With so much already written and filmed about gay social history, it’s surprising that it took nearly 40 years since its closing for a feature documentary on New York’s Continental Baths.
The legendary gay bathhouse, founded in 1968 by eccentric businessman and opera singer Steve Ostrow, was the heart of hedonism and a safe haven for gay men during the tumultuous 1970s. It launched New York’s notorious bathhouse scene that eventually fell silent with the rise of AIDS in the 1980s.
For filmmaker Malcolm Ingram, who was just hitting puberty and coming to terms with his own sexuality by the time AIDS plagued the gay community, the history of the bathhouse was a story that needed to finally be told.
After finishing two features (, ), both executive produced by Kevin Smith, Ingram made the switch to documentaries focused on niche segments of the gay community. His first, , explored the risks of being gay in small Southern towns in the United States. His follow-up, , introduced viewers to the lifestyle of gay men of the stocky and hairy persuasion.
Ingram’s latest, aptly titled , premiered Sunday at SXSW. Though criticized for its lack of depth, the film details the history of the Continental Baths through anecdotes from Ostrow, former staff and a group of hand-picked experts. It also features rare and archival footage, including rarely seen performances by Bette Midler, who launched her career from the stage of the bathhouse (with Barry Manilow as her pianist).
Ingram spoke to at SXSW and touched upon a number of topics, including what he calls "gay fatigue" in the media, Midler’s notable nonparticipation and Ostrow’s critics. He also addresses his falling-out with Smith, which seemed to happen after Ingram abruptly quit his podcast on Smith’s SModcast network last year.
The Hollywood Reporter: Prior to your film, there has not been a documentary made about the Continental Baths. Aside from the Bette Midler connection, there hasn’t been a lot of historical information compiled about it. So what made you want to document its history?
Malcolm Ingram: The reason one hadn’t been made before, I think, is because of AIDS. It had such a profound effect on the gay community. And I think the last thing that people wanted to look back on fondly was that wonderful time when everybody was having sex freely and having a great ol’ time. A lot of time needed to pass before people fondly looked back at a place like the Continental. AIDS is still very much an issue, but it’s not the problem that it once was and people aren’t dying by the multitudes as they once were.
THR: Do you think enough time has passed where people have distanced themselves enough from that time period where they can now talk about it comfortably?
Ingram: Yes. They’re more comfortable talking about it without the guilt. I mean, I couldn’t even imagine when I was 12 years old. … I was just hitting puberty when AIDS happened. It had such a profound effect on my own sexuality and figuring out who I was. I can only imagine being one of those people who were in their 20s when AIDS first started happening and, you know, so many people died.
THR: Steve Ostrow, the founder of the Continental Baths, is an eccentric character. He’s called Australia home for quite a few years now. How did you go about reaching out and convincing him to participate in this?
Ingram: We tracked him down the way you do everything these days with the Internet. At first he was very skeptical. I’m sure he’s told all these stories before. He was really fun to talk to. I sent him and he got it. He got me. He understood that I wasn’t a complete buffoon. So he gave me a shot and we had arranged for me to come out and film him, but I couldn’t then. I made first because I couldn’t get anyone interested in the story of the Continental. People aren’t interested in stories of gay history. People are more into .
THR: Why do you think that’s so? That’s an interesting comment, because gay history is such a part of American culture. We’re seeing it now with the gay marriage issue. We’re even seeing a shift in conservatives who are putting their support behind gay marriage.
Ingram: I know. Clint Eastwood is even coming out in support, that’s shocking. I can’t speak for everybody, but I think there’s a real gay fatigue. There was a struggle for civil rights and then there was a health crisis. That’s a lot for a group of people [to deal with]. The gay movement is actually a recent thing. And we already faced two f–ing horrible hurdles. So when you look at our recent history, it’s just a lot of struggle. I mean, being gay is awesome. There are so many wonderful things about being a gay person, but some people look at our history, our recent history, as just being so tragic and heavy. I think a lot of people just find it really hard to put their heads around and would rather not steep themselves in it. But I go the opposite way where I’m completely fascinated by where we’ve gone so quickly. When I watch a documentary like David France‘s , that movie had me in tears. I’m so proud of the people before me who literally solved a huge problem that nobody else would do. But we organized ourselves and we solved that problem. We did not sit there as victims. We stood up and we saved our brothers. We saved our family. We saved our lovers. I just think that movies like are so important and empowering to me as a gay man and to me as a human being.
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THR: Ostrow is already coming under some criticism for possibly taking too much credit for empowering the gay movement in the film. What do you think of that?
Ingram: To be fair to Steve, he absolutely has a place in the gay movement. If you really look at what he is saying, he never once says, "I did this." He says, "I was part of." It’s a "we" thing. He deserves to be proud for what he did. Like we show in the movie, he literally would go and bail people out. That’s not his job as a businessman. People come to his place, they know the risks, and if they get busted, that’s their problem. That wasn’t his attitude. His attitude was my customer is my family. He treated these people as best as he could. He saw the harassment of his customers, so he went out and created petitions to ensure people’s safety. He’s 80 years old now and he’s still out there working for AIDS organizations. He created one of the biggest organizations for mature-age gays. He is all about the community. If anybody wants to present me with somebody who they feel could criticize a man who’s dedicated his life to the betterment of his community, f–k them. There are so many bitchy queens out there that are so ready to tear people down. Deeds, not words, baby. So many people talk, Steve acts. That made telling this story so much easier, because Steve was a man of action. It’s a privilege for me to celebrate him and his story.
THR: It sounds like you felt a sense of purpose to finish this documentary.
Ingram: Well, all the major characters are getting older. They die, the story dies. It’s such a privilege to be able to hear the people who created the history tell their own story. It’s so important, not only in the gay community, but in the world. We’re at a place in time where we can record our history as it happens. It’s our responsibility. I feel very much making this documentary was my duty to record this history, to make sure these voices carry on so the story of the Continental doesn’t die.