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Location: Kansas City, Missouri, United States

Doing my part to irritate Republicans, fundamentalists, bigots and other lower life forms.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Playing gay ... not that there's anything wrong with that

Once upon a time, a much-anticipated gay-themed movie openned. It was hailed as a film that would be ground-breaking and an honest look at people who were ... you know ... that way. Other critics saw in the film a sure sign that the world was going to hell in a handbasket and warned that the movie was not one "decent folks" should see.

And, no, that film wasn't called "Brokeback Mountain."

"The Boys in the Band," based on Mart Crowley's off-Broadway stage hit, openned in 1970. Though the film came out (so to speak) in the year following the Stonewall riots that sparked the modern gay rights movement, its sensibility is definitely set in the pre-Stonewall era. The film follows the events of a single evening when a group of gay men (and one supposedly straight man) meet to celebrate the birthday of one of the group, Harold. The original ads for the film featured a photo of Leonard Frey as Harold on one side under the heading "Today is Harold's birthday." On the other side was a photo of Robert La Tourneaux playing a hustler in a cowboy hat. The caption with it read: "This is Harold's present." The ad (in which both men were fully clothed) was considered so shocking that the venerable New York Times refused to run it.

For those who haven't seen it (and let's face it ... a 35-year-old movie about bitchy gay men battling each other and their own self-loathing is not generally on anyone's top-10 list) the film can be viewed as a look at gay men in the days when "gay" meant "glum" or a camp classic with devastatingly funny lines that can be recited with the same bitchy glee that a previous generation of gay men used to recite lines from George Cukor's "The Women." Gay men, at least those of us of a certain age, still use lines like "Oh Mary! It takes a fairy to make something beautiful" or "You're lips are turning blue. You look like you've been rimming a snowman" or the ever-popular "Who do you have to fuck to get a drink around here?" and even Harold's dark warning to the party's host, "You're a sad and pathetic man. You're a homosexual and you don't want to be, but there's nothing you can do to change it. Not all the prayers to your God, not all the analysis you can buy in all the years you've go left to live. You may one day be able to know a heterosexual life if you want it desperately enough. If you pursue it with the fervor with which you annihilate. But you'll always be homosexual as well. Always Michael. Always. Until the day you die."

As dated and politically incorrect as "The Boys in the Band" seems today, it still represents a breathrough for gay subjects on film. It marked the first time an American film tried to capture "the homosexual experience." It's not that movies didn't occasionally toss in a gay character, but before "The Boys in the Band," such characters were limited to campy asexual "pansies" played for laughs, pathetic victims, or darkly sinister outsiders like Peter Lorre's character in "The Maltese Falcon" who existed mainly to provide a contrast to Humphrey Bogart's he-man detective.

Despite whatever shortcomings we perceive in "The Boys in the Band" from a perspective of three-and-a-half decades later, it still stands up as a breakthough. That's a special status it will likely share with "Brokeback Mountain."

There's also something else both movies share: a tinge of homophobia when it comes to marketing the films to a mass audience.

Back in 1970 the real break-out star of "Boys in the Band" was Cliff Gorman who played Emory, the gayest of the gay who's character is described as "a butterfly in heat." Emory is the type of character to fit most snugly into the stereotype of the time. He lisps. He sashays across a room. At times other actors seem genuinely at risk of being inadvertently smacked by his flailing hands and wrists. Behold, the fairy!

While Emory was the character, the actor who portrayed him was certifiably straight. One interview with Gorman made his heterosexual credentials abundantly clear not only by mentioning his wife in several places, but mentioning his taste in beer (not like those wine spritzers and "fruity" drinks his character might order) and talking about his interest in sports (yep, 100-percent he-man!).

Gorman was safe to market to America because he made it clear that he was only playing a part. He reminded straight American that it's only a movie.

Meanwhile, the spotlight of publicity didn't shine on other characters with larger roles in the film. Maybe that's because they didn't share Gorman's taste for beer or sports. Or women. Frey and La Tourneaux both died of AIDS several years ago. Though nothing was said in the mainstream media about their sexual orientation (or that of some of the other cast members), you can still almost hear the creaking and clanking of the Hollywood marketing machine working overtime behind the scenes. Let's not focus on the other actors, it seemed to say. Some reporter might ask them a ... ummm ... delicate question. The public won't stand for a homosexual actor playing a homosexual character. It wouldn't be make-believe anymore!

Jump forward 35 years and its apparent how far we've come in depicting LGBT lives on film. Gay characters now can do more than engage in catty bitch-fights on screen. Now they can fall in love and (gasp!) have sex! But someone hasn't gotten the memo that actors have to establish their heterosexual credentials in order to play a gay part.

Case in point: Try to find an article or interview about "Brokeback Mountain" that doesn't point out that Australian-born heartthrob Heath Ledger didn't fall in love with Michelle Williams (the actress who plays his wife in the film) while shooting the movie. In its cover story on "Brokeback," Entertainment Weekly, a queer-friendly magazine that should know better, managed to work not only Ledger's romance with Williams, but the fact that she recently gave birth to their child into the very first paragraph.

How's that for establishing straight credibility?

Yep, no homos here. Just us straight guys playing queer. We are definitely ACTING.

I'm happy for Heath and his (as Entertainly Weekly terms her) "soul mate." What I'm not happy with is the need of Hollywood to assure audiences that an actor isn't gay just because he plays gay roles. There's more than a hint of homophobia in that. And it shows how far we really haven't come that far since "The Boys in the Band."

What's still debatable is where that attitude comes from. Is it the actors anxious to reassure their straight fans? Their agents, worried about the career implacations of their clients playing gay? The Hollywood publicity machine that embraces "break-through films," but gets squeamish about marketing them without reminding the straight men who get dragged to the local multiplex by wives or girlfriends that the man-on-man action depicted on screen is one more Hollywood special effect?

I'd hope the movie-going public (the heterosexual part of it, anyway) is adult enough by this time to recognize that a movie is just a movie. I don't recall Anthony Hopkins being asked if he had ever really murdered anyone while promoting "Silence of the Lambs." No one asked Glenn Close if she had ever stalked someone and boiled a bunny while she was making the rounds to promote "Fatal Attraction."

No doubt a sizeable percentage of straight people view being gay as more horrendous than stalking an ex-lover and threatening his family or serving a census taker's liver with fava beans and a nice chianti. For those movie-goers, the distance from "The Boys in the Band" and "Brokeback Mountain" isn't that far at all.