Ask (September 15, 2009)


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I’ve been searching for two of Donna Deitch’s films – her documentary Angel on My Shoulder and the HBO (I believe) movie Common Ground – to no avail.  Am I missing something?  I’d love to have copies for my personal home library.


Gwen Welles and Donna Deitch (Angel on My Shoulder)

Answer: I have some good news, and some bad news.

First, the bad news: Deitch’s acclaimed Angel on My Shoulder (1997) is not currently available for purchase or rent, at least not according to my research. It looks like it might have been available at some point, as some video shopping sites have a record of it being distributed by Unicorn Videos and having an ISBN number (ISBN: 5550289210). I couldn’t find any copies for sale, but maybe armed with that information you might have better luck than I did.

It’s a shame that this great film is hard to find. In it, Deitch documents her best friend’s (actress Gwen Welles) battle with cancer, and her ultimate death from the disease. Welles (1951-1993) was a Tennessee native whose career included roles in Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975), Eating (1990), and in Deitch’s own Desert Hearts (1986), as a girl with whom Cay has a fling and then drives home (with Vivien joining them for the awkward, subtext-laden ride). Deitch’s very intimate examination Welles’s illness and passing is a reminder of how complex, realistic depictions of the dying process remain taboo in pop culture.

Angel on My Shoulder was originally shot on video, then transferred to 16mm film and screened at the 1998 Berlin Film Festival.

Now for the good news: Common Ground (2000) is available for purchase, though only in VHS format.

The Showtime film is comprised of three short stories, written by Paula Vogel, Harvey Fierstein, and Terrence McNally, each about gay and lesbian characters living in different time periods in the fictional town of Homer, CT. The film stars Helen Shaver (Vivien in Desert Hearts), Ed Asner, Jason Priestley, Eric Stoltz, Thea Gill, and, most importantly, Brittany Murphy.

In the segment, “Friends of Dorothy” (written by Vogel), Murphy plays a young woman who joins the Navy in the 1950s, realizes she’s a lesbian, and gets discharged from the military for “sexual perversion.”

Brittany Murphy (right) in Common Ground

All noble political statements aside, the film features a hot kiss between Murphy and a young butch woman who are dancing in a gay club that is raided by the police. The kiss alone is worth the price of the tape (or, hopefully in the near future, the DVD).

For those of you who’ve asked for updates on Deitch’s sequel to Desert Hearts, I simply don’t have any yet. I have contacted Deitch and her production company, but so far no news from them. As soon as I know, I’ll share the details!

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