Something I’ve come to notice in the process of working my way through gay and lesbian film history: the films that make up the gay canon are often the ones that dominant culture (and dominant cultural histories of film) find abhorrent, embarrassing, or just plain bad. Stanley Kauffmann on Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: “it lacks resonance beneath its action; its writing is sometimes stilted, some of its motivations are insufficient, and its resolution is feeble.” Pauline Kael on The Children’s Hour: “a portentous, lugubrious dirge. […] I’m not sure the material would work even if you camped it up and played it for laughs.” Geoff Andrew on The Killing of Sister George: “with its grotesque stereotyping and tour de force bitchiness and hysteria, it’s like yet another installment in the Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? saga.”
Basil Dearden’s Victim (1961)—a groundbreaking film in the U.K., where it helped bring about the decriminalization of homosexuality—feels a bit dull and stuffy today, not least because, set as it is within the restrained, mannered world of the English upper classes, its characters do a lot of brow-furrowing and lip-stiffening and gazing worriedly into the middle distance. As Pauline Kael pointed out, in its attempt to make homosexuality respectable the film drains it of any pleasure it might hold (the idea seems to be that you may practice homosexuality so long as you don’t like it). This idea also plays out in the film’s distinction between the gay men who are capable of managing their affairs, largely due to their class privilege, and the gay boys who literally can’t afford to do so.
The homosexuals in the text: unknown actor as Sebastian Venable and Montgomery Clift as Dr. Cukrowicz in “Suddenly, Last Summer” (1959)
In “Visual Pleasure in 1959,” his virtuosic reading of Suddenly, Last Summer (dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1959), D. A. Miller explicates the means by which the image of the homosexual in the text, the doomed Sebastian Venable, is displaced onto the body of Elizabeth Taylor, playing his traumatized cousin Catherine. According to Miller, Suddenly, Last Summer is not only about a love that dare not speak its name but also about a love that dare not show its face: we only glimpse Sebastian in blurry flashbacks, and always from behind (see below). Taylor’s Catherine thus acts as Sebastian’s front in more ways than one; she “procures” male lovers for him using bait-and-switch tactics, just as her body, seen head-on, becomes the verso to Sebastian’s recto.
Ang Lee has made a successful career as a journeyman filmmaker, dabbling in a variety of genres—the kung fu drama, the Western, the period piece. With Life of Pi, he tries his hand at what fifty years ago would have been called an animal picture. Based on the Booker Prize-winning novel, Life of Pi centers on an Indian youth who survives a shipwreck only to find himself sharing a life-raft with a Bengal tiger. It’s part adventure yarn, part spiritual autobiography, and if it doesn’t exactly work on the latter terms, it’s at least an engaging and beautifully mounted diversion, and it sports some of the year’s most striking imagery.
We see in the Hollywood films of the late 1950s and early 1960s the emergence of a subgenre that might be called the closet drama—that is to say, the melodrama that takes the phenomenon of closetedness as its central theme. Tea and Sympathy (dir. Vincente Minnelli, 1956), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), Suddenly, Last Summer (dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1959) and The Children’s Hour (dir. William Wyler, 1961) (all of which, incidentally, originated as stage plays) make the closet into a MacGuffin, a plot device that mobilizes a range of dramatic scenarios (the confrontation, the confession, the investigation, etc.) and catalyzes various displays of emotion (confusion, curiosity, anger, shame, disgust, etc.). All are put on even greater display in Richard Brooks’ film adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof than in the stage version, because by soft-pedaling the homosexuality of the play the film makes the space of the closet even more spectacularly impregnable—as impregnable, in fact, as Elizabeth Taylor’s Maggie, whose childlessness becomes the most telling signifier of her husband Brick’s queerness. (As in Suddenly, Last Summer, as D. A. Miller has pointed out, the spectacle of homosexual desire, too horrific to show “head-on,” as it were, plays out on the level of the image of Taylor’s voluptuous female body.)
“You’re a sick girl, Amy!” Rick Martin (Kirk Douglas) snarls at his wife (Lauren Bacall) in Michael Curtiz’s rather unpleasant jazz melodrama Young Man with a Horn. Those versed in classical Hollywood cinema know that sick is often code for queer, and that homosexuality—which was explicitly forbidden under the Production Code—often appeared on screen in the form of various degrees of mental illness. Amy is neurotic, withholding, passive-aggressive, and anal-retentive, to name only four of her "symptoms." All of the other familiar lesbian signifiers are here, too, in her elegant but mannish suits, her stand-offish demeanor, the sophisticated décor of her apartment (see below). Bacall’s Amy North is what Halberstam might classify as a predatory dyke: calculating, urbane, aloof. She matches her interior space, with its hard, sleek, coldly elegant surfaces, off-set by touches of the bizarre, such as a pet cockatoo to which she refers—ominously—as her “best friend.”
She’s also, not surprisingly, a career woman; she’s studying to become a psychiatrist. The irony, of course, is that she’s the one with the “mental disorder” (recall that in 1950 homosexuality was still listed in the DSM). But according to the sign system of the film, psychoanalysis itself is rendered as something queer. Amy goes through the film dropping psychoanalytic jargon into conversation whenever possible, a habit that Rick initially finds amusing, then threatening, strange. Amy’s circle of intellectual friends (one attractive female member of which she seems on the verge of seducing) are similarly presented as curious and untrustworthy, not “on the level.” This is all the more ironic given the extent to which Young Man with a Horn, like many Hollywood films of the classical era, itself relies on pop Freudianism to explain its characters’ motivations, Amy’s included. We learn that she has a hostile relationship with her father, idolized her late mother, and envies Rick his, um, horn. “I’m jealous of you,” she confesses to him. “I’d give anything to have what you’ve got, to be able to do one thing really well and know that it’s worth something. Maybe that’s really why I married you. I thought some of that would rub off on me.”
“Positivity and negativity, finally, are obviously not the best standards to use when measuring the political impact of any given representation,” writes Judith Halberstam—commendably—in Female Masculinity. “We need to be more creative in our interpretations, more willing to use Hollywood, and quicker to ‘queer’ supposedly hegemonic and traditional depictions of masculinity and femininity.” We might apply this line of thinking to the narrative structure of Queen Christina (dir. Rouben Mamoulian, 1933), in which Greta Garbo gives a downright electrifying performance as the imperious Swedish monarch who abdicates the throne out of love for her paramour, the Spanish envoy Don Antonio (John Gilbert). Tragically, he is killed in a duel while she is on her way to sail off to with him to Spain; they exchange a final kiss before he dies in her arms. The final shot of the film (above) depicts her once again alone, sailing aimlessly, looking like the prow of the ship itself, her face impassive. It seems that she may very well live out her own prophecy of dying “a bachelor.”
To what extent can we call Marlene Dietrich’s character in this, one of Josef von Sternberg’s most cultic films, “homosexual”? Like many other queer characters in film and literary history, she appears to be straight—she harbors a crazy passion for a legionnaire played by Gary Cooper, and the film ends with her stalking out into the blazing desert sands after him. Some might say that her queer credentials here can be chalked up to the iconic scene (the best in the film) in which she does a nightclub act immaculately dressed in a black tuxedo and top hat, and saunters through the audience, flirting with both the men and the women (she even kisses one female spectator gently on the mouth). It’s an electrifying moment, not just because we’re watching her get away with something that would soon be forbidden in Hollywood films under the Production Code, but also because Dietrich bends gender so glamorously: she makes a sexy man and a sexy woman.
I’m about to embark on a series of posts about queerness in the movies from Morocco (1930) to Weekend (2011), to be titled “The Homosexual in the Text.” Faithful readers will recognize that title; I’ve used it several times over the past eighteen months or so when writing about the queer characters in such films as Advise and Consent, Flesh Gordon, and Mädchen in Uniform. Each of the forthcoming posts will be similarly rooted in a discussion of a particular character—some variation on the figure I call “the homosexual”—but will also, hopefully, allow me to wander into other related discussions and ideas. I thought I’d use this post as a short introduction to the project (about which I’m very excited).
Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln arrives in theaters this week, conveniently sandwiched between Election Day and Veterans Day, on a wave of critical accolades. I’m not convinced that it’s a masterpiece—much of it is too staid, and it could use more of Spielberg’s humor. (His recent work has made me nostalgic for what we might call his “early, funny” period, which gave us Close Encounters, Jaws, E.T., and Raiders of the Lost Ark, all of which thrillingly blend spectacle, action, and comedy.) In turning to figures like John Ford for inspiration—and the sentimental John Ford of How Green Was My Valley, not the bitter, cynical John Ford of The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance—Spielberg has gotten soft, and his films somewhat paunchy. It’s not just that they’re corny or sweet or earnest, because the early films were that way too. The difference is that the early films were driven by the relentless energy of a boy filmmaker. “You look like you’ve aged ten years since January,” Ulysses S. Grant (Jared Harris) tells Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) at the end of the film, after the latter has spent months laboring to pass the Thirteenth Amendment. The same could be said of Spielberg, whose films don’t move as quick as they used to.
I could hardly be described as the world’s biggest fan of writer-director David O. Russell, whose previous hits include Three Kings (1999), I Heart Huckabees (2004), and the Oscar-winning The Fighter (2010) (which I skipped). So I was considerably shocked to find myself enraptured by his new film Silver Linings Playbook, a blue-collar romantic comedy with roots in the screwball classics of the ’30s and ’40s; it has the same sense of speed and wit, underwritten by real emotion, that makes films like The Shop Around the Corner and Bringing Up Baby so satisfying. Once I began thinking about Silver Linings Playbook within the context of this genre, all of my initial resistance and frustration with the film fell away, so that by the time it reached its almost laughably neat ending, in which we see everyone and everything in its right place, I realized that it had gotten it exactly right. Outside of this genre, the kinds of sudden emotional reversals, improbable coincidences, grand gestures and neat resolutions that stud Silver Linings Playbook would feel absurd, but within the world of screwball comedy they’re necessary conventions, and Russell deploys them elegantly. He may not be Preston Sturges, but he has a good sense of how to balance sentiment with comedy, and how to give audiences a giddy high by mixing the two.
With Flight, a welcome return back to the realm of live-action after a decade spent experimenting with motion-capture animation, director Robert Zemeckis reminds us of the pleasures of a well-made Hollywood drama. Judged by the standards of the international art film, Flight begins to looks downright provincial, with its cornball ending and its old-fashioned moralizing zeal. But that is also part of its undeniable appeal. It’s a handsome and involving moral-problem picture, the kind of thing they don’t make much anymore; even Zemeckis seemed to have given them up. There’s something comforting, even luxurious, about sinking into this kind of film. Its pleasures are not intellectual. They are the pleasures of watching a good story unfold with unerring straightforwardness, anchored by the charismatic presence of a Star (and because he’s Denzel Washington, this Star can really act, too).
Leos Carax’s Holy Motors begs the question: when do vision and imagination and audacity tip over into noxiousness? The film, hotly anticipated by the art-house crowd, has recently arrived in U.S. theaters in the wake of a small firestorm abroad—many attendees at this summer’s Cannes Film Festival were lobbying for it to win the Palme d’Or. It’s the kind of off-the-wall fare that is so unlike anything else around that it automatically makes you sit up and take notice; Carax has an eye for bizarre, surrealistic imagery (a monstrous, barefoot hobo munching on bouquets of flowers; two actors in green-screen suits engaging in simulated sex; etc.). But, as they say, is it art? Or, to put it somewhat differently, I’ll invoke John Waters, who, while hosting the Independent Spirit Awards a decade or so ago, advised wannabe indie auteurs that “not washing your hair isn’t enough anymore.” There is more to being a great filmmaker than the cultivation of a set of mannerist quirks. Showing a monstrous, barefoot hobo munching on bouquets of flowers isn’t enough anymore.