Getting It Right
Gentle and Loving
Ever heard of Jesse Birdsall? No? Well, unless you’ve been watching an awful lot of British TV, I’m not surprised. In fact, even if you’ve seen the handful of movies in which he’s starred you might have forgotten his name.
But I’ve never forgotten this little gem of a gentle movie, which Birdsall carries admirably—and which, under the direction of Randal Kleiser (yes, that Randal Kleiser), features a supporting cast of highly memorable proportions: Lynn Redgrave, Helena Bonham Carter, Sir John Gielgud, Jane Horrocks, Peter Cook.
In a story that prefigures The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Birdsall stars as Gavin Lamb, a 30-year-old dresser of blue-hairs (and little-to-no-hairs) who still lives at home and is admittedly scared of talking to most people—women in particular. He’s anal-retentive in a non-fussy way, very focused on not making mistakes as he wanders his art-appreciative way through life. He’s obedient to and considerate of his parents; he’s a good and loyal to his friends, both gay and straight; he tries not to make waves at work. He’d like to be married someday—if he could ever get past just talking to women—but at all costs wants to make sure he “gets it right.”
The narrative tension comes from four quarters. First, Gavin’s friend Harry is besotted with his loutish and self-absorbed roommate/lover Winthrop. We figure it’s only a matter of time (and style) before Winthrop either gets tossed out or leaves. Second, Gavin encounters Joan, a wealthy and flamboyant woman who has a hard time keeping men, at a posh party—and she deflowers him. Gavin couldn’t possibly think that his relationship with Joan, loving as it is on his end, represents “getting it right,” could he?
Third, at the same party, Gavin encounters the nightmarishly broken Lady Minerva Munday, a broken-from-the-moorings spirit who manages to drag Gavin into all sorts of situations that disturb his carefully managed routine. And finally, as Gavin starts to emerge into his new thirty-something skin, it becomes evident that he won’t long stay in the employ of Mr. Adrian’s hairdressing salon. What will become of Jenny, Gavin’s single-mom assistant?
This is the kind of gentle romantic comedy that’s highly predictable—yet constantly surprising at the same time. Bonham-Carter was certainly an eye-opener in 1989 portraying Munday as a binge-and-purge Goth; in those days, you’d never figure her becoming Tim Burton’s muse, or her Minnie Munday morphing quite logically into Bellatrix Lestrange. The whole quirky family that surrounds Bonham-Carter here also follows a similar off-kilter course, with Gielgud portraying her purchased-title father as a poseur of the worst sort.
Redgrave, as Joan, is also quite a surprise here as well. When I had a chance to talk with Redgrave during the press tour for Peter Pan several years ago, I told her that she always manages to portray characters in a way that communicates, quite subtly, that here is a woman to whom there is much more than meets the eye—and her Joan is a classic example. Kleiser gives her a wonderful moment in which she attempts to direct Gavin’s lovemaking—and gets much more in return than she could possible have expected. I’m not sure who else could have pulled off this role with such aplomb.
What’s also surprising is the matter-of-factness with which Gavin’s gay friends are portrayed. American media, with such mega-fanfare productions as Philadelphia, Angels in America, and Brokeback Mountain, seemed intent on singling out gay men with some sort of saintly and epic glow—and those productions weren’t mounted until 1993, 2003, and 2005, respectively. But by 1989, the year that Getting it Right came out, British cinema had already established a treatment of the subject that presented gay men pretty much in the same vein as everybody else: in search of happiness, but no more or less likely to find it. Think of Another Country (1984), My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), Maurice (1987), or Prick Up Your Ears (also 1987). The sexual orientation of the characters was simply part of the story’s fabric—not the entire point.
But that’s really the entire strength of Getting It Right. Everything here seems completely true to life—even the elements that are bold and garish. Or little bits like Mrs. Lamb’s ghastly experiments with curry and mole (you have to see the film to get it). What drives Gavin is love—and while the film never gets at where love really comes from (and doesn’t even attempt to), there’s no denying that Kleiser’s film gets Gavin’s expression of love absolutely right.
I’m glad to have seen this film again after a very long absence from it. It’s like an old friend to me, particularly as I discovered it when I was myself coming up on thirty—and also determined to “get it right.” Gavin did, I think—and I managed to as well… thank God.
The film has been released as part of MGM’s absolutely-no-frills “Limited Edition Collection”—just the right format for little gems like this.
Getting It Right is rated R, presumably for nudity and sex scenes. That stuff is there, yes—and I agree with the R rating. But this is not at all prurient, though I’m rather sure, at this stage, that Bonham-Carter probably insisted on her nude scene. That bit has always felt rather gratuitous to me.
Courtesy of a national publicist, Greg screened a promotional DVD of Getting It Right.