Sunday, October 7, 2018

Life in the City

My friend, Chris, (Angelman @ Angelman's Place) turned me on to this series. I had seen it in the racks at the library, but it didn't attract my attention, mainly because the title (and the spine of the DVD box) didn't reach out and slap me.  (I admit I have sometimes checked out movies just because the DVD box's spine looked cool.  What can I say...)

Tales of the City is based on a series of articles written by Armistead Maupin. originally written for The San Francisco Chronicle.  It covered the lives of several fictional characters, based on Maupin's experiences, living in San Francisco in the late 70's.  The articles were collected and edited into a novel also titled "Tales of the City".  Maupin went on to write a total of 9 novels (so far) surrounding the characters he created for the original series.

San Francisco, in 1976 at least, was the gay capital of the United States.  More or less.  As a young adult in the 70's I saw the parody of that idea.  Talk show comedians and hosts pounded the point home in their monologues all the time.  Of course, I have never been that far west in my life, so I only know from what I see on TV, but it probably is significant that the first openly gay politician, Harvey Milk, was from San Francisco.

Tales of the City (1993):

The series opens as we look in upon a phone conversation between Mary Ann Singleton and her mother.  Mary Ann has decided to become independent (and at age 25, it's probably about time, but her mother is reluctant to untie the apron strings...)

Mary Ann Singleton (Laura Linney) is perhaps the most naive and inexperienced person I have ever seen in film.  I thought of Candide, the novel by French author Voltaire, which was about a similar type of character experiencing the world outside his own rather narrow view.  She is from Cleveland, on vacation in San Francisco in 1976 and has decided to stay in San Francisco permanently.

Mary Ann

I get the feeling that she never saw drugs in Cleveland, nor any gay people, because she reacts with shock when she encounters both within her first few days as a permanent resident.  I also got an idea that she may even still be a virgin, although she is 25 and that seems highly unlikely given the time frame of the film.  She certainly seems to have never met the kind of guys she meets at the bar.  These are guys who must have religiously read a pamphlet called "How to Pick Up Women", a pamphlet that was advertised in men's magazines in the day.

Initially Mary Ann goes to live with Connie Bradshaw (Parker Posey).  Connie is a friend from Mary Ann's high school who has been living in SF for some time previously.  But Connie's freely sexual lifestyle is the exact opposite of Mary Ann's.  Plus Mary Ann wants to be a bit more independent, so she goes apartment hunting.


She ends up at a boarding house owned by Anna Madrigal (Olympia Dukakis).  Anna is a free spirit from an earlier age.  (It turns out she also harbors a dark secret, which I won't reveal, but will say it would have been shocking at the time, although not so much in today's age.)  Anna grows her own marijuana on the premises which she distributes to her tenants freely.  (No that's not the dark secret...)  I think Anna is kind of like a god in her own little realm of 28 Barbary Lane, the location of her rooming house.  She certainly seems to have a second sense of what is going on in the lives of her tenants, anyway.

Her other tenants include Mona Ramsey (Chloe Webb), a latter-day hippie who works as an ad consultant for Edgar Halcyon (Donald Moffatt), an advertising exec, and the one for whom Mary Ann eventually starts working a a secretary.  Also living in the building ids Brian Hawkins (Paul Gross), a womanizer whose only goal seems to be getting in the sack with every woman he meets.

Mona (with Michael)

Edgar Halcyon

Brian (with Michael)

Halcyon has a daughter, DeeDee Halcyon Day (Barbara Garrick), who is married to Beauchamp Day (Thomas Gibson), Edgar's second-in-command at Halcyon and a man who can't commit to one woman, even if that woman s his boss' daughter and his wife.  Beauchamp sleeps around on DeeDee, and even beds Mary Ann at one point.  He is the second most unsympathetic character in this film, in my opinion.  Even if DeeDee is somewhat of a harridan, that's no excuse for not staying commited to your marriage.

DeeDee and Beauchamp (with a friend)

Rounding out the core cast is Michael Tolliver (Marcus D'Amico), who often goes by the name "Mouse".  Michael is gay.  His romantic relationships always seem to fall though.  But he is happy-go-lucky most of the time.  It was he and his then partner whom were the first gay men Mary Ann met early in the film. Early on, Mouse's relationship with his partner goes into the dumpster so he ends up rooming with his best friend, who just happens to be Mona.

Michael (again)

Over the course of the series relationships develop. And sometimes deteriorate.  Mouse meets a new lover, Dr. John Fielding (William Campbell).  But the doctor is a bit out of his league socially.  John takes Michael to a private party hosted by some rich gays.   These guys are rich, elitist, and entirely prejudiced against the lower class gay people.  (Gay Republicans?  Is there such a thing?)  The cadre of friends include characters who are played by Ian McKellen, Bob Mackie, Paul Bartel and Lance Loud.

Dr. John

Mona, it turns out, has a former lover, D'orothea Wilson (Cynthia Williams).  D'orothea has a secret of her own. (Of course she does... didn't I say this is basically a soap opera?)  Mona ends up moving out of Barbary Lane, to the disappointent of Michael who had just moved in with her, as well as the extreme disappoint of Mrs.Madrigal.

Mary Ann takes on a part time job as a volunteer for a suicide hotline, where she befiends the somewhat unstable operator of the hotline, Vincent (John Fleck).  Vincent has problems of his own, mainly that he is dealing with the loss of his wife, who left him.

Living in the "penthouse" above Barbary Lane is Norman Neal Williams (Stanley DeSantis), a shy overweight older man with whom Mary Ann develops a platonic (to her) relationship.  But it turns out that Norman has the biggest dark secret of all, which leads to one of the biggest "didn't see that coming" moments of my film watching career.

But the main story line, aside from Mary Ann's trip from innocence to experience would be the relationship that Edgar Halcyon develops with Anna Madrigal.  Edgar is dying and has been given only six months to live by his doctor.  He ends up meeting Anna in the park and they discover they have a common past.  From this develops a blossoming relationship, only encouraged by the loveless marriage Edgar has with his wife.

This film is so much like a soap opera.  Everybody is connected to everybody else.  I never was much for soap operas.  I briefly watched General Hospital back in the 80's but after three months I stopped, it just wasn't my cup of tea.  Despite that fact,  this big budget "soap opera" intrigues me.  I actually care about the characters. And to be honest, I actually cried at a couple of the developments.  (I wanted so much for things to work out for Michael.  I felt something of a kindred spirit for the guy.)

To the faint of heart:  Be forewarned, there is some nudity in this.  Enough so that the ultra right wing Moral Majority blew a fuse when it aired on PBS.  It was a point of contention in the often fought battle to curb public funding to people who don't stick to the rules of common decency, or common decency as it is viewed by the fundamentalist sect of the Religious Right anyway.  But it is mostly topless women and a few bare asses.  In other words, there are no dangling participles in this film.



  1. Ha, Quiggy, I am soooo delighted you enjoyed this so much! Loved your reference to Candide and shout-out to Harvey Milk. I told you there were a lot of secrets and scandals besides the Anna Madrigal one I revealed for our blogathon.
    Great job! Will be interested in your take on the sequels if you get a chance to see them!
    - Chris

    1. If anyone was going to get the Candide reference I was sure you would, Chris. There are probably more literary literate movie lovers like me out there than I actually think there are, but I doubt very many of them have read Candide.

      I'm very interested to see how Michael's life continues in the next series. But I'm overwhelmed with all the blogathons I have entered so it will probably have to wait until Christmas. In the meantime I have started reading the first book in the series. Thanks for reading.


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