Musicals from the 1950’s immediately conjure up vibrant images of guidos serenading girls in poodle skirts or elegant leading ladies dancing elaborate numbers in a large, bright spotlight. However, in Please Baby Please, Andrea Kramer spins the flamboyance of these conventional images from Classic Hollywood to feature the grittier, underground side to New York City during this time in a modern subtext. Despite reality’s “impossible obstacles,” including the strict COVID guidelines under which this film was made, her daring artistry and vision is fervidly present in every single frame. The film starts with the camera floating through eerie alleys following the moody members of a T-Birds-esque greaser gang preparing for an impending brawl, not unlike the beginning of West Side Story. This grand, orchestral opening lit with a radiant glow of blues and pinks evoke the heteronormativity of these late-50’s musicals yet inspire a new world that Kramer looks to redefine.
An immediate and violent encounter between the Young Gents gang and couple Suze (Andrea Riseborough) and Arthur (Henry Melling) introduces intimate, queer glances and reversed gender roles that heavily populate the rest of the film. Teddy (Karl Glusman), the gang leader, tantalizes in his mesh tee and bejeweled leather jacket, giving Arthur a sensual look that sparks his own self-reflection. Back in their apartment, Suze and Arthur repeatedly question their expected roles as man and wife and their inner desires which seem to contradict every societal gender norm. Arthur begins fixing a broken chair, but gives up partway. Instead, he takes out the trash where he finds the matchbook that Teddy dropped, later leading him to the bar his gang holes up at. Suze on the other hand sees her kitchen littered with dirty dishes, but after picking up rubber gloves to clean, drops them immediately, bored with the notion. Instead, she helps a mysterious, chic woman carry her groceries upstairs. Played by the dashing Demi Moore and a self-pronounced ‘slum starlet,’ this lustful and confident Maureen makes a tremendous impact on Suze. She seemingly has it all including the appearance of being a good housewife, but demands respect, pleasure, and the hope for something bigger in this life. Reiterating the stereotypes this movie sets out to defy, she utters, “I ought to be famous, but I’m just married.” Yet to Suze, she’s a dreamy, beautiful, assertive goddess with a high emotional intelligence. In the first of many jazzy interludes, Suze’s imagination runs wild in the dazzling neon blue of this much fancier apartment, the washing machine and refrigerator alive with passion and vigor, almost sexualized. Awakened, Suze sets out to free her true inner, more masculine self while Arthur follows a different path of self-discovery.
Rattled by the traditional values indoctrinated during his childhood, Arthur is introspective and mostly unexpressive. In the beginning, he feels threatened by an outsider gang when he himself feels like an outsider to his own life. Meeting Teddy, a ballsy deviant, challenges him to confront his own meek demeanor with the fantasy of a new, fluid future. When a gangmember reads him for filth, commenting that “He doesn’t act like a man, he acts like a queer,” he starts to confront his internal demons that prevented his own happiness and freedom.
This gender flipped motif works doubly well because of the time period the film is set in. In the late 1940’s and early 50’s, families were still reeling from the aftereffects of World War II. Having worked during the war, women found a newfound independence outside the home. Rethinking these gender roles with men returning home sometimes created violent tensions, as explored in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire.’ Stanley Kowalski, an Army vet himself and an archetypal dominant, handsome, and temper-driven male figure, is perturbed when Blanche arrives and invades his space. Suze is inspired by his hypermasculine fervor; her own internal rage broils hotter over the course of the film until she screams his famous lines: “I’m the king around here and don’t you forget it.” Andrea Riseborough struts both the restrained and brutish acting capabilities of both Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando in her own amalgamation of these Streetcar characters. Furthermore, understanding the play’s reveal of the gossip behind Blanche’s closeted husband and Brando himself having been bisexual only add to the film’s intention to resist expectation.
The both hyper-stylized and stripped down production design highlight and distill odes to the queer themes, bold imagery, and avant-garde editing from experimental filmmaker Kenneth Anger and cult favorite John Waters. Bisexual lighting brightens every frame, especially the dreamy musical sequences, while faces and body parts are erotically superimposed with palpable desire. In the film’s only breakout song, the eccentric and charismatic Cole Escola shines, dazzlingly adorned in flowers from head to eyelid to toe while framed by a rose covered phone booth. These tender yet striking choices climax in a melodic split screen that captures the full transformation of Suze and Arthur as individuals and accepting partners.
While the film belabors its message in perspicuous ways, its unique approach makes it an unforgettable explosion of rich imagination with a fierce appetite for liberation. Suze and Arthur learn to navigate their true identities together while maintaining their own sensitive authenticity. Kramer melds multiple influences to create a vulnerable, sensual, and quirky tale of self-love and remind audiences that nobody can put Baby in a corner.
This review is from 2022 NewFest. Music Box Films will release Please Baby Please in select theaters on October 28.