Documentary Review: Celebrating a pioneer who made lesbian magazines “Ahead of the Curve”

“Ahead of the Curve” tells us the story of Frances “Franco” Stevens and her founding of the glossy magazine “Curve,” which started life as “Denueve” in 1991.

A slick, sexy, hip and politically assertive magazine of the “Cosmo/Vanity Fair/GQ” school, “Denueve” stood out for having “A Lesbian Magazine” bannered across the cover top on each and every issue. As Jen Rainin’s film makes clear, it wasn’t cashing in on “Lesbian chic,” the movement that blew up in the culture and spawned TV’s “The L-Word.”

“Deneuve” invented Lesbian Chic.

The film follows Franco, who now uses a wheelchair and hasn’t owned the magazine — which changed its name to “Curve” in the late ’90s — for years, just as “Curve” is facing a future where she and others have to ask and answer the question, “Is a lesbian magazine still needed?”

Rainin and her interview-subject struggle in trying to encapsulate the cultural moment, where “lesbian” is hotly debated within “the community,” the subject of TED talks and endless reconfigurations of the semantics and language of gender — LGBTQ vs. TERFs (trans excluding radical feminists), “lesbian” as opposed to “queer.” It’s a turf war that may seem confusing from inside the community, but can be positively maddening to many outside it.

One thing the film does really well is track the creation myth of “Deneuve,” how Stevens, having left a marriage after discovering her sexuality, moved to The Mission and plunged into the life, realized there was a need for a magazine that was gay and not male-dominated like “The Advocate” or later, “Out.”

“If you want something, you need to be the one to take action.”

Stevens tells the story of signing up for a bunch of credit cards, taking cash advances from all of them and then literally “gambling” on herself, her Big Idea and her future by betting on horse races to raise the cash to get through the early issues.

A boost from people with the right mailing lists, and “Deneuve” blew up, a Lesbian-oriented magazine with activists, authors and “celesbians (lesbian celebrities like Melissa Etheridge and Lea DeLaria) on the cover. Yes, they had to mail it out in “Manilla envelopes” to their readers, to protect them. Because violence against homosexuals was quite prevalent in the culture of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” “Defense of Marriage Act” ’90s.

“Deneuve” “gave the community the gift of connection,” one interviewee asserts. And others, some moved to tears, recall the first issue that they saw “someone who looks like me” on the cover of a magazine which told them “I’m not alone.”

One thing the film does very poorly is take the wrong side, and give weight to the disingenuous claims of Stevens and others about the name “Deneuve,” letting them assert “homophobia” when the French screen star Catherine Deneuve, who played a few ground-breaking lesbian characters on the screen, sued them for using her name.

Like no one saw THAT coming.

But “Ahead of the Curve” does a decent job of summarizing a forty year blur in gay history and Stevens’ role in it as a spokeswoman for her sexuality and community on TV in the ’90s — “Power Dykes,” on the next “Geraldo!” — a pioneering publisher and a leader in the culture’s breathtaking shift in attitudes on sexuality, marriage and gender identity.

MPA Rating: unrated, nudity, profanity

Cast: Franco Stevens, Lea DeLaria, Melissa Etheridge, Denice Frohman, Jewelle Gomez, Kate Kendall

Credits: Scripted and directed by Jen Rainin. A Wolfe release.

Running time: 1:38

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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