Decades before Harvey Milk, a rebellious Mayflower-descended communist queer named Harry Hay and his Mattachine Society declared themselves a “sexual minority” in 1950s Los Angeles. Jon Marans (author of Old Wicked Songs) pays tribute to Hay’s crusade in The Temperamentals, a title referencing one of the period’s many “code” terms for an identity that still dared not speak its name. Marans shows this small band of brothers surreptitiously organizing for equality in the face of both external prejudice and gay men’s own fears. (A comically closeted Vincente Minnelli declines to join.) While the Mattachine’s brave efforts did score a small, isolated legal victory, the moving impact of The Temperamentals comes when we realize, in terms of politics, how little has changed. When Hay, played with brooding gravitas by Thomas Jay Ryan, exhorts his California followers to work for “tomorrow,” he’s met with a haunting silence, during which one might contemplate the same state’s adoption of Proposition 8 half a century later.
Marans’s sprawling script craves streamlining, and Jonathan Silverstein’s mostly fluid production struggles against space constraints and too few actors (good as they are) in too many roles. But this passionate history lesson succeeds in showing how many different kinds of rights were at stake in what we call the civil rights era.