Norman, Is That You?

When it’s time to change you’ve got to rearrange
★★★★
☆☆☆☆
Released: 
1976
Director: 
George Schlatter
Starring: 
Redd Foxx, Pearl Bailey, Dennis Dugan, Michael Warren, Tamara Dobson
The Setup: 
Redd Foxx discovers that his son is gay.
Discussion: 

I saw a trailer for this on Afro Promo, the collection of movie trailers for movies featuring African-Americans. It looked like what it is; a highly tendentious “wacky” comedy in which an uptight black man realizes that his son is gay. The trailer featured the son’s white lover saying “oh FAAAAAA-bulous!” not less than three times, and trumpets the presence of Waylon Flowers and Madam. Obviously I needed to see it, NOW. But it is [not so] shockingly out of print! So I found an old VHS copy on eBay and took the risk of buying it.

The movie opens with Redd Foxx on a bus, while we hear Smokey Robinson sing one of the theme songs, which goes “he’s just an old-fashioned man, living in a brand new world,” which immediately announced the film’s intentions: we’re going to watch the traditional Redd Foxx [RF] deal with “the sexual revolution” as personified by his gay son and his flaming roommate. It would seem that RF’s wife has left him for his brother, who works with him at “the store” back in Phoenix. He has taken the bus to visit his son Norman is Los Angeles.

We also find out that we are to be treated to Thelma Houston singing a song called "One Out of Every Six," which can only set expectations HIGH.

So as RF arrives, Norman, wearing nothing but powder-blue bikini shorts, gets out of his waterbed to answer the door. Trying to buy time by making his elderly father take the stairs to what appears to be the 60th floor, Norman tries to wake his lover, who steadfastly refuses to budge. It was just to the point where I wrote “WHY won’t he wake up?” when suddenly he does, and me and my friend’s jaws dropped for the first of many times as we are presented with our first glimpse of the blue-eyed, swirl-hairdoed Garson, Norman’s white live-in lover, who just “had the most faaaaaabulous dream…” Garson is a flaming queen of a type that can ONLY be imagined as emerging from 1976 L.A. He has dresses and a purse and big clunky jewelry, and seems to have modeled both his look and persona on Carol Brady from The Brady Bunch. His appearance prompted a long discussion between me and my friend about whether people like this actually existed at one time, me arguing that they did, based on those cartoons one used to see in The Advocate where a guy with a mustache would be dressed like Carmen Miranda and standing by a punch bowel saying “Nessie lost her cockring in the clam dip—again!” or something like that. But it is quite interesting to ponder, based on this performance, the vast changes that the degree of acceptance gays have gained since 1976, and how they have in many ways made such reactive and aggressive femme personas obsolete.

Norman, like a shit, orders his lover to find somewhere else to stay during his father’s visit. Garson announces his finely-honed passive-aggressive skills by telling Norman that “a traumatic event of this magnitude could bring out my repressed hostilities.” Anyway, RF is let in. He wonders immediately about the purple curtains, and soon meets Garson. It is worth noting that RF’s initial reaction to Garson is: “It’s nice to meet you. Any friend of Norman’s is a friend of mine.” This is, however, before he realizes that the two of them are gay.

Garson goes to stay with Waylon Flowers, and Madam answers the phone when Norman calls. For those of you too young to remember, Madam is this marionette of a zesty, wickedly lusty old lady in extreme makeup and costume jewelry, and Waylon Flowers is this blond guy that looks like a suburban hairdresser and operates Madam. As Garson talks to Norman, Waylon brings out this black marionette in the Nina Simone mold, and she sings a song into the telephone while Norman is trying to have a serious conversation. Waylon and Madam later appear out of nowhere performing their schtick in an elevator. The result is to make Waylon appear to be quite borderline psychotic, as, you know, most people don’t see the need to communicate through a marionette while not on stage. Am I watching Magic II?

So RF attempts to reach his wife in Mexico, necessitating this long, ostensibly “comic” scene in which he tries to communicate with two crude Mexican stereotypes, while subtitles that in no way match the spoken conversation appear on screen. While he is on the phone, Garson comes in to pack his dress [and only his dress], and RF confronts him. With a burst of 70s soul music meant to evoke his dawning revelation [but sounding more like we’re about to hear a very special track by The Emotions], he realizes that his son is gay.

His first impulse is “I’ll kill him. I’ll kill him.” Then RF goes on a long walk, wherein he cycles through all of the thoughts a confused parent might have, such as “maybe we toilet trained him too soon.” His thoughts are all triggered by something he sees on his walk, for instance a burly truck driver appearing just as he is contemplating what makes a real man [below]. Surprisingly, he goes to a bookstore and buys about eight books on homosexuality. This, it must be said, is about eight more books on homosexuality than MY parents bought. He then goes straight to a park bench and reads them all! All of these scenes comprise a few of the remarkable number of long monologues RF delivers throughout the course of the movie. Oh, did I mention that this whole thing is based on a Broadway play?

RF now goes back to Norman’s, where he reasons that since Norman always caught the ball while playing catch, he couldn’t possibly be gay. He also concludes that Norman must be on drugs instead of being gay, and says “Thank God my son is on drugs!” Those who think that everything in this movie is exaggerated may be interested to know that a VERY similar line was uttered by my father soon after learning that I was gay. Anyway, he picks up the phone to Garson, calling him “velvet pants,” and tells him that his relationship with Norman is over.

RF then hires Audrey, a six-foot Amazon prostitute [in this amazing fur thing] played by Tamara Dobson of Cleopatra Jones. He hired her for Norman to try out heterosexuality, but this pisses Norman [who has finally grown some spine], and he storms out to go stay with his friend Melody.

Then Garson comes over and offers to take RF out for the night. He commiserates over the loss of RF’s wife, and tells the tale of his own mother, who harbors an irrational prejudice against Pilippinos because “she was molested at a luau.” At this point my friend and I had to turn the movie off in order to have a 30-second hysterical laughing fit, repeating over and over: “SHE WAS MOLESTED AT A LUAU!!!” My friend and viewing mate also was heard to utter: “I cannot believe any of the things I am seeing here.”

We come back to this crazy scene in which RF and Garson, now bonding, go through a bizarre routine in which RF’s homophobia prevents him from saying the word “Flambé.” They attend a LONG featured performance of Wayon and Madam, which culminates in Madam violently bashing her head against the piano until her hair comes loose. Once more, mouths were agape.

So it seems that, wouldn’t ya just know it, RF and Garson have a wonderful evening together! You see, staid, traditional older black men just have to see the crappy, highly-effeminate entertainment of mega-queens in order to come around to ALL the gay world has to offer! It’s really JUST that simple! This still does not prevent RF from yelling “Rape!” when Garson wakes him from a bad dream.

And oh yes, ladies and gents, there is a DREAM SEQUENCE. But a pretty short one. RF dreams that he is in some sort of Liberace-type outfit with matching wig, and is accepting some sort of award. Meanwhile, innocent dumbfuck Norman is spending the night at Melody’s house, and she—well, wait a minute, let’s go back and talk about Melody. She is this woman who has a very distinctive face that is kind of pretty and yet at the same time looks like one of those Muppets from The Dark Crystal. Anyway, so Melody, like all fag hags [we are led to believe] is secretly pining for Norman, and gets him drunk in order to seduce him! Her idea of seduction, however, is apparently to get him drunk and then go to bed, because in the morning she ASKS him if he ravaged her. This is after the movie has made clear that she is not drinking as much as he, so uh, shouldn’t she KNOW? And doesn’t she know that when you have a drunk person, a GAY drunk person that you’re trying to make sleep with a woman, that YOU have to make the first move? Girl doesn’t even deserve Norman, and he’s a total lunkhead. She then does not offer a positive portrayal of “female friends of gays” when she gets pissed at him for not fucking her! That’s what I love about this movie—it’s trying to be all sensitive, yet it’s SO OFFENSIVE!

SPOILERS > > >
Then RF calls Norman’s apartment and talks to Garson and says “I’ll be home in a bit.” And you, the viewer, are like “Oh, I get it, he called Norman’s apartment home.” But that might be too subtle FOR SOME, so to make extra sure that even preschoolers catch it, they have Garson clutch his chest in delight and say “Oh! He called this home!” Also arriving at the apartment is Beatrice, RF’s wife who left him for his brother, only now she’s left the brother and she, too, is going to Norman’s to seek support. Beatrice is played by Pearl Bailey, who doesn’t make much of an impression. By this time it is evident that RF and Garson have established a kind of familiar rapport, notable when Garson calls RF “Bully!” and without a beat RF retorts: “Bitch!” RF’s brother calls looking for Beatrice, but ends up with his aggrieved brother, who, to punish his brother for betraying him and running away with his wife, says: “From now on at the store… YOU open up.” Then Norman shows up [you might have noticed that Norman himself is actually quite scarce during this movie], and it turns out that he’s JOINED THE NAVY! So you think “Okay, NO WAY is this movie going to let Norman join the Navy, so there’s going to be some whole madcap scene to get him out and—Jesus, how long is this movie going to GO ON?” But no, the movie presents this whole thing as THE ANSWER to the problem! What’s more, RF suggests that Garson move with he and Pearl to Arizona, and he can work in “the store!” [I don’t think we ever find out what kind of store this is]. Garson is THRILLED with this arrangement [I think he actually says something to the effect of it’s "a dream come true"]. So let’s see if I have this straight: this very effeminate, socially-connected L.A. gay is going to give everything up—including his lover—and move to Arizona with this black couple he barely knows and work in some store of unknown character? Yes, dear reader, that’s about it. Then they all decide to go out to dinner, and you’re like “HOW THE FUCK LONG IS THIS MOVIE GOING TO GO ON?!?!” when suddenly IT ENDS. Oh wait, but first, RF, for the 67th time, ponders the fact that one out of every six people have had a homosexual experience [this is from Kinsey], and points AT the audience [SHATTERING the fourth wall!] and counts off two groups of six people! Obviously NO ONE who views this film will be able to deny the personal indictment that this scene represents. It’s on the screen—and IN YOUR FACE! < < < SPOILERS END

This theme is followed through with the closing number, “One Out Of Every Six,” as promised, performed in the song stylings of Ms. Thelma Houston. Now I was SO [SO SO SO] looking forward to a desperate, defiant plea for tolerance and universal love and understanding as expressed through a disco song sung by Thelma Houston, but sadly [for me] the song is one of these sort of cabaret-type anthem songs along the lines of “I Am What I Am” or some such.

So now, what do we think? There was so much that was just off. This movie was apparently shot on video and transferred to film, and boy does it show, because the whole look [and writing and performances] are SO 70s sitcom. Then there’s the issues with the story. For example, WHAT is the basis of Norman and Garson ’s relationship? They don’t seem to have ANY rapport, and Norman has no qualms whatsoever about kicking Garson out, and even when he comes around to stand up for himself, he never defends Garson or talks about their relationship. Then there’s things like the fact that we look out Norman’s window and see that he’s on the 60th floor of this high-rise, but are we supposed to understand that he’s rich? Never explained. There were some kind of sweetly quaint touches like RF going to buy all those books on homosexuality—and THEN sitting right down on the park bench to read them! I like the idea that a parent would actually try to find something out about homosexuality, rather than just run off to get drunk or commiserate with his friends.

Other than that, it’s kind of just what it seems like: a little relic of a bygone era, an era in which some gay people thought that if uptight straight people just sat down and watched a drag marionette performance, we could all learn to love and understand one another! And because of the whole naiveté of this thing, the extreme stereotypes and message-laden dialogue just come off as charmingly outdated, and provide a great deal of grist for discussion on how things have changed for gays in the past 30 years. I guess the only thing that seems offensive is the idea that gays’ female friends are desperately in love with them, and are willing to get them drunk in order to sleep with, and by extension convert, them.

The director of this film previously directed The Dinah Shore Special, and went on to direct Frank, Liza, and Sammy: The Ultimate Event. The real biography surprise is Dennis Dugan, the actor who played Garson. Expecting to find that he made a few films and was mostly on Broadway, imagine my surprise to find that in addition to maintaining a successful character acting career, he has become the director or choice for Adam Sandler vehicles, and directed Happy Gilmore, Big Daddy, Saving Silverman, and the recent The Benchwarmers! The IMDb lists him as being married twice, and looking back, that can be a little off-putting: so this super-flaming caricature is how a straight person THINKS gay people act? That’s how I accounted for the absolute dearth of chemistry and affection between Norman and Garson; I assumed both actors are straight. And that’s the mystery of this movie: such good, sensitive intentions, such a bizarre, borderline-offensive product. Oh dear.

Should you watch it: 

If you are gay, and are curious about gay portrayals [and sensitive pleas for tolerance!] of the past, you should DEFINITELY try to find this. This thing totally needs to be preserved on DVD for the generations.