11.19.2012

The homosexual in the text: Lauren Bacall as Amy North in "Young Man with a Horn" (1950)



“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.” 

But for all of Rick’s rubbing on Amy, she still lacks a horn of her own.  She’s almost a hyperbolic exaggeration of what Hollywood imagines the phallic woman to be.  Needless to say, Rick and Amy’s marriage is doomed.  Luckily for Rick, the film provides a foil to Amy in Doris Day’s sprightly Jo (see below).  Pert and sunny, she’s the day to Amy’s night—“so terribly normal,” as Amy herself witheringly puts it.  Amy is an example of the predatory dyke as femme fatale, trapped within the gilded cage of her own sexual “perversity,” someone to run away from, preferably into the arms of a “real” woman.  And yet, like all femme fatales, Amy’s dangerous sexuality makes her infinitely more attractive than the blandly chipper Jo, whose normality is, indeed, terrible. 



4 comments:

  1. Amazing stuff! I'm ashamed I missed this reading on my first viewing.

    Is it possible to add the dimension of music to this interpretation of Amy? I wonder if it's telling that she doesn't "particularly" like jazz, which is cast (in her own words) as "freeing" and distinctly American, but rather feels more at home with Chopin. I found the nasty attitude towards Chopin insulting, as if classical music were meant to be construed as an impure art form. Shows what these people know about music history: Chopin's music was far freer than much that came before him. But, come to think of it, perhaps the filmmakers did have a keen sense of musical history and were in fact using the Chopin motif to associate Amy with Chopin's infamously "butch" mistress Georges Sand?

    Amy's musical tastes ally her with a European sensibility that seems to be seen as dark and depressing in the film. When she mentions heading off to Paris with her new female friend, I almost thought it was Paris and not the female friend that had Douglas's character so upset. Is it common in this kind of homosexual subtext (or sur-text as the case may be) to associate homosexuality with Europe and heterosexuality with America?

    As always, thanks for giving me so much to think about!

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  2. Thanks for such fantastic observations! I think you're right on. Classical music definitely has connotations of queerness in this film, and, I would add, generally in American culture, in part due to its associations with high art, Europeanness, elitism, intellectualism, etc., especially when made to contrast with the "naturalness" and popular appeal of jazz. It makes perfect sense that Amy looks down her nose at jazz and prefers classical music (though I'll admit that I missed the significance of her liking Chopin--thanks for pointing that out). Relatedly, Doris Day's character being a jazz vocalist becomes another way in which she is coded as Amy's opposite, the "natural," "healthy" woman with whom Douglas deserves to end up. And yes, I think it's quite common in American culture even today to associate Europe and European culture with a certain suspicion (part of our Puritan heritage, I suppose!)

    It should also be pointed out that jazz itself has a long history of being associated with queerness and immorality, but that in this film it is made to signify normative American values over and against the European classical tradition, which is regarded as untrustworthy.

    Relatedly, someone mentioned to me recently that in the early twentieth century, "musical" was sometimes used as a euphemism for gay (ex. "He's a very musical type"), which I found interesting.

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  3. Wow. Thanks so much for the further insights! I'm glad you found some of my observations useful in some way!

    I agree about European culture being construed as "other" or "queer" even in today's zeitgeist. Oh and I also agree that the American "normalness" as exemplified by Doris Day reads as very boring. Her perky blondness made me queasy at times. The hair is always such a huge signifier isn't it? Blondes are almost always the good ones. You know Amy's bad news because she's a brunette. As a brunette I find that annoying :)

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  4. Incidentally, I commented to Joe last night, "I bet Eleni has the same reaction to Doris Day in this movie that she has to the Betty character in Sunset Boulevard..." They're similarly perky, vapid, and boring, aren't they?

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