The Tao of Barbra and the #BigGayThrill as told by Mitchell Fain

Here’s a piece Mitchell has performed called “The Tao of Barbra.” No last name necessary. I have known Mitchell since college, and I have heard him talk about “The Tao of Barbra” since our earliest days as friends. What Mitchell can do – almost like no other – is CONTEXTUALIZE a gigantic cultural phenomenon like Barbra. It’s important. Because nothing comes from nothing. We all stand on the shoulders of giants. And what do these iconic figures MEAN to those who love them? To the LGBTQ audience who have, in many cases, held the torch up for the rest of us?

The Tao of Barbra

by Mitchell Fain

I’m not a religious person. At all. But I am spiritual, and while I believe that each person’s spirituality is as individual as their thumbprint, and that I don’t need to constantly show you my thumbprint or convince you that my thumbprint is better than yours for it to be real — I am going to share a bit of my spirituality with you this evening.

It’s very simple. It’s called The Tao of Barbra. The Way of Barbra. The guiding principles being the life and times and music and lyrics and films of our Goddess and Savior, Barbra Joan Streisand (Barbra with two A’s, and Streisand with a soft ‘s’, like “sand on the beach”).

The philosophy involves a familiar concept: the Holy Trinity. I’ve heard that some doctrines have other versions, but mine is, of course, The Mother, The Daughter, and The Holy Jewess: Judy. Liza. Barbra.

Gay men have always loved and needed the guidance and inspiration of powerful women with other-worldly talents. Why? I’m not sure. I’m not a psychiatrist or a sociologist or an anthropologist, but I am a gay man and a believer, so I’ll try to explain my theory.

Gay boys are magic! We are magical and different. Too often our frightened, unprepared fathers recede, and our Mother’s natures abhor a vacuum, so they rush in to build us up. Therefore, the old damaging misogynistic trope of the Evil Dominant Mother and The Emasculated Passive Father creating Homosexual boys is bullshit. Scaredy-cat men, raised to believe that “beer, boobs and baseball” is the only valid parenting tool for their sons, often fail to see the beauty and power and strength of their more than binary sons. And so we NEED that goddess energy to find our “way”. Thank Goddess!

And thank Goddess for the creation of the Movie Star!

When I was 7, I knew that I loved Judy Garland. I would go into my grandmother Bessie’s room and put on the album Judy at Carnegie Hall. I was the only 7-year-old that I KNEW of who had it memorized.

I could lipsync every word to “Stormy Weather” before I even knew that I was gay or that she was a gay icon or even that she was the same human who played Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. It was my first experience of the BGT. The Big Gay Thrill. That glorious, gorgeous, electric feeling when something joyful ripples in the Gay Universe, like any time Bette Davis wielded a cigarette or any time a shaft of light crossed Joan Crawford’s miraculous face, or the opening number of every single episode of the Cher show, or when Bette Midler sang goodbye to Johnny Carson for all of us.

These iconic moments in the Gay Canon are endless and endlessly important to those of us who understand and are connected to their flow.

Judy has a very special place atop the Pantheon. From the moment she stepped through the door from sepia-toned Kansas into the Technicolor of Munchkinland she represented us. The need for something more. The need to be seen for ALL of our colors. “Friends of Dorothy” is a coded euphemism for a gathering of gay men. In a time when the mere fact of being gay was criminalized, we needed to meet, we needed connection, we needed to get laid. We met at Judy’s live shows. Literally. It was one of the few places to at least SEE other gay men. A place that was not a windowless, risky, mob-owned seedy bar.

Judy and the other women in the Pantheon have always been our safe havens. Remarkably, she even acknowledged this as true, in her time. She is the ultimate gay icon. And despite her well-publicized troubles with drugs and alcohol and mental illness, her body of work, (freakishly impressive for a women often described as a “mess” by the powerful men who used and bankrupted her) remains a pinnacle of excellence, proving that she was the single greatest entertainer of all time.

Even the famously egocentric Sinatra said, “The rest of us will be forgotten, but not Judy”. When Queen Aretha Franklin was asked who she thought was the greatest soul singer, besides herself, she responded, “If you are asking about singing from the soul rather than ‘soul music’, then it is Judy Garland.” To continue my religious analogy: Judy died for our sins. She lived too hard. She loved too hard. She gave too much and, sadly, took in too little. She smoked and drank and laughed; and, as actor James Mason put it in his eulogy at her legendary funeral, “She simply wore herself out”.

Being an acolyte of all the grand divas – and I do mean all (feel free to ask me about one if you see me later) – I’ve noticed how our divas have changed with the social and personal acceptance of gay people in our culture. We loved Judy: the wounded songbird who sang all of our pain in every note. We loved Barbra, the “ugly duckling” who convinced the world that “different” was beautiful. We loved Liza, the plucky overeager kid who made it big. And, of course, Bette, the busty broad who said “Fuck it.” And then Diana and Cher and Tina and Donna and on and on … all fighting against the lowered expectations of the dominant straight white male culture.

Then we got Madonna. Now, she can’t really sing and certainly can’t act, but she changed the game. She stopped apologizing. It, unfortunately, led to an era of less-than-gifted pop icons. The gays love them as demi-goddesses, for sure. I’m talking to you, Britney (she real cute but … ya know?).

Now, as the Gay Universe is wont to do, we have embraced a new generation of worthy Divas. We had Whitney and Mariah, and now the double-barreled Big Gay Thrill of Beyoncé and Lady Gaga. Both take inspiration and aspiration from the Divas of yore. Both acknowledge their ancestors. A huge part of the Tao of Barbra is understanding gay history, politically and sexually and musically.

In 1954 Judy Garland, after being told – by the same men who introduced her, as a child, to the drugs that would eventually kill her – that she was washed up, she, along with her husband at the time, independently produced the first musical version of A Star is Born. Her performance and the film itself is still hailed by critics as the “greatest female performance” in the history of cinema.

Directed by George Cukor, written by playwright Moss Hart with original songs by Ira Gershwin and Harold Arlen and co-starring her future eulogist, James Mason, Judy’s Oscar loss that year to Grace Kelly is still a point of contention and sadness for those of us who believe in The Tao.

In 1964, a then-burgeoning legend named Barbra Streisand appeared on the Judy Garland Show. Pre-Funny Girl, pre-movie stardom, she was being hailed as the New Judy Garland as Garland was being scrutinized by her male bosses at CBS as “over the hill.” In front of a live audience, the women grabbed hands, and Judy whispered to her new favorite protégée, “Let’s show them.” They did. Watch their “Happy Days are Here Again/Get Happy” mash-up duet if you truly want to understand what the #BigGayThrill is all about.

In 1976, Barbra remade the musical A Star is Born, with new story ideas by Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne and original songs, including a few by none other than Barbra herself, sharing an Oscar for Best Song with lyricist Paul Williams (of “Rainbow Connection” fame). The male critics savaged Babs for her clothes and her nose and the sheer audacity to film herself singing live on screen in an 11-minute master class in performance that ended the film.

Ironic criticism, considering she was at the time, and is STILL, the most successful female recording artist in history. The film and the soundtrack were smash successes and established her as not only a film star but also as a filmMAKER.

Now on October 5th, the newest version of A Star is Born will go into wide release. Starring the self-named Lady Gaga, co-starring and directed by Hollywood It-boy Bradley Cooper, with original songs by Gaga and others.

Gaga and Cooper screened it for Barbra. She has seen it and given her Divine approval. Lorna Luft (Judy’s second oldest daughter) was invited to the premiere last week at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles – the setting of her mother’s climactic moment 64 years ago. Luft has seen it and declared that her mother would be the first to stand in ovation.

Lady Gaga is the gay icon of the 21st century. She started as a musical theater gal, and she honed her craft and her style and her creativity in gay bars surrounded by drag queens and Queers of every shape and size and color. It’s her turn. It’s the Tao. The Way. She’s ready, and I am ready. I am prepared to sit in a darkened movie theater and let the wave of Big Gay Thrills wash over me.

I will honor the ghosts of Bette Davis and Marlene Dietrich and I will glory in the continuing spiritual presence of Judy Garland and I will trust in the benevolent praise of our Savior Barbra Streisand, (soft ‘s’ like “sand on the beach”), and while I maintain that my spirituality is no better or worse than yours, I can promise you, it is a lot more fabulous.

May the Goddess be with you.

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10 Responses to The Tao of Barbra and the #BigGayThrill as told by Mitchell Fain

  1. Stevie says:

    Love you both so much! XOXO Stevie

  2. Maureen says:

    Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful! A Star Is Born with Barbra was my mother’s favorite movie, we had the 8 track tape at home and played it over, and over. I was quite emotional just watching the trailer for the new movie, I will be bringing a lot of tissues!

  3. Ian says:

    This is dead on. Saw the new one last night and felt the Big Gay Thrill all over at that last scene. Love this.

    • sheila says:

      Ian – saw it yesterday and felt all the Big Gay Thrills – for me, the biggest was the first time she joined him onstage. I thought my head would explode.

      It was wonderful, I thought – PLUS the “hat tip” to Judy with her singing “Over the Rainbow” in that opening moment – gulp!!!

  4. Desirae says:

    I saw A Star Is Born last night and cried three times and have been listening to the soundtrack for hours so I think I can say it was extremely successful. It understood both the need for the kind of giant beautiful stars Mitchell talks about here (Gaga, Bradley Cooper) and the character actors that absolutely need to surround them in order to give a movie its foundation (including the great Sam Elliot, who is responsible for at least one of those crying jags). It’s wonderfully old-fashioned in that way. It revived what I thought was a dead genre: the heartfelt and intelligent melodrama. There’s very little as good for catharsis as a good melo and we could all use some of that right now. Case in point — I just googled ‘catharsis’ to make sure I was spelling it right and the first image that popped up was Andy Dufresne standing in the rain at the end of The Shawshank Redemption.

    I bet Mitchell is gonna love it.

    • sheila says:

      Desirae – I totally cosign everything you said. I thought it was wonderful – and emotionally on point. It WENT there, it wasn’t “too cool” for any of that – I was a wreck, and my friend was too.

      Sam Elliott!! Oh my GOD.

      I love that you say it’s “wonderfully old-fashioned” – I so agree.

      and how about Andrew Dice Clay!! Thought he was great. Very real.

      I can’t wait to see it again.

  5. Tigh Malone says:

    That was some great writing Mitchell and you hit the nail on the head! Cheers to you!!!

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