The Lesbian Sensibility of Drive-Away Dolls

By Chris Azzopardi
Photos by Jennifer Fisher, Focus Features

Ethan Coen, half of the filmmaking brother duo known for cinema touchstones such as “The Big Lebowski” and “Fargo,” lays it all out very simply after I mention that “Drive-Away Dolls,” his latest, is the queer film I didn’t know I needed: “We felt that there was an underserved community that needed a dumb gay movie.”

The “we” this time, though, doesn’t involve his brother Joel, but his wife of 34 years, Tricia Cooke, who calls it a “silly lesbian movie.” Silly it may be, but “Drive-Away Dolls” also tucks timely socio-political commentary on queer oppression into all its frivolity, and it does so with a DeSantis-like politician played by Matt Damon, lots of dildos and same-sex soccer players who make out while Linda Ronstadt’s “Long Long Time” plays over the scene.

(L to R) Margaret Qualley as “Jamie” and Geraldine Viswanathan as “Marian” in director Ethan Coen’s DRIVE-AWAY DOLLS, a Focus Features release. Credit: Courtesy of Working Title / Focus Features

“I mean, putting a whole basement full of lesbian soccer players together, it’s just like my fantasy,” Cooke says. “It’s fiction. It’s certainly not meant to depict reality, but yeah, I mean, I hope that young people who see it are inspired.”

In the film, friends Jamie (Margaret Qualley) and Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan) take a road trip to Florida and, while en route, find themselves running from government officials who want what they didn’t even know they had in the trunk of their rental car. While the movie’s utter ridiculousness is clearly imagined, contemporary themes involving Florida, a state that has put queer people in danger, are pulled straight from real life headlines. Dildos and Miley Cyrus, both of which have iconic cameos, may not save us, but if you’re going to make a movie that mirrors some of our country’s queerphobia, at least it can be dumb and gay with a purpose.

For Cooke, the screwball-comedy tone was the result of what she thought queer cinema had been lacking: “lesbian comedies that didn’t end in some kind of tragic or unhappy way.”

It’s hard to imagine this film even existing at all if Cooke, a lesbian, and Coen weren’t in an open marriage. After they married in 1990, they had two children. In fact, there’s a good chance that, without their personal relationship, there’d be no “Drive-Away Dolls,” an idea the couple dreamed up together more than 20 years ago.

(L TO R) Writer/producer Tricia Cooke and director/writer/producer Ethan Coen on the set of DRIVE-AWAY DOLLS, a Focus Features release. Credit: Wilson Webb / Working Title / Focus Features

“We were always open personally and privately,” Cooke says. “I mean, being open in a public way, it feels almost the same. I was just like, ‘Really, people are going to care? OK, whatever.’ I mean, I think it’s really great to present a kind of non-traditional or more unconventional relationship in a way of like, ‘This is how the world exists, and it can be very healthy and rewarding,’ and so I’m happy to do that.”

Coen has similar feelings about their dynamic, calling it their “boring, everyday reality.”

“It doesn’t seem interesting to us,” he adds, “and if anyone else is interested, well, OK, that’s interesting. I guess it is to some people. We’ve been in an open relationship for over 20 years, and so it’s good people are coming around.”

Before “Drive-Away Dolls,” which Cooke co-wrote and co-directed, she served as editor on many Coen brothers films, including “Fargo” and “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” Cooke leaving her lesbian stamp on “Drive-Away Dolls” makes for the queerest work in the Coen repertoire (even gayer than Brad Pitt as personal trainer Chad in “Burn After Reading,” a notion that elicits this guffawed response from Coen when I ask if Chad was gay: “You’d have to ask Brad, but I’m sure he would be tickled by the idea.”)

“Drive-Away Dolls” originated from Cooke’s desire to see more of the films she says were “hugely impactful” to her: ’90s-era LGBTQ+ films like “Go Fish” (“a good, important kind of fun movie for me”) and “But I’m a Cheerleader.” Queer classics like “La Cage aux Folles,” from 1979, and “Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean,” released in 1982, were also on her mind. The latter two, she says, shaped her understanding of her sexual identity in her teen years. Another big influence on her and “Drive-Away Dolls” was self-proclaimed “filth elder” and pioneering DIY filmmaker John Waters.

“We wanted to just do something transgressive,” she says. “I mean, we could never reach the kind of genius level of John Waters, but we were trying to be subversive in our way.”

Cooke also imparted her own personal experiences as a lesbian in the early 2000s, when she began drafting the screenplay with Coen. At the time, she was spending some of her nights at Meow Mix and Cattyshack, two lesbian bars in New York. The lesbian bars in “Drive-Away Dolls,” including one called The Butter Churn, are influenced by that period in Cooke’s life. “I wanted for those to feel authentic,” she says.

Details on her experiences at those lesbian bars shaped the writing, but then the script sat so long that Meow Mix and Cattyshack now no longer exist. “We didn’t manage to get it made then,” Coen says, “and just put it in a drawer, then came back to it and did some rewriting.”

Throughout the film, the old-school charms of gay life in the mid-aughts are omnipresent — when it comes to dating, there’s no PinkCupid.com — and Cooke, who has been involved with the Queer Liberation March as an organizer and archives committee member, has seen a lot change for LGBTQ+ people since “Drive-Away Dolls” first hit the page. The goal was to “make a movie that felt representative of my community at the time.”

“I felt like the world that I knew, at least in the lesbian bars, was very specific to that time and that generation,” Cooke says. “And I mean, not that I haven’t evolved as well, but it felt like I wouldn’t be able to represent an authentic kind of world if it was contemporary. Some of the jokes are so dated. But we kind of wanted to keep that very naïve, innocent feel.”

One running joke (spoilers ahead on Cyrus’ role) is literally from another time and, in fact, based on a real person: Cynthia Albritton, aka Cynthia Plaster Caster. Caster was known for making plaster casts of famous musicians’ erect penises, and when the filmmakers approached Cyrus, they explained the basis of her character.

“When we approached her, we knew her music and we knew her from ‘SNL’ and some performances, but we didn’t know the extent of her fascination with phalluses,” Cooke says, sharing that they went into more detail than was necessary about her role in the film. “She’s like, ‘I thought that’s why you hired me.’ She just assumed that we knew that she performed with gigantic dildos and had a dildo room in her house. She said, ‘Yeah, they interviewed me in Town & Country in my room, in my dildo room.’ All of those cool things together: Town & Country, dildo room and Miley Cyrus.”

Looking ahead, this is just the beginning of the Coen and Cooke filmmaking partnership, or as Coen puts it: “We have more lesbian movies in us.” Next up is the detective story “Honey Don’t,” set to shoot in March, which Margaret Qualley will return for, while also adding Chris Evan and Aubrey Plaza to the mix. “And since there are two of them, you can’t do two and not do a third, so we’ve got a third one we’ve been talking about,” he adds. Cooke says that film will be called “Go Beavers.”

As Coen and Cooke work together to bring queer diversity to cinema with their lesbian B-movie comedies, the two reflected on the entirety of representation in Hollywood. Coen brought up “Star Wars,” a franchise that has been critiqued for limiting people-of-color roles.

“I watch movies from all over the world. New things are interesting. Diversity is interesting. I’m almost tempted to say things I shouldn’t say, but who wants to watch ‘Star Wars’? It’s the same issue,” he says.

Cooke elaborated, suggesting that franchises and blockbusters like “Star Wars” offer studios a level of financial security that a film like “Drive-Away Dolls” can’t.

“Because they’re high stakes when you’re making a movie, because they’re expensive to make, I feel like getting funding to make a movie is hard, and there wasn’t as much trust in people who hadn’t done it before,” she said. “But the fact that new people within marginalized communities are being trusted to make movies, and those movies are not only important, good movies but making a lot of money, it’s kind of changing the trust level in the world of queer cinema or Black cinema. It’s just important to give people a chance.”

Chris Azzopardi is the Editorial Director of Pride Source Media Group and Q Syndicate, the national LGBTQ+ wire service. He has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Cher, Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey and Beyoncé. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Vanity Fair, GQ and Billboard. Reach him via Twitter @chrisazzopardi.

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