Beefcake (1999)

Genres - History, Visual Arts  |   Sub-Genres - Biography, Gender Issues, Social History  |   Release Date - Oct 13, 1999 (USA)  |   Run Time - 120 min.  |   Countries - Canada , United States   |   MPAA Rating - NR
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Review by Brian J. Dillard

For his follow-up to the harrowing The Hanging Garden, Canadian director Thom Fitzgerald turns to seemingly gentler subject matter in this combination of real-life documentary and based-on-a-true-story fiction, which transforms the history of the Athletic Model Guild of America into a gently humorous and ultimately melancholy portrait of an earlier age of masculine beauty. The character of Bob Mizer, the photographer who turned his obsession with nubile young male bodies into a cultural phenomenon, will seem instantly familiar to any man, gay or straight, who has ever been led astray by his erotic fixations. The film is frank about the sometimes slippery morals Mizer employed as he lured young men into his studio and sometimes bedroom, yet he ultimately emerges as a sympathetic figure. The genesis of his obsession is depicted early in the film, during the tossed-off, tartly comic moment when a preteen Mizer explains to one of his earliest subjects that the other boy must be the star and he must be the photographer simply because "I'm not handsome." Fitzgerald mimics the joy of Mizer discovering a beautiful new model -- and of readers enjoying his flagship publication, Physique Pictorial -- by filling his film with playfully photographed young male flesh from start to finish. It's hard to think of another non-pornographic movie that features full-frontal nudity from so many dozens of men, let alone one that makes all that nakedness seem so wink-nudge wholesome. Using period-style graphics and narration and a mixture of vintage and staged he-man photos, Fitzgerald keeps the tone light and nostalgic for most of the film; only in the conclusion, which juxtaposes a dramatization of Mizer's trial for running a prostitution ring with the wistful recollections of surviving AMG models, does the writer/director/producer bring out the tragedy and triumph of Mizer's story. The photographer helped revive the use of the male body in high art, paved the way for its commodification in the world of advertising, and helped create the enormous present-day market for gay male pornography. All the while, he remained a marginal figure whose first love -- nude photography -- broke the heart of his second love, his devoted mother, who watched her son imprisoned and ridiculed again and again. Carroll Godsman is terrific as Delilah Mizer, especially in the final scenes, while Daniel MacIvor brings the right tone of tortured aestheticism to the role of her son. Ultimately, though, it's the male body itself -- as personified by hunky actors Joshua Peace, Jack Griffin Mazeika, and countless others -- that emerges as the true star of Fitzgerald's cheeky, touching, and informative film.