The Curves of Your Lips Rewrite History: 20 Years of ‘Velvet Goldmine’
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May 22 marks 20 years since the Cannes Film Festival premiere of Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine. The film details the Citizen Kane-like odyssey undertaken by a gay journalist named Arthur Stuart, tasked with finding out whatever happened to former glam-rock superstar Brian Slade. While Haynes’ love letter to David Bowie, glam rock, genderbending and sexual liberation should have gone off like a rocket, to paraphrase the film, instead it went down like a bloody knackered lift.
Despite its intoxicating subject matter and outstanding cast (including Ewan McGregor, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Christian Bale, Toni Collette, Eddie Izzard) the deck seemed to be stacked against Velvet Goldmine before it was even released. Bowie had famously declined to contribute any music, while Miramax head Harvey Weinstein was not only heavy-handed with his editing demands, he allegedly abandoned the film not long after it screened at Cannes.
Critics and audiences didn’t warm up to Velvet Goldmine either. Roger Ebert’s review claimed that “[Velvet Goldmine] wants to be a movie in search of a truth, but it’s more like a movie in search of itself.” A review from CNN’s Paul Tatara was almost cruel in its dismissal: “If you bother to scratch through the silver glitter eye shadow, there’s absolutely no movie left.” With a $7 million budget, Velvet Goldmine only recouped a little over a million.
Yet, Velvet Goldmine, despite being named after a Bowie B-side, was not necessarily intended to be about Bowie, although hardcore fans of the icon would certainly have noticed all of the references scattered throughout. There’s far more subtext going on in the movie than a cursory glance might indicate; as one of its title cards puts it: “Meaning is not in things but between them.”
Says Haynes of the film: “I was shaking up real history with [Velvet] Goldmine and people resented that. They want their historical dramas to be authentic and that was the least of my intentions because it was the least of the intentions of glam rock itself. I took [the glam] tenets — dressing up and being fantastical and non-authentic — and tried to apply them to a film. But I think people — at least people in the rock world — missed that. Unfortunately.”
This disconnect between artist and audience seems to have been the impetus of LiveJournal user vardathemessage’s (named for a bit of polari slang used in the movie) year-long daily chronicle on the film. Begun in May 2004, this LJ account positioned itself as the “annotated Velvet Goldmine.” Vardathemessage was even thanked in Haynes’ commentary for the film’s 2001 release on Blu-ray.
In the last decade or so, it seems that Velvet Goldmine has also experienced a bit of a critical renaissance. Perhaps this is because some of those people who fell in love with the movie as teenagers have become movie critics themselves.
A 2009 article in The A.V. Club by Scott Tobias categorizes Velvet Goldmine as part of “the new cult canon,” saying that Haynes’ “effort to access [Bowie] indirectly, through allusion and representation, pays more dividends than a straightforward biopic ever could.” Carolyn Seide’s 2016 article, also from The A.V. Club, focuses on the character of Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale) stating that “the film’s real twist is that it ultimately cares far more about Arthur than it does about [Brian] Slade.”
In an article written for Oscilloscope Laboratories in 2017, Judy Berman not only praises the film’s “tight and purposeful structure,” but also notes that Velvet Goldmine isn’t a gay film, per se. “Better to think of it as a bisexual film that uses non-binary sexuality as a metaphor for the boundless possibilities of youth,” she writes, “the promise of a future constrained only by the limits of one’s own ambitions and appetites.”
With all of its musings on sexual and gender identity and freedom, Velvet Goldmine feels like the perfect film for our current world, albeit perhaps one that came 20 years too early.
So whatever happened to Brian Slade, and the rest of the cast of Velvet Goldmine? While the film may have only recently been considered a critical success, the same cannot be said for its cast, all of whom have received considerable renown.
Jonathan Rhys Meyers (Brian Slade) won a Golden Globe in 2005 for his portrayal of Elvis in the TV movie of the same name. He was also nominated for his work on both The Tudors (2007-2010) and Dracula (2013-2014).
Toni Collette (Mandy Slade) shared a Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance in a Motion Picture with the cast of 2006’s Little Miss Sunshine. She also starts in one of 2018’s most buzzed about horror films, Hereditary.
Not long after Velvet Goldmine, Christian Bale (Arthur Stuart) went on to portray Bruce Wayne/Batman in Christopher Nolan’s cinematic trilogy. He won both a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for his role in 2010’s The Fighter.
Last, but certainly not least, Eddie Izzard (Jerry Devine) continues to perform stand-up comedy. He has done voice acting for several films including Cars 2 and The Lego Batman Movie. He has also appeared in several TV series including Hannibal and The United States of Tara (which, coincidentally, starred Toni Collette).
Director Todd Haynes has continued to make films, several of which have been critical successes. His films Far From Heaven, I’m Not There, and Carol have all won awards, while his 2011 HBO adaptation of Mildred Pierce was called a “masterpiece” by Salon. He’s currently working on a documentary about the Velvet Underground and a TV series about Sigmund Freud.
Have you seen Velvet Goldmine? What did you think? Let us know in the comments.
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