A gay sugar baby & his beard’s “lavender marriage” takes a controversial twist in this ’78 comedy

A gay sugar baby & his beard’s “lavender marriage” takes a controversial twist in this ’78 comedy

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Image Credit: ‘A Different Story,’ MGM

Welcome back to our queer film retrospective, “A Gay Old Time.” In this week’s column, we’re revisiting 1978’s A Different Story, a romantic comedy with some interesting ideas about love and sexuality.

Happy belated Valentine’s Day! This past Wednesday was the yearly celebration that—buried among greeting cards, flower bouquets, expensive dinners and lingerie—aims to celebrate love in all of its forms. So it was only appropriate that we’d do the same for our column.

This week, instead of focusing on a traditionally romantic queer film (of which there are fortunately no slim pickings, particularly in recent years), we’ll be talking about one that highlights a, well… different type of relationship, as the title suggests.

A Different Story, a romantic comedy from 1978 directed by Paul Aaron, follows the friendship of a gay man and a lesbian woman who end up becoming housemates, marrying each other for immigration reasons and, in an unlikely and highly controversial turn of events, end up falling for each other. It’s not your typical queer romance, with a thorny treatment of sexual identity that nevertheless makes for a fascinating rewatch almost fifty years after its release.

The Set-Up

The film follows Albert (Perry King), a gay Belgian immigrant living in Los Angeles who’s been getting by as a kept boy for various rich men, and Stella (Meg Foster) an emotionally unstable lesbian realtor with a rotating series of girlfriends and lovers. One day, Albert is dumped as his latest sugar daddy is touring a property managed by Stella, and she allows him to stay with her for the night. The two strike an immediate bond and friendship, and quickly become housemates, supporting each other through dates, heartbreak, and professional trouble.

When Stella finds out that immigration is after Albert for staying as an illegal alien in the country, she agrees to marry him so he’s able to stay. At first, it seems like the perfect arrangement: they both deeply care for each other, and still pursue other sexual and romantic encounters. They go to gay bars together, and keep Stella’s parents content and oblivious about the true nature of their romance.

However, after one drunken night together, the two end up kissing and having sex, which leads to the realization that they actually have feelings for each other and are in love. From that point on, they decide to engage in a legitimate marriage, even having a child together, as they each continue to separately pursue sexual affairs with both genders, now framed as adultery rather than harmless fun.

Beards Of Convenience

Image Credit: ‘A Different Story,’ MGM

The film is divided into two very distinct and widely different halves, both narratively and thematically. The first half centers around the genuine friendship between Albert and Stella, and how they choose to be together out of convenience, but also out of genuine care and love for each other.

It shows their evolving friendship quite effectively, and it is actually very respectful of both their identities as gay and lesbian throughout. Albert constantly advises Stella on her many heart troubles with the women she is emotionally juggling, and Stella encourages Albert to go out and pursue sexual partners and fun.

Although slightly stuck on its time, this half of the film works as an offbeat and quirky take on the romantic comedy; two apparently opposing individuals that grow closer and form a relationship. They just never sleep with each other. It never judges them for their sexual orientation, and in many ways is ahead of its time in regards to portrayals of how fulfilling and well-rounded gay life can look like.

Marital Woes

Image Credit: ‘A Different Story,’ MGM

Then the turn happens. And the film suddenly becomes a run-of-the-mill marital drama. Albert and Stella evolve into two completely different characters; two jaded individuals bitter to the path their lives have forced them into. They grow resentful of each other, cheat on each other, and nearly get divorced, except when Albert does a clichéd big act of redemption asking her back.

It seems to completely either dispose or ignore the fact that they both used to identify and openly live as a gay man and lesbian woman. Except when it is needed for plot purposes of entangling their relationship even more.

Bi Erasure

Image Credit: ‘A Different Story,’ MGM

What seems most striking looking back is that never, at any point, does the concept or possibility that either of these people could be bisexual come into play. They clearly self-identify and move about the world as a gay man and lesbian woman in the first half. Then they become strictly heterosexual in the second. And even when past affairs and relationships are brought up, it’s in the context of pure betrayal or scheming, and not a fluid sexual identity.

Bisexuality was not a completely foreign or taboo subject to depict in movies back then. We’ve even covered some of those movies in the past (Something For Everyone or Sunday Bloody Sunday, for example). So the fact that the sexuality of these two characters is treated so strictly, almost like a switch that is turned on or off depending on the plot needs, is frankly confounding at best and incredibly offensive at worst. Particularly taking into account the relatively nuanced portrayal of the gay community and world towards the beginning.

I Do / I Don’t

Image Credit: ‘A Different Story,’ MGM

Even when it was first released, the film courted controversy and was protested by several gay activist groups who deemed it “exploitative, insensitive, and offensive.” The main talking point was the movie’s depiction of homosexuality as something that can be reversed, cured, or overcome. And it is certainly the element that takes this from being a well-intentioned (though dated) friendship comedy, to a clueless portrayal of gender and sex dynamics that rang untrue even then.

A Different Story is not the most favorable or accurate representation of a queer romance. Although it highlights the dynamics between gay men and lesbian women in a way that is seldom seen in pop culture, it does so while at the same time reinforcing harmful stereotypes and assumptions about them.

It’s a fascinating piece of queer cinema, and one that has mostly been lost to time, perhaps for good reason. You’d be better off sticking to the classics for your weekend-after-Valentine’s Day plans.

A Different Story is available to stream via Amazon Prime Video, FuboTV, and MGM+.


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