n writing this article, I had to ask myself: what constitutes gay cinema? Creating a sub-genre is certainly not a tradition I wish to uphold. Therefore, I’ve chosen to treat homosexuality just as I’d treat a theme like death or spirituality. Any good movie features a variety of major and minor themes, and the presence of gay themes does not brand a film with an intractable pink triangle and relegate it to the “Alternative Lifestyle” section of the rental store. While analyzing the cinema’s treatment of gay characters, any film that features homosexuality—however latently or ambiguously—is noteworthy. Diverse perspective is the goal: the implied menace sneaking its way through sleazy horror movies, the butt of many a good-natured comedy, and, finally, as just another trait of a complex world. Starting with queer content existing beneath the surface and moving to an explicit treatment of gay themes, this article examines the perspectives of both straight and gay artists.
With legion accomplishments and fiercely personal styles, Jean Cocteau and Douglas Sirk defined the auteur theory before it existed. Neither artist directly addressed his own homosexuality, but their respective work reflects many aspects of their complex psychologies. The cinema of Jean Cocteau reveals a world of nightmarish fairy tales, mists, and mirrors. Cocteau’s relevancy to this article, however, lies in his willingness to tear apart gender stereotypes (and his fondness of casting hunky lover Jean Marais in various states of undress). The surrealist masterpiece Blood of a Poet features a tableau of coded symbols: one of the most memorable is an eroticized hermaphrodite being worshipped by a muscular bare-chested man—and this film was made in 1930!
Blood of a Poet
Douglas Sirk worked with melodrama. These movies are as weepy and emotional as any Lifetime special out there, but they feature enough hard-hitting social commentary (forward-thinking and subtle enough to be completely lost on his contemporaries) to satisfy the most erudite of critics. Dealing with sexual repression, the roles of society, and forbidden longings, the films illustrate the taboos of Sirk’s world. The director’s masterpiece, All That Heaven Allows features the ultimate moment in homosexual entendre as Jane Wyman asks Rock Hudson whether “you wish I were a man.” Working in an era before homosexuality was accepted—or even spoken of—both Cocteau and Sirk stamped their perception of the world onto celluloid.
Even openly gay directors like Bryan Singer occasionally prefer metaphor to actuality. The X-Men films, partly because of their source material and partly through the influence of Singer (not to mention a cast including Alan Cumming and Sir Ian McKellen), function as a thinly veiled metaphor for coming to terms with one’s sexuality in an intolerant world. Telling the saga of a strange breed of mutants who find themselves at odds with their fearful society, the mythology of X-Men holds many parallels to today’s political climate. Mutants are unrecognizable on the surface, but their behavior soon distinguishes them from normal folk. Angry conservatives bleat for a mutant census and demand that mutants not be allowed to teach in schools. Some mutants prefer to lead a life of quiet anonymity, but other militants fight furiously for equal rights. Teenaged mutants must reveal their secret identities to tearful parents, and special academies prevent mutant children from being discriminated against by their peers. With the new X-Men film coming out in May, this trend shall continue: The story deals with a possible “cure” for mutants and the ramifications within the mutant community.
Heterosexual filmmakers do not always work from such an accepting stance. Rather perverse undercurrents run through most of Alfred Hitchcock’s films; Rope, Rebecca, and Strangers on a Train feature murderous homosexuals galore. The evil lesbian of Rebecca and the sociopathic killer of Strangers on a Train seem content to exist as bizarrely twisted beings, but Rope offers a more complex perspective on its character’s sexuality. Based on the notorious Leopold and Loeb trials (like the more historically accurate and sexually explicit Swoon), Rope tells of two men who kill for the sake of killing. Hitchcock establishes a link between their violent behavior and their implied sexual preferences. From the opening scene, as the two men breathlessly discuss their moment of brutality, Rope hints that their crime may symbolize their carnal desires. When recalling the murder, voices rise to orgasmic tones and the men speak mere inches from each other’s lips. Additionally, Hitchcock often films the men with one breathing directly down the other’s neck—a stance only duplicated during a blatant heterosexual flirtation. Jimmy Stewart’s character—a brilliant professor whom has taught his students the Nietzschean theories that led to violence—brings a dynamic of sexual repression to the film. Content to remain within the arena of ideas, the older Stewart is horrified by the amorality of his young protégés. Nevertheless, the reckless disciples goad the hapless Stewart into imagining the fruition of his own forbidden desires. In a sequence that speaks much more strongly of sex than of violence, the professor imagines committing the deed himself. Whispering about removing the coat of his “victim,” offering a drink, and relaxing, the man seems intent upon seduction.
As far as unlikely subtleties go, almost nothing is as unexpected as the gay subtext in A Nightmare On Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge: a mildly terrible movie about Jesse, a teenage boy possessed by the soul of the indomitable serial-killer. Although the screenwriter reportedly denies such allegations, the frightening forces moving within Jesse imply the love that dare not speak its name. Beginning with mild strokes of ambiguity as Freddy croons “I need you” to his horrified prey, the movie moves to more certain grounds as the teenager makes unexplained visits to the local queer bar. These encounters with a nightmarish killer and a mysterious subculture increase in intensity until the first murder—where a sports coach is literally stripped, tied up, and whipped across the buttocks with towels. As Jesse’s deeper impulses begin to get the better of him, his girlfriend dutifully steps in to save her man, but her sexual advances only exacerbate the alter ego. Once Jesse spends the night with his boxer-clad best friend, the dual apparitions of Freddy Krueger and uncertain lust literally rip their way out of the unhappy lad. I wouldn’t recommend Freddy’s Revenge as quality cinema, but picking apart the gay paranoia is most entertaining.
A Nightmare On Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge
In today’s society, homosexuality need not be referred to so metaphorically onscreen—at least in the comparatively small releases cited above. When it comes to epic fantasy cash cows, however, gay romances fade into ambiguity. During the closing moments of Fellowship of the Ring, as Frodo lovingly states, “Sam, I’m glad you’re with me,” audiences beheld a relationship fraught with romanticism—a relationship that reaches Titanic-levels of doe-eyed melodrama before the hovering lip-lingering prior to the forehead kiss in Return of the King. Claiming Lord of the Rings as gay cinema is debatable, but the endless longing glances and promises of devotion provide room for questioning. The highlight of this romping occurs as Frodo and Sam perch atop a burning mountain, and Sam woefully recalls the face of his sweetheart, Rosie. Frodo gazes at his companion and, just before they clasp hands, informs him that he’s happy to be there with Sam. After Sam’s eventual wedding to Rosie, Frodo, eyes downcast, advises Sam to not always be “torn in two” and abruptly sails into the sunset. Even considering the lack of sexual tension (not that the straight romances feature much action), the homoeroticism provides an interesting subplot to a long and weighty film.
In 1961, two films abandoned these ambiguous measures and directly addressed homosexuality. By today’s standards of political correctness, the gay people in The Children’s Hour and Victim leave much to be desired. Played a cruel trick by nature, these characters ask only for freedom from persecution. The elderly shopkeepers being blackmailed in Victim are as pitiable as the desperately unhappy schoolteachers accused of lesbianism in The Children’s Hour; the moral is that gay people are miserable and lonely enough without being systematically hunted down by the police. This message seems unpalatable to a modern audience, but one must remember that the portrayal of homosexuality throughout film history reflects the changing attitudes of society. Even in these two films, the leprous outcasts of society tread the fringes of self-respect. A yearning photograph used for evidence in Victim depicts two men bidding each other a final farewell—the demise of the relationship compares to tragic romance rather than the distasteful grime otherwise displayed. After the penultimate moment of The Children’s Hour, Audrey Hepburn’s decisive stride toward the closing credits holds no trace of shame; her independence hints at a righteous anger transcending the feeble evocation of pity.
Painting gay characters as nobly virtuous beings of light, however, errs in another direction. Philadelphia, for instance, achieves its Oscar-winning status by reducing its conflict to a moralistic chessboard where Tom Hanks plays the lovable, victimized gay and evil Republicans viciously oppress. Boys Don’t Cry downplays any negative attributes of its hero, Brandon Teena, and leaves the audience with a performance of wide-eyed naïveté. Granted, these movies operate from the correct ethical position in decrying the evils of a homophobic society. Although both fine films, the two also differ markedly in quality; the rape and murder of Brandon Teena is a far more aggressive crime than the workplace discrimination of Philadelphia. Boys Don’t Cry’s morality is thus far more justified. Nevertheless, painting gay people as flawless martyrs forces the audience far from genuine empathy. Both films, Philadelphia especially, portray homosexuality from a safe and comfortable distance where gay people are angels—not humans.
Brokeback Mountain, although portraying far more truthful situations, falls into similar traps of idolization. Critics and bored housewives alike wildly misinterpret the cynical message of the film and, emptily gushing about the ‘love story of the decade’, perceive Brokeback Mountain as a soap-opera tragedy of hindered but magnificent love. Ironically, the tragedy of Brokeback Mountain lies in the immaturity of the relationship between its two cowboys. After the initial mountaintop romance, the following decades reveal an ever more dilapidated pair. As the men grow older, the occasional retreat into a youthful idyll of hunting, camping, and riding seems shallow and insufficient. The stagnation is beautifully and brutally portrayed, and the miserable acknowledgement that all the men have is memories of Brokeback Mountain strikes deeply—a far different impression than the soaring declarations of everlasting love seen by a well-meaning audience. Of course, this audience has turned the film into a genuine sociological phenomenon. Brokeback Mountain’s stellar box-office business and unbeatable Oscar status would never be normally applied to a film this understated, subtle, and fatalistic. Unfortunately, quality art-house cinema is probably not yet returning to mass popularity. Thankfully, however, the film’s success can be largely attributed to a world moving toward acceptance.
Despite the quality of the aforementioned Brokeback Mountain, films like Alexander took far bigger (and more foolish) risks. Brokeback Mountain, after all, ran the indie circuit—hardly a stranger to the gay agenda. On the other hand, Alexander played to crowded (well, they were supposed to be crowded...) multiplexes of high-schooled boys. Much to my surprise, the movie did not pander to its wide audience; the gay relationships provide the emotional core of Alexander. Granted, the film shies away from graphic sex or even make-out scenes (preferring instead the repeated manly embrace), but Alexander’s preference for males is oft repeated via moonlit declarations of love. More importantly, the film reflects the Greek attitude toward orientation by refusing to focus on Alexander’s sexual identity. The characters treat homosexuality without angst, and Angelina Jolie calmly informs Colin Farrell that he may partake in male companions so long as he produces an heir. Alexander, of course, miserably bombed both financially and critically (although some prestigious French critics awarded the film with well-deserved raves), but its progressive thinking is remarkably matter-of-fact.
Gay filmmakers present a personal and accurate account of the gay experience both past and present. Derek Jarman, although falling out of favor these days, directed a number of fiercely ideological films with an idiosyncratic style of anger and intelligence. From the deconstruction of gender in his odd adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest to his lurid biopic on the life of Caravaggio, Jarman provided a vision for an emerging gay voice in cinema. The director’s talent culminated in his imagining of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II. Taking a play about a homosexual king who brings England’s courts to shame with his cavorting, Jarman transformed the work into a war cry against oppressive political systems. The audience generally sees Edward through the eyes of his enemies; he and his lover sit on the throne cackling like monkeys. The men mock and abuse an elderly priest; they dance vulgarly to cartoon sound effects and brutally ignore beautiful women. Edward II portrays its gay characters as immoral Neanderthals and then coolly observes the breathtaking violence against them. By interlacing the film with anachronistic footage of furious gay rights activists, Derek Jarman stunningly recreates the attitude of an intolerant society.
Themes of repression, characteristic of the works of longtime companions and collaborators Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, reach a fever pitch in Maurice. Set during a time when gay men literally faint away for fear of being discovered, the romances of the film take place in creaking wicker chairs and secluded boathouses. When the irresistible desire arises to lengthily bemoan society’s tyranny, this movie serves quite nicely as a weepy melodrama. However, by ironically subverting a restrictive atmosphere, Maurice criticizes men at the very top of their class systems. Aside from their sexuality, these people are groomed and well fed without a care in the world. By contrasting these characters with the lower classes, Maurice refuses to create roles of ‘victim’ or ‘oppressor’. Even while affirming the basic goodness of humanity, the film acknowledges hypocrisy and insensitivity in each character. Establishing a world of moral complexity, Maurice refuses to grant free passes to minority characters—they are just as capable of taking unfair advantage as anyone. Accordingly, the final impediment to happiness is not homosexuality; it is the class system that binds its victims as firmly as homophobia.
The comically original Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit deals with young lesbians within a deeply religious community. The holy rollers of the film are ridiculous caricatures of intolerance, but their restraining tactics create an emotionally accurate atmosphere of desperation. In one affecting exorcism scene, the heroine battles no forces of evil. Instead, her mute form is a picturesque view of resignation and misery. This sense of anxiety and paranoia slowly develops into independence and freedom. The guileless performances of the young actresses sweetly normalize a phenomenon beheld by frightened families. The poignancy and unrestrained joy of this journey lingers long after the witty script ends.
Todd Haynes addresses homosexuality in most of his wonderful films, but Velvet Goldmine remains the ultimate exploration of gay identity. Set during the roaring height of glam-rock (which provides a fantastic soundtrack), the film assaults the audience with glitter, rock ‘n’ roll and Ewan McGregor’s flapping penis. An unofficial biography of David Bowie, Lou Reed, and others, Todd Haynes’ movie follows a disillusioned reporter researching the faded musical movement that provided many questioning teenagers with role models and inspiration. The gender-bending superstars of Velvet Goldmine are eclipsed by their own bodacious personas. Wrapped up in the surface levels of fame, image, and sex, the characters reflect the self-involved morals of their own sub-culture. Although Haynes revels in the madness of the outrageous lifestyle, he liberates homosexuality from this fleeting beauty of youth and glamour. Simultaneously observing the glory and failure of the glam-rock movement, the reporter revisits his own youth of uncertainty, excitement, and belonging. With eloquence and maturity, Todd Haynes questions what it means to be part of a social movement larger than oneself—what it means to be gay in a world where one’s very sexual orientation, even if unintentionally, makes a statement.
The comedies But I’m A Cheerleader and Edge of Seventeen recount the realization of one’s own homosexuality. Both movies exist comfortably within the realm of teen comedy—with all the flaws and charms that come with the genre. An all-American cheerleader, Megan never suspects her own lesbianism until sent by her family (they noticed a Melissa Etheridge poster in her room) to a sexual reorientation camp. This premise provides an opportunity for a realistic black comedy, but Jamie Babbitt’s film flirts instead with screwball humor, stereotypical characters, and broad pleas for tolerance. To its credit, the movie doesn’t take itself seriously—the same can’t be said of the heartfelt angst of Edge of Seventeen. The story of a young man making his first steps in a strange new world, Edge of Seventeen eschews the whole-hearted tolerance of But I’m A Cheerleader and harshly questions an exploitative community. Neither film questions an acceptance of homosexuality, but they take very different routes in establishing the development of their uncertain characters. Gay teenagers are far more likely to relate to the awkwardness of Edge of Seventeen than the glossy punch lines of But I’m A Cheerleader.
My Own Private Idaho
Breaking out of my semi-chronological listing of films by queer directors, I’ve saved my favorite gay film for last. The stunning My Own Private Idaho remains one of the first indications of Gus Van Sant’s immense talent. The story of two male prostitutes roaming the world in search of family—River Phoenix in one of the finest performances of all time and a damned impressive Keanu Reeves—the film deconstructs the American dream while lifting its characters within the reach of happiness and then forlornly observing their slow spiral into isolation and nepotism. Bombastically shifting from a pseudo-Shakespearean drama of coke lines and leather-clad hustlers to quiet moments of unexpected tenderness, My Own Private Idaho seamlessly moves between contradictory styles of theatrics and naturalism. A mood of rusted Americana pervades the movie; the land of crushed hopes and loud mouths is embodied in the wise and youthful faces of its world-weary men. By evoking the giddiness of a country without roots, Gus Van Sant gives his homeless characters a land of their own. In the tinny rendition of “America the Beautiful,” the reckless sex and motorcycles, and the taciturn passion lurking behind a lonely campfire, My Own Private Idaho conjures a landscape of damaged beauty and cum-stained empathy.
Contrary to the beliefs of many who state that Brokeback Mountain represents a hurdle in quality, gay cinema has been alive and kicking for quite some time. The movies named above are only a fraction of a multifaceted celluloid collection. Whether in the subtle touches of classical gay filmmakers such as Nicholas Ray, R. W. Fassbinder, or Marcel Carné, the candid self-examination of modern directors like Gregg Araki or Pedro Almodóvar, the indie-hits hinting at queer content (say The Usual Suspects or Fight Club), topical films like Monster or Happy Together, the homosexual aesthetic in Mulholland Dr. and Persona—even Stylus’ choice for best film of 2005, Tropical Malady—the silver screen has provided a vast myriad of breakthrough depictions of homosexuality (I’m still waiting for a book on Robert Bresson’s penchant for male beauty and eroticism). In the movies, we have the record of an important change in society’s attitudes and reflections. America’s response to Brokeback Mountain is a direct indication of a culture war seething through the country; if only we liberals could reach Passion of the Christ numbers. Ironically, Brokeback Mountain is a wholly apolitical film. This fact speaks of the political nature of gay life and art today, and reminds us of the times when movies truly matter.