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'Single Man' highlights gay, family issues

By Jo Piazza, Special to CNN
Colin Firth has been widely acclaimed for his performance in "A Single Man."
Colin Firth has been widely acclaimed for his performance in "A Single Man."
  • "A Single Man" is about a gay professor in 1962 whose longtime partner dies suddenly
  • Professor, played by Colin Firth, is left out of funeral, not considered "family"
  • Gay-rights advocates say the film "shows the price people pay for silence"

(CNN) -- Watching an early screening of designer Tom Ford's directorial debut, "A Single Man," James Conrad felt chilled to the bone.

Conrad, a 45-year old gay man who lives in New York City, couldn't help but be distracted by the nagging thought that something similar to what the film's main character George experiences -- the isolation of a loved one's passing and society's refusal to recognize their relationship -- could one day happen to him.

For that reason, Ford's project is more than just a stylish and thought-provoking film about the crippling loneliness a gay man feels when his partner dies in a tragic accident. It is a timely conversation piece about same-sex rights.

For the gay community the story of a closeted college professor mourning the death of his long-time lover reflects the history of the struggle to be open about homosexuality in the 1960s. The same struggle continues today as the gay community fights for equal rights and laws allowing same-sex marriage.

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"We're used to movies like 'Brokeback Mountain' that deal with the difficulties of being gay, but this is about the difficulties of being human viewed from the perspective of a gay man," said Aaron Hicklin, the editor-in-chief of Out, the highest-circulation gay monthly. "That's not as common as it should be. As we continue to make the case for full equality, movies like this help balance the negative and stereotypical views of homosexuality that are out there."

"A Single Man," based on the 1964 novel of the same name by Christopher Isherwood, opens across North America on Christmas Day. Early reviews of the film have been positive and last week it received Golden Globe nominations for its score and the performances of actors Colin Firth, who plays George, and Julianne Moore, who portrays his booze-loving best friend Charley.

Firth's George is buttoned up and controlled -- both a proper Englishman abroad in America and a homosexual living in the closet in the years before the Stonewall riots of 1969 defined the start of the gay rights movement in America.

In one pivotal scene in the film, George learns his long-time partner Jim, played by Matthew Goode, has died in a car crash and George is not invited to the funeral, which is limited to family only. Jim's family even keeps the couple's dog. George and Jim had been together for 16 years, but in 1962 such relationships were "invisible," which only makes the grieving process more difficult for George.

"Though this movie is set in the 1960s, the same thing can potentially happen to gays and lesbians now," Conrad said. "When the family tells him over the phone that the funeral is for 'family only,' it's bone chilling. It reminded me of those first years of dealing with AIDS when so many gay men were kept from their dying lovers and thrown out of their own homes and apartments the day after a death."

Firth's portrayal of George's quiet pain already won the actor the top prize for a male performance at the Venice Film Festival earlier this year.

"Through Colin Firth's character we come to truly appreciate the tremendous power of love, and of redemption. I can't imagine anyone, whatever their sexual orientation, failing to connect with his humanity," Hicklin said.

Ironically, the film -- which may provide audiences with a conversation starter on the issue of same-sex marriage -- was shot in Los Angeles during the 2008 political campaign, which saw the passage of Proposition 8 in California. The voter-approved initiative banned same-sex marriage in the state after it had been legalized, and was a setback to many hopeful homosexual couples.

The film's release comes as District of Columbia Mayor Adrian M. Fenty signed legislation to legalize same-sex marriage in Washington last Friday. The past several months have also seen lawmakers in Maine approve a measure legalizing same-sex marriages. Voters in that state passed a referendum to overturn the new law.

Earlier this month, New York's state senate defeated a bill that would legalize same-sex marriage. A similar bill stalled in New Jersey's state senate.

"The silence and the invisibility the film is portraying was in part why Americans didn't understand the need for freedom to marry when the first cases for the freedom to marry began by 1971," explains Evan Wolfson, the Executive Director of the organization Freedom to Marry and author of "Why Marriage Matters."

"I think the film shows the price people pay for silence and it shows the common humanity and invites people to ask themselves: How would I feel if I couldn't acknowledge the love of my life?"