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HBO’s LGBT History: Tidy Endings (1988)

Manuel is working his way through all the LGBT-themed films and miniseries produced and distributed by HBO.

Last week we gave a brief overview of the purpose of this small miniseries and we went down memory lane as we reminisced about our favorite LGBT characters from HBO TV shows. All of your comments made me want to pop in episodes of The Wire, The Comeback, Oz, Sex and the City, The Larry Sanders Show, Game of Thrones and True Blood, even! Unsurprisingly, though, most of you singled out Six Feet Under’s David Fisher (Michael C. Hall), definitely one of the most well-rounded gay men that has ever graced our television screens. How appropriate then that we officially kick off the series with a death and a metaphorical haunting.

Tidy Endings (1988)
Directed by: Gavin Millar
Written by: Harvey Fierstein
Starring: Stockard Channing, Harvey Fierstein.

By 1988, when HBO first aired Tidy Endings, its first gay-themed TV film, the cable network was still in the process of breaking away from being merely another cable provider. After successfully building from its subscriber base in Pennsylvania and New York by becoming one of the first cable providers to transmit their signals via satellites in 1975, HBO entered the 1980s understanding that while Hollywood reruns were its bread and butter, it would need to create its own content if it wanted to distance itself from other rising networks like Showtime and The Movie Channel. [MORE]

In 1983, with The Terry Fox Story, the very first made-for-TV movie, HBO entered the movie business though it would take some years for it to become the powerhouse it is today.

By the time Fierstein wrote and starred in Tidy Endings (an adaptation of the second one-act play that comprised his Safe Sex trilogy), he was already an established stage actor and playwright (having won Tonys for his Torch Song Trilogy, a breakthrough play about gay NYC life as well as for the book of that flamboyant drag queen musical La Cage Aux Folles). Channing, who had been struggling with turning her Grease success into a profitable Hollywood career (her back to back failed CBS sitcoms sound like utter disasters), had returned to her stage roots and Tidy Endings was one of her stepping stones in the late 80s that would prime her for her next big breakthrough role in Six Degrees of Separation (1993) for which she earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress.

Tidy Endings deals with the aftermath of the death of Colin. His ex-wife Marion (Channing), whom he was with for over a decade, and his lover Arthur (Fierstein), who cared for him during his last grueling months of living with AIDS, come together in the loft they’ve sold together (having each inherited half as per Colin’s will) and air out grievances both old and new. It speaks to the type of “socially conscious” content that would come to showcase how HBO, in words of then President and CEO Michael Fuchs, would “play the role of Dickens in American television.”

The film was definitely diagnostic of what networks (both broadcast and cable) were focusing on in the late 1980s. NBC had broken ground with An Early Frost in 1985, a film that focused on the struggle of a young lawyer who must finally come out to his parents and inform them that he’s recently been diagnosed. CBS would soon follow with Go Toward the Light (starring Linda Hamilton) about a young boy diagnosed with AIDS in November 1988, while ABC would air The Ryan White Story (about a haemophiliac boy afflicted with AIDS) in 1989. Even from these short synopsis you can glimpse what types of films about the crisis were making it to television screens in the late 80s and which would find their eventual limit case in Jonathan Demme’s 1993’s Tom Hanks Oscar-winning vehicle Philadelphia. All of these films are squarely centered on upwardly mobile white men with plots that return them home and insist on the centrality of Family with capital ‘F’ even as they nudge us (but only so carefully) towards acknowledging those on the outskirts of heteronormativity (will somebody think of the children?)

How the hell do you tell a four-year old that his father is leaving his mother to go sleep with other men?

Tidy Endings is a two-hander that all but lives and dies on the strength of its performers and Fierstein and Channing are luminous. His Arthur is a wounded camp queen whose anger stings more for its humorous asides - few performers can effortlessly switch registers as nimbly as Fierstein. He makes an entire monologue on losing weight as he cared for Colin as funny as it is touching (“My striped socks have stretchmarks!”). Channing is even better. She imbues Marion with a warm candor that refuses to tilt our sympathies too far either side: Marion’s monologue when she breaks down in tears (“So what if I wasn’t everything he wanted? Maybe he wasn’t everything I wanted”) is heartbreaking even as it acknowledges her thorny approach to romantic love. These are two people left broken in the wake of Colin’s loss; Arthur rightfully if selfishly wants to claim all the mourning for himself while Marion who [SPOILER ALERT] admits to being infected with the virus herself, wants to merely honor and cherish the man she loved for so many years.

The piece is, despite its seemingly ironic title, a tad too tidy, wearing its heart on its sleeve in a way that was necessary at the time but which cannot help but feel all too quaint in hindsight. When Marion eventually leaves Arthur to pack up the rest of the loft he’d shared with Colin, we’re left with an empty frame; it’s a theatrical conceit that suggests that the characters have been nudged off stage and we’re encouraged to ponder what it is we just witnessed. The melancholy reflection it encourages is both this modest film’s strength and perhaps its greatest flaw. Visually unremarkable, it is almost exclusively a performance showcase. In its review of the film in 1988, the LA Times noted that while the piece was a tad “showy and self-indulgent”, Fierstein and Channing “bring conviction to the play, and eventually it becomes a passionate appeal for conciliation and respect in the face of the plague.” Twenty-seven years later, while it survives as a fascinating time capsule, there’s little else to say about Tidy Endings though in that appeal it will soon emerge as a template for HBO’s early stabs at LGBT representation.


Did any of you catch Tidy Endings (available here)? How does it strike you from a 2015 vantage point and did it make you ache for more from Stockard Channing roles and a resurgence of Harvey Feirstein's dramatic writing chops?

Next week: HBO teams up with Rob Epstein (The Times of Harvey Milk) and Jeffrey Friedman to produce the film that would garner Epstein his second Oscar, Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt (available to rent/buy on Vimeo).

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Reader Comments (5)

I own an old VCR tape of this. It's dated in its filming techniques and is a bit stagy but Harvey and Stockard make it incredibly moving. Their unfussy performances alone make this worth catching but their more real sometimes warm sometimes tense relationship is a much better reality than the phony baloney one portrayed in Philadelphia where Tom Hanks's family all lined up behind him without question never once wondering what impact it would have on their lives, a natural reaction whether they supported him or not.

May 20, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

I was pleasantly surprised. I liked the fact that it goes right to the chase and that is not particularly over-sentimental or preachy, specially if you compared it to the other tv-movies dealing with the subject at that time.

The tension between Stockard and Harvey strongly reminded me of Anne Bancroft's sublime visit in Torch Song Trilogy which I could watch over and over again.

I adore Stockard Channing and I can't get enough of her.

I think I'm going to LOVE this series. Thank you so much, Manuel.

May 20, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

I love Fierstein's Safe Sex plays and had no idea this existed. Thanks for bringing it to my attention; can't wait to watch. Fierstein's early writings speak fluently and effectively to the mid-80s zeitgeist.

May 20, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterCharles O

I havnt seen Tidy Endings, but I have seen pretty much all the others you mention.

I've met both Harvey & Stockard and know their stage work so I'm looking forward to seeing this.

May 20, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterHenry

HBO was our only link to non. Porn gay content 4 years. I know I kept it in my station bundle at least twice because of that.

May 20, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterHenry

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