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    Emily Dickinson and JT Leroy on Screen This Month

    Two films with queer characters and literary themes open in the Bay Area this month.

    Wild Nights with Emily, opening April 19 at the Landmark Embarcadero, is out writer/director Madeleine

    Olnek’s comic look at the relationship between the poetess Emily Dickinson (Molly Shannon) and her lover and sister-in-law, Susan (Susan Ziegler) in 1860 Amherst. The film opens with the two women kissing courteously before embracing far more passionately. Olnek—adapting her play—has an agenda to debunk the myth that Dickinson was (as an end title card indicates), “a half-cracked, unloved recluse who was afraid to publish her work.”

    Working from this revisionist approach, Olnek’s PG-13 film is deliberately more mild than wild as it shows Dickinson’s love affairs. Wild Nights with Emily also emphasizes how her efforts to publish were stymied by men who did not understand the merits of her work. In one amusing scene, Col. Thomas Wentworth Higginson (Brent Gelman), a pretentious editor from The Atlantic, offers revisions to Emily’s poems—removing lines of text and dashes, much to her chagrin. Another scene with a prospective publisher is met with awkward, noisy tea-slurping as a response. Dickinson wrote 18,000 poems, only 11 of which were published in her lifetime.

    Olnek features Dickinson’s poetry throughout the film, putting text on screen as handwritten pages or in subtitles. The poetess’ words often reflect her emotions, as when she expresses thoughts of pain in a difficult moment. There is enough of a sense of her work that literary enthusiasts will not feel slighted by a film where one of the cleverest jokes involves Emily and Susan wanting to hear the celebrated Ralph Waldo Emerson.

    Wild Nights with Emily uses its witty, comic tone to make its points go down easily. When Susan looks out of her bedroom window at Emily across the way, she rebuffs her husband’s advances, in a wonderfully droll manner. The film’s storyline is also framed, in part, by a lecture Mabel Todd (Amy Seimetz)—who edited and published a volume of Dickinson’s poetry, after the writer’s death—gives to a women’s auxiliary club on her “friendship” with Emily Dickinson.

    However, the two women never actually met. Emily was often secluded in her room when Mabel visited her home and played the piano. Moreover, Mabel was having an affair with Susan’s husband, Austin (Kevin Seal). Olnek’s (ir)reverence for Dickinson comes through as Shannon is often suppressing a smile, most notably during a scene of Emily handing Susan poems she has pulled out of her waist, locket and hair. The film is a funny, feminist and revisionist take on the noted poetess.

    Opening April 26 at the Roxie is JT Leroy, the latest screen version of the astonishing literary hoax about JT (Jeremiah Terminator) Leroy, the son of a truck stop prostitute, who wrote about his drug use, sexual abuse and gender identity in the books Sarah and The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things.

    While there have been two documentaries about the JT Leroy phenomenon—The Cult of JT Leroy (2014), directed by Marjorie Sturm, and Author: The JT Leroy Story (2016), directed by Jeff Feuerzeig—this new film, directed by out gay writer/director Justin Kelly (I Am Michael, King Cobra), is a feature film. It stars an outstanding Laura Dern as Laura Albert—the “author” of the JT Leroy books—and Kristen Stewart as her co-conspirator, Savannah Knoop, who posed as JT for various media appearances until their hoax was uncovered.

    Kelly’s film is an adaptation he co-wrote with Knoop of her memoir, Girl Boy Girl: How I Became JT Leroy, and tells the story from Knoop’s perspective. In the film, Savannah (Stewart) arrives in San Francisco, and meets Albert (Dern) who soon convinces Knoop to pretend to be JT. Their deception works quite well, and they travel to L.A. for a party hosted by Sasha (Courtney Love) and to Paris, where they meet an actress, Eva (Diane Kruger), who wants to make a film adaptation of Leroy’s work (as actress Asia Argento did in real life). Eva even has a physical relationship with JT, which gets complicated as JT Leroy shows.

    The story is complicated too, but Kelly manages to keep things compelling and clear, even as Laura appears as Speedie, JT’s obnoxious British manager. Speedie often answers for JT in interviews or cuts a photo session short when their ruse may be revealed. Dern is able to move effortlessly back and forth between Laura’s various guises, which is what makes the film so entertaining, even for those who know the story. In contrast, Stewart is terrific as Savannah, who struggles palpably with her emotions at playing this role and lying to her romantic partners.

    JT Leroy does not judge its characters; Kelly’s interest is in understanding why these women did what they did. Those who know and followed the story should find this version fascinating.

    © 2019 Gary M. Kramer

    Gary M. Kramer is the author of “Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews,” and the co-editor of “Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.” Follow him on Twitter @garymkramer