Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City/More Tales of the City (TV, 1993/1998)

Directors: Alistair Reed/Pierre Gang

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Well before Newsweek declared in June 1986 that it was more unlikely for an unmarried 40-year-old woman to get a husband than to be killed by a terrorist, writer Armistead Maupin struck a nerve with San Francisco’s unmarried women—and a lot of other people—with his portrait of the city’s romantic scene. What became Maupin’s first novel, Tales of the City, started showing up in serialized form, first in 1974 in The Pacific Sun newspaper, and then switching to The San Francisco Chronicle in 1976, exposing the general readership of these papers to the travails of heterosexual women in a city teeming with gay residents, as well as the way various factions in the city lived, loved, and interacted. In much the same way as Maupin’s series and eventual eight books opened a few eyes in their fun and offbeat way, the two miniseries based on his work created a minor earthquake for people like me with little or no exposure to gay life or San Francisco social customs.

In many ways, Tales of the City and its sequel tell a pretty familiar story about the search for love. Mary Ann Singleton (Laura Linney, in the first role I and many other people ever saw her play) is a fresh-faced young woman from Cleveland who decides to make her vacation in San Francisco permanent. She feels at home in San Francisco, she tells her flabbergasted mother over the phone, though it’s fairly obvious that she’s been seduced by its spectacular scenery and laissez-faire atmosphere that are worlds away from her home in the American heartland. She takes up her asterisk-flowered luggage and bunks in with Connie (Parker Posey), an old friend from high school who is singularly dedicated to finding her sexual identity by reading self-help books and smutty magazines and picking up men at discos and the grocery store. After seeing Connie bring home a man she herself had rejected, Mary Ann starts looking for a new apartment. A distinctive classified draws her to 28 Barbary Lane, a courtyard building on Russian Hill that looks like an idyllic land that time forgot. She quickly becomes the newest member of the small “family” headed by flamboyant landlady Anna Madrigal (Olympia Dukakis) who welcomes each new tenant with a joint made from the marijuana she grows in her garden.

28 Barbary Lane forms the heart of the intersecting stories that have Mrs. Madrigal and her low-rent tenants—hippie fag hag Mona Ramsey (Chloe Webb in the first series, Nina Siemaszko in the second), gay looking-for-love Michael Tolliver (Marcus D’Amico/Paul Hopkins), womanizer Brian Hawkins (Paul Gross/Whip Hubley), and Mary Ann—bumping into the lives of the high-rent Halcyon/Day households. Edgar Halcyon (Donald Moffat) runs an ad agency, employing Mona as a copywriter and hiring Mary Ann as his secretary on Mona’s recommendation. His son-in-law Beauchamp (pronounced Beechum) Day (Thomas Gibson) is a selfish lout who seduces and dumps Mary Ann over a weekend, much to his wife DeDe’s (Barbara Garrick) dismay, and has a one-night stand with Michael’s boyfriend Jon Fielding (Bill Campbell) in the gay baths. DeDe consoles herself in the arms of Lionel Wong (Philip Moon), the son of her Chinese grocer who delivers; Mona leaves Michael, who moved in with her after he moved out of his former lover’s apartment, and returns for financial security and a platonic relationship to her rich lesbian lover D’orothea Wilson (Cynda Williams/Francoise Robertson), who models for the Halcyon agency; Mary Ann, who tried to pick up Michael’s first lover at the grocery store, doesn’t find love until the second series, and then it’s with an amnesiac named Burke (Colin Ferguson) who throws up every time he sees roses; and Michael and Jon break up and make up. Most important, Edgar and Anna find true love together in the last six months of Edgar’s life, a love that endures even after Anna tells Edgar that she is a transsexual who grew up in the brothel where Edgar lost his virginity, and that Mona is her daughter.

Got all that?

Of all the big cities I’ve had the pleasure of visiting, San Francisco is the one that seems most like a small town, or series of small towns all planted side by side on its hilly streets, open for some neighborly snooping through a pair of binoculars (which Brian and a party of gay men indulge in during the second series). Being a port city and a jewel on the magnetic California coast, it is also a place of transience. Tales of the City emphasizes not only San Francisco’s small-town incestuousness, but also the reinvention that California offers its teeming masses. Every type of sexual arrangement is explored, and the nontraditional ones appear to breed more stable, happy people than the socially accepted ones.

The people who seem most trapped and unhappy are those who play by society’s rules: DeDe’s wealth screws her into a socket of social propriety that has her a virtual prisoner of public opinion and her unhappy marriage; her mother Frannie, strikingly played by Nina Foch in the first series and pallidly by Diana Leblanc in the second, is so in her cups she doesn’t notice that her husband has fallen in love with someone else. Frannie escapes in the second series, where her drinking is drastically downplayed and her freedom to enjoy her life and money doesn’t come until she turns 60 and is eligible to join another very exclusive club for women exploring their hedonist side. It seems telling to me that this club, called Pinus (hardy har har), implies that these women who have married, raised families, and volunteered for all the right charities have long ago left behind pampering and sexual fulfillment—all the things Pinus’ stock of handsome, well-built young men will offer them for a price.

Maupin is, in fact, rather unkind to women in this series. Mona goes postal on a client selling pantyhose, loses her job, and then basically becomes completely lost. She is very close to Michael (“Mouse”), but leaves him with hardly a by-your-leave, refuses to have sex with D’orothea and leaves her, too, and then just leaves. A random encounter—again fated in the stars by a Maupin coincidence—puts her in company of her grandmother, “Mother Mucca” (Jackie Burroughs), madam of the Blue Moon brothel in Winnamucca, Nevada, and eventually, the entire Ramsey family ends up in or near Barbary Lane. Mona’s vengeful mother Betty (Swoosie Kurtz) comes to see her estranged daughter and blackmail her husband, and is instead sent packing to avoid a scandal. Mary Ann is ill-treated by Beauchamp—who seems to be the biggest douche of all because he plays both sides of the fence and loves no one but himself—and lets her dreamboat Burke go off to New York without her because she is unwilling to leave her cozy family at Barbary Lane. And DeDe and her new love, D’orothea go off to a place where, D’orothea says, “there are no strangers”—Jonestown.

Brian was potentially the most interesting character to me. A hetero man who dropped off his fast track to success as a lawyer and became first a professional protester (“I was at Wounded Knee.”) and then just a guy waking up with a different woman every morning, he seems to be a pretty typical representative of straight guys in San Francisco, at least as imagined/observed by Armistead Maupin and his love-starved hetero women. Paul Gross played Brian with a real complexity—acting like a complete jerk and revealing his serious-minded background as something of a dark secret. By contrast, Whip Hubley is Mr. Nice Guy through and through and made me completely lose interest in this rather dark character. His story line in the second series seems cheap and facile while trying to follow Anna’s advice to find a nice girl to be sincere with.

Michael is mainly an unemployed and unpretentious guy from Florida who has a hard time with self-esteem. He is the entry point to gay culture for the rest of us, using gay slang and generally being sweet and romantic. I liked Marcus D’Amico a bit better in the role because he wasn’t so pretty and he seemed less affected, but Paul Hopkins was a close second. Mary Ann becomes his fag hag in the second series, but I missed his intimacy with Mona as played by the intriguing Chloe Webb. Linney’s affection for him just seemed a little too big. In fact, most things about her character and performance seemed too everything—too naïve, too flamboyant, too understanding—and I put this down mainly to the writing. I don’t feel Maupin or his fellow screenwriters had a real understanding of this character, and if Linney didn’t look so much the part and try so hard to fill her with a bit of depth, Mary Ann might have been a complete misfire.

If this series belongs to anyone, it is Olympia Dukakis. This may be her best role, and I hope I won’t insult her by saying that she looks as though she could have been a man at one point in her life. This androgyny helps make Anna a very believable character physically, but obviously, her performance goes deeper. Her life as a man surfaces in her response to situations, but her mother hen routine is strongly felt. I sensed right through the TV screen the atmosphere of home she created in the almost enchanted setting of 28 Barbary Lane. Her love affair with Edgar develops beautifully, the only love story in this series that really touched my soul for its maturity and depth. When Edgar dies, I actually believed that Anna could sense the moment it happened. Of course, the asshole Anna admitted to being when she was Andy comes through, too. She has a genuine panic attack when she fears Betty will destroy her family, and it is this possessive love that has made her tenants prisoners in their haven. None of them is truly gainfully employed, emotionally committed to anyone but each other, or looking to fulfill any dream but being part of a family—and how much of that is generated by Anna’s dream, one wonders. Ultimately, this is kind of a sad story.

As a series, I prefer the first part for its greater emotional intimacy, particularly as generated by Dukakis and the great Donald Moffat. I preferred the gritty cinematography of Walt Lloyd in the first series to the slick, brightly colored work of Serge Ladoucer. Some scenes as shot by Lloyd were atmospheric and chilling, such as when Jon is cruising silently through the steam of the baths or the raucousness and competitiveness in the End Up Club, where Michael enters a dance contest to win money to pay the rent. The first series also attracted quite a few major celebrities, from Moffat and Foch to Karen Black, Bob Mackie, Paul Dooley, and Rod Steiger. I thought it was hilarious that everyone was watching “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,”—a favorite of mine and apparently of the entire gay community—only to have Mary Kay Place, a star of that late-night soap opera, appear in a small part as the leader of a topical ladies luncheon whose subject of the month was their personal experience of rape. The second series had fewer surprise guest stars (perhaps because it was filmed largely in Canada instead of California) though Swoosie Kurtz whipped out a terrific performance from a cliché-ridden and brief part. Both series indulged in a cloak-and-dagger mystery, but only the first series made use of the Northern California setting to evoke Hitchcockian suspense. The latter series simply devolved into silliness that left me cold. But then, the warmth of the free-love culture San Francisco represented to the world was about to give way to the horrors of AIDS, and the tender mercies of Tales of the City could no longer make sense.

  • Pat spoke:
    8th/06/2011 to 10:29 am

    Marilyn –

    A lovely piece. I have fond memories of reading the entire series of Maupin’s books on the train to and from work about 12 years ago. although I’ve seen only a little of the TV series. I like the way you address the female characters here – I’d always thought of Mary Anne Singleton as a particularly sympathetic character (and, in the books I think she is), but I find your comment’s about Linnye’s performance to be food for thought.

    On the page or in the series, Anna Madrigal is, indeed, the richest and most ineteresting character.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    8th/06/2011 to 12:25 pm

    “Of all the big cities I’ve had the pleasure of visiting, San Francisco is the one that seems most like a small town, or series of small towns all planted side by side on its hilly streets, open for some neighborly snooping through a pair of binoculars (which Brian and a party of gay men indulge in during the second series). Being a port city and a jewel on the magnetic California coast, it is also a place of transience. Tales of the City emphasizes not only San Francisco’s small-town incestuousness, but also the reinvention that California offers its teeming masses. Every type of sexual arrangement is explored, and the nontraditional ones appear to breed more stable, happy people than the socially accepted ones…”

    Fascinating! And the search for love theme is one has possesses inherent appeal in more ways that one. Definitely one to bookmark. Some obviously fascinating characters, and quite a revelation to learn that this may be the great Olympia Dukakis’ greatest role. Olympia hails from Montclair, New Jersey an affluent hamlet nearby (in northern New Jersey) and for years was active with one of the local players’ groups.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    8th/06/2011 to 8:12 pm

    I see I have a couple of “Tales” virgins here. That’s always a surprise to me. This certainly is Dukakis’ best role, Sam. I’m interested in your thoughts about Mary Ann, Pat.

  • John spoke:
    10th/07/2011 to 2:51 pm

    Very nice and thoughtful Tales of the City comments, Marilyn.

    We lived in the Bay Area and read Maupin’s Chronicle serial “in real time” so to speak. While I’m not gay, I was acting in community theater at the time and had many gay friends (cliched, I know, but quite true…). The scenes that Maupin paints of the gay community and those that surrounded it was truly spot on, as was the horror and tragedy of the AIDS epidemic and its impact on that community, so poignantly referenced, especially in his latter works.

    I completely agree witrh your comments about Mrs. Madrigal, surely Olympia Dukakis’ finest role and one of the most compelling characters in literature. In lesser hands, she could have become a caricature, but Maupin manages to keep her quite real, symapthetic, emapathic, strong and vunerable – quite an accomplishment.

    I do agree that Maupin isn’t all that sympathetic to his other female characters, but I would argue that his slightly veiled contempt (perhaps too strong a word) of them was representative of a certain subset of San Francisco’s gay community in the late 70s and early 80s. Not fair, I know, but fairly accurate, in my opinion.

    I also agree that Mary Ann’s wide-eyed naivete and exuberance is somewhat over the top, but Laura Linney does manage to pull it off beautifully. And, in fairness, Mary Ann does slowly evolve into much more the realist in Maupin’s latter works while still retaining her optimistic spirit, albeit with quite a bit more effort. Watching Ms. Linney struggle with Mary Ann’s conflicts in Further Tales of the City was the best part of what I consider the weakest of the three series.

    Despite its faults, the Tales of the City books and TV trilogy remain one of my favorites and I look forward to seeing ACT’s stage version in San Francisco. Unfortunately, it appears that the play fails to evoke the sense of time and, especially, the place, of SF and Mrs. Madrigal’s Barbary Lane…but we still plan to see it!

    Cheers,

    .John

  • Marilyn spoke:
    10th/07/2011 to 4:27 pm

    Hi, John, and thanks for stopping by. I agree that the slightly veiled contempt (or whatever word you choose) was accurate for the time. I think the attitude prevails in some ways, and I have been subject to some condescension and bad behavior from some gay men, though I hasten to add that I love many of the gay friends and colleagues I have and consider the more contemptuous in the gay community to have a personality flaw unrelated to their sexual orientation. I did not see Further Tales and so cannot speak to that, but it sounds as though you understand this series well and so I feel I can trust your judgment. I hope you enjoy the play. While it may not feel of its time, it’s sure to have other joys.

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