In Our Opinion

WHERE FLAMINGOS FLY

By • Nov 17th, 2013 •

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It is not often these days that I am really mesmerized by a performance in a film (especially in this era of comic and action films), yet James Franco’s meditation on the last day in the life of actor Sal Mineo will haunt me every time I watch any of Sal’s films. Versatile actor/director Franco chose an amazing young actor named Val Lauren to interpret Sal Mineo, and he is nothing short of spellbinding. Val does not so much resemble Sal Mineo as he inhabits the mindset, charm and sweetness that Mineo radiated in life. It was an honor for me to have known Sal Mineo during the period when he was about to start his production of P.S. YOUR CAT IS DEAD in Westwood, just before he was killed, which happens to be the timeframe of this picture as well.

Sal Mineo in life was baby-faced, short and fit, however not as ripped and muscular as the actor playing him in this film. Sal was a sweet, kind man who pretended for his film-going public to be a kind of tough guy with a likeable sense of humor. He spent his career trying to be more like what he admired in other iconic men of the silver screen—like, say, Steve McQueen or Paul Newman, a real “cool hand Luke,” always very aware of his sex appeal. One aspect of Sal that Franco is spot-on in depicting is the homoerotic qualities in the way Sal worked on his body to try and remain an object of desire for his fans and lovers, a routine which in Mineo’s day was not as widespread in the gay community of the 70’s as it is now in contemporary gay life. Sal was at the time an openly gay actor who paid his dues while worshipping at the same altar of hyper-masculinity that we all did in those days. For example, the workout sequence at the beginning of the film beautifully references the same scene in William Friedkin’s infamous film CRUISING, where Al Pacino as undercover cop Steve Burns works out in his apartment in the Village; both of their faces become masks of sweat and pain to hit that degree of perfection in their bodies to attract and be accepted as one of the Alpha-males that dominated the leather scene at the time. It is no accident that Val Lauren played the same role in Franco’s INTERIOR. LEATHER BAR, which re-imagines the infamous lost footage of Friedkin’s film.

Franco does not try to use the running time to tell us about Sal’s life or career in this movie. SAL is a tone poem or jazz riff on Sal Mineo and I imagine that the reasons for this may have simply been that Franco did not have the money or the time to do anything else. What saves the film for me is the manner in which Val Lauren inhabits the skin of his subject.

There was a fascinating moment at the Larry Edmunds Bookshop the night I saw the film, where both the author of the biography of SAL, Michael Michaud, and Val were seated at a table preparing to sign copies of the well-researched book. Val was sitting under a large color portrait of Sal Mineo and every few minutes he could not help himself from studying the portrait in ways that were compelling, as if he could not escape the mysterious glamour of what Sal Mineo has now become for film buffs: a ghostly reminder of the tragic cast of REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE and now perhaps a gay icon like James Dean.

The Sal Mineo I knew was very much a product of old Hollywood, the era of studio control and arranged dates to fan the flames of desire in young girls through fan magazines, and yet Sal lived long enough to see this system fall away only to be replaced with no safety net for actors to rely on to keep their careers on track. By the time I met Sal he had already accepted who he was and was very open about his sexuality. When I first got to know him he had just done a Ken Duncan photo shoot for the infamous AFTER DARK magazine which was one of the first gay entertainment magazines created for gay men by gay men, yet without ever mentioning the words “gay” or “homosexual” within its pages. One of the haunting aspects of the film SAL is the use of the dreamy song WHERE FLAMINGOS FLY, recorded by Peggy Lee (although in the film the singer is Helen Merrill). The song fits the persona of Sal Mineo like a glove and instantly gave me an image of him shirtless, wearing a fur coat and bolero hat, with tight black pants, posing for Ken Duncan, a flamingo about to take flight. This is a beautiful way to think of Sal, where even in death he has taken flight, his soul now soaring high up and far away from the pavement of the parking lot where he was killed.

There was at around the same time another actor living in Hollywood so much like Sal named Gregory Rozakis, who debuted in a film by Elia Kazen called AMERICA, AMERICA, and he was also a beautiful short, muscular young man who lived an openly gay lifestyle. Gregory was another flamingo ready to take flight and he too met a premature death in 1989, only from AIDS rather than from an act of violence. Gregory was a playwright as well as an actor, and I was always running into him at clubs and especially at the baths, before AIDS ended the party forever. Both he and Sal knew each other and we used to run into one another at Joe Allen’s, which was across the street from the most infamous bath house in LA, “The 8709.”

I know if these two men were still alive and able to see this dreamlike film it would speak to them as it did to me the other night, and they would be seduced as I was watching onscreen as Val Lauren effortlessly captured the essence of Sal Mineo in gesture and voice in the random act of daily living. Perhaps the most Sal-like thing he did on-camera was tell someone on the phone to stop giving money to his mother because she was always taken care of by him. Sal was a good son, this we know.

Val should get a lot of work from this film if it is seen by the right people in Hollywood, and James Franco is a work-in-progress and will only get better. What Franco has ultimately done here is to create a window of time to observe the very self-involved and driven Sal Mineo making calls, working out, and hoping that this play he was doing in Westwood would jump-start his career. Gregory did the same thing and both men avoided the reality of getting older by pushing themselves every day with workouts in the daytime and cruising at night, forever reflecting their images with what they desired in other men as well as themselves. In a way, perhaps fate was kind to Sal Mineo by allowing him to make an exit before time took charge, as it always does, and one day both Gregory and Sal would be 60 and all their dreams would disappear like so many flamingos taking flight.

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One Response »

  1. Thank you for this. I’ve been feverishly looking for stuff on Sal Mineo for a couple months now and do not find much that gives insight to his internal psyche. It is so nice to read a little something by someone who knew him, and what a tear jerking description. Particularly of the one where he was killed and soared up.

    I did not particularly like the biography by Michael Michaud. No fault to the author as I know how difficult it is to find anything *accurate* on Mr. Mineo. However, it felt so disjointed that it just felt discouraging to read. At times he (Sal) came off as sweet, other times he came off as a sexual predator. I understand the bio was merely trying to convey ALL of Sal and his flaws as well as virtues, but it just didn’t read that way to me and I felt disappointed. I think the you *you*, Mr. Valle described just the little traces of this talented and adorable actor really helps me to feel more satisfied about who he was. Yes he had flaws (don’t we all). But so nice to know he was sweet and kind, and merely fearful of getting older with a very underlying, *human* fear of losing the love of those he held dear. A man who was just trying to figure out moment by moment who HE is/was in relation to his surroundings. His mistakes didn’t come from a predatory place, but from the place of exploring the world around him in conjunction with the *inner* world he encompassed. May “fly” in peace, and finally find that deeper sense of belonging he so much craved.

    Jean

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