5.01.2011

The homosexual(s) in the text


Advise and Consent (dir. Otto Preminger, 1962) might be called a political epic, a 138-minute long saga in which the nomination of a U.S. senator government official (Henry Fonda) as Secretary of State sends ripples of discord through the halls of Washington.  Like so many of Preminger’s films, it never really lands in the places you think it will.  Who would guess that Robert Leffingwell (Fonda) actually turns out to have attended Communist meetings?  Or that the film turns out not really to be about Fonda’s character at all (he disappears from the film halfway through)?  By the end of the film we may wonder, “what exactly is this movie trying to be about, anyway?”

Whatever else it may be about, Advise and Consent is a key film in the history of onscreen homosexuality.  It was the first Hollywood film to depict a gay bar, where Senator Brig Anderson (Don Murray) attempts to track down a former lover.  Blackmailed about this affair, Anderson commits suicide, sealing his fate as a gay character in pre-Stonewall Hollywood cinema.  But there’s another homosexual in the text: Charles Laughton, who plays Senator Seab Cooley as a kind of drawling, sweaty, South Carolinian swamp rat.  The film establishes Cooley as presumably heterosexual (he wistfully ogles passing women), but Laughton’s off-screen homosexuality leaks into this film, one so much about leakages and disclosures, and lends extra tension to the sexual strand of the film’s plot.  If we overlay his presumed heterosexuality with Laughton’s own queerness, we end up with a variation on the figure of the closeted gay politician as Communist witch-hunter and homophobe—someone not so different from, say, Roy Cohn—who not only ferrets out Fonda’s Communist past but also indirectly brings about Brig’s suicide.  And note the moment, seen above, in which Cooley and Anderson meet secretly on a park bench.  Earlier, Cooley has a similar secret meeting in the park with a Treasury clerk, which he jokingly (?) calls a “rendezvous.”

The film also belongs to a long line of films and novels in which Communism and homosexuality are presented as two related, overlapping threats to national security during the Cold War, as Robert Corber's work explains.  And so what are we to make of the Communist “meetings” that come out of Leffingwell’s own closet?  “I was young, looking for a cause,” Leffingwell says of his casual flirtation with Communism, which involved secret meetings with two other men (Burgess Meredith and Paul McGrath) in Chicago.  Like Anderson, when Leffingwell fears he will be outed he goes to track down his partner in crime, and while he doesn’t find Paul McGrath by going to a gay bar, McGrath’s home in some way parallels the gay flophouse where Anderson gets the directions to “Club 602.”  Both spaces are curious, Orientalized—McGrath’s home with its Asian artifacts and wall hangings, the flophouse apartment with its beaded curtain and decadent clutter (see below).  What is this movie trying to be about, indeed? 





P.S.: OMG Betty White!!


1 comment:

  1. A correction or two: Don Murray played Sen. Brig Anderson, not Peter Lawford and Fonda's character of Leffingwell is not a Senator, but the head of a fictitious foreign affairs department in the Federal Government.

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