Movie Club: 'My Beautiful Laundrette'

Neither director Stephen Frears nor writer Hanif Kureishi nor actor Daniel Day Lewis were well-known names when "My Beautiful Laundrette" appeared in 1985, but this movie changed all that. And for good reason. "My Beautiful Laundrette" was a trailblazer: a new, vital, utterly fresh vision of contemporary Thatcherite London in all its messy contradictory multicultural confusion. Many films have mined this territory subsequently (many of them by Frears and Kureishi as a matter of fact, from "Sammy and Rosie Get Laid" to "My Son, the Fanatic" and "Dirty Pretty Things") but this prickly, funny, startling movie was the watershed cinematic event. Part of what makes it so revolutionary is its seeming modesty: it deals with such big issues as immigration, racism, drug dealing, homosexuality and neo-fascism in an off-the-cuff, low-key style utterly free of the kind of chest-thumping moralism that usually attends such subjects.

Its portrayal of London's Anglo-Pakistani community is an insider's view, free of PC cant. Its portrayal of the affair between the ambitious and charming young Omer (Gordon Warneke) and his childhood friend Johnny (Daniel Day Lewis), a punk who flirted with skinhead neo-Nazism and is now helping his lover refurbish a rundown launderette, is refreshingly matter-of-fact in its presentation of same-sex love. Saeed Jaffrey is superb as Omer's successful and slightly shady businessman uncle, a jolly sybarite who welcomes the opportunities Britain affords him, letting its racism roll off his back. Omer's intellectual father (the impressive Roshan Seth), on the other hand, has retreated into alcoholism, rarely leaving his paltry flat while he rails against the indignities of his immigrant existence.

The beauty of Frears's movie is the complex humanity all of its characters achieve: no one is wholly good or wholly bad but a fascinating mixture of opportunism, idealism and amorality. "My Beautiful Laundrette" treats the viewer as an adult, letting us wend our own way through this dizzying and sometimes scary new world, leaving all judgments and conclusions up for grabs.

David Ansen joined us to discuss "My Beautiful Laundrette" (available on DVD from MGM Home Entertainment) during a Live Talk on Friday, May 27, at 1 p.m. ET. Read the transcript below.

David Ansen: Welcome to todays live chat about My Beautiful Laundrette

_______________________ Brooklyn, NY: Why did Day-Lewis go on to such stardom while Gordon Warnecke languishes in obscurity today? He was fantastic.

David Ansen: In England Warnecke isnt totally obscure. He appeared on a long running tv series called "Brookside," But its true we've barely seen him since in the US while Day-Lewis has become one of the most acclaimed actors of his generation (Hes great in The Ballad of Jack and Rose) INterestingly, Warneke's parents are from Germany and South America. He's not actually Pakistani. But I agree hes wonderful in this film: and its a very tricky part, a mix of innocence and guile

_______________________ London, UK: Can you talk about what the role of Channel 4 was in the making of this movie? It almost seems to me that the movie made Film on Four, not the other way around.

David Ansen: Frears and a young producer named Tim Bevan brought the film to Channel 4 and much to thier surprise, they accepted it immediately. It later turned out that another project had just fallen through and they were despearate for a replacement. Originally intended for TV, the response was so great at film festivals that it was released theatrically. And the movie made Bevan' and Sarah Radclyffe's company Working Title, which went on to become the major english independent producing company

_______________________ New York, NY: I loved Saeed Jaffrey. Has he been in anything else worth seeing?

David Ansen: Check him out in John Hustons "The Man who Would Be King" as Billy Fish. Great movie. Jaffrey is a major star in India, but hasnt had that many large roles in Western films, though he appeared in the series The Jewel in the Crown, in Gandhi and Passage to India. A wonderful actor

_______________________ Washington, DC: This might be a stretch, but bear with me. The movie "My Beautiful Laundrette" seems to me to be Frears' and Kureishi's own beautiful laundrette. What a sparkling creation coming out of a squalid cinematic neighborhood.

David Ansen: Well put. Its hard to understate how fresh and revolutionary this movie seemed in 1985. It really pushed the envelope of English films, smashing the genteel stereotypes, opening up a whole new range of subject matter. This was not your traditional "liberal" look at race and class and sexuality. Kureishi gave us an inside job, from a point of view that had been excluded from cinema before this moment

_______________________ Miami, FL: What else has Kureishi written worth checking out?

David Ansen: Hes a novelist, playwrite and screenwriter. I would definately recommend the film "My Son, the Fanatic " (which was first a short story in The New Yorker) Last year he wrote a very underratd movie called "The Mother" which deals with the relationship between a youong man and much older woman. His one flm as a director, London Kills Me, didnt quite come off

_______________________ New York, NY: Is "Sammy and Rosie Get Laid" worth seeing?

David Ansen: This is the other Frears-Kureishi collaboration. Its an ambitious daring mess of a movie. I think of it as a fascinating failure, but its certainly worth checking out. It captures the chaos of Thatcherite London, but unfortunatlely it also seems to mimic that chaos.

_______________________ Burlington, VT: Is it fair to say, as I have read, that the movie catalyzed the movement known as New Queer Cinema? It seems to do the film a disservice to only talk about the gay issues it raises. There is so much more going on.

David Ansen: It was a seminal movie in terms of presenting a gay relationship on screen in a totally natural, refreshingly off the cuff way. But the New Queer Cinema was primarily an americn phenomenon that occurred in the early 90s, with such films as Todd Haynes Poison, Gregg Arakis The Living End, and Swoon. I agree that Laundrette shouldnt just be thought of in these terms. Its not a "gay movie" and that may be the most significant thing about it in terms of the gay cinema: it escaped the ghetto of "gay cinema" and reached a much more diverse audience

_______________________ Detroit, MI: I loved that the movie didn't fall into that easy trap of portraying east Asians as one-dimensional victims. Very strong.

David Ansen: Yes, this is one of the most refreshing things about it. The Asians in this movie arent any one thing, they are as diverse as any group: businessmen, drug dealers, traditionalists and assimilationists... you name it, Kureishi's Pakistani Brits are wonderfully HUMAN.

_______________________ Austin, TX: What other mainstream movies have had convincing, realistic homosexual relationships and love scenes in them? I can't really think of (m)any.

David Ansen: The British seemed to be ahead of the US in this regard. Before Laundrette there was John Schlesingers "Sunday Bloody Sunday" about a bi sexual doctor (Peter Finch's greatest performance) involved with both Glenda Jackson and a younger man played by Murray Head. It was not quite as explicit as Laundrette, but it had the same worldly tone, accepting homosexuality as just another natural aspect of our natures. When Hollywood got around to the subject, it always made A Big Deal out of it (ie "Making Love") and you could feel the flop-sweat

_______________________ New York, NY: The use of drug money to finance the laundrette is an interesting device. None of the "heroes" here strike me as wholly ethical. Not that that's a bad thing.

David Ansen: Exactly. Nobody is pure in this movie. Thats what made it so adult, so refreshing, so real.

_______________________ Somerville, MA: Never having been to London, I wonder what tension exists there now between Pakistani immigrants and Brits, especially in light of what's happening in the world. Does the movie have any new special relevance for you?

David Ansen: So many things have changed since the 80s. The Labour party is back in power, and terrorism has reared its ugly head, which has not made things any easier for immigrants from the middle east. Now there is a whole new set of tensions. Kureishi's "My Son the Fanatic " is very prescient in this regard...the London-raised Pakistan son in the movie rebels against his Westernized father and turns to fundamentalism.

_______________________ Chicago, IL: I loved this movie, but I can't quite buy the idea of a laundromat revitalizing a whole squalid neighborhood.

David Ansen: Im not sure the movie ever claims that the whole neighborhood is revitalized. Though its certainly a first step.

_______________________ Nashville, TN: Have either Gordon Warneke or Daniel Day-Lewis ever commented about the absolute believability of their sexual attraction for one another? The character of "Johnny" was particularly intense in conveying his desire. Not that I am shocked. Daniel Day-Lewis is excellent in everything I've ever seen him play.

David Ansen: Warneke jokingly said he swallowed a lot of Listerine and "thought of England" when they did their love scene. They are good actors. They act. Im sure they wouldnt have taken the roles if they were uncomfortable showing that sexual attraction.

_______________________ Hollywood, CA: If the film is at heart about the immigrant experience -- about the desire to belong to Western society while maintaining a clear sense of Pakistani identity -- what does that say about the homosexual angle? Gays, especially in the Thatcherite '80s, couldn't have ever fully belonged.

David Ansen: The film is about outsiders and "in-betweeners" and the gay angle just adds another facet. For another view of being gay in the Thatcher years, you might want to look at teh recent Booker award winning novel "The Line of Beauty" by Alan Hollingshed, a satirical look at that era. _______________________

Port Orange, FL: I have watched this movie several times and was awestruck by the obvious love and sexual tension felt by the two young men. I was left with many unanswered questions: Why was there no dossier of their past--their childhood? Had they ever flirted with their sexuality before? There were hints that their love had never been consumated--did they intend to leave this in the mind of the viewer? I wanted to know what brought them together in the first place--coming from such different homes and ethnic backgrounds--but it was absent.

David Ansen: they had gone to school together and formed a friendship as boys. Its easier to overcome those class and racial differences when youre very young and prejudices havent formulated ... but Kureishi and Frears clearly wanted to keep certain elements mysterious. The film doesnt answer all your questions, and doesnt want to. It seems to me the attraction was there, but this was clearly the first time it had been acted upon

_______________________ Washington, DC: It's a shame that such a wonderful movie looks and feels like a cheap BBC television production. I'd love to see what Frears could have done with a bigger budget.

David Ansen: It was made fast and on a low budget, but the grittiness seems in keeping with the style and tone. (Also it looked better on a big screen in 85) It was the beginning of a long collaboration between director Frears and cinematographer Olvier Stapleton. Frears alternates between flms that deliberately look funky (The Snapper, for example) and more lavish ones (Dangerous Liaisons)

_______________________ Santa Fe, NM: The DVD is so puny. I was really hoping for more extras, more info on this excellent film.

David Ansen: Yes, why not interviews with Kureishi and Frears and the actors?

_______________________ La Jolla, CA: What was the response in England to this movie? It's so uncompromising, even by today's standards.

David Ansen: The movie was a hit all over, but of course its not the kind of movie that everyone is going to embrace. Not for Neo Nazis, homophobes, or ultra conservatives, to say the least ....It was a career altering film for Day Lewis , as well as for the writer and director

_______________________ David Ansen: Thank you for joining the chat. Next month is a total change of pace: the deliciously artifcial world of Vincente Minnellis great musical about show biz, "The Band Wagon." Join me on June 24th, same time, to talk about this wonderful Fred Astaire Cyd Charisse movie.