I recently attended a party hosted by my old chum the author Roger Clarke. I was lucky to meet many of his charming pals – including a particularly charming young film maker called Adrian Goycoolea who, it transpired, was Quentin Crisp’s nephew.
Yes, England’s ‘Stately Homo’ was his uncle. His great uncle, to be precise.
Now, that’s what you call a relation.
Crisp of course wanted us to think he was his own special creation, composed of two parts aphorism and three parts henna. He strived, however much he claimed to envy ‘real people’, to be singular. And succeeded, brilliantly.
But Denis Pratt (his real name) not only had actual parents, but also two brothers and one sister. Which is bordering on the downright common. Even worse, his brother Lewis seems to have been quite the dandy, also bestowed with a camp, deadpan wit – and he was heterosexual.
So you can see that young Denis had his work cut out.
Lewis emigrated to South America in the 1930s, where he married and had a family, but stayed in touch with Denis – sometimes writing him letters beginning ‘Dear Sir/Madam (cross out that which does not apply)’.
After his move to the US, Denis was a regular fixture at family events when Adrian was growing up – and attended his wedding. Adrian, who had lost his grandparents when he was very young, saw Denis as a kind of grandfather figure.
Some years ago Adrian made a delightful short documentary (below), Uncle Denis?, which somehow I managed to miss until now, exploring that relationship, using interviews and home movies which ‘expose’ this slightly shocking and rather touching private side of ‘Crisp’ – someone who, after the TV adaption of his memoir The Naked Civil Servant aired in 1975, seemed to live entirely in the lime-lite. A kind of reality TV winner avant la lettre.
Essentially, Uncle Denis? outs Quentin Crisp. As a real person.
Early on in the doc he advises a very precocious and very young Adrian:
“Everyone should at least consider changing his name – so as not to get stuck with a name that perhaps he doesn’t like, or represents something terrible, like his parents. He should have the opportunity to start all over again.”
Denis’ parents don’t seem to have been so very terrible, just very English mid-century middle-class. And his niece Frances seems to have been devoted to him, spending many Saturday afternoons in the early 1950s hanging out with him and his gang at the famous Bar B Q cafe on the Kings Road, where he would introduce her as his niece ‘from the real world’.
Frances recounts how she, like everyone in the family, called him Denis “never Quentin”, but this changed after he moved to NY. She wrote to ‘Denis Pratt’ and the letter was returned ‘not known at this address’. “So I thought I’d better start addressing him as Quentin Crisp!”
Perhaps that was part of the reason why he moved to the US. To finally leave Denis Pratt behind. Changing your name can only achieve so much – changing worlds, so much more.
But as you’ll see, he was still very happy to attend family events there, and was in many ways a rather old-fashioned, very proud ‘great uncle’.
The latest outing for the totally ripped Aussie God of Thunder and his big swinging hammer was was quite the campest film I can recall seeing. At least that is since Guardians Of The Galaxy (not the second one, which was just shit).
Basically Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok is a cinematic version of this norty lollipop: ‘With real fruit taste’.
Thor, love him and his guns to bits, is essentially a very dull, earnest, ponderous character – especially with that ‘Norwegian’ accent Hemsworth gives him which sounds like the Swedish chef from The Muppets trying to do Arnie.
And this despite the big hammer, lightning and the sporno bod – displayed in the nowadays obligatory topless, sexily-lit-from-below-scene.
Short of getting naked and oiled up for the whole movie — which would make the action scenes a little slippy — he desperately needs camp relief. Tom Hiddleston, playing his ‘Trickster’ brother Loki (with an RSC accent), has provided it in previous iterations, but perhaps because of the camp competition in the form of Guardians of the Galaxy, here he’s got serious backup in the form of Cate Blanchett & Jeff Goldblum (he dubs Thor ‘Sparkles’) – and the GG style art direction provide that in glittery, dayglo spades.
In fact, it’s difficult to decide who is the campest out of this bunch of campers – though perhaps Blanchett wins because of those horns and the fact that as she reminds us, repeatedly: ‘I’M THE GODDESS OF DEATH!’.
“Does my hat slay ya?”
But probably the campest scene in a supercamp movie is when Thor and his brother Loki visit Earth (image at top), apparently disguised as a bickering gay couple on their way to The Eagle to use separate back rooms.
There is also another twisted bromance – between Thor and Hulk. At one point they are basically living together in a jock penthouse (owned, like their asses, by the hyper-camp Goldblum character). They bond, but are rather competitive, in a bro-ish way.
“Size isn’t everything, dude. Sorry, I lied. It is.”
This competitiveness obviously has a sexual dimension. After solo soaking in the hot tub, Hulk moves to step out and the God of Thunder who is full-clothed, is apparently terrified at the prospect of seeing Hulk’s penis and protests ‘No! No!’ But to no avail. He then complains ‘that’s in my brain now’. Though it seems it was there all along.
Perhaps Sparkles – sorry, Thor – is especially preoccupied because a) Hulk’s tool is probably bigger than his hammer and b) His hammer has already been crushed to painful smithereens in the hand of a cackling Cate Blanchett/Goddess of Death.
Thor’s reaction to seeing Hulk’s monster meat is played for nervous laughs, and gets them, but perhaps depends on a very American disavowal. Of course, everyone wants to see Hulk’s mutant, green, CGI penis.
We don’t, alas. But I guess there’s always the next instalment.
‘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.
Zac Efron suddenly feeling very hot. (Accepting MTV award for ‘Best Shirtless Scene’, 2015)
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.
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