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The Dazzling Bi-Brilliance of Tom Hardy

By Mark Simpson

“Inee lahvelee?”

So says pretty much everyone in Legend about Tom Hardy’s looks. And the latest re-telling of the story of Ronald and Reginald Kray, the sharp-suited, impeccably-groomed, glamorous gangster twins who ruled 1960s London’s underworld, is a mostly enjoyable movie which often gladdens the eye (even if it makes you wince a bit during the violent scenes).

How could it not? After all, it stars not one, but two Tom Hardys – he plays, as everyone must know now since it’s the whole conceit of the movie, both twins.

Despite this, it does manage to get a little boring sometimes. Legend makes the mistake of thinking that we’re more interested in ‘Reggie’ than ‘Ronnie’ – because he wasn’t the mad, ‘gay’ one.

So it has a from-beyond-the-grave voice-over ostensibly provided by Reggie’s first wife, Frances Shea (Emily Browning) who committed suicide in 1967, two years after their marriage. The narrative focus of the film is essentially on what it portrays as her doomed attempt to ‘save’ Reggie, domesticate him and make him ‘normal’ – and how this eventually kills her. But no one, apart from Frances, wants him to be normal (and maybe she didn’t either: her family disputes the film’s victimy portrayal of her). Certainly the audience doesn’t, they just want him to get busy with a ball-hammer.

What everyone – or was it just me? – wanted from Legend was a gayer version of Hardy’s best performance as Britain’s longest-serving solitary-confinement muscular psychopath in Bronson (2008) – which come to think of it was pretty gay anyway. And you do get some of that when ‘Ron’ is on camera: Hardy’s ‘fat poof’ is often frighteningly funny.

But I put the names ‘Reggie’ and ‘Ronnie’ in quotes because at a visual level Legend isn’t about the gangster twins, or London in the 1960s. It’s about Tom and his very ‘hot’, very 21st Century, very narcissistic on-screen sexuality – split into two halves, mad, ugly, gay ‘Reggie’ – and straight, pretty, sympathetic ‘Ronnie’, which fight it out for dominance in this psycho costume drama.

That’s why everyone talks about how ‘lahvelee’ ‘Reggie’ is. Reggie Kray certainly wasn’t bad looking for a gangster, and he scrubbed up very nicely, but he was definitely no Tom Hardy (and Hardy, son of South West London bohemians, is definitely no Cockney). It’s also why we marvel at how ugly Tom manages to make himself as ‘Ronnie’ – so that when ‘Ronnie’ says that ‘Reggie’ got all the looks we actually find ourselves agreeing instead of laughing at the in-gag.

Any film about the Krays would struggle to remain focused on the Krays with Hardy in it. He’s proper Hollywood. But with two Hardys it stands no chance – the twins, their story and the mythology end up spit-roasted by Hardy’s double-ended charisma and great performances (even though his ‘Ron’ did look a bit like a David Walliams character sometimes).

So it shouldn’t perhaps be surprising that the questions get a bit personal. Hardy, 37, who is married (to a woman), famously ‘shut down’ a gay reporter at a press conference for Legend recently when he contrasted his character Ronnie’s openness about his sexuality with what he called Hardy’s ‘ambiguous sexuality’ as suggested in previous interviews.

‘What on earth are you on about?’ retorted Hardy, clearly annoyed, eventually clarifying the question himself: ‘Are you asking me about my sexuality?’ ‘Sure’ replied the reporter. ‘Why?’ asked Hardy. When no reply came, Hardy dismissed him with a curt ‘Thank you’.

The interview the reporter had in mind was a candid one Hardy gave a gay magazine in 2008 (to publicise RocknRolla, in which he played a gay gangster) where he acknowledged he had experimented sexually with men when he was younger: “’As a boy? Of course I have. I’m an actor for f***’s sake. I’m an artist. I’ve played with everything and everyone,” he said. “But I’m not into men sexually. I love the form and the physicality but the gay sex bit does nothing for me.”

After a backlash from some of the gay commentariat to Hardy’s rather more clenched response to the 2015 press conference probings, Hardy stated:

“I’m under no obligation to share anything to do with my family, my children, my sexuality – that’s nobody’s business but my own. And I don’t see how that can have anything to do with what I do as an actor, and it’s my own business.”

Despite the apparent use of his family and children as sexuality shields in that sentence, the gist of it is true. I also have some sympathy for Tom’s pique at being asked about his ‘sexuality’ (which always means non-heterosexuality) at a crowded press conference, being a married Hollywood heartthrob these days. Moreover, the seven-year-old interview quotes from the earlier part of his career don’t actually demonstrate that his own sexuality is ‘ambiguous’ or that he is now hiding anything – at most he stated that he was bi-curious when younger but is no longer.

That said, Legend is a film which makes his on-screen sexuality into a business. Show business. The drama of the movie is Hardy’s bi/two-sexual cinematic personae. Legend is a bit like Top Gun, but with ‘Tom’ playing both Ice Man (Val Kilmer) and Maverick – where Ice Man wins (and Kelly McGillis kills herself).

‘Reggie’, Hardy’s straight half, aspires, somewhat, to normality; ‘Ronnie’, Hardy’s gay half, revels in deviancy and keeps dragging ‘Reggie’ back to the bent and crooked – and making sure they never part. That’s why Ron is portrayed as openly – and unambiguously – homosexual (“I’m a ‘omosexual”, “I prefer boys”) not interested in women, when in fact he described himself as bisexual (and married a woman while in prison). Reg is portrayed as straight, when he seems to have also been bisexual, but not so openly as Ron.

Yes, sexuality is a confusing business. No wonder the movie simplifies things – just like the popular press.

Reginald reportedly ‘came out’ in a letter published shortly after his death. Here’s how it was covered in a UK tabloid the Sunday People in 2000, headlined: ‘REGGIE KRAY CONFESSES FROM GRAVE: I AM GAY’:

GANGSTER Reggie Kray has made an amazing confession from beyond the grave – his hardman image concealed that he was GAY.

Reggie poured out his darkest secret in a letter written as he faced blackmail over his homosexuality.

He handed me the astonishing two-page admission in a prison visiting room and asked for it to be published after his death.

So there you have it. Reggie was a self-confessed (dead) GAY homosexual. Except he wasn’t. The very next sentence in the same report reads:

The once-feared East End crime boss wrote: “I wish for the public to know that I am bisexual.”

‘Gay’ and ‘homosexual’ are often mixed up with ‘bisexual’ in the accounts of the twins’ lives, because culturally we tend to mix up ‘gay’ and ‘bi’ when talking about men. Although attitudes are changing, we often still too often think of male bisexuality as ‘gay’ or ‘homosexual’ or ‘queer’ (because it’s ‘emasculating’ – e.g. ‘once-feared’). Whereas female bisexuality tends to be thought of as heterosexual (because it’s ‘hot’, or because female sexuality is ‘complicated’). And as Hardy himself has discovered, admitting to a bi-curious youth can mean that you are assumed to be at least bisexual or ‘ambiguous’ in the bedroom as an adult.

I don’t claim to know anything about Hardy’s ‘real’ sexuality – I’m totally out of the celebrity sex gossip loop, which frankly, is usually mythology and fantasy anyway, even and especially when provided by other celebs. Likewise, ‘gaydar’ is a very faulty instrument indeed, prone to squealing feedback and hair-raising short-circuits. (And unlike it seems almost everyone else on the planet, I have no information and no opinion on the other Hollywood Tom’s ‘real’ sexuality either.)

Besides, a few slutty selfies aside, I’m much more interested in Tom H’s on-screen sexuality. Which is radiantly, brazenly bi-responsive. It’s not ambiguous – it’s ambisexual. Hardy’s dazzling bi-brilliance lights up the screen – it is what makes him such a charismatic, watchable actor, in the mould, dare I say it, of some of the greats, such as James Dean and Marlon Brando (cutely, Tom is the same titchy height 5’9”, as Marlon).

tom-hardy

There’s a rather ridiculous Romeo & Juliet scene in Legend where a drunken ‘Reggie’ proposes to Frances through her bedroom window at the top of a drainpipe. But thanks to Tom’s tender talents, instead of scoffing at the cheesiness of it, you find yourself hoping, when the hard man fishes out the engagement ring, that he doesn’t fall and hurt his lahvlee face.

Regardless of his private sexuality, the ‘business’ of Hardy’s on-screen sexuality in many of his other movies is definitely not monosexual, depending as it does on a certain homoerotic-homosocial appeal, and a ‘hard man’/‘soft man’ tension, androgyny even. In addition to his early Band of Brothers/Black Hawk Down fresh-faced, all-boys-together soldierly roles, he’s, as we’ve seen, played a gay gangster before. In Inception he psychically ‘cross-dressed’ and delivered some wonderfully camp lines with panache: “Mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.”

In Warrior (2011) he played a heavily-muscled young MMA fighter forced to wrestle his equally fit brother in a Speedo – but with a happy ending. Even the bottom-feeder comedy This Means War (2012), in which two CIA killers compete for the same girl, was primarily about the passionately Platonic romance between him and Chris Pine, an actor who seems to be 70% hair and 30% teeth. It was only Hardy’s sympathetic skills as an actor and his dazzling bi-brilliance that made you care about their relationship, Pine or that atrocity of a movie at all.

Hardy has a special proclivity for playing ‘hard men’ who are soft and receptive inside. It’s what makes him such an entrancing sight on the silver screen, for men and women alike. It’s all there in his sweetly engaging face and twinkly eyes, with those big kissable, suckable lips – atop his street-fighter body (young Brando had an angel’s face on a stevedore’s body). Perhaps because of his appreciation for ‘the form and physicality’ of masculinity, Tom is the kind of bloke a lot of straight lads would ‘go gay’ for – and plenty of gay ones would go even gayer for. A man’s man in the modern sense of the phrase. Hardy’s career has been made at the place where desire and identification meet.

hardy002

There is a magical kind of misrecognition involved in going to the movies: you see, especially when younger, the movie star as your idealised self. Your twin who is identical with what you should be, rather than what you are. In the darkness of the cinema, the brilliant shadow on the screen becomes your real, long lost twin – you sitting in the dark are the false, found one.

Which brings us back to the sexuality of Legend and the doubly-doomed nature of the deceased wife attempted-redemption storyline. Twins are by their very nature ‘homosexual’ that is ‘same-sexual’ – at least to non-twins looking in. They share the same conception, the same womb at the same time, the same birth, as wells as usually the same infancy, potty-training and childhood, and the same puberty. Intimacies far beyond those of lovers. Identical twins also reflect one another, in a narcissistic fashion. In a sense, they are born with the life-companion everyone else has to search for – and they can also watch themselves starring in the movie of their own lives.

So no wonder the Krays’ biographer recently claimed that the twins had sex with one another when adolescents. Or, as the Daily Mail headline put it: ‘THEY FOUGHT AS ONE. THEY KILLED AS ONE. BUT DID THE KRAY TWIN’S UNCANNY BOND LEAD THEM TO BREAK THE ULTIMATE TABOO?’.

Whether or not it’s true, it’s something that should definitely have been included in Legend. Tom-on-Tom action should not have been restricted to those fight scenes….

 

Bomb-Damaged London & Its Bomb-Damaged Kids

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).

hue-and-cry-1947-torture

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.

Krays

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.

The Legendary Test

Mark Simpson on the (fast diminishing) difference between fame and legend

(The Hospital Club magazine, Spring 2010)

A recent bloody assassination attempt on Gore Vidal, the last great American man of letters by the English journalist Christopher Hitchens in the glossy pages of Vanity Fair prompted me, and I suspect many others, to ponder the difference between fame and legend.

Both Vidal and Hitchens are famous of course, but only Vidal is a legend. Hitchens, for all his achievements, for all his impressive, furious scribbling, contrarian controversy, and admirable G&T habit, is not and never will be legendary.

Not because Vidal has written many more or better books than Hitchens.  Not because his essays are wittier, his sentences more elegant. Not because he knew the Kennedys – and dished the dirt. Not even because Vidal, in a wheelchair, wizened and enfeebled by war wounds, old age and a lifetime’s boozing, is a much greater man than the much younger Hitchens.

No, Vidal is a legend because it is as undeniable as his own mortality that he will live forever. Or at least, as long as people care to remember anyone these days. Should Hitchens be struck down tomorrow by a dodgy canapé or spiked tonic water, after the loud, fulsome eulogies have been delivered by his media colleagues, he would be completely forgotten. Hitchens is more aware of this than anyone, hence his entirely understandable yen to liquidate his one-time mentor. But precisely because Vidal is a legend the attempt backfires as hilariously as Wile E. Coyote’s did on Road Runner.

Admittedly though, there’s less and less interest in anyone who writes.  Unless of course they’ve left nice comments on your hilarious Facebook status update. Everyone is a writer now – or at least a typer.

That said, in a universe increasingly crowded with celebrities, applying the legendary test is a useful and humane way of thinning them out. Annoyed by someone’s ubiquitousness? Their success at making you see their gurning mug everywhere? The way they remind you of your own obscurity? Well, ask yourself this: will they be remembered and talked about when they are no longer around to remind us, incessantly, of their existence? At a stroke, you’ve done away with the vast majority of the bastards.

Even though most of them don’t really care about posterity  — because they won’t be around to exploit the image rights – it’s a fun game to play.  By this criteria, George Best is a legend, David Beckham – much more famous than Best ever was and possibly the most famous person in the world today – isn’t.  Paul Newman is, Brad Pitt isn’t (though his six pack might be). Morrissey is, Robbie Williams really, really isn’t. Thatcher is, Blair isn’t. Alan Bennett is, Stephen ‘National Treasure’ Fry isn’t. Julie Burchill is, Katie Price ain’t.  Princess Di is, Madonna probably isn’t. Hockney is, Damian Hirst, even pickled in formaldehyde, isn’t. And so on.

You’ll note that dead legends aren’t in the past tense – this is because legends by definition are never past tense. Probably the greatest legend is Elvis Presley. Hence all the reported sightings of him on Mars and down the chip shop. The King could never die on his khazi, obese and constipated. And in many senses Elvis really is alive – it’s just the rest of us I’m not so sure about.

Now, you might object that this is all a very subjective business, that the legendary test is really just a way of being nasty about people I happen not to like and nice about people I do. And you might not be entirely mistaken. But this isn’t really about who you like – it’s about who will last. Legends aren’t necessarily good or particularly nice people, either. Hitler and Stalin are legends, and so are Bob Geldof and Mel Gibson.

The 21st Century is not very conducive to legendary status. It’s very, very difficult to become one today – and very, very few people even bother to try.  Vidal, for instance, is really a Twentieth Century legend that has survived, much against his better judgement, into the Twenty-First Century – largely as a kind of bad conscience. Princess Di on the other hand is a legend in large part because she managed to die just before the end of the Twentieth Century. If she hadn’t, we would have grown very bored with her indeed by now. Katie Price’s fate would probably seem enviable by comparison.

Today’s infrastructure of fame is designed to discourage legends. The more mediated, the more wired the world becomes, the more people can become famous, more quickly – and the more people are interested in fame. But as others have pointed out, fame has to be more disposable. More fame and more famous people requires a much higher turnover. Legends, in other words, spoil the celebrity ecosystem because they refuse to be recycled and hog fame resources forever. Put another way, legendary status is analogue, not digital.

Impatience is another factor. In a wired world, even if people wanted legends, or at least sometimes felt nostalgic about them, no one could be bothered with waiting for someone to become one. So instead the media, MSM and non-MSM, creates ‘instant legends’, which are in some ways even more disposable than common-or-garden celebs.

Barack Obama is a recent example of an instant legend. A very popular 1960s tribute act of HOPE and CHANGE during the Primaries, when he was inaugurated as President last year the media – and the Nobel Peace Prize Committee – behaved as if both JFK and MLK were being sworn in after their assassinations. Lately the same media have been talking about the epoch-making Obama as a one-term President. He may yet achieve real legendary status, but if he does it will be in spite of his instant legend.

Osama Bin Laden is one of the very few people to have already achieved true legendary status in the 21st Century – along with, I suspect, Lady Gaga. Which sort of proves the rule.

© Mark Simpson 2010

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