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Homosexuality in Film

In a hundred years of movies, homosexuality has only rarely been depicted on the screen. When it did appear, it was there as something to laugh at -- or something to pity -- or even something to fear. These were fleeting images, but they were unforgettable, and they left a lasting legacy. Hollywood, that great maker of myths, taught straight people what to think about gay people... and gay people what to think about themselves.
(Passages in italics are excerpts of narration from "The Celluloid Closet" )

In fact, homosexuality, or the suggestion of it, has been with us since the movies were born. One of the earliest surviving motion picture images is a primitive test made at Thomas Edison's studio, in which two men dance together while a third plays the fiddle.

From the very beginning movies could rely on homosexuality as a surefire source of humor.

In early comedies of the teens and twenties, the possibility of homo behavior was a common joke. In "The Florida Enchantment," two women dance off together, leaving their bewildered menfolk to shrug, and dance off together themselves. A popular gag in parodies of the western was to insert a flamboyantly effeminate pansy into the world of the macho cowboy ("Wanderer of the West," "The Soilers"). As film historian Richard Dyer demonstrates, describing a scene in which a burly stagehand taunts Charlie Chaplin for supposedly kissing a boy in "Behind the Screen," the equation of male homosexuality with effeminacy was already "so firmly in place that a popular mainstream film could assume that the audience would know what that swishy [behavior] was all about."

Enter the Sissy -- Hollywood's first gay stock character. The Sissy made everyone feel more manly or more womanly by occupying the space in between. He didn't seemed to have a sexuality, so Hollywood allowed him to thrive.

Talkies offered new opportunities for fun with effeminate men. An early film by gay director George Cukor, "Our Betters," includes Mr. Ernest -- an astonishingly swishy fop. Character actors like Edward Everett Horton made careers out of characters of vague sexuality. Backstage stories like "Broadway Melody" and "Myrt and Marge" featured fey costume designers -- comic characters whose humor was based on male effeminacy. Screenwriter Jay Presson Allen recalls these sissy characters from her youth: "There were sissies, and they were never addressed as homosexuals. It was a convention that was totally accepted. They were perceived as homosexuals just subliminally. This was a subject that was not discussed, privately. Certainly not publicly." Gay screenwriter Arthur Laurents recalls being offended by them: "They were a cliché... like Steppin Fetchit for the blacks." But gay
actor/screenwriter Harvey Fierstein, from a later generation, disagrees: "I like the sissy. Is it used in negative ways? Yeah, but... I'd rather have negative than nothing. That's just my own particular view -- and also cause I am a sissy!"

The movies were loose enough in those days that one Clara Bow movie ("Call Her Savage") could take us slumming in Hollywood's first big screen gay bar (this freedom wouldn't last -- it would also be the last big screen gay bar until Otto Preminger's "Advise and Consent" 30 years later).

"Sissy characters in movies were always a joke," explains elder queen Quentin Crisp. "There's no sin like being a woman. When a man dresses as a woman, the audience laughs. When a woman dressed as a man, nobody laughed. They just thought she looked wonderful."

Indeed, Marlene Dietrich caused a sensation when she finished a number in a nightclub in "Morocco" (1930) by kissing a young woman in the audience on the lips. Queer pop culture critic Susie Bright attests to the scene's enduring power to titillate, and Arthur Laurents agrees: "The thing worked for everybody of every sex. And what's amazing, I don't think they've done anything as deliciously sexy as that since."

Even Greta Garbo raised eyebrows with her portrait of "Queen Christina" (1933), based on the life of a sixteenth century lesbian ruler of Sweden. While the movie invented a heterosexual romance with John Gilbert, hints of lesbianism remained, notably in her very affectionate relationship with her lady-in-waiting. When Christina is admonished by her Chancellor, "But your Majesty, you cannot die an old maid," Garbo proudly retorts, "I have no intention to, Chancellor. I shall die a bachelor!"

But such freedom would be short-lived. Powerful forces were already at work. Religious and women's groups had been protesting the movies' permissiveness throughout the twenties and thirties, lobbying for federal censorship of the movies. Screenwriter Gore Vidal describes how the movie moguls responded by attempting to censor themselves: "Let's save Hollywood. We must get an outsider, preferably some politician who is above reproach. So they looked into the cabinet of Warren G. Harding -- at that time there were a number of unindicted members of his cabinet -- and they picked the Postmaster General, Will Hays of Indiana." Will Hays would head the movies' first voluntary effort at self-censorship. The early Hays Code was a token gesture, seldom taken seriously. But by 1934 the Catholic Church had devised a scheme of its own. The Legion of Decency not only rated movies as to content [an A rating meant a movie was acceptable; a B indicated it was morally objectionable; and a C meant it was condemned] -- but threatened massive boycotts. Hollywood promised to play by the rules.

Code director Joe Breen ran Hollywood's censorship machinery for over two decades. He was authorized to change words, personalities, and plots. "The Lost Weekend," a novel about a sexually confused alcoholic, became a movie about an alcoholic with writer's block. "The Brick Foxhole," a novel about gay-bashing and murder, became" Crossfire," a movie about anti Semitism and murder. As Jay Presson Allen explains, "The Hays code just set up a series of rules that were inviolable." In addition to depictions of homosexuality -- or "sex perversion," as it was called -- other restrictions of the 1934 Hays Code included: open-mouthed kissing, lustful embraces, seduction, rape, abortion, prostitution and white slavery, nudity, obscenity and profanity.

For all its efforts, the Production Code didn't erase homosexuals from the screen; it just made them harder to find. And now they had a new identity -- as cold-blooded villains.

Gloria Holden as "Dracula's Daughter," Judith Anderson as the ominous Mrs. Danvers in Hitchcock's "Rebecca," and Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo in "The Maltese Falcon," begin a long line of movie characters in which subtle hints of homosexuality are used to make villains more menacing. "The guys that ran that Code weren't rocket scientists," Jay Presson Allen recalls. "They missed a lot of stuff, and if a director was subtle enough, and clever enough, they got around it." "I don't think the censors at that time realized that this was about gay people," says Arthur Laurents of Hitchcock's film "Rope", for which Laurents wrote the screenplay, based on the true story of gay psychopathic murderers Leopold and Loeb. While Rope star Farley Granger makes it clear that the actors knew they were playing gay characters, Laurents thinks the censors "didn't have a clue what was and what wasn't. That's how it got by."

By the early fifties, lesbians are suggested on the screen by tough bulldykes behind bars ("Caged") or as a troublesome neurotic (Lauren Bacall in "Young Man With a Horn"). "These women were a warning to ladies," explains Allen, "to just watch it and get back to the kitchen, where God meant them to be." The fifties were a time of sexual conformity; for men, masculinity ruled. The tension between sensitivity and masculinity was represented on the screen by characters who are accused of being gay (Tom Lee in "Tea and Sympathy"); or by characters who seemed to be gay (Sal Mineo as Plato in "Rebel Without a Cause"). For gay movie-goers in those repressed years, these were the images that spoke to them. "Rebel" screenwriter Stewart Stern acknowledges a gay reading of the movie: "Any film is at the same time an expression of a writer, and it's an offering to an audience to create their own film." Gore Vidal explains, "You got very good at projecting subtext without saying a word about what you were doing." Using his experiences as a screenwriter of "Ben-Hur", Vidal illustrates how a writer, working together with the director and an actor, can hint at a gay relationship even in a biblical epic.

Hollywood had learned to write movies between the lines. And some members of the audience had learned to watch them that way.

"It's amazing," says Susie Bright, "how if you're a gay audience and you're accustomed to crumbs, how you will watch an entire movie just to see somebody wear an outfit that you think means that they're homosexual." Doris Day dressed as a man and singing "Secret Love"as "Calamity Jane;" a very butch Joan Crawford challenging a very butch Mercedes McCambridge in "Johnny Guitar;" Montgomery Clift and John Ireland admiring each others' guns in "Red River;" Gloria Grahame getting worked on by a big butch masseuse in "In a Lonely Place;" tough guy Glenn Ford's flirtatious relationship with his effete employer in "Gilda" -- "Gay audiences [were] desperate to find something," according to Arthur Laurents. "I think all minority audiences watch movies with hope: they hope they will see what they want to see. That's why nobody really sees the same movie." Richard Dyer, reflecting on the movies of this period, finds parallels with what it was like for gay people in the real world: "We could only express ourselves indirectly, just as people on the screen could only express themselves indirectly... the characters are in the closet, the movie is in the closet, and we were in the closet."

But as gay screenwriter Paul Rudnick argues, "you can't keep gay life, gay behavior out of the movies. It's like keeping it out of life in general -- so it sort of pops up, often in somewhat hidden, or somewhat coded ways." Comedies, in particular, have often found ways to push the boundaries of acceptable behavior, precisely because they're not to be taken seriously. "In the film of 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,'" Rudnick continues, "there's a gym full of bodybuilders who have absolutely no interest in Jane Russell" -- singing "Ain't There Anyone Here For Love?" Sissy characters survived in such comedies as" Lover, Come Back," in which Doris Day is confounded by a decorator's insistence on a lilac floor for a kitchen. And gay author Armistead Maupin recalls watching Rock Hudson - Doris Day movies with a group of gay men in Hudson's screening room, and enjoying the "gay in-jokes occurring in almost all of those light comedies." In "Pillow Talk," for example, "the character that Rock Hudson played posed as gay in order to get a woman into bed. It was tremendously ironic, because here was a gay man impersonating a straight man impersonating a gay man." Tony Curtis describes how our ambiguous sexuality, "that kind of sexuality of ours that overlaps -- some like it hard, some like it soft..." was subtly exploited in Billy Wilder's drag opus with Curtis and Jack Lemmon, "Some Like It Hot." When Lemmon, disguised as Daphne, tries to convince Osgood (Joe E Brown) that they can't get married because Lemmon is really a man, Osgood is unfazed. "Well," he declares, "nobody's perfect."

But when the subject turned serious -- and actual sex was suggested -- out came the blue pencil, the scissors and the scene.

Tony Curtis again, this time as Antoninus, Lawrence Olivier's "body servant" in Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus, describes the suggestive scene in which he bathes his master, and which was cut from the final film. "I've never seen such a time in my life with censorship,"" says Gore Vidal. "They cut and cut 'Cat On a Hot Tin Roof.'" There was no way that Brick [Paul Newman] could have had any kind of sexual desire for his buddy." Vidal describes his own battles with the censors when he adapted another Tennessee Williams play," Suddenly Last Summer," for the screen. The drama between Elizabeth Taylor, Katherine Hepburn and Montgomery Clift revolves around the unsavory habits of Sebastian Venable, a character who is seen in the film only in flashback -- and whose face is never shown.

Sebastian Venable was the perfect homosexual for his times -- one without a face or a voice. Since he lives as a monster, he must die as one...

Sebastian meets his end at the hands of the young boys he's been using sexually, who chase him up a mountain and ultimately devour him -- in a scene eerily reminiscent of the early horror classic "The Bride of Frankenstein" (which incidentally was directed by James Whale, one of the few openly gay directors in Hollywood history).

As American filmmakers were struggling to make homosexual material acceptable to the Hays Office and the Legion of Decency, a film came out of Great Britain in which an explicitly gay (or at least bisexual) character actually stands up to fight the system that oppresses homosexuals: "Victim," starring Dirk Bogarde as the screen's first gay hero.

Hollywood was hurting. Faced with competition from more sexually explicit foreign films, as well as from the newly popular invention, television, filmmakers searched for new ways to attract audiences. Producers were convinced that audiences would pay to see films with more adult themes. By the early sixties, the Code had gradually been whittled away. The only remaining restriction was "sex perversion." Two filmmakers set out to make films that would smash the last taboo. Otto Preminger forced the issue by announcing (prematurely) that the Production Code had been revised to allow him to film the bestseller "Advise and Consent" -- including the subplot concerning a US Senator (Don Murray) who is blackmailed about a homosexual affair in his past. And William Wyler's "The Children's Hour," based on the play by Lillian Hellman and starring Shirley MacLaine and Audrey Hepburn, dealt with accusations of lesbianism in a girls' school. In the view of Shirley MacLaine, though, the film was a failure. "We might have been the forerunners but we weren't really, because we didn't do the picture right." According to MacLaine, there was so little awareness of what homosexuality was all about that the subject was never even discussed during the making of the film.

Both these films dealt with homosexuality as something shameful, a dirty secret -- and, as Susie Bright and Armistead Maupin attest, these films often had a devastating affect on the psyches of young gay people in the audience. As gay screenwriter Barry Sandler explains, "Growing up in that period in the sixties, all we had were images of unhappy, suicidal, desperate gay people." "Walk On the Wild Side," adapted from the novel, is the first movie that actually added a lesbian angle en route to the screen -- Barbara Stanwyck as the tough madam of a New Orleans brothel who is desperately attracted to a glamorous young prostitute (Capucine). Even "The Detective," a Frank Sinatra movie that tried to be daringly enlightened about homosexuality, presented a view of homosexuals as desperate, unhappy, self-loathing -- and ultimately murderous. Sandy Dennis' lesbian character in "The Fox" is a pathetic spinster taunted by Keir Dullea, who suggests that her problem is that she's never had a man. Says lesbian filmmaker Jan Oxenberg, "These images magnify the sadness, the hatred of us, the prediction that we will not find love."

"I think the fate of gay characters in American literature, plays, films, is really the same as the fate of all characters who are sexually free," reflects Arthur Laurents. "You must pay. You must suffer. If you're a woman who commits adultery you're only put out in the storm. If you're a woman who has another woman, you better go hang yourself. It's a question of degree. And certainly if you're gay, you have to do real penance -- die."

In film after film ("The Detective," "Caged," "Dracula's Daughter," "The Fox," "Rebel Without a Cause," "Johnny Guitar," "Rebecca," "Suddenly Last Summer," "The Children's Hour") characters of questionable sexuality meet their end in the last reel.

Just when it looked like there was no hope for gay characters anywhere...

Finally it happened. Hollywood made a movie in which gay people took a long, hard look at their own lives. And, in a refreshing twist, they all survived.

The movie was "Boys In the Band," based on the hit off-Broadway play by Mart Crowley, and for young gay men like Barry Sandler, it offered an image of "gay men as having this incredible sense of camaraderie, this sense of belonging to a group which I'd never really felt before." It also presented a rather depressing collection of bitchy, vindictive, self-loathing queens. "I knew a lot of people like those people," says Crowley, "and I would say that probably all nine of them are split off pieces of myself... I think the self-deprecating humor was born out of a low self-esteem, if you will, from a sense of what the times told you about yourself. Homosexuality was still classified as a mental illness. If you went to a gay bar, you were liable to be arrested, or the place be raided... There were still, not just attitudes, there were laws, against one's being, the core of one's being." In one of the key scenes in the movie, the problem is stated succinctly by one of the miserable characters: "If we could just not hate ourselves so much. That's it, you know. If we could just learn not to hate ourselves quite so very much."

And by the time the film was released, thousands of gay men and lesbians had done just that, and had taken to the streets in the name of "gay liberation." As gay people made themselves more visible in the world, they also became more visible on the screen.

Armistead Maupin recalls "Cabaret" as "the first film that really celebrated homosexuality... For me it embodied the very life I was beginning to live in San Francisco, one in which there was no onus placed on homosexuality." "The boy was homosexual," explains Jay Presson Allen, who wrote the screenplay for the film, "and it just seemed rational, it seemed reasonable... that's what the story was. There was no fuss with anybody, none at all. So things change more quickly than you might imagine."

Gay male supporting characters began appearing more and more, and the characters often had a depth and self-awareness that was new for the movies (they also often had the best lines). African American actor Antonio Fargas played two such roles in the mid-seventies: in "Next Stop, Greenwich Village" he played a queen called Bernstein, one of a group of Bohemian friends living in Greenwich Village in the fifties; and that same year, he played a queen called Lindy, part of the ensemble that works at the "Car Wash." "I think it was easier for the powers that be to show a black as a homosexual rather than a white character as a homosexual," says Fargas. He likens it to the tendency to present the black experience in comedies and sitcoms rather than in dramas.

But as gays (or at least gay men) became more visible, they also became easier targets. In movie after movie, gay male characters were ridiculed, taunted, scape-goated, beat up, or killed. Tom Hanks remembers the absurdly queeny hitch-hikers in "Vanishing Point" as "the first image that I remember... about anybody being gay in a motion picture that I saw." He vividly recalls the stereotypical characterizations of the gay characters, as well as the glee with which he and his high school buddies greeted the moment when "those two homos" received their comeuppance.

"Philadelphia" screenwriter Ron Nyswaner recalls similar experiences, but from a gay perspective. He recalls seeing "Freebie and the Bean" with a group of friends, and being appalled by the audience's enthusiastic reaction to the brutal killing of a murderous drag queen. "People were applauding the death of the villain -- but they were also applauding the death of a homosexual."

"You know you're watching a heterosexual movie," says Richard Dyer. "You know that's the deal when you pay to see a Hollywood movie. But somehow, you're still not quite ready to be insulted." Barry Sandler points out the astonishing number of movies in which the word "faggot" is casually used -- and argues that the word "nigger" would never be used that indiscriminately.

By 1980, the urban gay scene was a visible part of the cultural landscape. The few movies that acknowledged that fact portrayed the gay subculture as a sinister world of kinky danger. When one such film, William Friedkin's "Cruising," was released, Ron Nyswaner describes being attacked by young men who worked in a movie theater: "as I was escaping from the hands of one of them, he said to me, 'if you saw the movie 'Cruising,' you'd know what you deserve.'"

"Cruising," "The Fan" and "Windows" all offer glimpses of gay and lesbian characters who are no longer victims but victimizers -- psychopaths, who murder the objects of their affection. But it was "Cruising" that roused gay activists into the streets -- for the first time protesting Hollywood's treatment of gay characters. As the film was being shot in New York's West Village, protesters disrupted the filming and created a cause celebre.

In an attempt to balance the overwhelmingly negative stereotypes of the previous decades, Barry Sandler wrote a script about a married man who finds himself attracted to another man, and comes to realize he's gay. The twist this time was that the gay characters would be comfortably masculine, squeaky clean, and played by very attractive young actors. Sherry Lansing green lighted "Making Love" at Fox, but according to the film's producer, Daniel Melnick, "the men were hard to cast, because every one of their advisors, both Harry Hamlin and Michael Ontkean, told them not to possibly play someone who is gay, that it would destroy their career." Harry Hamlin concurs, "Hollywood was pretty much of a cowboy town, and a straight cowboy town." By the time the film was finished, the studio had changed hands, and according to Melnick, when he screened the film for the new owner, he was outraged, calling it a "goddam faggot movie." Barry Sandler recalls seeing the finished film on its opening night in Miami. "When they [Hamlin and Ontkean] had the first kiss... people panicked, I mean it was pandemonium, people started storming up the aisles."

There was a time when men were free to express tenderness on the screen...
...for example, in "Wings," the first film to win an Academy Award for Best Picture, a handsome young soldier says good-bye to his dying buddy by kissing his lips...

...but as the world grew more aware of homosexuality, male-to-male affection would be seen as an incriminating act. A kiss would become an assault ... in "The Sergeant," when the repressed homosexual sergeant (Rod Steiger) loses control and forces his mouth onto that of the horrified, disgusted, handsome young private he's obsessed with (John Phillip Law)...

...or an ugly accusation.
In "A View from the Bridge," a violent Raf Vallone attacks handsome young Jean Sorel, growling, "I'll show you what you're gonna be -- what you are -- what you are!" And kisses him brutally on the mouth as Carol Lawrence screams in horror. And in the quirky buddy movie "Thunderbolt and Lightfoot," Jeff Bridges taunts George Kennedy by clamping his hand over Kennedy's mouth and kissing it. "I'll kill you for that," screams Kennedy.

"I think Americans are perhaps more scared of their sexuality," suggests gay British director John Schlesinger. "They're prepared to show violence of all kinds, but when it comes to sexuality I think America is both self-righteous and tries to bury it as if it didn't exist." Schlesinger's "Sunday, Bloody Sunday" is one of the first examples of a film in which homosexuality is presented simply as a part of the lives of the characters, without making a point about it. Schlesinger describes his battle with the screenwriter, who wanted the gay kiss played "in long shot and silhouette, and I said 'no way.' It should just happen. And that's what we did."

"There's a world of difference," says Susie Bright, "between how an audience looks at two men getting it on, and two women getting it on." As in "Personal Best," when Mariel Hemingway makes love to Patrice Donnelly, "there's a comfort with female nudity and female girlishness and girlie bonding that can be sexy, and it can be completely palatable, even erotic." On the other hand, says Whoopi Goldberg, "straight men are more uncomfortable with two men making love because somehow that means you're weak." In contrast, she describes her own love scene with Margaret Avery in "The Color Purple" as being less about sex than about intimacy, which is acceptable between women. Similarly, when Susan Sarandon "put the kiss in at the end of 'Thelma and Louise'... my feeling was that they were beyond sexuality, that it was a kind of love... they were really there for each other in the tradition of 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,' except they didn't go down in a rain of bullets." She speculates that had Butch and Sundance kissed at the end of that movie, "they would have had more reason to shoot them."

Reflecting on her love scene with Catherine Deneuve in the elegant vampire movie "The Hunger," Sarandon conjectures, "I don't think, for better or worse, that women are taken very seriously in this area... it's actually something that straight men can watch and not be threatened by, and straight men are the ones that are propelling the industry forward... And I suppose when you go to the movies and you see men being affectionate... besides the sex, just the affection itself is just too much. Guys are supposed to be strong and unfeeling."

A perfect illustration of Hollywood's ambivalence about male-to-male affection is "Midnight Express," with a screenplay adapted by Oliver Stone from the true story of Billy Hayes' ordeal in a Turkish prison. Whereas in his book Hayes describes making love to a male fellow-prisoner, the movie allows the two men a passionate kiss in a steamy shower -- but before it goes too far, Hayes (Brad Davis) gives his friend a gentle brush-off, shaking his head "no" and kissing his hand before walking away.

Susie Bright describes her anger when Hollywood takes a story with a gay angle and then removes that angle: "It's like somebody's just powdered me with fleas the entire time, I'm being irritated that they're not telling the truth." She gives as an example "Fried Green Tomatoes:" "The passion that these two women feel for each other was not presented in an honest way in the movie."

Daniel Melnick explains the industry's fear of portraying homosexuality as part of the same conservatism that he sees at the highest levels of most corporations: "We all get paid more than we should, we all get paid more than our fathers ever made, and there's always the fear that they're gonna take it away from us."

Shirley MacLaine agrees that "the public is always ahead of us about what they're ready for... And if you do it right, if you pierce the heart-truth of what the public is feeling and thinking, you have a hit."

"Philadelphia," featuring a hero who was gay, and who had AIDS, touched a nerve in the movie going public, and became just such a hit. Tom Hanks ascribes some of the film's success to the fact that "my screen persona is pretty much non-threatening... [so] this idea of a gay man with AIDS... doesn't have to be scary. You don't have to be threatened by this man's presence, [partly] because little Tommy Hanks is playing the role." Jan Oxenberg points out that, as effective as the film was, it was still "a story about a gay hero who dies, who's a tragic figure. It remains to be seen whether Hollywood or the general public will embrace a film with a gay hero who lives." "Philadelphia" screenwriter Ron Nyswaner responds, "We felt we would fail if our movie played to people who already ... believe that people shouldn't discriminate against homosexuals. If our movie only played to people who thought just like we do, we would have done nothing very significant." As Hanks sees it, the message of the movie is that, gay or straight, "love is spelled with the same four letters."

A hundred years after those two men danced together in Edison's studio, fifty years after the Production Code made homosexuality a forbidden subject, gay characters of all stripes and colors can be found on the screen. Some of these are from Hollywood, with varying degrees of boldness and honesty, but most of them are from low-budget independent filmmakers working outside the mainstream system.

The long silence is finally ending. New voices have emerged, open and unapologetic. They tell stories that have never been told -- about people who have always been there.