You wouldn’t think it would be difficult to find a straight man willing to pose nude with a gay guy for a wall calendar in this still “fresh” 21st Century. After all, isn’t this the “so-what-if-you’re gay’ era, when Hollywood celebrities who announce their homosexuality no longer even make the front pages?
Posing for a calendar, after all, is not exactly like having an Alfred Kinsey experience (that’s for the pages of Craig’s List, where straight men often ask gay men to “induct” them), but simply this: putting one’s body on the front lines for “art.”
Yet exhibitions of the male body as art, even in those sophisticated enclaves known as art schools, have never become mainstream happenings like depictions of the female nude. Go to any student show at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, for instance, and you’ll see a plethora of female nudes and very few to zero nude males by male artists, as if the nude male-male thing somehow conferred on both parties a suspect ‘gay knighthood.’
For Butch Cordora, a former local TV talk show host (In Bed With Butch, which ran for 10 full seasons, or 173 shows from 1999 to 2001 on DUTV and then on WYBE), finding straight men to pose for his 2009 nude calendar, Straight and Butch, was a bit like climbing the Matterhorn. Although his original idea, in 2005, was to do a calendar in which he posed nude in “hugging and kissing and spooning” positions with different naked straight guys, photographer Tony Ward got him to expand the idea.
“An even better idea,” Ward suggested, “would be if you actually showed that the guy was straight…and showed the tension, the vulnerability and the vibes, that’s more interesting to the viewer.”
Cordora ran with Ward’s idea, then made the decision to have some of the photographs revolve around Annie Libowitz’s and Herb Ritts’ rock’n roll photos, with himself as the gay naked man posing with naked straight guys in pictures that copied iconic photos such as John and Yoko in bed, Abbey Road, and the Vanity Fair cover which showed Cindy Crawford shaving singer K.D. Lang.
“Like a lot of gay men, I’ve always been fascinated with straight guys,” Cordora told me by phone. “You know, it’s the thing where everybody wants what they can’t have, how straight men want lesbians, how lesbians want straight women, and straight women want gay men.” Then he tells me, “There were a few times in my life that I actually fooled around with straight men…”
As if by osmosis, the calendar generated another project: a documentary film about the making of the calendar, called—what else—Straight and Butch. Over 100 hours of raw footage had to be edited down, but within those many frames you’ll find the sweat and guts and “reality show” drama of what went on behind the scenes just to get 12 straight men to disrobe. The film also includes the personal reflections of the models a good two years after the photo sessions.
Straight and Butch, the movie, will have its world premier on July 14 (7:30 pm) at the Ritz Bourse, as part of this year’s QFest 2010, or the Philadelphia International Gay & Lesbian Film Festival. A solo show of Straight and Butch photographs at Philadelphia’s Ven & Vaida Gallery (July 2-August1) will include images that didn’t make it into the calendar, such as an electrifying copycat photo of Eisenstaedt’s 1945 Life Magazine photo, ‘V-J day in Times Square’ in which Navy seaman Cordora (in white) swoops down on smaller, vulnerable (straight) sailor to plant a Victory Day kiss and cosmic hug.
It’s no wonder that Cordora is on a high these days, but for a period of 2 ½ years he wondered whether anything would get produced at all.
At a special preview of the film in Cordora’s Lombard Street apartment, I mingled with two of the models and Leah MacDonald, one of the project’s photographers. The mood was light as Cordora served drinks. MacDonald sat on a small sofa with her husband, Duncan MacDonald (February’s model), while model Eric Wagner (September) sat with his girlfriend sipping beers on matching barstools.
“So where’s the popcorn?” Wagner joked, a tinge of nervousness in his voice since nobody had actually seen the final cut.
At lights out, the first few frames brought us face-to-face with photographer Tony Ward, an artist Cordora considers world class a la Annie Libowitz. “Ward,” Cordora would tell me later, “has the ability to get sexuality out of a guy or girl.” We watched as Ward orchestrated the photo shoot with Survivor cast member and former “In Bed” correspondent Gervase Peterson. Peterson was getting his head shaved by Cordora on a rain or oil soaked suburban porch.
The first session, Cordora remembers, was pretty close to perfect. Ward had agreed to a scale down his initial fee of $30,000 for shooting the whole calendar for a relatively humble $825.00 per session. When the shoot was over, Cordora had every reason to believe that the remaining sessions with Ward would flow like a Margaret Cho comedy routine.
“Tony Ward couldn’t have been more professional at the Gervase shoot. He showed up by himself, there was no diva stuff; he was nice, professional, set up the shot himself. But during the second shot at Tattoo Mom’s in Center City he couldn’t have been more different,” Cordora said.
During the Lombard Street screening the former talk show host let fly a few Ward-related expletives. Later, I asked for an elaboration.
“He showed up with some guy who was his buddy, and with a girl. He said the guy was Sam, his assistant. But he completely ambushed me. He tells me, ‘Maybe for the last role of the film we could throw the girl in and shoot her as a witness to this crime or car accident.’ At first I thought fine, and then I realized he meant a naked girl. I mean, for $825.00 a session, you’re going to listen to me! I’m paying for these 72 frames. But I didn’t know how to say that then. He knew I was new to photography. I was like a deer in the headlights. I’m not a stupid person but I think at the time I was in awe of him.”
Because a reporter from City Paper was present, Cordora opted to send Ward an email about a week later rather than “cause a scene,” although he insists that the on-screen confrontation between him and Ward is good because “a movie needs turmoil.”
“In my email I told him I was really uncomfortable with the last shoot, that I didn’t know who the guy Sam was, and that I’m trying to do this guy thing with guy vibes, although I appreciated him trying to spice it up with a woman.”
Ward responded with an email that Cordora says was “nasty.”
“That’s just goes to show your insecurity,” Ward wrote, “The least you can do is let me piggyback your photo shoot with some of my own stuff.”
After Cordora fired Ward, he hired photographers MacDonald, Michael Itkoff (Annie Libowitz’s New York assistant), Chris Gabello, a cameraman for “In Bed,” Thomas Ignatius, and Philadelphia legend, Joe Bowman.
In the beginning of the project, TV’s “In Bed with Butch” was still getting maximum rerun exposure on WYBE after its initial run on Drexel University’s DUTV. Then, in a surprise move, WYBE cancelled “In Bed” for a programming ‘wreck-o-vation’ called Mind-TV, or groupings of micro-mini programs, from theology to fashion lasting anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes. Though saddened by the loss, the years of TV exposure enabled Cordora to find the first few models easily, such as Gervase and a local pizza parlor guy (Angelo DeLeone) who worked near Cordora’s apartment and who approached him one day with an offer to pose naked.
“At first I thought I was going to make a 20-minute film, just get 12 guys, rent out a photographer/studio for a long weekend, and have straight guy after straight guy come in. I thought I could bang this out in a week,” Cordora said. “That was my stupid idea.”
Money was also an issue. Although the models were not paid, the photographers did collect a fee. “I figured I’d either max out a credit card or beat somebody at poker, but I’ll figure it out, even if I had to push the calendar back a year. It was supposed to be a ’08 calendar but it came out in ’09.”
When the well of models dried up, it looked as if the calendar would have to be scraped.
“For six months I couldn’t find any straight guys! Some of them said yes, then backpedaled and backed out. This problem was a sign of the times, the decade of computers and goolging names, who’s a professor at this college, who teaches aerobics for kids or is a lawyer. You know, there are so many jobs now where you can get fired if you posed nude with another man.
“Then, of course, there were those straight men who said, ‘My girlfriend would kill me,’ or ‘My wife or fiancé would have my head, especially since she’s been trying to make me pose naked.’ A lot of the women want to take a professional nude shot with their boyfriend.”
That certainly was not the case with Scott Yelity (December), an African American CC bike messenger whose girlfriend, a Swedish looking white girl with platinum hair, accompanied him to the shoot where Cordora and Yelity would “pose” as k.d. Lang and Cindy Crawford, with Cordora getting the face shave.
“I asked her whether she wanted to come down to the basement with me while I shaved her boyfriend’s pecker, and she said, ‘No, I don’t need to see it.’ But her face in the movie would lead you to believe she was pissed,” Cordoa said. “But the truth is, the three of us went out to South Philly after that shoot and drank most of that night, and had a good ole time. I didn’t know what those faces she was making were for, but they work for the movie.”
One of the toughest challenges was to find out whether a straight model was really straight. As it turned out, one model found in the adult section of City Paper turned out not to be so straight. Models rejected for the calendar were turned down because they were-- in Cordora's words-- “femy straight guys.”
“There were a couple of dancers who go to my gym and I know they are straight. I know their girlfriends. They go to the gym together and hold hands. I see them on Chestnut Street kissing. But they’re just so gay—I didn’t see it coming across as being a straight guy and a gay guy. I wanted guys.”
The film’s most memorable moment is when Cordora and three of the models prepare for the Abbey Road photograph. Here we see a very nervous crew and cast finishing their morning coffee in an Elkins Park house before going outside to strip. It’s a Sunday morning and Elkins Park is asleep, but that’s no guarantee that an insomniac won’t rise up and shout, “Whad’ya think your doing’ out there!?” Somewhere a dog barks-- never a good sign, since pet owners tend to want to know what’s bothering Spot-- as the models are instructed to spread out over the painted crosswalk in frozen Beatles positions with Cordora, like Lennon, the last in line.
Nude with penises dangling, the four men rearrange their feet to match the famous photo, an interminable process that seems to take forever.
“It felt like we were there for an hour,” Cordora says, “but when I looked at the footage we were there for 3 minutes and 25 seconds. I told a woman lawyer earlier that she might be getting a phone call at 6 am.”
The shot, which was taken by Libowitz’s assistant, went without a hitch even though Cordora expected to be hauled into jail.
“Tony Ward,” he said, “who has been arrested a zillion times, said ‘It’s just a ticket, they take you in, but it’s only for a couple of hours. And if you have no previous arrests, it’s like $50.00. You don’t even get a police record.’”