Jamie Babbit was honored with the Frameline 37 Award on June 22 at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco. It’s reassuring to know that there are some well-admired talented writers, directors and actors who continually turn out brilliant work in the LGBT world. When they return to Frameline with their films it is a special event. Jamie Babbit is one of them and we always look forward to her latest creations. She is only in her early 40’s but has been working for over two decades.
Babbit first gained early critical attention with her short film “Sleeping Beauties” (1999) about two women who become attracted to each other on a photo shoot. It’s an unusual shoot where Sno Blo, a dead rock star, is being made up by Heather (Sarah Lassez), a mortician from ‘Rolling Headstones Funeral Home’. Clea (Clea DuVall), the photographer’s assistant, falls for Heather and wonders if she ever has worked on the living. It was just 13 minutes but an enchanting twist on Sleeping Beauty.
The next year, Babbit’s first feature “But I’m a Cheerleader” was released. There are two other filmmakers that come to mind who can do to the kitschy set design that Babbit did on this film – Pedro Almodóvar and John Waters. The film is a comedy about a conversion therapy camp where young gays are trained to be straight. Megan (Natasha Lyon), a high school cheerleader is sent to be reformed but falls for Graham (Clea DuVall).
The scary therapy is banned in California. On the same day Babbit won her Frameline award (June 22), the news broke about Alan Chambers, the leader of the largest conversion therapy group “Exodus” who resigned, apologized and admitted he was attracted to men.
When I first interviewed Babbit in Paris in 2000, I could barely pronounce her name or get a grasp on the title of this new film. She proceeded to win the Audience and Graine de Cinéphage (youth prize) awards at Créteil Films de Femmes. On stage she told the audience she was surprised she won since she had been told that the French didn’t have a sense of humor. Clearly the humor in this film and those to follow is international and has attracted a dedicated following. Babbit struck an accord with LGBT spectators from the beginning.
In 2002, we met again in Cologne at Internationales Frauenfilmfestival (International Women’s Film Festival) where Babbit’s black comedy short screened – “Stuck”, about two aging lesbians with a long overdue spat who hit something living on a desert road with their pickup. Producer and partner Andrea Sperling and Babbit attended my lecture on filmmaker Maya Deren at the festival. Deren was about the same age as Babbit (26) when she made her first short film and the avantgarde filmmaker is one of Sperling’s mentors. Ace producer Sperling received the Frameline Award in 2007.
We met again at Frameline five years later. I had recommended Babbit’s film that screened that year at Frameline – “Itty Bitty Titty Committee”(2007) to a film festival in Sweden. The intelligent and hilarious script by Babbit, Sperling Tina Mabry and Abi Shafran is about the birth of a young woman’s political awareness and her involvement in an extremists group, which was a refreshing sign that the torch of feminist activism had been passed to a younger generation of lesbians.
A native of Shaker Heights in Cleveland, Babbit made a segment of the compilation film “Made in Cleveland”(2013) that was released in June.
After the award on June 22 and screening, Babbit and Andrea Sperling, producer of Babbit’s latest film “Breaking the Girls” came up on stage with writer Guinevere Turner, one of the most productive actresses and writers in lesbian filmmaking behind several episodes of “The L Word”. Multiply that by Rose Troche who was at Frameline Thursday night as producer of the opening film “Concussion” directed by Stacie Passon, and who worked on “Go Fish” with Turner.
“Breaking the Girls” is a lesbian thriller about a double homicide. Babbit said it was made on a shoestring budget and that Sperling can make a buck stretch a long way. The tint of the film is dark, fitting the noir ambiance of the film, which today is the equivalent of the black and white of the 1950’s genre. Babbit threw in some Patricia Highsmith touches – a snail that grossed out Turner but was insistent on keeping in the script.
The story opens with Sarah (Agnes Brukner) who works at a bar and is hit on by the homicidal tipsy hipster Alex (Madeline Zima). Later they return to her condo, break a few glasses make out in a hot tub and attend a party for a Taxidermy conference. As they enter the space there is a stuffed pig on its back, feet up, evoking Hitchcock. Alex falls for Sarah but its complicated since she since she hates her stepfather’s girlfriend Nina (Kate Levering) so much that vengeance gets in the way.
The feature has more than a few surprising twists and turns that fuel the plot. Babbit said she appreciated the humor in the audience that Frameline is renowned for during this annual 10-day festival. The slick collaboration of Babbit and Turner on the script includes casting the commanding seasoned veteran Detective Ross – the fabulous Davenia McFadden – who works to solve the homicides. Turner revealed at the Q&A that she is sometimes actor sometimes writer: when she gets sick of people she writes and when she’s lonely she acts.
In addition to films, Jamie Babbit has directed dozens of TV shows such as “Drop Dead Diva”, “United States of Tara”, “Ugly Betty”, “The Gilmore Girls”, and “Emily Owens M.D”. You will always find a female character with sharp skills in the centerfold of her films.
Babbit creates believable lesbian characters and scenarios that have endeared her to the public. She is a clever and resourceful filmmaker with a great sense of the bizarre, the comic and real and immediate LGBT issues. She clearly deserves this honor tonight at Frameline.