Closet Drama

By Debra Weinstein,
author of "Apprentice to the Flower Poet Z"
Wednesday, January 25, 2006


By Joe Keenan

Little, Brown. 361 pp. $24.95

Joe Keenan's "My Lucky Star" is about narcissism, blackmail, prostitution, mistaken identity and obstruction of justice, but mostly it's about the closet. In a poem called "To His Coy Mistress," the 17th-century poet Andrew Marvell wrote, "The grave's a fine and private place,/But none, I think, do there embrace." Marvel perhaps was less familiar with the closet, which for many is a fine place to passionately embrace, though it isn't exactly private.

"My Lucky Star" is told from the point of view of Philip Cavanaugh, a young gay screenwriter who is lured to Hollywood with his writing partner by a former boyfriend who has found the team a lucrative screenwriting assignment. Their job is to adapt "A Song for Greta," a "brutally unfunny" WWII novel, for a Hollywood producer who sees the film as a reunion vehicle for Stephen Donato, a secretly gay Hollywood megastar, and his mother, Diana Malenfant, a screen legend purported to be more terrifying than Faye Dunaway.

We meet Stephen and Diana at a critical moment; they are about to be exposed and humiliated by Diana's sister, Lily, a B-list actress who is hoping to revive her career with the release of a tell-all memoir. Mother and son are afraid that Lily will portray them as they really are: self-involved, boorish and, in Stephen's case, gay.

To keep from losing the "Greta" deal, Philip offers himself as a ghostwriter to Aunt Lily. He lacks credentials, of course, but "My Lucky Star" is a farce and a ghostwriting gig can be had with a small bribe to a literary agent. So Philip starts meeting daily with Lily in a dilapidated home where her brother entertains male prostitutes. These prostitutes will appear later in the book at Les Etoiles, a luxury spa owned by Moira Finch, an evil character from an earlier Joe Keenan novel. Moira aspires to be a producer and secretly films Donato and other powerful A-list men in her spa's massage rooms.

Surprise! Hollywood is a duplicitous, blackmailing, homophobic den of sin. The point of this satire is to keep the pages turning. Keenan, an Emmy-winning writer and producer of "Frasier," clearly has been schooled in the Academy of Plot. "My Lucky Star" employs the sitcom formula as narrative device; it is fueled by twists and turns, contrivances and coincidences. There's even a car chase.

We live in the age of the shortened attention span and Keenan's reliance on plot is understandable, but remarks are not literature; nor is shtick. Humor is what carries "My Lucky Star" forward, and sometime the jokes are funny and sometimes they fall with a thud. A scene in which Donato is graphically depicted having sex with a well-muscled young man dressed as a gold Oscar statuette is, if nothing else, slapstick. But when writing about gender politics, the writer's humor turns ugly as women are described as "rude cows," "vaginavores" and "penis-lacking albatrosses."

Keenan, who has lived among Hollywood's gentry, is best at simply describing the cadence of their gossip, the inflating and deflating of their egos, and the rise and fall of their fortunes. He can also be a charming historian of the gay experience, reminding the reader how it was to come of age in the 1970s, when the language of same-sex love was coded and an aunt would show her nephew her unconditional acceptance by buying him tickets to a Bette Midler concert.

In his acknowledgments, Keenan thanks his husband, Gerry Bernardi, without whose support and affection he would be "a bitter old queen incapable of spreading sunshine." Clearly, Keenan, the novelist, isn't embracing the closet. He writes also that "My Lucky Star" was 10 years in the making, and though a lot hasn't changed in those years, gay men and women are certainly more visible in the media. It is no small matter that Ellen DeGeneres -- who disclosed her sexual preference in 1997 -- has one of the highest rated daytime television talk shows and an audience eager to dance with her. This winter, with the film release of Annie Proulx's "Brokeback Mountain," and the appearance of that book on national bestseller lists, the American public seems a little closer to acknowledging the complexity of the homosexual experience. One wishes that Keenan would, too. Perhaps Hollywood is ready for him to pen his own memoir.

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