It was the year figure skater Tonya Harding had rival Nancy Kerrigan practically kneecapped, ER and Friends made their debuts, and O.J. Simpson starred in the first low-speed police chase to be televised. But for lesbians the most significant pop culture event of 1994 was the theatrical release of Go Fish, an indie film made by and for lesbians had a surprising degree of crossover appeal.
Queer and mainstream audiences alike flocked to see a girl-meets-girl love story and listen to new (and loquacious) voices.
Go Fish tells the story of two young women in Chicago’s Belmont neighborhood: trendy Max, who describes herself as “a single lesbo looking for love,” and Ely, whom Max at first deems “extra crunchy” and even ugly. With encouragement and meddling from their friends, the two ultimately fall for each other.
Granted, it takes a strategic haircut for Ely to even get Max to take a second look. But the movie’s tagline is “the girl is out there,” and over the course of 84 minutes, Max grows and learns to open her eyes to the possibility of love where she never expected it, while Ely leaves her long-term, long-distance girlfriend for Max, trading in a fizzled-out relationship for a new lease on life.
Go Fish almost didn’t even get made. Filmmakers Rose Troche and Guinevere Turner (who also plays Max) enlisted their friends and acquaintances to work behind as well as in front of the camera. No one was paid and production stopped each time funds ran out. The onetime couple broke up halfway through production yet retained their business partnership.
It took long years and a lot of blind faith for Go Fish to even make it from production to distribution.
But Go Fish made a successful tour of the festival circuit, getting nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and winning a Best Feature award at the prestigious Berlin Film Festival. The little movie that hardly anyone other than now-bigwig producer Christine Vachon and the filmmakers themselves believed in found itself at the center of a major studio feeding frenzy before Sundance was even over.
The Samuel Goldwyn company won the bidding war and the $15,000-budget movie wound up grossing nearly $2.5 million at the box office.
Go Fish was hardly a shoo-in for commercial success. It’s a dialogue-heavy number, filled with philosophical musings on what it means to be a lesbian. It’s shot in grainy black-and-white and is interspersed with experimental montages. The acting is mostly amateur and the sound and score also reflect the film’s restrictive budget. Not to mention that more time is spent leading up to Max and Ely getting together than portraying their eventual hookup.
So why was Go Fish such a hit?
The movie certainly has artistic merit: The writing is bold and fresh and gives voice to perspectives previously unheard. It manages to explore issues like homophobia and bi-phobia yet remain lighthearted and entertaining. The direction is laudable and the narrative is conveyed via creative use of limited resources.
It may look homemade but it’s just as obviously heartfelt and heartwarming.
But above all, Go Fish offered a ground-breaking portrayal of lesbians on the big screen, and it should be recognized for its contributions to the history of lesbian filmmaking.
Finding very few overtly lesbian characters on the big screen, queer women have long resorted to reading between the lines (consider Fried Green Tomatoes) and imagining alternate endings (think Thelma and Louise). Characters who are explicitly identified as lesbians have often been killed off, abused, abandoned or thrown out of school/camp/the convent etc., and until recently, they just didn’t play major roles in anything likely to be seen by the general public.
The ’80s ushered in such classics as Personal Best and Desert Hearts and many lesbians could finally see something of themselves on screen. But Go Fish was unabashed about its lesbian subject matter, featured a multiethnic cast, and voiced a diversity of experiences and backgrounds.
Moreover, its directors were traditional Hollywood outsiders: Not only female but both are out lesbians, and one is a woman of color.
When Go Fish arrived on the scene, it appealed to young audiences in a way that Claire of the Moon (1992) never could. It was lighthearted and humorous, urban and hip, quirky and witty. Above all, it takes a positive approach to sex.
The movie may feature more talk about sex than actual displays of it, but the sex in Go Fish is unapologetic. On the morning after they finally get together, Max and Ely give their respective friends a blow-by-blow account of the night, and the accompanying montages are graphic embellishments of the real story.
Even the closing credits are intercut with images of women devouring each other’s faces and running their hands over each other’s bodies. The sexual element is tasteful but overt; lesbian sexuality isn’t denied or left to the imagination.
Maybe it was simply the right time and the right cultural climate for lesbian cinema to take off, but a flurry of lesbian-themed films reached theaters in the mid-’90s, after Go Fish was released.
There was The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love, Heavenly Creatures and When Night is Falling in 1995, then Fire and Watermelon Woman in 1996. Before the decade was over we got Bound (1997), High Art and Gia (both in 1998) as well as Better Than Chocolate, Chutney Popcorn, But I’m a Cheerleader and Boys Don’t Cry (all in 1999).
And, of course, the more lesbians making movies, the wider the spectrum of our representations on film.
Go Fish helped to make it possible for these movies to get made. Filmmakers shopping for distribution could point to its success, a new generation of filmmakers were inspired by it, and studios were willing to take a risk on similar material. More importantly, it provided proof that there was not only a lesbian market, but a mainstream market for lesbian films.
The film opened doors for its creators, too. Turner went on to write for TV and film, and her credits include the screenplay for the movie American Psycho and the first two seasons of The L Word (where she also had a small on-screen role, as Alice’s bitchy ex Gabby).
The upcoming big-screen version of the popular video game Bloodrayne (January 2006), starring Kristanna Loken and Michelle Rodriguez, was written by Turner, as was The Notorious Bettie Page, starring Gretchen Moll, which makes its world debut at the Toronto International Film Festival later this month.
She has also written and directed several short films.
Troche has become a prolific director in the last decade. Her television credits include Six Feet Under and several episodes of The L Word, and she has also directed the movies Bedrooms and Hallways (1998) and The Safety of Objects (2001), which she also co-wrote.
Go Fish now seems quaint and nostalgic, with its corded phones and cassette tapes — a relic from a time when lesbian films had no budgets to speak of. But the fact that it now seems unrefined or clumsy at times is testament to its trailblazing role.
Go Fish has enabled other filmmakers to realize their own vision more authentically, with better funding and less external resistance. And there’s a lot more to that than lesbian chic.