Words: Jamie Tabberer; pictures: Netflix
“I’m gayer than a box of wigs!” cries James Corden, unconvincingly, as down-on-his-luck actor Barry in Ryan Murphy’s The Prom. This, followed by the chirping sound of crickets à la RuPaul’s Drag Race… in my head, at least.
Camper than a row of tents is more like it. And catty: cattier, in fact, than James’ top hat-wearing, catskin-shedding Bustopher Jones in last year’s Cats - another super-awkward, mega-camp creation.
But gay? No one’s buying it.
That much was clear from the backlash to the trailer, and the backlash to the backlash. Before you knew it, what is in essence a sweet teen love story - about a lesbian, Emma, banned from her high school dance, and the Broadway stars who come to her aid - has been over-intellectualised to all hell before it’s even been released. (Remember 2018’s universally liked Love, Simon? Simpler times.)
This reviewer was ready for a bloodbath. “Carrie meets Cats!” was a planned headline. But the truth is duller than that. James’ performance isn’t actually offensive or even, really, that bad. As if Meryl Streep would be acting directly opposite him if it was!
Rather, he’s simply been miscast. It’s not even his fault. The question shouldn’t be: ‘can straight actors play gay?’ but, rather: ‘should this actor be playing this role?’ It’s all about context.
Here, the casting is so high-profile, the actor so overeager, it’s overshadowed the whole film – the fly in the ointment of an otherwise LGBTQ-tastic tale, of Murphy’s super queer Netflix oeuvre - and tipped the scales of the wider debate. Brace yourself: Jack Whitehall in a “very camp” gay role in 2021’s Jungle Cruise is going to be... interesting.
It’s a shame, because there’s plenty to recommend about The Prom, based on the musical of the same name in which the send up of celebrity activism is the spike in the punch. Streep’s a riot with pipes as Tony Award-winning diva Dee Dee, one of the stars who reluctantly descends on Indianapolis to help Emma, resuscitating her own career with positive press in the process. I was craving Miranda Priestly-esque aloofness, but this is typical RM storytelling: brash, loud, relentless. Thus, unconducive to a quiet, crucifying: “That’s all”.
Nicole Kidman is dazzling as chorus girl Angie, even if her character, on paper, is curiously two-dimensional. (That’s two in a row after The Undoing. What's going on?!) Holding his own against two Oscar-winners and the host of The Late, Late Show is Andrew Rannells as an all-singing, all-dancing barkeep who just happens to be straight; balance among the core fore is indeed near and yet so far.
Newcomer Jo Ellen Pellman [above, left, with on-screen girlfriend Ariana DeBose] is impressive, exuding confidence and self-possession as Emma – too much, in fact, as I initially mistook her for a teacher. Meanwhile Kerry Washington as a homophobic mother acts her socks off. I was irked by her character’s unlikely outfit for the film’s climax, though - why is a conservative mother at an Indianapolis prom dressed for the FROW? The Prom has a self-editing problem in more ways than one: the two hour, 12-minute running time, for example.
A 'more is more' approach does mean astonishing sets, however: a glittering Manhattan street, in particular, is a triumph. Catchy songs, biting lyrics (“we look to you/to take us away/from soul-crushing jobs/and emasculating pay”) and a genuinely moving plot inspired by a true story complete the package.
In the world of prom-themed films, it's not the queen. (That would be Carrie, sorry). But The Prom still graduates.