1 Girl, 2 Guys, 3 Possibilities: Andrew Fleming's Threesome at 25

Stuart (Stephen Baldwin), Alex (Lara Flynn Boyle), and Eddy (Josh Charles) get cozy in  Threesome .

Stuart (Stephen Baldwin), Alex (Lara Flynn Boyle), and Eddy (Josh Charles) get cozy in Threesome.

In April of 1994, I vividly recall going to the a movie theater in Reston, VA and just as I was about to enter, I spotted my high school football captain. He had exited the theater laughing with a female student who I didn't know well. This came as a surprise because our school was way up in the cornfields of Ashburn, a good half-hour drive away. While we weren't exactly friends, I did say hi and inquire as to what movie they saw; he responded with Threesome.  You would think it was a porno theater showing a movie with such a title, although shockingly enough Threesome was a film released nationwide by a major studio (in this case, TriStar).

When you take into account the history of sex in cinema, both straight and LGBTQ, Threesome is largely forgotten.  It was released in that daring, experimental time in the '90s when sex had been out of the closet for decades since Midnight Cowboy, yet filmmakers and studios were still much too shy to show same-sex couples consummate their love and/or passion onscreen, at least without showing some horrible, even violent circumstances. As the closing faux narrator of Russ Meyer's Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) comments on the fate of two lesbian characters, "Casey and Roxanne, light and shadow. There's was not an evil relationship...but evil did come because of it!" That same year's The Boys in the Band may have given us one of the first true sympathetic look at homosexuality in a Hollywood movie, yet it still seemed restrained by the times in terms of censorship and homophobia. Ten years later, Boys director William Friendkin would penetrate the genre even deeper with the still-controversial Cruising (1980), based on the actual case of a serial killer terrorizing the leather bar scene of NYC.  The rise of HIV/AIDS and the religious right in the 1980s further made studios nervous in presenting any gay or queer character without either having another character condemn and/or attempt to "rehabilitate" them in some way, sometimes ending in death. (Although this conclusion had been a staple ever since the Nazis tampered with 1931's Madchen in Uniform.)

While it can safely be said that Threesome was the movie which claimed my LGBTQ cinema virginity, should it be considered landmark within that movement? Should there be much more serious discussion and written discourse when there is hardly any? Does it deserve more attention or continued dismissal...those are some questions I, as a fan of this quiet movie, have asked for the past 25 years.  Granted, Threesome has an extremely mixed, albeit limited, crtical reputation. As of this writing, there is no Blu-ray release and the most recent DVD release is completely inadequate, reeking of studio suppression. Threesome was written and directed by Andrew Fleming, an NYU graduate who made his debut in 1988 with Bad Dreams, distributed by 20th Century Fox six years to the day before Threesome's opening in April 1994. While Bad Dreams, a rather dismal thriller about a woman who awakens out of a 13-year coma following a mass cult suicide by fire, turned off critics, it still made over twice its budget, enough for Brad Krevoy & Steve Stabler of the Motion Picture Corporation of America to give Fleming $1 million to film his sophomore screenplay.

Fleming opens his DVD audio commentary confessing that his inspiration for writing the script came out of a state of depression, which makes a lot of sense once you view the film in its entirety. The story and chracters in Threesome are essentially drawn from Fleming's own college experiences (although he never mentions NYU and even the college goes unnamed in the film), and while it's clear that Eddy (played by Josh Charles) is the one who Fleming identifies with, serving as not only the director's avatar but also the narrator of the piece from the very beginning:

The word "deviant"comes from the Latin roots...

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de, meaning "from" and via, "the road."

One who wanders from the road or gets lost.

One who separates from the crowd.

Of course nowadays it refers to someone

whose sexual practices are abnormal.

This is the story of Stuart, Alex and me...

and how, for a while, we became deviants...

....in both senses of the word.

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We then see the all-capitalized title of THREESOME flash on screen, introducing Eddy to the audience as a junior transfer student who moves into a college dorm with Stuart (Stephen Baldwin), a sex-obssesed and tatted dude who only seems to enjoy sleeping around campus with as many willing girls as possible who are not looking for anything serious afterwards.  Actually, if you rewind back a bit you will also meet a pair of lobby lizards, one male and one female, who both comment on their new arrival. "Fresh meat," he declares while she immediately follows with, "I saw him first." This very brief exchange from two incidental characters triggers the film's refreshing openness on sexuality, even if it seemingly accomplishes little more than making the audience laugh without even brooding over it. At any rate, Stuart and Eddy initially became partners, not in a romantic/sexual sense, but in a surviving-college-through-pizza-and-alcohol type of friendship which had already been established by the time drama major Alex (Lara Flynn Boyle) just appears out of the blue in the boys' shower one day.

Alex is obviously female, although the campus paperwork seems to have automatically concluded she's male based on her name alone. It's the one bit of the beareaucatic bullshit the audience must swallow before we spend the rest of the movie with all three individuals as roommates (well, also, the fact there seems to be an extreme housing shortage in the area, but whatever). Stuart's opinion of Alex is hardly subtle: he just wants to fuck her. However, Alex is taken in more by Eddy's more intellectual ambitions, especially when he succinctly condemns her current play: "I just don't understand why anyone would want to do a lesbian version of Oedipus Rex?!" This triggers Alex's dormant sexual desires, so hungry to the point where she manages to get him in her room and on her floor practically unzipping his fly with her teeth; Eddy is uncomfortable about the encounter and swiftly bails, much to Alex's consternation. It's only in the very next scene do we discover that Eddy may be gay and lusting after Stewart; Eddy even finds himself aroused at Stewart going on about his penis and what he do with it had he been in the same situation.  This revelation is not only perfectly executed at the 20-minute mark but it also supplements the protagonist's conflict in how he truly feels about both of his roommates resulting in an inevitable, if not always predictable, series of coupling complications. There are multiple, mutual pangs of jealousy, guilt, fear, desire and frustration as all three characters attempt to suppress their feelings for the sake of their friendship...only to see them explode, emotionally and sexually.

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When I was working at a Blockbuster Video in the mid-1990s, I finally was able to fill the LGBTQ void in terms of my cinematic education with such indie successes as Rose Troche's Go Fish; in addition, because I had a genuine crush on Lara Flynn Boyle, whose tomboyish appearance in Threesome set my virginal hormones ablaze, of course I was going to take the tape home and watch it. What I discovered was not an erotic, late-night Skinnamax clone but rather an exceptionally well written and acted campus comedy which comes off as jarringly mature when compared to others in the so-called "college" genre...which all tend to fraternize/sororitize themselves into oblivion with the most crass and crude type of comedy, all of them practically written by straight males with the narrow-minded goal of titillating other body parts aside from the mind. Of course, Animal House-type films have never bothered to reference, let alone quote, Hawthorne or Dostoevsky (evidently reading classic lit gets Alex aroused to the point of orgasm, though it could all be a performance to seduce Eddy) when it's usually all about the brew and Toga parties.  The characters in Threesome, particularly Stuart and Eddy, do their fair share of drinking, eating pizza and openly discussing matters of sex; yet the shared intellectual passion of both Eddy and Alex tends to diffuse Stuart's cock-swinging, girl-banging attitude with pointed and astute observations.

One particular moment which has always stuck with me is Eddy's theory that gay sex is better than straight sex. Alex gets increasingly frustrated at Stuart labelling Eddy a "fag" (the most stereotypical and lazy of all straight insults, needless to say); up until this point, all Eddy had admitted to was being "ambivalent about sex with girls." When Eddy is finally confronted with the question of which gender is more appealing to him, he presents his theory: "Well, as I see it, it all has to do with equipment...and the correct use of that equipment. Now, if you have male genitalia as I do and you're sleeping with someone who also has male genitalia then you have firsthand knowledge of how their equipment works. You know where the pressure-sensitive points are. You know what buttons to push. On the other hand, if you're a man having sex with a woman or vice versa then you really never know how they feel. You don't know if they really feel great or if they're just faking it."  Even Stuart contemplates this theory for a moment before he reverses the opinion by citing the Bible as proof, and Alex humoruously inquiring if he's referring to the King James or "the New World" edition. Most mainstream movies, especially in the mid 1990s, would have been deathly afraid to include conversations like these...all of them funny but also surprisingly thoughtful as the characters obviously grow and change within this complex relationship. When Stuart and Alex inadvertedly decide to hook Eddy up with the male lounge lizard (played by the late Alexis Arquette, in an admittedly borderline campy turn), it asks a good question: why doesn't Stuart just sleep with him? "Taste of semen makes me gag," is his excuse which prompts Alex, wisely again, to hit him with another question, "How would you know...whose semen were you eating?" Stuart merely confesses, "My own."

This is the kind of dialogue which would usually scream for an NC-17 rating, but somehow Fleming writes these characters with such honesty, sensitivity and pathos, you forget that he boldly includes such terms as "butt-fucking." In fact, while the R-rating is perfectly appropriate considering the amount of sex and language, the truth is I believe an NC-17 was only avoided by eliminating all sex scenes (of which several were filmed) between Eddy and Stuart which takes place in the final third of the picture after Alex moves off-campus. Fleming never mentions these scenes in his commentary, although contemporary interviews with Baldwin, long before his christian-conservative conversion, do indicate there was not only more sex scenes shot but the fact all with Stuart and Eddy were elimated strongly suggests someone got too nervous. Speaking of the sex in Threesome, we never see any genitalia and the climax, pun intended, where all three characters do engage in a three-way, was trimmed prior to release all for the "sake of taste," according to Fleming. Surely it would have recieved more attention, but would the film had been recieved "better" had it included all of those deleted scenes?  Honestly, I hate even entertaining the idea of watching an "unrated cut" of Threesome not because of what the film would be added, but rather it would make it even more lost in the sea of "erotic movies" out there which boast these alternate versions in the most condescending and insulting manner. That being said, then, would they be absolutely necessary to the story if they were included back in without drawing attention to them in anyway? That's the tougher question to answer and it would really depend on the final edit. (Personally, I've always been more satisfied with the theatrical version running 93 minutes which is also the exact same cut on the DVD.)

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Going back to Fleming being inspired to write his script during a state of depression, it once again makes sense when you view the film in its entirety.  Once college is over, the fun is over: like many of those we ingratiate ourselves during those crazy times, particularly in university dorms, the characters just drift away from each other.  This is completely different than the other inspiration for Fleming: classic French cinema and especially Jules and Jim (1962), which showcases the ever-evolving relationship between two men and a woman following the Great War. That being said, anyone who has seen that rightfully regarded masterwork will find only the slightest connections to Threesome including an intimate "nape of her neck" reference and the possibility of the woman's pregancy; the major difference is that Fleming was more interested in looking at gender identity and sexual politics in a contemporary college setting rather than deal with matters of the heart and leading the entire ménage à trois arrangement (as opposed to sexual encounter in the much-more sexual Threesome) to tragedy...which is completely fine.  Eddy attends a French cinema class and while Jules and Jim is never mentioned by name, it gives him the solution to his dorm dilemma.  Fleming even provides his own intrepretation of Jules and Jim via Eddy's narration: "two's company, three's pathetic."  In essence, you could say Jules and Jim had given Fleming a solution in wrapping up his screenplay, although he never expressly mentions this in his commentary.  

François Truffaut’s iconic love triangle: Jules (Oscar Werner), Jim (Henri Serre), and Catherine (Jeanne Moreau) in  Jules et Jim  (1962).

François Truffaut’s iconic love triangle: Jules (Oscar Werner), Jim (Henri Serre), and Catherine (Jeanne Moreau) in Jules et Jim (1962).

While most critics at the time dismissed Threesome as just another college comedy of tasteless dialogue and humor (a bit surprising, considering all of the literary and cinematic ingredients), there were two prominant critics who thought otherwise.  One was Roger Ebert who, in whis measured three-star review, writes, "In earlier, more naive times 'Threesome' would be the most controversial film of the season, a nine-day's wonder of sexual hoopla. It says something for these latter days that the first word that comes to mind when describing it is 'sincere.' The result is a certain liberating effect: this is not a great movie, but in its own way it is an effective one, and more than most other movies it is accurate and honest about the sexuality of young people." Another critic who also passionately hated Fleming's Bad Dreams debut, but was also a bit taken aback at his sophomore effort was Leonard Maltin, his 3-star review stipulating: "Coming-of-age comedy-drama is at once intelligent and impertinent; unlike many other Hollywood films, it does not cop out in its examination of the issue of homosexuality." It's this last point that has always stuck with me given the climate of of LGBTQ cinema at the time.

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Over the past 25 years, I've shown Threesome to various individuals. Regardless of their sexual orientation and/or politics, what I've discovered is that people find the movie funny more than anything else. More importantly, they identified with the chracters in this slice-of-college-life with only the slightest tinge of nostalgia. Mercifully, Threesome doesn't overdose on '90s pop references or songs, which many others of its ilk seem to always want to do, particulalry when it comes to fellow Generation X classics such as Reality Bites and Clerks.  Although one marquee name which figures in the credits is composer Thomas Newman, who would later make his mark the same year with his grand and lovely scores for Little Women and The Shawshank Redemption.  Some of the clothes (Stuart loves to rock those No Fear tees) and hairstyles are certainly reflective of the period, yet there's truly very little of Threesome which can be labeled as being off-puttingly dated. I truly believe college (and particularly college-bound) students would get much preparation in the "dorm life" even if the characters never play beer pong with Milwaukee's Best every night.

Teen witches Bonnie (Neve Campbell), Nancy (Fairuza Balk), Robin (Sarah) and Rochelle (Rachael True) in  The Craft  (1996).

Teen witches Bonnie (Neve Campbell), Nancy (Fairuza Balk), Robin (Sarah) and Rochelle (Rachael True) in The Craft (1996).

Power couple celebrity chef Erasmus (Steve Coogan) and his TV producer lover Paul (Paul Rudd) in  Ideal Home  (2018).

Power couple celebrity chef Erasmus (Steve Coogan) and his TV producer lover Paul (Paul Rudd) in Ideal Home (2018).

Perhaps Threesome would have benefited, at least critically, by being released in the art-house circuit because it seems like that's where it belongs, certainly much less so than the dopey excesses most college films love to chug on. As for Fleming, he's since turned more towards lighter, if no less radical, fare with young female protagonists such as The Craft (focusing on a quartet of high school witches), Dick (imagining a ditzy teen duo in the '70's who infiltrate the Watergate scandal without having a clue), and even delivering an adaptation of Mildred Wirt Benson's legendary girl detective Nancy Drew. In fact, Fleming woudn't return to the LGTBQ landscape until 2018 when he unveiled Ideal Home starring Steve Coogan (who had starred in Fleming's irreverent musical comedy Hamlet 2) and Paul Rudd as a gay couple whose world is turned on its ear by visiting 10-year-old who claims to be Coogan's grandson. While Baldwin, Boyle, and Charles were all friends when they made Threesome--highlighting the unique chemistry they shared--the chances they would even be willing to mention the film today are nonexistent.  Baldwin, for one, has been getting tired of assumptions and inquiries into his sex life, and I don't blame the man. Boyle is married and practically retired; as far as I'm concerned, she never gave a better performance than in Threesome. And then there's Charles, best known as one of Robin Williams' students in Dead Poets Society (which also featured Boyle, though her scenes were excised), who continues to be very active in film and television.  

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Finally, as for the movie itself, the Sony DVD is sadly all we have and what's even more sad is that its 2014 re-release was downgraded to an MOD disc with all previous bonus material excised. On the original 2001 disc, we had Fleming's commentary and the film's original ending, which the director understandably championed up all the way through filming but ultimately wiser voices recommended he go for something less complex and more upbeat. In this day and age where studios are more concerned about streaming than physical media, the chances of Threesome getting on Blu-ray is understandably more questionable, although Sony finally gave the theatrical bomb Dick one in November 2018, so there is a still a sliver of hope they could do the same from Threesome. Otherwise, this might be more approprate for another distrubition company such as Shout! Factory which is much more dedicated in providing Collector's Editions for their customer base...including the one for The Craft released on March 12, 2019, only two days before Andrew Fleming's 56th birthday. Personally, I think a Blu-ray release would give Threesome much more deserved attention and discussion, particularly in a world where we can honor great films like Call Me Be Your Name and Moonlight awards galore. Despite its provacative title and subject matter, Threesome is absolutely ripe for discovery and re-discovery.  


Bio:

Stone Gasman is a writer and Navy veteran living in New York City. He watches and writes about films from all genres and time periods, with his five favorites being The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970), Harold and Maude (1971), An Officer and a Gentleman (1982) and Pleasantville (1998). He has been working on an original screenplay for five years.

Twitter: @stonegasman