The Last Gay Picture Show

From tor­tured law­yers, drag queens and cow­boys to Mickey Rourke — on the Fiftieth anniversary of Victim the film that star­ted it all, a con­cise his­tory of the birth, boom, and bust of the big gay movie by Mark Simpson (Out magazine).

A tor­tured, be-quiffed Dirk Bogarde, backed into a corner by his wife’s ques­tion­ing, shouts: “I STOPPED SEEING HIM BECAUSE I WANTED HIM! DO YOU UNDERSTAND??”

The up-and-coming bar­ris­ter played by Bogarde in the 1961 clas­sic Victim is com­ing out. In case the audi­ence hasn’t under­stood, his wife, played by a young, pretty and very English Sylvia Syms rams the point home to the audi­ence, scream­ing: “YOU WERE ATTRACTED TO THAT BOY LIKE A MAN IS TO A GIRL!” Strong stuff, for its time.

This was no ordin­ary com­ing out. This was, in fact, the debut of the Big Gay Movie: a form that was to flour­ish for the next half-century but seems to have peaked with the com­mer­cial and crit­ical suc­cess of Brokeback Mountain and Milk in the nought­ies. Fifty years after Bogarde (who was impec­cably dis­creet about his own sexu­al­ity) became the first man to out him­self on the big screen, the gay-themed main­stream movie feels dis­tinctly past its prime.

The first English-language movie to use the word “homo­sexual,” Victim caused a scan­dal in the United Kingdom and was banned in the United States. A plea for sym­pathy and tol­er­ance and also pity for the vic­tims of “nature’s cruel trick,” it was inten­ded to change atti­tudes and the law: Any sexual con­tact between males was illegal in the U.K. at the time. Six years later, in 1967, homo­sexu­al­ity was decrim­in­al­ized — and Victim was cred­ited with help­ing bring that about.

It also became the gay movie tem­plate for dec­ades to come. That tem­plate typ­ic­ally con­sists of four melo­dra­matic parts: the closet, com­ing out, homo­pho­bia, and… uplift! And like Victim, gay movies also ten­ded to dis­play a slightly con­des­cend­ing yen to edu­cate the ignor­ant masses out of their pre­ju­dices, while sim­ul­tan­eously cater­ing to their curi­os­ity and voyeur­ism about this curi­ous new spe­cies, The Homosexual.

By the end of the ’60s, America had begun to get over its shock at hear­ing the word “homo­sexual” and along came The Boys in the Band, the U.S.’s first Big Gay Movie, one that invoked the h-word repeatedly — as a con­di­tion one had to reluct­antly accept. “You will always be homo­sexual…. Always, Michael. Always. Until the day you die.” Like VictimThe Boys in the Band eli­cited sym­pathy and pity for homos, not least for the impress­ive amount of self-loathing they dis­play. As one of the ““boys” says toward the end of a night­mare party that isn’t very gay at all: “If only we could stop hat­ing ourselves so much.”

But the movie was already ser­i­ously dated by the time it made it to the screen — the Stonewall riots had exploded the year before, and the homos were no longer cry­ing into their mar­tinis. Instead, they were throw­ing Molotov cock­tails and shout­ing about “gay pride.” Gay act­iv­ists had over­turned the notion of the gay passivist.

By con­trast, five years later The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) was entirely of the moment – and time­less. Still strut­ting it’s fish­net­ted stuff to this day, the longest-running the­at­rical release in movie his­tory is the least dated, most rel­ev­ant gay movie ever made — per­haps because it’s not really gay at all. There is no plea for sym­pathy or tol­er­ance, no con­des­cen­sion, no moral uplift. Not even gay polit­ics or pride. It’s just a really fuck­ing great party to which every­one is invited. Even Brad and Janet. It’s pan­sexual sci­ence fic­tion that pre­dicts a post­sexual future in which queer­ness would no longer be an issue — because every­one was going to be a little bit Frankenfurter.

Cruising, released in 1980 and pick­eted by angry gay act­iv­ists at the time for its “homo­pho­bia,” also proved proph­etic, but night­mar­ishly so. Al Pacino plays a straight New York cop assigned to invest­ig­ate a series of murders of gay men by join­ing the city’s gay leather S&M scene — but finds him­self, like the 1970s itself, strangely drawn to the gay world. But the gay serial killer stalk­ing the streets of New York City turned out, of course, to be HIV. The “gay plague” of the 1980s and the right-wing mor­al­istic back­lash on both sides of the Atlantic stopped the sexual revolu­tion in its tracks and firmly quar­ant­ined gay from straight.

In this cli­mate of fear and hatred, Maurice (1987), ostens­ibly an adapt­a­tion of the E. M. Forster novel of the same name, seemed almost like a rerun of Victim—but this time with some actual sex thrown in. James Wilby, strug­gling fetch­ingly with Edwardian repres­sion, is told sol­emnly by a sym­path­etic con­fid­ante: “England has always been dis­in­clined to accept human nature.”

Tom Hanks’s dying, closeted gay law­yer in 1993’s Philadelphia, released just before com­bin­a­tion ther­apy gal­loped to the res­cue, is a grim gay melo­drama that won him an Oscar. But it wasn’t long before feel-good and fab­ulous films swished into view: The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994), Beautiful Thing (1996), and The Birdcage (1996), the highest-grossing LGBT-related film ever released in North America. They were cel­eb­rat­ory, destig­mat­iz­ing films about com­ing out and tak­ing on homo­pho­bia — but in order to keep the now-familiar gay movie themes sound­ing fresh, they had to be set prefer­ably in a pub­lic hous­ing pro­ject or in the Australian out­back. In drag.

By the nought­ies, gay movies had to resort to time travel to sus­tain the pathos. Brokeback Mountain (2005), Milk(2008), and A Single Man (2009) were all gay cos­tume dra­mas, set in an age when homo­pho­bia was a life-and-death issue — and the gay movie wasn’t an exhausted form.

Fittingly, the end of the last dec­ade also saw the release of I Love You Phillip Morris, with Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor as unlikely jail­bird lov­ers. It’s breez­ily cas­ual about homo­sexu­al­ity — we see Carrey nois­ily bug­ger­ing a man in the first few minutes of the film — and it refuses to offer the usual uplift or mor­al­iz­ing. The AIDS death scene at the end of the movie, in which the con man played by Carrey cheats death, is an aston­ish­ing rebut­tal to the mawk­ish­ness of Philadelphia. Our gay anti­hero lives, but in a sense the gay movie dies.

And not a moment too soon. One of last year’s most acclaimed movies, The Kids Are All Right, only handles homo­sexu­al­ity obliquely, as though the topic has become passé. It’s a con­ven­tional Hollywood break-up-to-make-up romantic com­edy with some less con­ven­tional comic details — such as sperm donors and les­bian cun­ni­lin­gus to gay porn. A same-sex couple faith­fully repro­duces the het­ero­sexual mono­gam­ous nuc­lear fam­ily and its neur­oses. Or as The Christian Science Monitor put it, the “fam­ily com­plic­a­tions in The Kids Are All Right are almost reas­sur­ingly recog­niz­able.” Sexuality isn’t the issue of the movie (which could have been called The Kids Are All Straight). Normality is. Gays as a spe­cies just aren’t ter­ribly inter­est­ing anymore.

But per­haps the greatest proof of the genre’s demise may prove to be Mickey Rourke’s strenu­ous attempt to revive it. The 58-year-old plastic sur­gery devotee is cur­rently mak­ing and star­ring in a biopic about 36-year-old gay British rugby star Gareth Thomas. Rourke read Thomas’s story of com­ing out in Sports Illustrated. “To be a man who plays rugby who is gay and to live with that secret for the amount of years that Gareth had… it takes a lot of cour­age,” he said recently. Rourke is clearly drawn to Thomas’s tale because it rep­res­ents the final fron­tier of the Hollywood coming-out story: a gay guy in the gritty man’s man world of pro rugby. You can see the pitch: another Brokeback Mountain, but with com­munal baths, even more sheep, and a hap­pier ending.

True, Thomas’s bio­graphy does offer plenty of con­ven­tional gay movie plot lines: While closeted, he prayed to be straight; upon com­ing out he dealt with an inev­it­able divorce from his wife. But Thomas him­self is clear that he doesn’t want the film to be about his sexu­al­ity: “I don’t want to be known as a gay rugby player,” he said. “I am a rugby player first and fore­most.” Adding, some­what unne­ces­sar­ily, “I am a man.”

In other words, he doesn’t want it to be a gay movie. And who can blame him? After all, it’s one thing to be played by a 58-year-old Hollywood actor when you’re still in your 30s. But it’s quite another to be trapped inside a 50-year-old and now defunct movie form.


33 thoughts on “The Last Gay Picture Show”

  1. P.s. and i would prob­ably see a bet­ter ver­sion of that scene @ act­ive anyway

  2. I’ll take your advice on that one Mark S. If i’m pre­pared to watch Jarheads then i prob­ably should watch Brokeback, but i don’t want to do either.

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