So, after watching Nightmare on Elm Street 2 last night, I went rummaging around the internet with questions like, “How? . . . Why? . . .”
The answer is Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street, Mark Patton’s account of what it was like to play Jesse, the sensitive male lead in the camp sequel full of barely concealed homoerotic subtext, at a time when he was young, new to Hollywood, and in the closet.
My worry with the film was, quite frankly, that it was gonna be a downer. Nightmare 2 effectively ended Mark’s career, because, despite being commercially successful, it was panned by critics and fans, and the queerness of the movie and Mark’s performance brought down the shutters on him in the homophobic Hollywood of 1985. I wanted to enjoy Nightmare 2, and enjoy laughing at it, and not have that compromised by finding out it ruined the lead actor’s life, or that its making had left life-long bitterness.
But it wasn’t anything like that. This is Mark’s story, and Mark’s story is one of the resilience of gay people and gay culture. Mark sees his life as being extremely lucky in an unfortunate time. He went to New York at 17 with $100 in his pocket and in 5 years was on stage with Cher. He met and fell in love with the handsome actor in the hit tv show Dallas, Tim Patrick Murphy, and moved into his home in the Hollywood hills right across from Madonna. While he was blossoming, so was gay culture, and it was slowly but surely making inroads into the mainstream, if only by nods and winks.
Then Rock Hudson died in October 1985, bringing the AIDS epidemic to national attention, and setting off a reversal of everything that had been won since Stonewall. And in November 1985, the camp sequel to Nightmare on Elm Street was released, with its queer subtext now being far too much in an increasingly homophobic climate. Mark’s agents struggled to find him work, with tv contracts now stipulating blood tests before they hired actors.
And as the career he made collapsed in around him, as the thriving community that had been his home and family became decimated, his lover Tim was dying of AIDS. Tim was publicly outed in the National Enquirer, they broke into his hospital room and took photos of him as he lay suffering on his deathbed, and splashed them across the front page of their magazines. And Mark was reconciling himself to the fact that he was HIV positive.
After Tim died, Mark fled Hollywood, and set up in a small town in Mexico, bascially looking for a quiet place to die. He got tuberculosis, cancer, and his HIV went into full blown AIDS.
All that would be enough to end anybody. But this is Mark’s story. And it’s one of resilience.
After the launch of an effective drug cocktail that halted the progression of AIDS, Mark was able to recover, and he rebuilt a quiet life, with a new partner, in a little shop in Mexico, selling knickknacks and kitsch. And there he blossomed again. Until one day, decades later, when his acting days were just a memory, he gets a phone call from a private detective, who’s been hired to find him for a documentary on the legacy of the Nightmare franchise.
And when he comes back for that, he realises there is this whole renewal of interest in this film, as the generation who watched this movie as kids are now coming out, and many of the fans are saying, “I would never have been allowed to watch a gay movie, but I was allowed to watch Nightmare on Elm Street, and you were the first gay character I ever saw”. Queer theory analysis of film is finding things to talk about in Nightmare 2, rather than just seeing it as a failed schlock sequel. And its cult following of queer fans are putting on their own showings. Mark can now embrace his past in Nightmare in a way that is far more meaningful to him, than if it had simply made it as a big, successful horror film.
Mark now tours and uses his cult celebrity to talk about bullying, and about homophobia, and about destroying stigma around HIV. He uses whatever platform he has for good. And it’s like he and the culture are rediscovering each other, and saying to each other, “So you survived?” and “Yeah, I thrived”.
For a documentary about an incredibly silly film, it is really rather touching. Where healing from insurmountable odds is not just a possibility, but a reality.