of all of this yesterday while pondering Manilow’s coming out. Many may have scoffed over the secret they’d suspected for years, but it still matters that the singing septuagenarian chose to reveal his true self. Because the snarky jokes will fade, but his pride and legacy will live on. So, cheers to Manilow for realizing the power that visibility can have in encouraging those who follow in your footsteps. Cheers to him for trusting his fan base, or for deciding his own freedom and happiness matters more than the disappointment of bigots and strangers. And cheers for him finding a happier ending than his fictional contemporary managed.
You can watch Unconditional Love on Amazon.
Kristy Puchko and Rebecca Pahle’s friendship began with watching this movie together, because of course it did.