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 (Drawing Flies, Tail Lights Fade), both executive produced by Kevin Smith, Ingram made the switch to documentaries focused on niche segments of the gay community. His first, Small Town Gay Bar, explored the risks of being gay in small Southern towns in the United States. His follow-up, Bear Nation, introduced viewers to the lifestyle of gay men of the stocky and hairy persuasion.
Ingram's latest, aptly titled Continental, 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 The Hollywood Reporter 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 Blow Hard 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 Small Town Gay Bar 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 Bear Nation 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 RuPaul’s Drag Race.
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 How to Survive a Plague, 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 How to Survive a Plague are so important and empowering to me as a gay man and to me as a human being.
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.
THR: You have a cross-section of activists, journalists, authors and former Continental Baths staff, like former manager Jorge La Torre, detailing its history. How did you go about picking these sources?
Ingram: I wanted to have an interesting mix and I wanted to have a lot of faces you didn’t necessarily see before. I thought Michael Musto (from The Village Voice) was great because he represents a part of New York that I love. Rich Wandel was a really important person because of his connection to activism and running the The National Archive of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, & Transgender History, so that’s obviously an important voice. Patrick Pacheco has a very interesting past through After Dark magazine. Edmund White was a voice I was unfamiliar with until my co-producer Matt Thomas introduced me to him. Edmund was amazing. That’s the great thing about talking to all these people. Ostrow openly talked about the mob. He’s got nothing to lose. He’s going tell it how it was. And Edmund talks about fisting! I loved Edmund’s honesty. And Frankie Knuckles is an incredible part of music history. To think that history begins in a place like the Continental. It gave us house music. Things like Studio 54 would never have existed.
THR: Continental's entertainment history is the story of legend. It's the subject most associated with it, which always leads to talk of Bette Midler who launched her career on the Continental stage. You never got to speak to her on camera for the film, but you tell her story. Why didn't she participate?
Ingram: I reached out to Bette Midler through several different outlets. Ultimately, I just decided to respect her wishes. I could have kept pushing, but ultimately she let it be known through her people that she wanted to sit this one out. And I was totally fine with that. I’m very grateful to Bette Midler, because if it wasn’t for her, I never would have heard about the Continental Baths. I also think that Bette Midler realizes that it’s ultimately not her story. She's an important part of the Continental story, but she is not the story of the Continental. And I think that as a filmmaker, if I had got Bette Midler involved, she would have been a much bigger part of the story than she needed to be. Because she wasn’t involved, I got to focus on Steve more. Steve Ostrow and the Continental are one and the same. That place would absolutely not exist without him.
THR: One topic that seems to be overlooked is the impact the bathhouse had on the Upper Westside neighborhood or the other residents of the Ansonia hotel. Why did you avoid that topic?
Ingram: You have to understand the history of that time. New York in the ‘70s was on the verge of bankruptcy. That area was not what it's like now. But at that time, that building was a big dinosaur. That’s not where the rich people were living, you know what I mean? That’s where you’d have artists and squatters. The interesting thing is nobody asks that question about CBGB’s. Like, what did the neighbors say about that? You know what I mean? And that’s a dicier clientele at CBGB’s than at the Continental. New York's Upper Westside in the '70s was not like it is today.
THR: Lastly, you launched your filmmaking career as part of Kevin Smith's View Askew Productions. Smith executive produced all of your films prior to Continental, your interviews with members of the Westboro Baptist Church in Small Town Gay Bar inspired Smith to make Red State and you had a podcast show on his SModcast network. Since then, the two of you seemed to have parted ways. What happened?
Ingram: (long pause) Kevin, that’s a complicated one. Well, we’re very close. Kevin’s like a brother. But right now we haven’t talked. I guess essentially, relationships run their course. I have so much love and respect for Kevin. Kevin taught me how to fish, you know what I mean? It’s that whole thing of "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime." Kevin really taught me how to do this. I have Kevin to thank for my entire career. But relationships run their course. And Kevin has gone in a direction now… (long pause) I want to keep making movies and he’s kind of doing his thing. The last thing that we worked on together was Red State. I got to have a really wonderful connective last experience with him. I love him like you’d love a brother. And I hate him like you could only hate a brother. And that’s family, right? He’ll always be my brother, but you don’t always have to be surrounded by your family, thankfully.
Continental will have its final screening at SXSW on Saturday, March 16.