Norman...Is That You?
Tag line for Norman...Is That You?
With a title track by Smokey Robinson and closing song by Thelma Houston, Norman...Is That You? (1976) gave every indication of being Motown's take on the sexual revolution. What ultimately emerged, though, were a series of tired Borscht Belt gay jokes translated into black culture and a film that, though probably well intentioned, emerges as a collection of stereotypes that were already outdated by the mid-seventies. The one plus the film has going for it -- and it's a pretty big plus -- is a tour de force comic turn by star Redd Foxx.
The story of a dry cleaner on the verge of divorce who discovers his only child is gay started life on Broadway in 1970, the brainchild of television comedy writers Ron Clark and Sam Bobrick. Originally, the play dealt with a Jewish family, with Lou Jacobi as the father and Maureen Stapleton as his recently estranged wife. The critics loathed it, complaining that its depiction of homosexuality was outdated, and it closed after just 12 performances. Still, the combination of Jewish humor and gay jokes proved a potent force outside New York, and the play took off in community and dinner theatres, while also enjoying successful runs around the world, with particularly popular productions in London, Spain and Scandinavia.
George Schlatter, producer and director of the trend-setting television series Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, picked up the film rights in 1970, then got the idea of turning it into a vehicle for Foxx. The former nightclub comedian, known for his raunchy humor and for breaking the color barrier in Las Vegas, was then the star of NBC's popular comedy series Sanford and Son. At the time, the actor had only appeared in two other feature films, a small role as Pearl Bailey's piano player in All the Fine Young Cannibals (1960) and the breakthrough African-American crime drama Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970). Although this meant re-writing the role to fit a different ethnicity, it was a good match for Foxx, whose fans were already used to seeing him play Demond Wilson's beleaguered father on television. Schlatter also kept the character's monologues, addressed directly to the audience, which basically function as stand-up routines for the star.
Schlatter called on another black icon for the role of Foxx's wife, Pearl Bailey. A popular singer known for interpolating comic material into her numbers, she shared with Foxx a reputation for risqué humor. But she also had proven her talents as an actress, both serious and comic, in films as well as on television and the stage. Most recently, she had revitalized the long-running Broadway musical Hello, Dolly by stepping into the leading role created by Carol Channing.
To play their son, he cast Michael Warren, a former UCLA basketball star (his teammates included Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Lynn Shackleford) who got into acting when he served as technical consultant on the basketball scenes in Jack Nicholson's directing debut, Drive, He Said (1971). He would later become one of the stars of the critically acclaimed series Hill Street Blues. Among his early films was Cleopatra Jones (1973), a vehicle for Blaxploitation queen Tamara Dobson, who was cast in this film as the hooker Foxx hires to straighten his son out. Other key players included ventriloquist Wayland Flowers, often hailed as the funniest man alive for his work with his dummy Madame, television fixture Jayne Meadows, legendary cartoonist Sergio Aragones and actor-playwright George Furth (a Tony-winner for the book for the musical Company).
For the role of Warren's flamboyant partner Garson, Schlatter cast Dennis Dugan, a skilled performer who was already considered a character actor at the age of 30. Dugan's future roles would include Richie Brockelman, the eccentric private detective on The Rockford Files and his own series (Richie Brockelman: Private Eye), and a memorable four-episode run as the self-styled superhero Captain Hero on Hill Street Blues. He would also become a prominent film director, working often with Adam Sandler on such films as You Don't Mess with the Zohan (2008) and another controversial "gay" comedy, I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry (2007).
That Norman...Is That You? was made with good intentions would be indicated by Foxx's attempts to deal positively with his son's homosexuality. When he realizes that Dugan is more than just a roommate, he buys every book on the subject he can find. He even goes out on a "date" with Dugan to learn what gay life is all about. And when the partners quarrel, he and Dugan move in together and develop an affectionate platonic relationship (though the relationship is tempered by his pet name for Garson, "Bitch"). But even while making fun of Foxx's assumption that he can convert his son by fixing him up with a hooker, the film milks gay stereotypes for laughs. Dugan's character is flamboyant to the extreme; when he moves out, he packs dresses, handbags and clunky jewelry. When Warren turns to his closest female friend for help, she plays the stereotypical "fag hag" and tries to seduce him. And the partners' roles are clearly modeled on the butch-femme myth of gay relationships. Little wonder critic Vito Russo dubbed the film "the first pro-gay fag joke" in his landmark book, The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies.
Coming after the first string of films about gay life in the late '60s (The Sergeant  and The Fox  among them), in which homosexuality was treated as a dirty secret that usually led to the death of the gay or lesbian character, Norman...Is That You? was a step in the right direction. But it was a far cry from more respectful treatments of gay life in the British film Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971), with Murray Head as a bisexual involved with both Glenda Jackson and Peter Finch, or the American movie-of-the-week That Certain Summer (1972), in which a recently divorced Hal Holbrook comes out to his son. In 1973, members of the Gay Activists Alliance and the National Gay Task Force would meet with film and television producers to demand fairer treatment in the entertainment media, though it would be a long time before the industry would provide consistent balance for the stereotypes presented in even well-intentioned films like Norman...Is That You?. Some would argue that day has yet to come.
Producer-Director: George Schlatter
Based on the play by Sam Bobrick, Ron Clark
Cinematography: Gayne Rescher
Art Direction: Stephen Myles Berger
Music: William Goldstein
Principal Cast: Redd Foxx (Ben Chambers), Pearl Bailey (Beatrice Chambers), Dennis Dugan(Garson Hobart), Michael Warren (Norman Chambers), Tamara Dobson (Audrey), Vernee Watson-Johnson (Melody), Jayne Meadows (Adele), Wayland Flowers (Larry Davenport), Sergio Aragones (Desk Clerk), George Furth (Bookstore Clerk), Barbara Sharma (Bookstore Clerk).
by Frank Miller