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 to laugh at – or to pity – or event something to fear.” ~Vito Russo
Vito Russo, Author of The Celluloid Closet, finishes the quoted by indicting Hollywood for telling Americans what they should think about gay people and even more preposterously what gay people should think about themselves. So how do we see gay people how are they portrayed in our cinema? What are the bench marks for change that has lead to more progressive attitudes toward homosexuality in the Cinema and do the most current depictions of gay Americans dispel the negative stereotypes or do they perpetuate them? What is the harm in perpetuating the stereotype?
The earliest depictions of homosexuality were often played for comedic effect. In the film The Florida Enchantment, two women dance off together leaving their dates confused and bewildered the men then dance off together as well according to sonypictures.com article Homosexuality in Film.
The comedic device is played out by showing characters that are effeminate and exaggerating the characters in a larger than life fashion. This worked best when the character was juxtaposed against a manly brut. The brut of course was representing what we believed to be the normal socially acceptable and more desirable character. So why is this? According to Patricia Erens article in Jump Cut, Images of Minority and Foreign Groups in American Film 1958-73, “….Images of national types derive both from objective information gained through fact and from subjective biases perceived from environmental influences. The first approach relies on the objective determination of stereotypical tendencies which exist in the portrayal or each group and the relationship between these tendencies and the political realities of U.S. society.” I have to agree with her here as we bring a certain expectation the theater when it comes to gay characters. We don’t want to be left to squirm in out seats by something that may make us uncomfortable. It is easier to see the gay character as a clown or as what has developed as a typical stereo type than it is to see them as someone like us with mannerisms that are more like ours. A character that straddles the divide between what it is to be a man or a woman is non-threatening. “Sissy characters are always a joke,” explains elder queen Quentin Crisp. “There is 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.” (sonypictures.com)
The alternative to playing with the stereotypical sissy role might be to play the character as dangerous to society. If you turn the character into a monster then to spurn them or to hate them is acceptable right? Play them as criminals, sociopaths or even better: villains who resemble the devil… like vampires? If you remove the humanity from the character by playing either as a frivolous clown or as monster you don’t have to develop empathy for the character and it is easy to just not care if they are ridiculed or destroyed.
Homosexuality has been represented in film since the beginning of the medium. Not necessarily as explicit openly gay but by exploiting the stereotypes discussed above. The earliest examples of homosexual or the allusion to homosexuality occurred in a film from Thomas Edison’s studio in which two men are dancing together and a third is playing the fiddle. The aforementioned film The Florida Enchantment, 1914, while a silent picture the audience was familiar with the stereotype and the device allows the viewer to fill in the context. This was common in films of the 1920’s and 30’s however as Hollywood became bolder there was a push back from the Catholic Church’s Legion of Decency. The response to his push back was the institution and eventual adherence to the Hays Code by the studios.
During the golden era of the studios, amid Hays Code restrictions, portrayal of homosexuality and the gay character was not an open representation of what it meant to be gay. The characters were not allowed to be explicitly and honestly gay. As a result the homosexual characters were veiled in the innuendo of stereotype and audiences, if attentive or sensitive to gay issues, would find gay expression longing looks or dialogue steeped in double entendre. Sexual tension found between gay characters in some cases might be imagined by the viewer or in the case of Ben-Hur (1959) have the sexual tension engineered by the director and the writer without the consent of one or both actors.
In his Jump Cut article Homosexuality in Film Noir, Richard Dyer makes the case that film noir (1941-1955) was a vehicle for portraying a homosexual character. He further states that the devices used in film noir become a standard by which the gay character is portrayed in other genres of the era. “First, it is clearly only in a minority of films noir that gay character’s appear… yet their absence from all other types of film and the caution with which even film noir had to introduce them suggests that they do nonetheless constitute a defining feature of film noir taken as a whole.” Mr. Dyer goes on to support his case by describing the iconography used in film noir for the gay character. He includes the terms rough and severe when describing the gay women and careless for describing gay men. He made on very compelling point: “…what is significant about the iconography is that it is not explicitly sexual. Gays are thus defined by everything but the very thing that makes us different.”
In 1962, the film The Children’s Hour, as the studios started to push back Hays Code restrictions, alluded to homosexuality but only from a child’s perspective. But the homosexual character was the villain or there was a moral imperative to see the character destroyed or to show the character as one who operated outside of the desirable norm and as a result they suffered some sort of penance including imprisonment and death. The gay or equivalent gay character in the films The Detective, Caged, Dracula’s Daughter, The Fox, Rebel Without a Cause, Suddenly Last Summer and “The Children’s Hour.
With the demise of the Hays Code Hollywood produced its first all gay cast in the comedy Boys in the Band, (1970). While gays were allowed to be gay the audience could reconcile their discomfort with the characters through the films self depreciating humor. In the year prior the X-rated film the Midnight Cowboy, (1969), also explored homosexuality in the context of prostitution.
In the Europe the acceptable love story between same sex characters were played out in films like Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971), and Emmanuelle, (1974). In the U.S. homosexuality was still being played for either the farcical comedy, Rocky Horror,(1975) or the atonement of the character usually through death or physical violence, Vanishing Point(1971) and Cruising (1980). The difference here is the Gay Community was willing to organize and to speak out about this type of abuse. During the next decade there would be a push back by gay activists against violence in film toward homosexuals.
The 80’s ushered in both the AIDs epidemic and the high profile Hollywood actors who were willing to take the risk and play gay characters. Among the brave: Harry Hamblin in Making Love (1982) and Christopher Reeve in Deathtrap (1982). It also ushered in nearly twice the number of movies that featured gay characters or homosexual themes than the prior two decades. In 1993 in the shadow of AIDS and the discovery of its origins actor Tom Hanks took on the role of a lawyer who dies of AIDS in the film Philadelphia (1993).
Midnight Cowboy and Philadelphia both won Oscars demonstrating that the industry appreciated the honesty that surrounded the issue in the films. So why aren’t gay themed movies where the romance is honestly depicted and the complexities of a homosexual lifestyle accurately and sensitively represented more mainstream in America? What seems to be the issue? The issue seems to center on the fact that men run the industry and represent a significant influence when it comes to distribution in movie theaters. Movies like Brokeback Mountain (2005), while obtaining critical acclaim, still represented a repugnant lifestyle to the conservative businessmen who operate studios and who own movie theaters. In Utah theater owner Larry H. Miller refused to see the movie or to allow it to be shown in one of the several theaters he owned. What was its crime? It showed homosexuality and its complexities in a way that caused straight men to squirm in their seats.
What is the danger in portraying homosexuals by one stereotype or the other especially when decent society finds the idea of homosexuality repulsive? Is it not better to laugh at the homosexual than it is to hate them? What can be the harm? To answer this question I think you need to recognize that film is a reflection of the society it portrays. While Harvey Fierstein stated in the film The Celluloid Closet that he believed gayer was better; is it really if the character is a cartoon or farce? The danger here is in the wake of a wave of gay teen suicides, are we providing a platform by which the gay Americans can find an accurate reflection of their community? The complaint has been that there is isolation in being gay. Gay youth have few healthy representations of gay adults in film. As long as the stereotype is perpetuated heterosexual American will also be starved of a vehicle in which any type of empathy or understanding of homosexuality can be gained. Film is a reflection of our society and it should reflect all aspects of American life.
Works Cited"The Celluloid Closet | Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman| Lily Tomlin, Tony Curtis and Susie Bright| Sony Pictures Classics, 1995. DVD
Dyer, Richard. "Homosexuality in Film Noir by Richard Dyer." JCsplash. Web. 08 Feb. 2011.
Erens, Patricia. "Minorities in US Films by Patricia Erens." JCsplash. Web. 08 Feb. 2011.
"Homosexuality in Films." Listology. Web. 08 Feb. 2011.
"Representations of Gays and Lesbians in Film." Media Awareness Network | Réseau éducation Médias. Web. 08 Feb. 2011.
Sony Pictures.com. "History." Sony Pictures. Web. 08 Feb. 2011.