But I'm a Cheerleader
|But I'm a Cheerleader|
|Directed by||Jamie Babbit|
|Screenplay by||Brian Wayne Peterson|
|Story by||Jamie Babbit|
|Edited by||Cecily Rhett|
|Music by||Pat Irwin|
|Distributed by||Lions Gate Films|
|Box office||$2.6 million|
But I'm a Cheerleader is a 1999 American satirical romantic teen comedy film directed by Jamie Babbit, written by Babbit and Brian Wayne Peterson. Natasha Lyonne stars as Megan Bloomfield, a high school cheerleader whose parents send her to a residential in-patient conversion therapy camp to "cure" her lesbianism.
Seventeen-year-old Megan Bloomfield is a happy high school senior who loves cheerleading and is dating Jared, a football player. She does not enjoy kissing Jared and prefers looking at her fellow cheerleaders. This, combined with Megan's interest in vegetarianism and Melissa Etheridge, lead her family and friends to suspect that she is a lesbian. With the help of ex-gay Mike, they surprise her with an intervention. Megan is then sent to True Directions, a conversion therapy camp which uses a five-step program to convert its campers to heterosexuality. Over the course of the program, Megan becomes friends with another girl at the camp, Graham. Though more comfortable in her sexuality than Megan, Graham was forced to attend the camp at the risk of being disowned by her family.
At True Directions, Megan meets the founder and strict disciplinarian Mary Brown; according to the film's backstory, Mary started True Directions after her husband left her for another man. Mary Brown's "heterosexual" son Rock is seen throughout the film to be in fact overtly homosexual, and makes multiple sexual overtures towards Mike and the male campers. Megan meets a group of fellow young people trying to "cure" themselves of their homosexuality. After being prompted by the others, Megan agrees that she is a lesbian. This fact is at odds with her traditional religious upbringing and distresses her, so she puts every effort into becoming heterosexual. Early on in her stay, Megan discovers two boys, Dolph and Clayton, making out. She panics and screams. On their discovery by Mike, Dolph is made to leave and Clayton is punished with isolation, literally being sent to the doghouse.
The camp's kids are encouraged to rebel against Mary by two of her former students, ex-ex-gays Larry and Lloyd, who take the campers to a local gay bar where Graham and Megan's relationship develops into a romance. When Mary discovers the trip, she makes them all picket Larry and Lloyd's house. Megan and Graham sneak away one night and begin to fall in love. When Mary finds out, Megan, now at ease with her sexuality, is unrepentant and made to leave. Disowned by her family and homeless, she goes to stay with Larry and Lloyd. Graham, afraid to defy her father, remains at the camp. Megan and Dolph, who is now also living with Larry and Lloyd, plan to win back Graham and Clayton.
Megan and Dolph infiltrate the graduation ceremony, where Dolph coaxes Clayton away. Megan entreats Graham to join them as well, but Graham declines. Megan then performs a cheer for Graham, declaring her love and winning her over. They drive off with Dolph and Clayton. The final scene shows Megan's parents attending a PFLAG meeting to come to terms with their daughter's homosexuality.
- Natasha Lyonne as Megan Bloomfield
- Clea DuVall as Graham Eaton
- Cathy Moriarty as Mary Brown
- RuPaul Charles as Mike
- Mink Stole as Nancy Bloomfield
- Bud Cort as Peter Bloomfield
- Eddie Cibrian as Rock Brown
- Melanie Lynskey as Hilary Vandermueller
- Wesley Mann as Lloyd Morgan-Gordon
- Joel Michaely as Joel Goldberg
- Richard Moll as Larry Morgan-Gordon
- Kip Pardue as Clayton Dunn
- Dante Basco as Dolph
- Douglas Spain as Andre
- Katrina Phillips as Jan
- Katharine Towne as Sinead Lauren
- Brandt Wille as Jared
- Michelle Williams as Kimberly
- Julie Delpy as Lipstick Lesbian
But I'm a Cheerleader was Babbit's first feature film. She had previously directed two short films, Frog Crossing (1996) and Sleeping Beauties (1999). Babbit and producer Andrea Sperling secured financing from Michael Burns, vice president of Prudential Insurance, after showing him the script at Sundance festival. Their one-sentence pitch was "Two high-school girls fall in love at a reparative therapy camp." Burns gave an initial budget of US$500,000 which was increased to US$1 million when the film went into production.
Babbit, whose mother runs a halfway house called New Directions for young people with drug and alcohol problems, had wanted to make a comedy about rehabilitation and the 12-step program. After reading an article about a man who had returned from a reparative therapy camp hating himself, she decided to combine the two ideas. With girlfriend Sperling, she came up with the idea for a feature film about a cheerleader who attends reparative therapy. They wanted the main character to be a cheerleader because it is ... "the pinnacle of the American dream, and the American dream of femininity." She wanted the film to represent the lesbian experience from the femme perspective contrasting with several films of the time that represented the butch perspective (Go Fish and The Watermelon Woman). She also wanted to satirize both the religious right and the gay community. Not feeling qualified to write the script herself, Babbit brought in screenwriter and recent graduate of USC School of Cinematic Arts Brian Wayne Peterson. Peterson had experience with reparative therapy while working at a prison clinic for sex offenders. He has said that he wanted to make a film that would not only entertain people, but also make people get angry and talk about the issues it raised.
Babbit recruited Clea DuVall who had starred in her short film Sleeping Beauties, to play the role of Graham Eaton. She was able to meet a lot of the cast through DuVall, including Natasha Lyonne and Melanie Lynskey. Lyonne first saw the script in the back of DuVall's car and contacted her agent about it. She had seen and enjoyed Babbit's short Sleeping Beauties and was eager to work with her. She was not the first choice for the role of Megan. Another actress had wanted to play the part but eventually turned it down due to her religious belief and not wanting her family to see her on the poster. Rosario Dawson was also considered for Megan but her executive producer persuaded her that Dawson, who is Hispanic, would not be right for the All-American character.
A conscious effort was made to cast people of color in supporting roles to combat what she described as "racism at every level of making movies." From the beginning she intended the characters of Mike (played by RuPaul), Dolph (Dante Basco) and Andre (Douglas Spain) to be African American, Asian and Hispanic. She initially considered Arsenio Hall for the character of Mike but Hall was uncomfortable playing a gay role. As Mike, RuPaul made a rare appearance out of drag.
Set and costume design
Babbit says that her influences for the look and feel of the film included John Waters, David LaChapelle, Edward Scissorhands and Barbie. She wanted the production and costume design to reflect the themes of the story.
The progression from the ordinary world of Megan's home life where the dominant colors are muted oranges and browns, to the contrived world of True Directions with intense blues and pinks, is intended to represent the artificiality of heteronormativity.
The germaphobic character of Mary Brown represents AIDS paranoia and her clean, ordered world is filled with plastic flowers, fake sky and PVC outfits. The external shots of the colorful house complete with bright pink agricultural fencing were filmed in Palmdale, California.
But I'm a Cheerleader contains themes of sexuality, gender roles and social conformity. Chris Holmlund in Contemporary American Independent Film notes this feature of the film and calls the costumes "gender-tuned." Ted Gideonse in Out magazine wrote "the costumes and colors of the film show how false the goals of True Directions are".
Rating and distribution
When originally submitted to the Motion Picture Association of America rating board, But I'm a Cheerleader received an NC-17 rating. In order to get a commercially viable R rating, Babbit removed a two-second shot of Graham's hand sweeping Megan's clothed body, a camera pan of Megan's body when she is masturbating, and a comment that Megan "ate Graham out".
Babbit was interviewed by Kirby Dick for his 2006 documentary film This Film Is Not Yet Rated. The film suggests that films with homosexual content are treated more stringently than those with only heterosexual content, and that scenes of female sexuality draw harsher criticism from the board than those of male sexuality. Babbit stated that she felt discriminated against for making a gay film. The film was rated as M (for mature audiences 15 and older) in Australia and in New Zealand, 14A in Canada, 12 in Germany and 15 in the United Kingdom.
The film premiered on September 12, 1999, at the Toronto International Film Festival and was screened in January 2000 at the Sundance Film Festival. It was shown at other international film festivals including the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras festival and the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. It first appeared in US theaters on July 7, 2000, distributed by Lions Gate Entertainment.
Box office and audience reaction
But I'm a Cheerleader grossed $2,595,216 worldwide. In its opening weekend, showing at four theaters, it earned $60,410 which was 2.7% of its total gross. According to Box Office Mojo, it ranked at 174 for all films released in the US in 2000 and 74 for R-rated films released that year. The film was a hit with festival audiences and received standing ovations at the San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. It has been described as a favorite with gay audiences and on the art house circuit.
Initial mainstream critical response to But I'm a Cheerleader was mostly negative. On Rotten Tomatoes it has an approval rating of 42% from 89 reviews. On Metacritic it has a weighted average score of 39 out of 100 based on 30 critics, indicating "Generally unfavorable reviews." The New York Times praised Lyonne and DuVall for their performances. The Los Angeles Times described the movie as having "jaunty, superficial humor" that "tends more to confirm homosexual stereotypes for easy laughter than to skewer the horror of [conversion therapy]". Variety described it as a "shallow, only mildly entertaining satire".
Reviews from gay media were positive, and the film has undergone a critical reassessment over time, being analyzed in recent times as a deliberately satirical and campy take on the subject matter. Feminist website Autostraddle declared the film to be number one in a list of the "100 best lesbian movies of all time" in 2015 AfterEllen.com named it "one of the five best lesbian movies ever made"; the site had considered the movie's story "predictable" and characters "stereotypical" in its initial 2006 review. Curve called the film an "incredible comedy" that had "redefined lesbian film."
Pat Irwin composed the score for But I'm a Cheerleader. The soundtrack has never been released on CD.
- "Chick Habit (Laisse tomber les filles)" (Elinor Blake, Serge Gainsbourg) performed by April March
- "Just Like Henry" (Tammy Ealom, John Hill, Rob Greene, Darren Albert) performed by Dressy Bessy
- "If You Should Try and Kiss Her" (Ealom, Hill, Greene, Albert) performed by Dressy Bessy
- "Trailer Song" (Courtney Holt, Joy Ray) performed by Sissy Bar
- "All or Nothing" (Cris Owen, Miisa) performed by Miisa
- "We're in the City" (Sarah Cracknell, Bob Stanley, Pete Wiggs) performed by Saint Etienne
- "The Swisher" (Dave Moss, Ian Rich) performed by Summer's Eve
- "Funnel of Love" (Kent Westbury, Charlie McCoy) performed by Wanda Jackson
- "Ray of Sunshine" (Go Sailor) performed by Go Sailor
- "Glass Vase Cello Case" (Madigan Shive, Jen Wood) performed by Tattle Tale
- "Party Train" (RuPaul) performed by RuPaul
- "Evening in Paris" (Lois Maffeo) performed by Lois Maffeo
- "Together Forever in Love" (Go Sailor) performed by Go Sailor
The music video for the 2021 song "Silk Chiffon" by musical group Muna with Phoebe Bridgers pays homage to But I'm a Cheerleader and features much of the film's iconography, Guitarist Naomi McPherson said they wanted "a song for kids to have their first gay kiss to."
In 2005 the New York Musical Theatre Festival featured a musical stage adaptation of But I'm a Cheerleader written by lyricist Bill Augustin and composer Andrew Abrams. With 18 original songs, it was directed by Daniel Goldstein and starred Chandra Lee Schwartz as Megan. It played during September 2005 at New York's Theatre at St. Clement's. The musical was also performed as part of MT Fest UK from 18 to 20 February 2019 at The Other Palace, London with a cast featuring Bronté Barbé as Megan, Carrie Hope Fletcher as Graham, Jamie Muscato as Jared, Matt Henry as Mike, Ben Forster as Larry, Stephen Hogan as Lloyd and Luke Bayer as Clayton.
A production of the musical will premiere at the Turbine Theatre in London, beginning previews 18 February and with an opening night of 23 February, running until 16 April 2022. It will be directed by Tania Azevedo, choreographed by Alexzandra Sarmiento with lighting by Martha Godfrey, and produced by Paul Taylor-Mills and Bill Kenwright, in association with Adam Bialow, by special arrangement with Lionsgate..
But I’m a Cheerleader: The Musical Will Return to London's Turbine Theatre. Following a London premiere earlier this year, But I'm a Cheerleader: The Musical will return to The Turbine Theatre next month. The run will begin October 7 and continue through November 27 with a Gala Night scheduled for October 11. The musical features a book and lyrics penned by Bill Augustin, music by Andrew Abrams, and direction by Tania Azevedo. Jamie Babbit conceived and directed the original film, which featured a screenplay by Brian Wayne Peterson. But I'm a Cheerleader: The Musical is presented by Paul Taylor-Mills and Bill Kenwright in association with Adam Bialow, and by special arrangement with Lionsgate. 
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