The 'Daddy' of the Metrosexual, the Retrosexual, & spawner of the Spornosexual

Category: 1950s (page 1 of 2)

Back to the Future: Escaping Sexology

My (highly attenuated) attention was recently directed to an LWT doc from 1981 available on YouTube . It compares the pre-war, pre-gay world of ‘sisters’ (‘musical’ friends you didn’t want to fuck) and ‘trade’ (‘normal’ working class ‘real’ men you really did), with the post-Stonewall, butched-up, Marlborough Man world of gay-on-gay early 1980s love action.

I can’t remember seeing it before, and the pioneering gay-interest series Gay Life that it was part of was originally broadcast only in the London area – when I was revising for my O-Levels in Yorkshire. But perhaps I somehow did, and it shaped my entire worldview – and so I naturally repressed the memory of it to protect my fond image of myself as my own man.

Gifford Skinner, the delightful old quean in tweeds talking in the first half about his 1930s sex life, is very much his own man – though it’s difficult now not to see him in a Harry & Paul sketch. He is here a living and still very lively link with London’s vanished world of ‘trade’: otherwise ‘normal’ working class young men and soldiers and sailors who would sleep with (usually middle or upper class) queers, for a few bob, a few pints, or just a few laughs. Born in 1911, the son of a publican, he would have been in his twenties in the 1930s, and 70 when the documentary was made. (Today – I can’t find a date for his death online – he would be 110 years old.)

What strikes me about Gifford’s reminiscing, apart from his wonderfully mannered way of talking – ‘My DEAR!’ – is how this veteran from an era of supposed sexual repression and rampant homophobia, guilt and self-loathing, talks so frankly and fearlessly, so matter-of-factly about his adventurous youth, and his enthusiastic and very definite desires. The opposite of how things are today in our ‘liberated’ age – when everything has to be ideologically-filtered and pre-censored in order to avoid offence and cancellation.

There’s the fixation on his fellow infant school-chums’ bottoms:

‘We did an awful lot of marching in those days – and I always used to look at the boy in front, his bottom, the crease came from side to side, I found it was absolutely fascinating’.

Followed by his adult love for ‘real men’ and ‘rough types’. And his attitude towards his ‘sisters’, exemplified in a typical exchange he recounted with one of his ‘bits of trade’ – who found it difficult to understand why he didn’t want to sleep with his friends:

‘“Why do you like going with me? Why don’t you go with one of your friends, they’re so elegant and attractive – like Jeremy?”’

‘“Oh MY GOD! I couldn’t go to bed with HER!”’

‘They always thought it strange that we would run the risk of taking a stranger back home instead… It was absolutely impossible. I couldn’t consider such a thing. I really liked the real thing or nothing.’

The ‘real thing’ was particularly guardsmen, who could be found in large numbers in Hyde Park on any afternoon. Where you could ‘spot them a mile off’.

‘They had to wear their red tunics when they were out, no civilian clothes were worn, magnificent red tunics. They looked very, very smart indeed – they were magnificent really. You would tell them a mile off. The colour was gorgeous against the green in Hyde Park!’

But perhaps his recollection that stays with me the most is his memory of how many of the military men had a mate or ‘oppo’ that they were ‘inseparable from’ – especially sailors. And so, they would both come back to Gifford’s, one of them sleeping in the living room chair while the chosen one spent the night in bed with the welcoming host. His lonely, cold, creased up, best pal listening to the sounds of magnificent giggly sodomy next door.

Also fascinating is the testimony of the late Dudley Cave, as an example of the 1940s-50s new-wave of self-identified ‘invert’, speaking from the London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard phone room, having been one of the founding members since it was launched in 1974. (And where he was still working, and still being eminently charming and helpful to everyone, when I volunteered in the late 1980s – back when I still had some milk of human kindness about me).

Joining the army in 1941, aged 20, and distressed about his ‘abnormal’ desires, a sympathetic army psychiatrist loaned Dudley a copy of Havelock Ellis’ Sexual Inversion in the Male, and he recognised himself within its pages immediately. Right down to the supposed preference for the colour blue and the ‘triangular’ pubes allegedly common to the ‘inborn’ invert or homosexual. Although some of Ellis’ notions seem laughable now – but perhaps no more so than some of the contemporary pseudo-science of congenital gay creationism – it helped Dudley be much more accepting of his sexuality. And in fact, set him on the road to become an advocate for gay equality after the war.

(Interestingly, according to this 2004 tribute by Peter Tatchell, Dudley who was a survivor of Japanese POW camps, found that homosexuality was ‘more or less accepted in the Army’, and contrary to the obsession that was to develop after the war, no one was disciplined for it – despite there being rather a lot of it going on – and the worst prejudice he ever experienced was being chided for ‘holding a broom like a woman’.)

The sexual historian Jeffrey Weeks also pops up in the second half of the doc. He isn’t quite as entertaining as Gifford – a very hard act to follow – but he is saying eminently sensible things about how the modern gay identity emerged out of the taxonomies of 19th sexologists, who ‘discovered’ a new species, ‘the homosexual’, making same-sexing a condition or essence rather than an act or sin. And how it is time to move beyond these rigid definitions that ‘don’t correspond to the range of desires of wishes or needs that they actually have’.

That, in other words, the pre-gay world of ‘so’ Gifford and his ‘rough’ chums had something going for it.

But the 1980s was to take no notice of Weeks, or Gifford. What actually happened was of course Aids and Thatcherism-Reaganism. Which largely succeeded in locking down the sexual openness and experimentation of the ‘gender bending’ early 80s and reaffirmed instead both the gay identity and its ‘pathology’. Quarantining queer desire in the queer body.

h/t James Sheen

Get Hur! How Gay Subtexts Became Ancient History

by Mark Simpson

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 Laurence Olivier, attempts to seduce his ‘body servant’ 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.

(Originally appeared on Out.com 18 August, 2016)

Paul Newman & James Dean on 1950s Broke Straight Guys

JD: “Kiss me”

PN: “Not here!”

Touching how shy and excited Paul Newman appears in this screen test for East of Eden – and how he tries to cover it up with boyish bravado. He also easily outshines Dean in looks – and totally eclipses him in stature. But perhaps not in charisma.

The ever-cool Dean looks almost… French.