two out of twenty
by Douglas Messerli
Leslie Stewart (screenwriter), Roger Tonge (director) Two of Us / 1987, 1988 (re-release with new ending), 2004 USA
That Roger Tonge’s Two of Us was ever produced seems almost inconceivable to a US viewer. Imagine if the United States had a governmental channel such as the British Broadcasting Corporation—for example something like a television production wing of the National Endowment for the Arts—whose executive producer, disturbed by President Ronald Reagan’s response to the AIDS crisis, decided to produce a film about a teenage gay couple who, having contracted AIDS, were about to die because of the President’s refusal to release funds for AIDS research. Or, if that seems too much of a frontal attack Reagan himself, what if someone in such a governmentally connected program decided to write a script aimed especially at high school students wherein two 16 year old Indiana high school swimmers, finding themselves attracted to one another and being bullied and mocked by their peers, decided to run off together to California where they live near the beach, sometimes sharing their tent with a runaway girl, thoroughly enjoying one each other’s company, with the boys managing to elude the police and living happily together until they came of age. And just for fun, the director decides to change the time period to the 1950s, when consensual sex between homosexuals was still against the law. What are the chances of such a movie being made in 1987 or 1988?*
I can assure you that such a film would not only been rejected out of hand, but that no US citizen would possibly have been so fool-hardy to create or propose such a work to such an institution. Indeed, as we know, no such institution even existed in the US.
Yet in Great Britain, playwright and screenwriter Leslie Stewart not only wrote a work aimed at young adults, but she found a willing director in Roger Tonge, who since the late 1960s had directed and produced the BBC series Scene, a mix of documentaries, dramas, and family-oriented works directed toward high school and college students.
In their film the high school junior Phil (Lee Whitlock) is going steady with his girl friend Sharon (Jenny Jay) who like many a high school sweetheart demands his total attention. Phil is a popular student on the school swimming team. But somehow he has remained friends with Matthew (Jason Rush), previously a school swimmer who dropped out of school for his senior year because of the continual bullying he received from fellow classmates for his apparently open expression of being gay.
Even Sharon’s friend Vera (Kathy Burke), despite her belief that Matthew might be the man of her dreams, perceives that Matthew and Phil’s friendship is a strong one that often pulls him away from Sharon just at the moment she wants him to join her in extracurricular activities or to just show off her “conquest” to her friends. Certainly, anyone who perceives Phil’s gentle sensitivity realizes almost immediately that the gum-chewing, constantly chip-consuming Sharon is not the right girl for him.
Early in the film we observe Phil’s and Matthew’s camaraderie and the movement of the eyes as they shower together after a swim. Phil is almost ready to dump his girlfriend any time Matthew calls, yet he has no understanding of why he is drawn to his male friend and no comprehension of how to define that admiration and deep devotion.
Yet one day in school when a teacher attempts to bring up the issue of homosexuality in the classroom, with things quickly getting out of hand as Phil’s homophobic classmates begin to throw epithets out one by one to show their disgust of faggot perverts the teacher attempts to regain the conversation by also noting that, first, homosexuality is against the law, and secondly, statistics suggest that 1 out of every 10 individuals will eventually seek out a same-sex relationship. Before he can get his students to think carefully, given their homophobic preconceptions, one particularly nervous kid jumps up demanding which two out of his 20 fellow classmates are gay. The teacher, eventually quieting him, begins to read a letter from a gay person expressing the difficulties he has had in being coming to terms with his sexuality. But before anyone but a few sympathetic girls can react, the classroom bell rings determining the end of possible insights about non-normative sex..
Clearly something has hit home, however, for Phil, who stays after for a moment to talk with the teacher. The instructor, however, is busy, having to babysit his daughter so he doesn’t have the time for a chat. But it is clear that the question behind the boy’s tentative attempt to communicate is related to the same kinds of question that the hero of the American CBS School Break special of the same year asks in What If I’m Gay? He too seeks out the advice of a school advisor without much success.
Fearful about what his attraction to Matthew portends and attentive to the growing suspicions of Sharon, Phil attempts to steer clear for a while of his boyfriend. But watching him make a perfect high dive into the pool pulls him back into his friend’s orbit. After a first kissing session in the shower and a commitment of “womb to tomb” friendship he brings Matthew back to see Sharon, introducing them to each other as “Matthew meet by girlfriend; Sharon meet by boyfriend,” making it clear that he now perceives them as having equal status in his newfound bisexual reality.
Of course, neither likes the sudden equality, and Sharon, in particular, now sends word around the campus that Phil is queer since he apparently cannot give up the known homosexual Matt.
Meanwhile, even on his way home Matthew is tortured by a torrent of projectiles being thrown from the upper stories of the high rise in which he lives. And when he finally reaches the safety of his apartment his infuriated father is there to greet him, having just discovered his son’s gay porno magazines hidden under his bed.
Their honeymoon paradise, predictably, is out of season, but it doesn’t bother the two in the least who, just happy to finally be able to have each other to themselves without the torrent of abuse with which they’ve just been faced, couldn’t be happier.
In a warren of closed-down beach cabins, they find one open only to discover another person already has taken up encampment, Suzie (Zoë Nathenson) a free-wheeling runaway who, if nothing else, is completely open to sharing the space with them with no strings attached. She also has the advantage of knowing her way around the place, keeping clear of those who might cause trouble and attending to the food stands where she can nab free eats.
She even shares their tent, insistently sleeping in between them for warmth. But they have now become desirous of just being together and finally, although they admit their fondness for her, send her away. Soon after she his captured by the police and bundled off, presumably from whence she came.
The boys themselves have been caught cuddling together in the tent by policeman, who instead of arresting them, thankfully, just forces them to decamp. Besides, to keep the authorities off their own necks, the writer and director have whipped up an unbelievable sidebar of the plot wherein the boys kiss and cuddle but don’t yet aren’t ready to touch their penises. They’re romantics, they claim, not yet ready for sex.
Yet all is not perfect in their conjugal paradise. Phil is still having some difficulties in leaving his previous identities in the past and, unknown to Matthew, finally telephones Sharon, who without hesitation is speeding their way, so he finally admits, to recapture her “fella.” When asked by Matthew, what he plans to do by bringing her to them, Phil admits he hasn’t the vaguest idea.
Despite her refusal, he insists that she confront Matthew, witnessing the remnants of their relationship as well. She does so, but as quickly as she can, pulls Phil off and with tickets in hand intends to drag him back home.
As Matthew slowly takes down the tent, folds it up, and begins to pack it away, obviously determined to continue on his own into the new frontiers which Phil is not yet ready to embrace, we see the train speeding across the landscape. It is a sad ending, but almost inevitable given the circumstances of the British societal attitudes of the day.
Fortunately, that ending was the second one forced upon the studio in its re-release the following year in 1988. In the original 1987 version, Phil shows up, joining his now truly life-time friend for a swim in the ocean. It appears they might be able to hold out at least until they grow of legal age or, despite Phil’s sea-sickness make their way across the English Channel where they will be safe.
In the same year, in June 1987, Thatcher addressed the Conservative congress in Blackpool, emboldened by the rise in homophobia created in part by the AIDS/HIV crisis and commentary in the right wing press, arguing her belief that "Children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay. All of those children are being cheated of a sound start in life. Yes, cheated."
To waylay further attacks, BBC, which had originally planned to air this film during the daytime hours, changed it to nights. And the next year, the Thatcher government issued Section 28 which called for banning the “promotion” of homosexuality by local authorities and in Britain’s schools which meant, when put into practice, that teachers were prohibited from discussing even the possibility of same-sex relationships with students. Libraries were forbidden to hold material that contained gay or lesbian themes.
Without knowing the precise schedule of the plans for enacting that horrifying provision, one can only conjecture whether the BBC movie was an early response for what the media knew was soon coming or another example of what Thatcher saw as how children were being cheated of their traditional moral values.
The LGBT community immediately decried the implementation of such recidivist provisions, many regularly protesting parliamentary sessions. On May 23, 1988, activists stormed the BBC offices, handcuffing themselves to a TV camera and disrupting a broadcast of the Six O’Clock News. In Manchester more than 20,000 people marched against the provision, actor Ian McKellen among them, publicly coming out as a gay man.
The clause was not revoked until June 2001 when Scotland voted it out. In 2003 it was repealed in the rest of the United Kingdom. By that time, surely, the middle aged Phil and Matthew had already sent up a London flat or flown off to Paris to start new lives.
*You might recall that, in 1989, during the Reagan administration museums that had received NEA funding to exhibit art works by Andres Serrano (who had created a photograph titled “Piss Christ) and Robert Mapplethorpe (a homosexual who had recently died of AIDS and created photographs of nude gay males) did, in fact, create a huge row in Congress, resulting in several members threatening to gut the National Endowment for the Arts Funding and, despite an eventual temporary compromise, resulting in the Endowment’s refusal to fund controversial performance artists Karen Finley, Holly Hughes, John Fleck, and Tim Miller (who came to be known as the NEA Four), all of them having ties to the LGBTQ communities, whose works were described as obscene. Today all of these artists, the two artist photographers and the performance-based artists are widely recognized for their numerous contributions, none of which is now perceived of as being obscene by the artistic community or most museum and theater-goers. My husband Howard, in fact, was on the NEA panel that originally chose to fund Serrano and was formerly the president of the board of the Washington Project for the Arts which took on the Mapplethorpe show when the Corcoran Gallery of Art cancelled it because of the controversy. That year I refused to apply for a NEA grant from my Sun & Moon Press—despite the fact that my press had received NEA grants for the previous 9 years—writing letters to the Head of the Literature Program of the NEA and to several senators and congresspeople explaining my decision to protest their decisions. Even today I cannot quite forgive Dianne Feinstein, the only one who answered my letter, for her statement that she supported the NEA decisions concerning the four rejected artists. I later became acquainted with John Fleck and Tim Miller and published a play by Holly Hughes.
Los Angeles, February 26, 2021
Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (February 2021).