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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

A tortured, bequiffed Dirk Bogarde, backed into a corner by his wife’s questioning, shouts:


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:


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 anti hero 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.

(Originally appeared in Out magazine)

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33 thoughts on “The Last Gay Picture Show”

  1. 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.

  2. Paul Q: Thanks for the Fassbinder info , i will have to look for some of those films.
    Maybe Will Smith was scared he’ll like it, but it is a bit strange to agree to play a gay role and not agree to kiss. The short bedroom scene with the rent boy was filmed at weird angles as well and i reckon Will wasn’t even in the bed. QRG is probably right though.
    Mark S: Yeah i still want Brad Davis lookalikes.

    There is a good Australian gay film called Head On. It’s not a Big gay film, but its certainly not shy about what gay is.

  3. You probably know that in the short story of Brokeback Mountain, the men are gay and the wives are mentioned but aren’t really characters. For the movie, the men had to be “bisexual” because the people making the movie figured out that women were going to be most of the audience. The way the wives are portrayed is all the fault of the script, director, etc, and not part of the original story.

    As a woman who enjoys seeing men fucking (rather than kissing or sucking cock), I didn’t get as much out of this movie as I had hoped, but didn’t care that the kissing wasn’t realistic. But the big turn-off, as Mark S. says, is that the actors didn’t seem to be into it.

    Also interesting to realize that there are people who didn’t get the Brokeback/Bareback connection, but probably my mind is warped.

    The scene I most enjoyed in a regular (not officially porn) movie was in Wilde, where Jude Law as Bosie energetically fucks a rent boy in a fancy hotel room while Wilde, played by Stephen Fry, sits in a chair watching and smoking a cigarette.

    As to religion: I went to the Episcopal Church in New York City when I was a child and I always thought that the minister (“priest” is too High Church) was supposed to be a gay or bisexual alcoholic or it wasn’t really Epicopalian.

    Oh, and Mark S.: Thank you for the mention of Jarhead and the Marine gay gang-bang in broad daylight. It’s going to the top of my Netflix queue.

  4. Graham, you know that wanker Will Smith refused to allow himself to be kissed by a man in “Six Degrees”. A film about a gay hustler and he refuses to kiss a man? He may be a star but he’s no actor.

  5. Brad Davis reminded me of yet another accidental Big Gay Movie, that overwrought piece of homoerotic jockstrap gospel “Chariots of Fire”. Two of the leads, Davis and Ian Chaleson, died of AIDS.

    I believe on or about that time ITVs “Brideshead, Revisited” was released. Big Gay movie?

  6. It’s important to keep in mind that Catholicism has national flavors. I was raised Roman Catholic, but my background is German, Czech, and Irish. The Puritanical Irish strain continues to dominate the Church in America, as I suspect it does in Britain.

    One Christmas or Easter I remember we had to leave early in order to get seats in Mass. My parents spoke with disdain of “C & E Catholics”. From the back seat, my grandmother chimed in “you mean (Italians)!”l though I don’t believe she called them Italians.

    If I were Italian, I’d probably still be Catholic. After the double-whammy of JPII and Reichsfurher Ratzinger, even my mother says ‘they should make a rule that the Pope has to be Italian. They know what they’re doing and they don’t rock the boat!”

    A I’ve gotten a bit off-topic, but what is High Mass, with the bishop and priests all adorned in their pretty silk vestments and frilly lace, but a big gay movie?

  7. Does Six Degrees of Separation count, and what about Querelle? — Graham Perrett

    Graham, the thing about Fassbinder that made him so great was that he never really made a ‘big’ movie. He cranked out something like 30 movies in the space of twelve years, all of which are engaging with the notable exception of the atrocious “Querelle”. Even at fifteen and one half hours, “Alexanderplatz, Berlin”, first shown in installments on German TV, is an intimate portrayal of a one lumpen future Brown-Shirt’s downtrodden life, Weimar Germany in camera, as opposed to a ‘big movie’. “Alexanderplatz” is the movie which “Cabaret”, a big gay movie, strove to be but didn’t quite get.

    While arguably all of Fassbinder’s movies display a ‘gay’ sensibility, albeit one informed by a very un-gay Brechtian critique of capitalism, Fassbinder’s great overtly ‘gay’ movies, “Beware of a Holy Whore”, “The Fox and His Friends”, “The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant” (my absolute fave!), and “In a Year of Thirteen Moons”, are not great big movies. I think all the action of “Petra von Kant” takes place in one room. And there are no men!

    Mark (I hope you don’t mind me disclosing this) has said that “The King’s Speech” succeeds because it is essentially a play that comes across better as a film. Fassbinder did something quite similar: he essentially filmed great, experimental repertoire theater with a company of gifted stage-trained actors who could switch personae as rolls required as easily as costumes. Bergman did something similar in the late fifties and sixties, only Fassbinder’s palette was infinitely more varied: without God all things really are possible.

    There’s a Hollywood term “acting against type” to describe when a sempiternal goodie like Jane Fonda’s dad decides to play a baddie, as he did in “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly”. That term means nothing to truly great actors like Hanna Schygulla, Kurt Raab, Volker Spengler, and above all else the miraculous Brigitte Mira. What ‘type’?

    Ironically “Querelle” may be Fassbinder’s one big-budget “directing against type” big gay movie blunder. At 36, having lived the past 15 years on alcohol and amphetamine, he was at the point of complete burn-out. Instead of sticking to his old reliables, he imported a pretty Yank with established cinematic credentials as a sodomite to play the lead (Brad Davis of “Midnight Express” fame, later to die of HIV which he claimed he contracted from an infected transfusion). It has its moments — the giant phallic mooring on the dock I suspect is a reference to the landscape of oil derricks in hero Douglas’ Sirk’s “Written on the Wind” – but the overall affect of, say, Jeanne Morreau singing “Each Man Kills the Thing He Loves” is, as Mark said below, “the wrong kind of camp.”

    Douglas Sirk, meister of highly manipulative ‘women’s movies’ in the 1950s (again with a strong Brechtian anti-capitalist sub-text) deserves his own chapter. “Oh Midge while the boys are out golfing lets go see the new movie with that dreamy Rock Hudson and have ourselves a good cry! You don’t think what they say about him is true?” “No Carol, he just hasn’t met me!”

  8. Graham: I saw Querelle in a sleazy rep cinema in Oxford when I was 18. I think it arrested my development the way Cruising did yours. Except that it did it by fixating me on sailors and Brad Davies lookalikes.

  9. P.s. The reason i love Querelle though, is Brad Davis, he’s so hot in that sexy sailor suit.

  10. PaulQ: There’s plenty of historical evidence that the Holy See loves the sin too! Catholicism of course runs on guilt – but you can’t have guilt without sin. And arguably you can’t have really hot sex without either. [Insert John Waters quote here] In the end, judgement and salvation aren’t really your business – it is a matter for the priest and the church. Your job is merely faithful observance and supplication. That’s why I’ve often thought of Italy as both the most and the least Catholic country in the world. They are highly observant in public, but do pretty much exactly what they like in private.

    Protestantism, as you suggest, seems to require that you actually introject Moses (and St Paul) and set them up as your own super-ego. Which isn’t very sexy at all.

  11. Maybe i should see Brokeback, so i can share in everyones outrage. It certainly upsets people. Though i don’t think i could stomach watching Jake G kissing our Heath(thats assuming they do).
    Yes Dog Day and Midnight Cowboy are two of my favourites from that era, but Cruising, though very enlightening at the time, arrested my development some what i think. One of the scariest films i’ve seen.
    It was such a pleasant surprise in Dog Day when Sonnys wife showed up and was a pre op transexual.
    My all time favourites though are Querelle and Lust in the Dust (I think it was Divines first film), more Queer than Gay though.

  12. I’m proud to say I have never seen Brokeback Mountain, but from what i can tell its about the “unbearable weight of Being Bi'” rather than gay.

  13. I like your idea about coming out being a distinctly Protestant phenomenon. It accounts for, among other things, the considerable closet in Rome. If nothing else, the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s bare witness to the fact that as much as the Holy See may hate the sin, it certainly loves the sinner. Adores him, in fact.

    If the Protestant Reformation represented Christianity’s re-embracing of Angry Yahweh and his litany of “don’t do that!” rules, the semi-autobiographical “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” takes the suffering angle a step further by making its protagonist Jewish, like Schlesinger, i.e. irredeemable, excluded even from Luther’s Grace.

  14. Grave gay movies, i.e. “you know what you gotta do now, cowboy!” And no, the cowboy in question isn’t Jake Gillywhatever. Gay John Schlesinger directed dark ‘gay’ movies just as the Stonewall riots threw open the closet. “Midnight Cowboy” was followed by “Sunday, Bloody Sunday”, wherein Glenda Jackson and Peter Finch share the pleasures of some artist, sans the humour of “Mr. Sloane”.

    Nearly two decades later Schlesinger directed two Alan Bennett teleplays about the gay Cambridge Apostles (a.k.a. “Upper Sodomy”) turned Soviet spies.

    “An Englishman Abroad” was based on a real-life encounter between Guy Burgess (Alan Bates) and Coral Browne (herself) while she was touring the USSR with the Nat in the late ’50s. She delivers to Burgess a dressing-down which I consider to be the most eloquent statement ever on treason: “you pissed in our soup and laughed as we drank it!” Nonetheless she agrees to visit his tailor in London and obtain for him the proper suit and comfortable shoes unavailable to him in the Workers’ Paradise — perhaps only to remind him of what he sold-out.

    “A Question of Attribution” is about the events surrounding the ‘outing’ of Sir Anthony Blunt (James Fox) in the late ’70s. There is a chilling exchange between Blunt and HRM (Prunella Scales, every bit as convincing as Helen Mirren). To the viewer, it’s apparent that she’s been briefed, and she makes him squirm. The corgies precede her entrance like attack dogs.

    Schlesinger ended his career with “Cold Comfort Farm”, which can be added to the list of those films that are far, far gayer than overtly gay films.

  15. Yes, Paul, it’s the unbearable weight of Being Gay that sinks most gay movies – or tips them over into the wrong kind of camp.

    And yes, Barbarella is tres gay. I would put the Australian campy classics ‘Muriel’s Wedding’ and ‘Strictly Ballroom’ (Baz Luhrman’s best film by far) in that category too. They’re actually ‘gayer’ in the best sense than any Big Gay Movie could ever be.

    There may be something essentially Protestant about the Big Gay Movie and it’s story of suffering and ‘coming out’ – bearing public testament. Which is possibly why they tend to be a bit dull.

  16. Although Roger Vadim was voraciously heterosexual, “Barbarella” is toujours gai! “An angel doesn’t make love. An angel is love!” How gay is that?

    The great problem with ‘gay’ movies is that they are either impossibly campy, or overwrought with the gravitas of being ‘gay’, like the unwatchable “Philadelphia”. John Barrie and George Cuckor’s (both gay) “The Philadelphia Story” (1940) is infinitely more gay in both senses of the word. Of course that back when gays had a sense of humor.

  17. Yes, it’s true I did overlook Advise & Consent, which I love, and which does have the first gay bar scene (I think) in a Hollywood movie. And what a scene it is! I think it ends with the Fag From the Past spurned and thrown onto the pavement. But it isn’t a ‘big gay movie’ because it isn’t about Being Gay. I also love ‘The Best Man’, of course, even with that deja vu moment about the gay past plot device. But you’re right, I should have mentioned them anyway as they’re rather better films than much of what followed.

  18. Mark, you overlooked Otto Preminger’s “Advise and Consent” (1962) which had the gay bar scene in the movies. A Mormon senator from Utah’s naughty gay past is revealed. Contrary to what he’d like us to believe, the gay Mormon cinematic meme did not originate with Dustin Lance Black.

    You also left out Gore Vidal’s “The Best Man” (1964) where similar allegations are made about Cliff Robertson’s demagogue character, only Hank Fonda is too much of a gentleman to get down in the mud. Three years later his daughter would star in Barbarella.

  19. Frankly the only gay films I’m interested in these days have cum shots- the Big Gay Movie is just a pile of emotional pornography, and I’d much rather watch sexual porn, thank you very much!

  20. I always liked “My Beautiful Laundrette” as a gay movie because it was about a ton of other things too. But yeah, the thought of going to a “gay movie” these days causes me to yawn (and avoid watching “Brokeback Mountain”). I think far more interesting “gay television” is being made because characters’ sexuality is incidental, not ‘the whole story’ (i.e. “Shameless”)

  21. Whew! I thought every one would just pile on and make fun of me.

    What they don’t “get” is that brokeback is a hilarious word play like every hardcore gay porno (20 inches to heaven; two bums on the beach; buttpressers, inc.; kiss my black ass…etc)
    and that parents are telling their children they just went to see “broken butt mountain” and cried their eyes out at all its humanity.
    And the oscar for best director… broken anal hymen mountain.

    Get it?

  22. It’s not that brokeback isn’t fun, just that NOBODY seems to get it or to remember if they do.
    That’s why an aging boomer can sappily say how heartwarming and respectable “brokeback” is, without ever giggling.

  23. Clapham Junction is a very busy rail and metro interchange in South London. I’m sure it was once a great stealth pick-up joint, but the glory holes have long since been filled in and the WCs turned into Cafe Nero coffee concessions.

  24. Hey, you wanna stop by clapham junction?
    Just out back.

    The best stealth gay pickup in a straight bar.

  25. It’s really too bad it wasn’t called Bareback Mt., as most americans wouldn’t have understood and the hipsters would’ve been squealing with glee until nobody would NOT have known.

    Much in the campy vein of titles like “clapham”.

    That has got to be a london joke in fussy london schools: “william and beckham dancing the clapham at clap.ham. junk.shin.”

  26. I thought it best to draw a veil of Clapham Junction, which was anyway made for TV. But it was as you suggest a horrifying example of how played out this genre is – desperately trying to inject ‘drama’ with rampant queer-bashing (so much queer-bashing that the queer basher gets bashed), and a bit of an edge with underage sex. Although nominally ‘contemporary’, it was actually another gay film set in the past – the 1980s. That’s why no one goes online and everyone goes cottaging.

  27. Interesting article, and lest we forget the ominous, and frankly derogatory Clapham Junction!

    PS wasn’t it James Wilby in Maurice, and not Peter?

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