September 2015

Arts & Letters

Not just a love story

By Steve Dow
Bringing Timothy Conigrave’s ‘Holding the Man’ to the screen

In 1995, an Australian memoir was published posthumously. Its author had died the previous year. Holding the Man, by Melbourne-born actor and playwright Timothy Conigrave, was a balm to thousands of gay men, many of whom had lost friends and lovers in the AIDS crisis. The book chronicled Conigrave’s passionate 15-year relationship with John Caleo, from the time they were 16-year-old students at Melbourne’s Xavier College until Caleo’s death in 1992.

The title of the book was a play on an Australian Rules transgression and a nod to the star student footballer Caleo had been when the pair met. Featuring a blurred cover photograph of one man holding another, this tender tale inspired countless men and women to believe that they could love and be loved in return. But along with this hope there were fears, not only of the big disease with a little name but also of the rejection associated with coming out. (I was 27. I had not yet written those difficult letters to my parents, which would be greeted with silence.)

In 2006, the then 27-year-old playwright Tommy Murphy brought Holding the Man to the stage in Sydney, and later in London. A decade after the initial impact of the book, the play’s critical success proved that this was a love story with enduring appeal. It also dispelled any notion that, in a new era of manageable HIV, Conigrave’s work would be merely a historical curio, a memorialisation. Murphy eventually turned his play into a film script, and veteran theatre director Neil Armfield, whose most recent film was Candy (2006), starring Heath Ledger and Abbie Cornish, agreed to direct.

At Xavier College, a Jesuit Catholic boys’ school in the eastern suburb of Kew, the class of 1977 is graduating again, for the cameras, in the Great Hall. A couple of dozen young men step up to the stage. Sursum corda (Lift up your hearts) is inscribed on their red-trimmed black blazers.

Timothy Conigrave, played by Ryan Corr, sits beside John Caleo, played by Craig Stott, who is olive-skinned with long eyelashes and almond eyes. The class sings, “Be thou my vision / O Lord of my heart.” Caleo reaches for his lover’s thigh. “Better stop that, I’ll crack a fat,” mumbles Conigrave. “Too late,” comes the reply. Their hands dive into each other’s trouser pockets.

The take finished, Corr puts his arm around Stott’s shoulder as they debrief with Armfield at the other end of the hall. Once, the real Conigrave put an arm around his Caleo in English class as they watched the Alan Bates and Julie Christie romantic drama The Go-Between. “My spine melted into his fingertips,” Conigrave recalled.

I feel a personal investment in these ordinary lives being made at once normal and mythic, and am relieved to witness the simpatico relationship between Corr and Stott. Their chemistry, on screen and off, is the film’s best insurance that this modern Romeo and Juliet will find a broad audience.

Corr, 26, is straight, but has a lesbian sister to draw upon in understanding gay lives. He studied the way Conigrave wrote in order to develop a feel for the playwright’s voice and how his sexuality was turned to political and artistic purpose.

Like Conigrave, Corr attended the National Institute of Dramatic Art in Sydney, but unlike Conigrave he went to a public school. “I was a bit of a shit at school,” he admits, “probably because I didn’t always feel understood. Tim knew at eight years old he was gay, that the world didn’t understand him. He wanted to change the world, and he does, with this book.”

Stott, 25, identifies as queer. After I watch him gleefully jump into Corr’s arms following a take, Stott opens up about how they built their on-screen romance. Both Corr and Stott grew up in outer Melbourne and got to know each other’s “secrets and fears”, says Stott. They went out in public as a “gay couple” in a dose of method acting Stott initiated.

“As soon as I got the OK from Ryan [Corr] it was all right to do all that stuff, I was just fucking all over him like a rash, and vice versa,” Stott says. He “kind of walked the line” when displaying intimacy and sexual activity on screen. “The sex stuff was fine. In many ways it’s mechanical, making sure your face falls into the light when you’re having an orgasm.”

Between takes alongside the school lockers, Corr contemplates how the story might be read today. “The power of this piece is it’s not just a gay love story or a schoolboy story or an AIDS story,” he says. “It’s a celebration of life: the power of young love turned into something a lot bigger.”

Faith may prove healing for some, but it can still divide families when a child is attracted to someone of the same sex. Anthony LaPaglia, looking smart in a ’70s fawn suit, plays Caleo’s devout father, Bob, who is depicted in the book as claiming Conigrave corrupted his good Catholic son. Gia Carides worked with Conigrave while she was an acting student; she introduced LaPaglia to the story.

“I think Bob is a good man, and he ended up in a battle [with Conigrave] for the love of his son,” says LaPaglia. “That must have been incredibly difficult for him, in large part because of his faith.” The families of both Caleo and Conigrave have given the film their blessing, say the producers.

A lapsed Catholic himself and an “atheist leaning a bit towards agnostic”, LaPaglia went to an all-male Christian Brothers school in Adelaide in the ’60s, “until I was invited to leave”, he says. “I would ask, ‘Why don’t you teach both: creationism and theory of evolution?’”

Notably, Conigrave and Caleo’s schoolmates accepted the pair’s relationship. However, Catholic catechism endorses sexual love only between a married man and woman, and describes homosexual acts as “intrinsically disordered”.

Little has changed in Catholic teaching, argues Thomas Hatchman, 20, who plays Xavier student “Biscuit”. Only a couple of years ago he was attending another Catholic school a couple of suburbs away from Xavier. “Sexual identity in terms of the gay community is not spoken about,” says Hatchman. “I had a friend who was closeted gay, and he never came out at school. He never told his parents, either.”

Xavier’s principal, Chris Hayes, says he agreed to allow filming on campus to help director Armfield create an authentic adaptation of Conigrave’s “highly regarded” book. “We certainly have a number of copies in the school.”

Is it any easier for Catholic students to come out in 2015?

“We look to the goodness within each of them. To me, it’s not an issue of sexuality; we look at the dignity of each person.”

Yes, but what would happen if a student sought spiritual counsel at Xavier about his homosexuality?

Hayes exhales deeply. “In the words of the current pope, whose training was as a Jesuit, when he was asked a few years ago a similar question, ‘Who am I to judge?’ If they come seeking counsel, we will provide it for them, because we’re about providing a very safe and supportive environment.”

Corr says it would be ignorant to assume there is no longer prejudice about same-sex relationships in a religious setting. “In today’s society there’s definitely still a stigma attached to it. I think there are places in our society where it’s not understood; it’s not equal.” Corr hopes Holding the Man will “open up the gates of understanding”.

The film is aiming for both personal and social complexity: Conigrave’s infidelities feature in the story, as they do in the memoir, and there are constant reminders that this relationship is subject to the winds of a cultural, political and religious epoch more reactionary than today.

In a scene shot last October at Sydney’s Coogee Beach, Conigrave and Caleo, both newly diagnosed as HIV-positive, sit on the rocks with a friend, Pepe, played by Sarah Snook. It is July 1985, and gay men and intravenous drug users feel the wrath of clerics and the tabloids. The AIDS-awareness TV advertisement showing the Grim Reaper knocking over men, women and children like bowling pins is still two years away.

“If there were thousands of schoolkids dropping dead, they’d do something about it,” Conigrave says. “God help you if you’re a poofter or a prostitute or a junkie.” Referencing Conigrave’s nascent project Soft Targets, one of Australia’s first theatrical responses to HIV-AIDS, Caleo reassures him, “We’re not like the people in the play. We’re lucky. We’re in the second wave.”

Stott, who shed 10 kilograms to portray Caleo’s body wasting, is still grappling with the idea that earlier generations of young men around his age had to face their mortality simply because they had sex. He worries that other young people today cannot relate to this recent history.

“There’s no words for it. It was thousands and thousands of people. Dying, and beyond their control. The injustice of it: you couldn’t even talk about it. They had to come out by saying, ‘I have AIDS, and I’m going to die.’ People don’t really understand today. Up to 1996, when the first antiretroviral drugs came out, you died from it.

“People are forgetting. And it’s so important to remind people that in these nightmarish circumstances, there was love happening.”

Holding the Man is in national release.

Steve Dow

Steve Dow is a Melbourne-born, Sydney-based arts writer.



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