by Mark Simpson
(Originally published in the Daily Telegraph May 12, 2016)
Thirty years ago today, the stars of Top Gun were taxiing the red carpet at the premiere in New York. The film, which features Tom Cruise’s ‘Maverick’ and Val Kilmer’s ‘Iceman’ wrestling in the air for Alpha male supremacy, was about to ‘go ballistic’ and smash multiple box office records. In doing so, the Tony Scott piloted blockbuster would make A-listers out of its two preening male stars, and become perhaps the definitive 80s film.
But it has also become a shared joke these days. The subject of Saturday Night Live skits and a host of YouTube parodies.
Though it really doesn’t need much parodying. Or editing. There’s a plot which sees Tom Cruise as ‘Maverick’ and Val Kilmer as ‘Iceman’ wrestling in the air for ‘top’ – with Kelly McGillis trying, vainly, to come between them.
Then there’s those lingering locker-room scenes, in which the sweaty jocks stand around wearing only towels and perfectly gelled hair, apparently waiting for the cheesy porno muzak to start.
And that ‘ambiguous’ dialogue: ‘Giving me a hard-on!’ whispers one flyboy to another, watching videos of dogfights. ‘Don’t tease me!’ replies his buddy. ‘I want butts! Give me butts!’ shouts an angry air traffic control officer. And the final reel consummation between Iceman and Maverick on the deck of an aircraft carrier in the Indian Ocean, cheered on by the entire crew, after all that playing hard to get: ‘You can be my wingman any time!’ ‘Bullshit, you can be mine!’
And of course, the immortal volleyball scene, in which oiled guys in jean-shorts and shades flex and strut and jump to the sounds of ‘Playing with the Boys’.
All this plus Tom Cruise at his prettiest and poutiest, in leathers and on a motorbike. When not in his underwear.
So it’s difficult to believe it now, but when Top Gun was released in 1986, the vast majority of the people who flocked to see it did not think it ‘gay’. At all. They would likely have dropped their popcorn at the suggestion – and the movie wouldn’t have taken $177M internationally, making it one of the most successful movies of the decade. Instead Top Gun was seen as the story of airborne, aspirational male heterosexual virility. Nice-looking, worked-out male heterosexual virility.
Even nearly a decade on in 1994 when I wrote about the outrageous homoerotics of Top Gun in my book Male Impersonators, plenty of people still weren’t prepared to have Top Gun’s heterosexuality impugned. Later the same year the director Quentin Tarantino made a controversial cameo appearance in the movie ‘Sleep With Me’, arguing that Top Gun was about a gay man struggling with his homosexuality.
The journalist Toby Young, a Tarantino fanboy, was moved to write an essay in the Sunday Times defending his favourite movie’s heterosexuality from Simpson and Tarantino’s filthy calumnies. As I recall, his ‘clinching’ argument was that Top Gun couldn’t be a gay movie because he’d watched it twenty times – and he’s straight.
And in a queer way, he was right. Top Gun isn’t of course a gay movie. But it’s flagrantly not a very straight one either. Whatever the intentions of its makers, it’s basically ‘bi’ on afterburners. And this seems to be widely accepted now.
So how did attitudes towards Top Gun change so much? How did it’s virile heterosexuality so spectacularly ‘crash and burn’?
Well, partly because everyone is so much more knowing these days, or at least keen to seen to be. And we have tell-tale YouTube to collect all those ‘incriminating’ clips. It’s why we talk about ‘bromance’ now – instead of ‘innocent’ buddy movies. And partly it’s because Top Gun has come to be seen as the quintessential 80s movie – and the 80s are now seen as culturally ‘gay’. Or camp.
For instance, despite his apparently entirely heterosexual personal life, Simon Cowell is seen as screamingly ‘gay’ – culturally. And his whole personal style, the hair, the white t-shirts, the leather jackets, the Ray Bans is Top Gun. (Even his business model is Top Gun – the karaoke, and the struggle to ‘be the best’.)
All that said, the erotic ambiguity of Top Gun – which is what really powers it – is in the spectacular collision between the mostly sublimated homoerotics of traditional Hollywood war and buddy movies with the glossy ‘gayness’ and emergent male vanity and individualism of 1980s advertising. It’s somehow both innocent and explicit all at once. A proto-metro war movie.
In 1985, the year before TG was released, a new UK TV ad campaign for tired jeans brand Levis featuring Nick Kamen stripping in a launderette had caused a sensation – sending Levis sales into the stratosphere. Like Top Gun, the ad was set in a mythical 1940s, but with a 1950s soundtrack. Although we’re all familiar with it now, jaded even, back then the male body was just beginning to be sold to the mainstream – very often taking its cues from gay porn, because that was really the only reference point for the sexualized male body.
The late Tony Scott, like his older brother Ridley, had learned his craft in the UK ad business – and their father was a career soldier. Hence the glamorous, fetishizing presentation of the young men in the movie, alongside the more traditional homoerotic-homosocial banter that we now find so hilarious. Those infamous locker-room scenes were the Launderette ad all over again – only gayer.
What TG succeeded in doing was making the then new, consumerist, non-traditional male vanity of the 1980s look traditional and patriotic – and the military an attractive, sexy proposition for a new generation of young men with different expectations to their fathers’. Hence the loan to the film-makers by the USN of the USS Enterprise. (Reportedly USN recruiting went through the roof after the film’s release.)
After all, some years earlier the USN had loaned The Village People a destroyer to record the promo of their single ‘In The Navy’. Back then, most people who bought their records didn’t think The Village People were gay either. They just thought them fun archetypes of hetero American machismo.