‘You should look at my face’, says Alexandra Daddario to Zac Efron after accusing him of staring at her breasts. ‘I’m trying,’ replies Efron, ‘but it’s so close to your boobs.’
So far so Babewatch. But the recently-released trailer for the upcoming Seth Gordon directed Baywatch movie knows times and tastes and focal points have changed. After this exchange about boobs, the very next scene shows Efron stripping off his shirt and flashing his tits and abs on a jetski. The boobs on display in the trailer are mostly male. And none of us are expected to be trying very hard not to look at them.
Baywatch has been updated. As slapstick comedy – which is what it always wanted to be. And moved to Muscle Beach. Or perhaps West Hollywood. It’s certainly looking way gayer.
The original hit 1990s TV series was hilariously naff. It starred the mesmerizingly un-sexy David Hasselhoff as ‘Mitch Buchannon’, a veteran lifeguard who acted as furry, heroic patriarch of the beach. Plus lots of babes. Most famously, Pamela Anderson – whose pneumatic breasts deserved their own credit and as the trailer jokes, always appeared in slow motion. This was the heterosexual division of perving on primetime TV back then.
In 2017 David Hasselhoff’s hairy, sucked-in dad bod has of course been upgraded to a massively muscular, inked, shaved Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson – whose beachball pectorals also deserve their own credit.
But such are the competitive, promiscuous times we live in that even all this isn’t enough. His boss is already bored with his ex pro wrestler and looking for a newer model. He’s found a young, ripped, spornoexual sidekick online, played by Zac Efron, and wants to bring him in to ‘restore the Baywatch brand’.
This movie may be silly, but it seems to know exactly what it’s doing.
Understandably, the shredded scamp seems to provoke jealousy and excitement in equal measure: ‘Why you grabbing me so tight?’ Efron complains to ‘Mitch’, who is riding pillion on a pink scooter.
Since his transformation from sweet twink to raging spornosexual, the former High School Musical star’s movie career has – like his shirt – taken off. His famous sexualisation has frequently become part of the characters that he plays.
So when Mitch’s boss enthuses about Efron’s character having won gold medals we know he means for taking his top off.
We don’t really do subtexts in the see-through, digital 21st Century. Sextexts, definitely. Subtweets, possibly. Subtexts, not so much. Who has the time? Who can even be bothered with having a subconscious? Subtexts are so analogue.
Perhaps this is why Toby Kebbell who plays Messala in the 2016 remake of Ben Hur with Jack Heston as Hur, announced recently that there is ‘no gay sub plot’ in the new version. Explaining that it’s ‘not necessary today’.
But back in 1959 when William Wyler’s Technicolor version of the chariot-racing, Jesus-praising epic was unleashed – scooping up a record 11 Oscars – repression and subtexts were all the rage. They made High Hollywood what it was. And Ben Hur, a story about two boyhood buddies who dramatically fall out as adults, has one of the most famous – and bitterly contested – subtexts in Hollywood history.
As Gore Vidal, an MGM screenwriter in the 1950s, put it in the 1991 documentary The Celluloid Closet getting around the mores of the time and the medium meant ‘you got very good at projecting subtexts without saying a word about what you were doing. The best example I lived through was writing Ben Hur.’
Vidal claimed that he had convinced an initially reluctant Wyler that the only way to justify several hours of widescreen, in living Technicolor hatred between Jewish prince Judah Ben Hur, played by Charlton Heston, and the Roman Messala, played by Stephen Boyd, was to have an unspoken homoerotic backstory. That this was, in effect, an epic lover’s tiff.
Vidal’s plan was to suggest in the scene at the beginning of the movie where these boyhood best buddies are reunited – without saying so in words – that they were once lovers, and that Messala very much wants to pick up where they had left off, but is jilted by Hur.
According to Vidal, Boyd was told of the subplot idea, and loved it, but Heston was spared the knowledge. Wyler advised: ‘Don’t say anything to Chuck because he will fall apart.’
A prescient warning. Heston, close friend of Ronald Reagan and now President of the National Rifle Association, reacted furiously to Vidal’s interview and denied everything, essentially calling him a liar and a braggart in a letter to the papers: ‘Vidal’s claim that he slipped in a scene implying a homosexual relationship between the two men insults Willy Wyler and, I have to say, irritates the hell out of me.’
Naughty Gore! ‘Slipping’ homosexuality into Heston’s biggest, butchest picture!
Vidal of course responded. This time, no Vaseline. Even more ‘irritatingly’, he quoted from a letter the publicity director for the film had sent him, ‘…the big cornpone [the crew’s nickname for Heston] really threw himself into your “first meeting” scene yesterday. You should have seen these boys embrace!’
Certainly, when you watch that scene now, Vidal’s account makes perfect sense. Boyd has a look of total love on greeting Heston – his eyes roving hungrily all over his beloved’s face and, almost imperceptibly, his body. While Heston looks slightly nonplussed.
Quipping in reply to Hur’s suggestion that the Emperor’s interest in Judea is not appreciated by Judea, Messala even speaks the line: ‘Is there anything so sad as unrequited love?’
Wyler however claimed not to remember the conversation Vidal reported, and that the scene he wrote was anyway rewritten by another screenwriter (though there is evidence that a significant amount of Vidal’s input survived into the final version of the movie script).
But whether or not Vidal was having some mischievous fun slipping in a homoerotic subtext at the time, or decades later, trying to detect it is now easily the most interesting part of an often rather tedious, pompous movie.
Which does make me worry about the subtext free remake.
It should be mentioned though that nowadays 1959’s highly homosocial Ben Hur looks like the story of Hur’s love affair with not one, but four men. Messala, the Roman consul Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins) whose slave and then adopted son he becomes, the Arab Sheik Ilderim (Hugh Griffiths) who befriends him in his tent and lets him ride his best stallions, and also, of course, Jesus of Nazareth.
In fact, Heston/Hur gives the young carpenter and fisher of men – whose face we never see – the kind of gooey looks that Messala/Boyd once gave him.
Subtexts were tricky. They had to be sub, not texts. A year after Ben Hur Stanley Kubrick’s sword and sandal epic Spartacus was released minus a bath scene in which the Roman general Crassus, played by a middle-aged Lawrence Olivier, attempts to seduce his ‘bodyservant’ slave Antoninus, played by Tony Curtis in his doe-eyed prime, through a heavily suggestive dialogue about ‘eating snails’ and ‘eating oysters’ – arguing that taste is not a matter of morality.
Preview audiences nevertheless expressed their moral distaste and the scene was cut (but was restored in the 1991 re-release). Lord knows what they would have made of the recent TV series of the same name that featured some very explicit snail eating.
Sword and sandal movies had a snail-eating reputation anyway: all that muscle, leather, slavery and pagan license. The 1950s underground gay mag Physique Pictorial often used Greco-Roman imagery.
Although male homoerotic subtext had served Hollywood well from the 50s to the 70s in classic movies such as Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid (1969), and Thunderbolt & Lightfoot (1974) – giving them both universal appeal and psychological depth – by the 1980s the increasing visibility of gay people and the growing influence of gay culture on the mainstream meant that homoerotic subtext was having more and more difficulty staying sub.
Tony Scott’s flyboy blockbuster Top Gun, released in 1986 – about halfway between us and 1959’s Ben Hur – starring Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer at their prettiest as rival Navy pilots slathered in hair gel and smugness, saw the gay subtext – intended or not – swallow the script.
The official, patriotic, heterosexual storyline is completely eclipsed by the steamy sexual tension between rivals Kilmer and Cruise, frequently acted out in changing room scenes that look like a Roman bath-house. Or maybe a Matt Sterling one.
Top Gun is an airborne, way gayer Ben Hur – but with a happier ending.
Although most of the people who went to see Top Gun in 1986 probably weren’t conscious of the gayness, by the beginning of the 21st Century we had all become far too knowing for gay subtexts to stay sub. In its place Hollywood was offering us out gay storylines, and self-conscious, chaste ‘bromance’ – where almost by definition anything physical would be a kind of incest.
Perhaps to ward off any attempt to read a gay subtext, the remake of Ben Hur has made Hur and Messala ‘adoptive brothers’, instead of boyhood pals. A literal, legal, ‘bromance’ – albeit one that goes very wrong indeed.
Saw Hue & Cry t’other night on the tellybox for the first time since I was a nipper.
This recently digitally restored kid-oriented Ealing Comedy presents as its climax a London-wide mobilisation of boys (and a few tom-boys) for a ‘big adventure’ – beating up baddies that the police had failed to nab, or even notice. I always loved that kind of film – in which kids show-up the groan-ups, and also give them a good hiding.
Officially the first Ealing comedy, it was directed by Charles Crichton (who went on to direct The Lavender Hill Mob) and shot in 1946, just as the Welfare State was being founded and the horrors of the past were being swept away by the post-war Labour administration of Clement Attlee – who had himself swept away Winston Churchill (the wartime leader who was not nearly so popular as official histories like to tell us).
Maybe it’s because I’m now the middle-aged enemy, but watching it today, Hue & Cry seems really rather disturbing to adult, contemporary health & safety sensibilities. All those kids in rags running around in bombed-out houses, wading through sewers and getting into fights with cops and robbers? Someone call social services!
The sainted Alistair Sim (and no, I didn’t write that book about him) makes an appearance as the enjoyably eccentric and laughably timid author of the ‘blood and thunder’ comic book stories that the barrow boy protagonist (played with enthusiasm but little skill by Harry Fowler) is obsessed with. Scarf-wearing Sim lives at the top of a German expressionist spiral staircase, his only companions a cat and the Home Service.
But it is bomb-damaged, bankrupted London that is the real star of this movie – shrouded in steam and smoke, with chimneys, spires and dock derricks the only things troubling the still-Victorian skyline. Digitally-restored and viewed on HD widescreen, the past seems almost unrecognisable – even the past in the form of vaguely remembering watching a scratchy print of it on 1970s TV.
Bomb-damaged London is populated, in its bomb-craters and burned-out shells, by its bomb-damaged cheeky-chappy lads and lasses. Intentionally or not, beneath all the jolly cockernee japery, Hue & Cry presents a kind of comic-book PTSD in which the apparently orphaned and traumatised children of the war can’t stop fighting a global conflict that is already over. Note the surprising sadism of some of the fight scenes, in amongst the slapstick (does that baddie really need his head banging on the ground that many times?).
After the clip above ends, the Cockney hero finishes off the mini-tached, side-parted, long-fringed evil-genius (played confusingly by the later Dixon of Dock Green) after a lengthy showdown in a bunker-esque bombed-out warehouse – by jumping onto his prone stomach from the floor above. With great relish. In an earlier scene the gang tie up a glamorous female villain and set about torturing her to extract the identity of her criminal boss (her terror of mice turns out to be the key to her interrogation).
The real version of this world is the one that twins Ronald and Reginald Kray, born in 1933, grew up in: the semi-feral East End gangsters famous for the violence, sadism and terror tactics they employed building and maintaining their underworld empire in the 60s – a parallel demimonde that was both part of and also an affront to the ‘white heat’, glamour and shiny modernity of ‘Swinging London’. The Krays were the sewer rats of social mobility.
Like the tearaway in Hue & Cry they also couldn’t stop fighting the war that they grew up with – but were only interested in their own war, no one else’s. When they were conscripted into National Service in the early 1950s they decided the British Army was their enemy. By employing all kinds of fiendishly childish and inventively savage tactics (Ronald being proper psychotic probably helped) they won, and the British Army, like the cops and the baddies in Hue & Cry, beat a hasty retreat from the onslaught, giving the twins dishonourable discharges.
They then employed much same tactics on rival London gangs, effectively eliminating the opposition. When this terrifying comic-book duo were finally sentenced in 1969 to thirty years maximum security chokey for murder, the judge dryly observed: ‘society has earned a rest from your activities’. Ronald died in prison in 1995, aged 61; Reggie in 2000, aged 66. But they had already been immortalised on the big screen in the rather good 1990 film The Krays, played by brothers Gary and Martin Kemp, working class London lads who achieved riches and fame by being pop stars in the hit band Spandau Ballet in the 1980s – rather than by switchblades and gangs.
Another working class pop star, Steven Patrick Morrissey, had a year earlier anatomised the highly homoerotic hero-worship of the Krays and the pernicious glamour of violence in his single ‘The Last of the Famous International Playboys’.
For all their crimes, ‘Ronnie and Reggie’ are almost as fondly-regarded in British culture as an Ealing comedy, and arguably most of the UK gangster movies made in the 1990s and Noughties that followed The Krays were cartoonish homages to the terrible twins. They were certainly comical, even when they didn’t intend to be.
Their story has now been revisited again in a recently-released UK film Legend, starring Tom Hardy playing both roles. I’ve seen it and will offer you my pearls about it shortly. Suffice to say that it’s not so much about Ronald and Reggie, or about class, or about London in the 1960s.
It’s all about Tom – and the 21st Century’s obsession with male sexuality.
Mark Simpson fondles the pecs and thighs of James Bond’s latest ‘outing’
When at their first meeting in Skyfall a rather forwards Raul Silva, played by a bleached-blond Javier Bardem, takes caddish advantage of James Bond’s/Daniel Craig’s indisposition – tied as he is to a chair – running his hands over 007’s craggy face, ripped chest and powerful thighs, and flirtatiously-threatingly suggesting “Well, first time for everything, Bond…” you could feel the audience in my local cinema freeze.
And when Bond delivered the now-famous laconic retort “What makes you think it’s my first time?” you could hear the audience’s sharp intake of breath over the THX sound system. Wot?! James Bond a bender!?!
Oh bloody hell!, I wanted to shout out, at Raul, the audience and the world in general. Has ANYONE been paying attention? Of COURSE it’s not Bond’s first time! In Casino Royale Bond tried a spot of CBT with Mr Big and his knotted rope, while tied to a RIM CHAIR!!
Craig’s Bond proved a sensation on screen, one which finally realised the tarty promise of Sean Connery’s beefily glamorous, disturbing sexuality in 1962’s Dr No – long since forgotten in the sexless knitwear catalogue model Bonds of the 70s-90s. By reconnecting Bond to the metrosexy revolution in masculine aesthetics, the male desire to be desired, that the original Bond movies anticipated but which had been left to other movies to exploit, Casino delivered us Bond as a 21st Century fully-fledged, self-objectifying sex-object. Bond as his own Bond girl. Hence Craig’s Ursula Andress in Speedos moment.
So when Silva has a good feel of Bond’s pecs and thighs in Skyfall he’s just doing what pretty much everyone, male and female, has wanted to do since Casino Royale.
If Casino Royale outed Bond’s omnisexual tartiness, Skyfall, which is at least as good a movie – effacing the mortifying memory of Quantum of Solace – outs the queerness of the Bond villain. Someone who was often implicitly coded queer (those cats, those cigarette holders, those hulking goons), partly as a way of making unmarried, shaken-not-stirred Bond seem straighter. After all those decades of coding, Bardem’s openly flirtatious swishy villainy seems exhilirating. It’s certainly a great pleasure to watch.
Though, like Bond, Silva isn’t actually gay. As a result of the speculation surrounding Bond’s ‘shocking’ admission of his bi-curious past in Skyfall Craig was asked in an interview recently whether he thinks there could ever be a ‘gay James Bond’. “No,” he replied, “because he’s not gay. And I don’t think Javier [Bardem’s] character is either – I think he’d fuck anything.”
Much like Bond, then.
What’s ‘gay’ about Skyfall isn’t the thigh-squeezing, or even Daniel Craig’s circuit party tits (which I’m happy to report are regularly on display again) it’s the glorious camp excess. “Was that meant for me?” Bond asks Silva during an underground pursuit, after he detonates a bomb behind our hero by remote control, blowing a hole in the roof of the vault. “No,” deadpans Silva. “But this is.” Right on cue a tube train falls through the hole, headed for Bond, while Silva disappears up a ladder.
Some film critics complained that this scene is ‘over the top’. This makes me wonder: a) What kind of movie franchise they think Bond is, and b) Whether they have any sense of humour at all.
The whole premise of Skyfall is of course pretty camp: that Silva, a former ‘favourite’ agent of M’s is going to so much trouble – hacking MI6, stealing, decrypting and publishing lists of secret Nato agents, blowing up the MI6 building, personally storming the Houses of Parliament dressed as a David Walliams character – just to get his own back on M (played by gay icon Judi Dench) for dropping him.
That’s some hissy fit.
Fortunately camp isn’t code here for ‘crap’. It’s a testament to Bardem’s skill as an actor and Sam Mendes direction that he’s vividly, entrancingly menacing. He steals every scene he’s in. Actually, his hair steals every scene he’s in. What’s more, you really feel, perhaps for the first time, that this Bond villain has a point. After all, what kind of fucked up family is MI6? Particularly since in the opening scene of the movie Bond is betrayed too – badly wounded and nearly killed after M orders another MI6 agent to take a dodgy shot at the baddie Bond is battling (atop a moving train, of course). ‘M’ is for ‘Mother’ – bad Mother.
Skyfall is very queer psychodrama – delving deep into the twisted family romance of MI6 and the orphan Bond’s quasi incestuous devotion to M. Silva may be on a deliciously queenie rampage, but we all know that it’s Dame Judi who is the real (Virgin) Queen. When Craig appeared in that embarrassing clip for the opening ceremony of the London Olympics this Summer it was quite clear to everyone that constitutional monarch Elizabeth Windsor was Judi’s mere understudy. M has the power of life and death, after all.
Silva’s first scene with Bond – ‘Do you like my island Mr Bond?’ – is gripping, and not just in a groping sort of way. But the scene where he meets M and denounces her crimes and invites her to gaze upon her handiwork trumps it as a piece of pure theatre. Again, it’s deliberately overwrought – but then, so is any family romance. Even the ruthless, steely M is clearly affected by this confrontation with her aborted boy toy.
Perhaps because there’s not enough Bardem in it, the shoot-em up final reel is a bit of an anti-climax after the emotional tube-train crash of the first couple of hours. Even in a Bond film as Freudian as this one it is too symbolic for its own good. More like a bad dream than a finale, Bond and M – and an ancient Albert Finney – are holed up in his family estate in the Scottish Highlands, which he hasn’t visited since his father died when he was a boy. His buried past, in other words.
The Gothic, mouldering pile is called ‘Skyfall’ – a name which is possibly intended to bring to mind God’s favourite, Lucifer, being cast out of heaven. Sure enough, Silva, the agent who was cast out of MI6 by M, arrives with his goons and start shooting the place up in the kind of pyrotechnic assault we’ve seen in a hundred other movies.
Though as with the rest of Skyfall, the final reel is beautifully lit. The attack begins at dusk (Lucifer is the ‘evening star’) and the light progressively turns bluer until it is as dark as death, the only light the hellish orange of Bond’s ancestral home aflame. Like the family romance itself, Skyfall is suffused with nostalgia. Nostalgia for the Bond franchise (it’s a half century since Dr No was released). Nostalgia for 1960s aesthetics. Nostalgia for Britain and Britishness. For the Mother Country. And mother-love.
Heavily pregnant with symbolism, Bond and his Secret Service mother drive to their Highland honeymoon from hell in his Goldfinger Aston Martin DB5 he’s kept in a London lock-up, presumably since the 1960s. On the way he displays what Freud would call his ‘ambivalence’ by jokingly threatening M with the ejector seat, fingering the red button on his gear stick. Of course, Bond never repudiates his mother-love and remains true to Judi.
However, it won’t be giving too much away to say that Skyfall does finally press that button on 007’s behalf.
This review was originally written for the adult site Nightcharm