I’m not a zeitgeist-y kind of guy. But in the age of Covid, I’ve decided to throw caution to the wind and subscribe to Netflix like all the cool kids, and in the past week I’ve been sampling the fare. I’ve been catching up with some of my favorite stars, and studying some of the creators who seem to setting trends in the entertainment business.
Which brings me to The Prom. I had no expectations. Prior to watching the film, I caught up with some of Ryan Murphy’s offerings on Netflix with mixed reactions. Loved Boys in the Band. A little indifferent to Hollywood. Much less indifferent to The Politician. I’ll settle in to peruse all of the American Horror Story offerings at some point. I settled in for The Prom because it’s digestible in a two-hour running time.
I was not disappointed. I think it plays like a fine, aged episode of Glee. That’s not necessarily bad. Fresh, young, pretty faces. Tried and true talent in spotlighted supporting roles. Not deep, but not everything has to be Medea. If you’ve got Meryl Streep, you use her. Murphy did. But if you’ve got Nicole Kidman, you use her too, and Murphy criminally did not. Nicole Kidman gives a fun, playful performance – something I thought was not possible. Andrew Rannels is a song and dance man that should be given all the Broadway musicals.
And then there’s James Corden.
My usual routine is to watch a piece, form my opinion, and then check in with some of my most respected reviewers to see what they thought. And holy glitter, Batman, were there thoughts! I’ll address some of them in bullet points.
1. Stereotypes/Archetypes: The James Corden’s character is so thinly drawn I can’t even remember his name. None of the story arches are going to set the world on fire with originality, but the James Corden character (henceforth to be referred to as JC) is the most problematic, digging deep into dusty tropes of gay men living quiet lives of alienation and desperation. If there’s a justification for it, it’s as acting to a counterpoint to the freedom the young lead is fighting for.
2. Musical Performance: Performing a musical on film ain’t for sissies. Material that’s written to be belted to the back of the house is hard to pitch to a high-def television camera. Some people can do it. Some people cannot. Sorry Mr. Corden.
3. Straight Men Playing Gay Men (and vice-versa): I get it. James Corden is a STAR. But so is Billy Porter. Was he not available? Many have offered Nathan Lane as an alternative. Acceptable. There are a few straight men who can give an authentic portrayal as gay men. Jake Gyllenhaal, Andrew Garfield, Robert Downey, Jr., Mark Ruffalo. There are a few others. Then there are actors who cannot. Mel Gibson, Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, Shia Labeouf, Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon… It’s a longer list. For those who can, they really need an assist from the script. The gay characters can’t rely on swishy stereotypes. No gay character should, but as stated before, The Prom ain’t deep.
4. Give James Corden A Break: The poor guy did the best he could with a character that demands effeminate stereotypes. Had Mr. Corden gone to the manic levels of acting that the material demands and chewed the scenery left untouched by La Streep’s performance (which isn’t much), he’d be rightfully crucified for an offensive stereotypical portrayal. Billy Porter could have found the nuance in the millimeter deep material and done it with heart. But he’s gay. He gets it. James Corden isn’t, and he can’t. No shame in his game, except maybe he shouldn’t have taken the part in the first place. His rent is paid, if you know what I’m saying.
5. Diversity: Why were all of the people of color in this film in supporting roles? THIS film! This one! Billy Porter not available? Get RuPaul. Hell, John Leguizamo (not gay, I know, but he’d have done it right). B.D. Wong. Hell, I’ll bet even Denzel could have done it! There were enough stars on that marquee, I’m sure there’s a lesser-known Broadway hoofer of color and a certain age who could have pulled it off.
In summation and in conclusion, The Prom is flawed, but not fatally so. It’s kind of long for a televised musical, but it moves quickly and there’s plenty of fun to be had. I laughed. I cried. I was less offended by James Corden than most.