Behind the Red Door

Behind the Red Door

Charcuterie Sampler:

1) Herbette: pheasant, pork, fennel and herbs

as a rich country pate

2) Mousquetaire: a classic Gascon mix of duck,

pork, prunes and Armagnac

3) Peppercorn: a silken poultry liver mousse, sparked with cracked black pepper

DEAN & DELUCA – Purveyors of Fine Food, Wine and Kitchenware

“Family,” among other things, connotes love, safety and comfort. Youngsters often count on a big brother or sister for protection; but what happens when they can’t be shielded from darkness and pain? Behind the Red Door aims to parse this very particular strain of heartache.

Kyra Sedgwick (Personal Velocity) is Natalie Haddad, a starving artist who travels to Boston for a lucrative commercial assignment. After all, integrity doesn’t pay the bills. Only once she’s on location does she discover that her agent/friend Julia (Stockard Channing in a woefully underwritten role) has set her up. She’s been hired to work for her estranged older brother (24’s Kiefer Sutherland), a controlling advertising mogul. Her first impulse is to take the next shuttle out, but she turns heel to face him and, ultimately, her past.

Black and white shards of flashbacks, seen from Natalie’s perspective, are sprinkled throughout the film. In her mind’s eye, brother Roy taunted her and failed to protect her from their tyrant of a father, but, most egregiously, he couldn’t save their mother’s life. Natalie chose to leave their Dorchester neighborhood home and moved to New York City. Roy stayed behind and became an affluent executive. Apparently, Stockard Channing has known each of them for some time (the film doesn’t specify how) and, despite feeling “in the middle,” she is not above manipulating Natalie to see her brother for the first time in a decade.

Natalie means to do the job and get on the first plane out the next morning, but, true to form, Roy pressures her to stay for his birthday party. Natalie reluctantly attends, and far from welcoming home the prodigal sister, he practices cruelty. Only when his all-too-shallow friends leave, does he reveal that he is in the advanced stages of AIDS. He also confides that his last lover didn’t leave him, but that he died a year and a day ago – and that Roy didn’t tell anyone.

Roy’s secretiveness is a key component in the film and it is difficult to accept. After all, he is an openly gay man. He owns his own business and is, judging by a Cape Cod house that subscribers to Metropolitan Home would lust over, fabulously wealthy. (The gorgeous vistas that suggest tony Cohasset on the Massachusetts North Shore are actually St. John’s Newfoundland. Score another point for the Canadian film industry.) Since Roy’s invited guests are mostly gay men, it is puzzling that he would keep a long-term relationship from them. It is not a hard sell, however, that Roy would want to mask his illness. In a society that worships youth and vitality, when you lose your hair you lose your power–and when you lose your T cells, you lose your ability to command.

Writer/director Matia Karrell (Oscar-nominated in 1988 for best live action short film for Cadillac Dreams) and co-author C.W. Cressler have not been content to merely cast a contentious relationship between Natalie and Roy. They have made Roy a piece of work, no doubt to show his growth throughout the film. But his character, as written, is nearly unwatchable. He is the kind of snob who not only sends back Petrus ’62, but makes the waiter feel that he should commit hari-kari for having despoiled his taste buds. Surely there are gay men who are as fastidious as Roy (when hospitalized he can’t endure his stay without his Gucci “kit” and Armani robe), but this guy is toxic and his redemption is difficult to accept.

Kyra Sedgwick has an easier time of it, and more to do. While Roy declines and learns to bellow less and plant impatiens, she is confronting past demons. While the death of their mother is a closed book for Roy, Natalie was too young when it happened to have a first-hand memory. She is keenly aware of the town talk that her father was tried for her mother’s murder, but acquitted due to lack of any hard evidence. When not monitoring Roy or managing his ad campaign, she finds time to have the sealed files re-opened, comb through them, and ultimately confront her father for the first time in fifteen years.

Although Behind the Red Door is in parts a schematic, more than a nuanced drama, both Kyra Sedgwick and Kiefer Sutherland portray sister and brother with dignity. The awkward set-up finally gives way to a portrait of a family of two, who are at last there for one another.

Throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, film and theater about AIDS have led the way to a greater understanding not only of the disease, but also of what it means to know someone who is gay. As AIDS/HIV disease has become a chronic, rather than terminal, disease, there is an urge to move on (of late reporters have been saying that more lives in the U.S. are being lost, for example, to the flu), so films of this nature are crucial to continuing awareness.

Behind the Red Door is one of the first efforts in a Viacom and Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation initiative launching on January 6, 2003. Its mission is to create programming that contributes to a better understanding of HIV/AIDS. The massive Viacom empire includes the Sundance Channel, BET, Simon & Schuster, CBS, MTV, UPN, Paramount, and Showtime – which produced this film. Perhaps this synergy can be leveraged in such a fashion that it can make a positive difference, fostering dialogue and promoting understanding.

– Jerry Weinstein

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