Mark Simpson recalls meeting Cornelius and his ‘hungry eyes’
Grief these days seems to come easier when attached to the death of celebrities. Especially when seen as the end of not just a media relationship but an age of innocence. For some it was the death of Diana, Kennedy, Lennon or Martin Luther King. For me it was the death last year of that international icon, superstar and chimpanzee Roddy McDowall.
What TV giveth, TV taketh away. BBC1 Sunday lunchtime news, to be exact: ‘Roddy McDowall, the British-born actor best known for his role in Planet of the Apes (1968), has died of cancer at his L.A. home aged 76. He never married.’
I was eating some toast and Marmite at the time and began to choke.
It is not entirely true to say that he never married. After all Roddy’s first big screen appearance was in Lassie Come Home (1943), aged 15, playing a schoolboy devoted to a very human bitch.
But it was not until Roddy was all grown up and cast as a very human animal himself, that he really impacted my young consciousness – in the dystopian Sci-Fi film and TV series Planet of the Apes. Watching them on TV in the 1970s I promptly became as fond of him as he had been of Lassie.
Man has destroyed himself in some apocalypse and buried the Statue of Liberty up to its elbow. The apes have taken over and enslaved their former masters the humans. Roddy plays Cornelius, a more articulate, Simian Lassie, befriending and helping the last humans, led by a creaking Charlton Heston in his ‘mature period’. I particularly remember the odd way Roddy has of cocking his head to one side while looking up at Moses with his big brown eyes begging for a petting that never came. At least not before I had to go to bed.
Years later, when I was grown up too, or as grown up as I’ll ever be, I had the pleasure of looking into those big brown eyes myself when I was interviewing the Hollywood actress Nancy Allen (who memorably played the bitch Chris Hargensen in Carrie) for a glossy American magazine. You can imagine my excitement.
I was sitting down with Ms Allen at Orso’s, a swanky Italian restaurant in Beverly Hills, when suddenly she gasped, “Oh! There’s Roddy!’=” and waved at a table close to ours where a skinny elderly man was sitting with another, slightly less elderly and much fatter man and lots of papers.
It wasn’t until he came over to our table to introduce himself and I could see those monkey-yet-strangely-human eyes that I realised it was Cornelius. He shook my hand a little too firmly and a little too long and gave me a brazen once-over with those glittering round eyes that had once reflected the miniaturised and slightly humiliated image of Charlton.
“What a surprise to see you here!’ Roddy trilled to my companion in that charmingly sing-song syrupy voice of his, ‘I’m just lunching with my agent.” Ms Allen introduced me as ‘a journalist from Glossy American Magazine. He’s interviewing me!’ she said, a bit too surprised at the idea herself.
“A journalist, eh?” Said Roddy, looking me up and down again. “That’s a good one! I’ve never seen shoulders like that on a journalist before!” He leaned towards me holding a liver-spotted hand to the side of his face and hissed in a stage whisper: “Watch her now, Mark! She’s wicked!” And with a lascivious wink and a leathery grin he sauntered back to his table. My audience with Cornelius was over.
Meeting a legend like this was shocking enough. But I was even more shocked by the way he was quite obviously and openly fag. Call me naïve, but I never thought of Cornelius as having any kind of sex at all.
Looking back and re-writing history as we do, I can now see that of course that Roddy’s entire Hollywood career was queer as a coot (a creature which I think actually makes an appearance in one of the Lassie films, and ends up swapping Judy Garland stories with Roddy). The boy who developed over-intense relationships with animals, and who grew up to be an ape with twinkly eyes identifying with humans stranded in a world where they were now the oppressed minority.
Then there is the 1967 film It! (1967), aka Curse of the Golem, a reworking of the Frankenstein story that is quite possibly the queerest movie ever made. Roddy plays a meek assistant museum curator in London living with his domineering mum who finds his boss’s death lands him the job of running the museum and ownership of a two thousand year old statue which comes to life to do his bidding – a Golem.
Naturally, it all goes to poor Roddy’s head (he can’t negotiate that pesky Oedipus Complex), and he destroys half of London trying to impress an uninterested woman who knows a Lassie when she sees one. Roddy is finally locked up – but breaks out after he hears his mother has died. An hysterical Roddy hijacks a hearse, kidnaps the girl, and heads off with her and the Golem to the cemetery where his mother is buried.
And I think most of us, one way or another, have been there.
Roddy’s greatest asset was also his greatest give-away—his eyes. In person they were the gayest eyes I’ve ever seen: that bright, alert, hungry quality, mostly found in children and small animals, but which in adult men is the nearest thing to a reliable indicator of inversion.
On TV in the 1970s they just looked very friendly.
Two teenage working class lads, Matt and Phil, hitching from London to the South Coast, are in the back of a car driven by a middle-aged man with a moustache and a bowtie, who has asked why they’re headed there.
“What??” he replies, puzzled for a moment by the honeymoon answer. “Oh, I get ya – fast workers, eh? I could teach you a thing or two! Promise them the Earth and they’ll settle for you, know what I mean?” And then starts boring on about all his probably imaginary heterosexual conquests.
“No, we’re wiv each ovva. It’s our ‘oneymoon!” brunette Phil (Lee Whitlock) insists, leaving him no wriggle room. Before leaning forwards and adding with a grin to his blond chum Matt (Jason Rush): “But don’t worry, you’re not our type”.
At this Mr Moustache pulls over sharpish and kicks them out of his family saloon. “Bloody deviants!” he shouts, screeching off in a cloud of burned rubber.
The hitchhiking is probably the part that made you realise the movie this scene is from is a bit of an oldie. Two of Us is now over thirty years old, to be horribly precise.
Back in 1987, at the height of the ‘Gay Plague’ terror, when the tabloid newspapers were full of spit-flecked fury about ‘QUEERS!’ – and Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Government was banning the ‘promotion of homosexuality’ to schoolchildren (later Section 28) – the BBC made a cheap but sweet little film about two likeable late teen boys who fall in love at the municipal swimming baths, where Matt, a vision in Speedos, is teaching Phil how to dive. (This seven years before Tom Daley was even born.) They decide to run away together to escape from bullying peers and uncomprehending parents.
Instead of the Emerald City – or Brighton – they end up in Seaford, a dreary seaside town near Eastbourne in Sussex, which was probably where they went on their ‘olidays when they were kids. The white cliffs, like the water they swim in, a symbol of the purity of their affair.
See, on this ‘oneymoon there’s no funny business. Matt who is gay is all for it, but Phil, who is bi, and has a girlfriend called Sharon is still working things through, and is less certain. Besides, in 1987 UK men were legally required to wait until they were 21 to touch one another. There is however a tender, poignant scene in the swimming pool showers (still wearing their swimming cossies) where Matt reaches out and briefly touches Phil’s face and chest, grabs his shoulder and says: “It’s alright”.
It’s a scene that lasts just a few seconds, but remains one of the most iconic in the history of gay cinema. It really wasn’t alright in 1987 – but Two of Us made it seem possible that it might be, one day. That our Jason Rush might come and make it alright.
There was another even more persuasive reason why they never do ‘it’. Written by Leslie Stewart and directed by Roger Tonge, this big little film was made for UK schools. It’s also why the ending was changed. In the original version Phil appears to leave with Sharon, who came to Seaford to get her man back, but he reappears at the top of the cliffs above the beach where Matt is camping. “What are you doing ‘ere?” shouts Matt, smiling. “We’re mates aren’t we!” Phil shouts back. Matt and Phil run, fully-clothed, laughing into the sea together.
A panicking BBC, worried about the looming introduction of Section 28, insisted on removing the beach reunion, but when Two of Us was shown to schoolkids most of them thought that Phil should have stayed with Matt. Perhaps that had something to do with the way it portrayed Sharon as a sulky cow who didn’t do anything except whinge, eat crisps and check her makeup.
In this, as in some other details, Two of Us borrows from the mild misogyny of The Leather Boys, a classic 1964 film about two working class London biker lads, Pete (Dudley Sutton) and Reggie (Colin Campbell), the latter with a nagging young wife (Rita Tushingham), who basically fall in love and are going to run away to sea together before Reggie discovers that Pete is queer and very much part of the queer world.
To ‘challenge stereotypes’, in a way that has become very over-familiar in the past thirty years, but which seemed fresh at the time (perhaps because I hadn’t seen The Leather Boys yet), Phil and Matt (and, I think, both of the actors playing them) were straight – and their characters, apart from an out-of-character waltzing interlude on the beach to ‘Shall We Dance’ from The King & I, ‘straight acting’. They are also not part of or apparently even aware of London’s already large in the late 1980s gay world.
Back in the 20th Century, rather than a tired, possibly oppressive trope which it has become now, their ‘straightness’ and ‘normality’ seemed to be a slightly radical idea, one that emphasised a kind of subversive innocence – “We’re mates aren’t we?”. It also confirmed their gay desirability. After all, most gay porn in the 1980s featured gay-for-pay models enacting situational homo storylines with ‘buddies’. I doubt it was intentional, but Two of Us was a kind of porno romance, with no fucking, just the bit before the muzak kicks in.
And Jason Rush as Matt is totally Falcon (by way of Walthamstow) in his pouty, broody, splendour – filling out his stonewashed jeans and those Speedos very nicely indeed. But it was those lazy-lidded blue eyes that were the real slayers. That keen connoisseur of male beauty Morrissey was to recruit him for his ‘Last of the International Playboys’ video a couple of years later, playing a young East End boxer who idolises the Kray twins. I myself managed to contrive an interview with him for a magazine in the late 1990s, even though he was no longer working as an actor – just so I could check out those eyes in person. (Full disclosure: my first proper gay encounter after hitch-hiking to London from the provinces in 1984 was with a 19-year-old blond lifeguard from north London.)
The whole film is based on an impossibility anyway – as romantic storylines should be. Phil who was bi, was never going to really run away with Jason and turn his back on crisp-eating Sharon and the world of Hendon Central normality – not in 1987. It was all a fantasy. An enjoyable seaside daydream in a cub scout tent. The BBC-ordered altered ending was the more realistic one – and perhaps also a more satisfying one. The romance is never tainted by either consummation or arguments over whose turn it is to empty the chemical toilet.
So why am I banging on about this ancient, minor, slightly-shonky in places, non-theatrical release Brit movie? Now that we’re eighteen years into a new millennium, Section 28 has been abolished, Aids is no longer the ‘Gay Plague’ (or even AIDS), the UK age of consent has been equalised, anti-gay legislation excised from the statute books. And now that teenage same sex couples can get civil partnered or married and legally go on their ‘oneymoon?
Because this diamond in the rough from 1987 is I think much more deserving of the limitless praise heaped on two soppy gay cinematic love stories released exactly thirty years later in 2017, made with much more money and in much less difficult times: God’s Own Country (UK) and Call Me By Your Name (Italy/US). The latter nominated for four Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay (which it won), and is currently the top-rated romance movie on Rotten Tomatoes. Two of Us, made for school kids, did much of what these films do three decades later for adults, but rather better and in a more grown-up fashion.
Call Me, directed by Luca Guadagnino, like The Two of Us, is also set in the 80s, and also teenage in focus: a seventeen-year-old boy’s first same-sex romance. But with a 24-year-old male archaeologist instead of a schoolmate. It also involves a lot of swimming. However the weather is better, and so are the locations. Instead of dreary old Seaford, it’s set in northern Italy, the smoking hot scenery essentially rendering this romance a ménage a trois. The teenager, Elio, played by Timothee Chalamet, is almost as pretty as Jason Rush in his prime – though Armie Hammer (could there be a more American name?) who plays his lover Oliver, is definitely not. At least for my popcorn money.
Unlike Two of Us however I’m not entirely sure what the point of this pretty, soppy well-made film is, except perhaps as a liberal-minded travelogue for middle class people who want to catch up on their sleep and have something to mention at dinner parties. But who am I to quibble? It has been hailed by Variety, no less, as a movie that ‘advances the canon of gay cinema’ and a ‘modern gay classic’ by the mighty Vanity Fair. Whatever these accolades are supposed to mean now. And whatever movie critics are supposed to be for now.
This ‘modern gay classic’ that ‘advances the canon of gay cinema’ is not even a gay movie. Remarkably, impressively, there is almost nothing gay about it – except perhaps for the longing the camera has for Elio, whose dazzling beauty is the nearest thing this movie has to a point, and the early Bruce Weber aesthetic. Though of course Weberism isn’t officially gay either, just ‘all-American’.
The writer whose eponymous novel was adapted, Andre Aciman, isn’t gay. The actors aren’t gay. Their characters aren’t gay and I’m not entirely sure that they’re intended to be seen as bisexual either. It’s a post-gay movie set in an almost pre-gay universe: early 80s Italy, on holiday, before AIDS. In truth, the non-gayness of Call Me By Your Name is actually its defining feature. (For all its straight-acting, Two of Us was definitely not pre or post gay: one of the boys identifies as gay and the other as bisexual, and it was made in the height of the 80s gay wars.)
Guadagnino is ‘openly gay’ as the media still likes to put it, but he is himself emphatic that it isn’t a gay movie but a movie about the ‘beauty of the new-born idea of desire, unbiased and un-cynical.’ And in making a ‘universal’ movie of course you land yourself the biggest potential audience: heterosexuals. That said, plenty of gay men apparently love it – let’s face it, gays today love to be part of something big, successful and nicely-lit. But watching it as ‘a gay’ for my part I found it bizarrely alienating, almost like an out-of-gay-body experience: though this may have had something to do with the glacial pace. It’s not that I wasn’t moved at all by the film, or didn’t care about anyone, but I felt as if I were watching a romance between two men taking place on another planet. Or in fact, watching gayness being colonised. And I say that as a post-gay pre-gay homo.
Perhaps it’s because I don’t fancy Armie Hammer – or maybe I was just jealous of him – but contrary to the reaction of the schoolkids who saw Two of Us in 1987, I found myself wanting Elio to run off with his pretty, smart girlfriend Marzia whom he dumps for naff Oliver. And of course Elio is let down in the end by Oliver, who gets engaged to a woman: causing Elio to bawl his eyes out into the camera so very beautifully and lengthily in the final scene. Call Me has the same satisfyingly melancholic conclusion as the censored version of Two of Us, but it makes much more of a meal of it.
It seems though that my feelings about Marzia were not entirely capricious. Guadagino, discussing the possibility of a sequel has stated: ‘”I don’t think that Elio is necessarily going to become a gay man. He hasn’t found his place yet. I can tell you that I believe that he would start an intense relationship with Marzia again.”’
Call Me probably isn’t a ‘sexually-fluid’ movie either. Rather, it is a movie that explores romance and infatuation through the story of two people who both ‘happen’ to be men, as a way of rediscovering ‘romance’ – in part because actual heterosexual relationships are currently so loaded, and so fraught, being situated as they are on the frontline of the sex war. That’s why it’s currently the number one romance movie on Rotten Tomatoes. If it were the story of a seventeen year-old girl’s romance with a 24 year-old man staying in her parents’ house the reviews, I venture, would be much more ‘mixed’. That’s if there were any reviews at all, apart from denunciations and boycotts.
It’s also part of the reason why Call Me also mostly shied away from depicting yer actual gay bumsex. Instead, the peach gets it: in an odd scene (but not played for laughs, American Pie style), Eloi masturbates with the fruit, which Oliver then tries to eat. Oh, and the fact that both American actors insisted on ‘no full frontal nudity’ clauses in their contracts for this very liberal, very European-style movie. James Ivory, whose original screenplay adaptation had reportedly contained ‘all sorts of nudity’, was not best pleased with this modesty clause – and put it down to what he saw as an ‘American attitude’. After all, it’s not 1987 anymore, and this isn’t a movie for schoolkids.
Ivory (who is himself American) had also been originally slated to direct the film, and of course wrote and directed Maurice, the classic 1987 adaptation of EM Forster’s ground-breaking novel about homosexuality in Edwardian England – a novel so ground-breaking that Forster, timid to the very end, forbade it being published until after his death in 1971. It told the story of a very closeted, virginal English gentleman Maurice (James Wilby) swept off his feet by a rough but smoothly handsome groundsman called Alec (Rupert Graves).
You’ll think me obsessed, but the movie adaptation was a kind of big budget, cross-class costume drama Two of Us – which came out in the same year – but told of course from a bourgeois perspective. Forster like many middle class men of his era fantasised about being rescued from their effeteness, neurosis and timidity by muscular, direct, and passionate working class chaps. But then, don’t we all?
It’s easy to mock, especially now, but Maurice which was largely overlooked when it was originally released was a braver and better film than CallMe, made thirty years later to enormous fanfare. Although ‘Scudder’ became something of a punchline for gay jokes this was probably because the urgency of ‘deviant desire’ that he represented was as embarrassing as it was hot. Scudder was in fact the whole point and truth of both Maurice and Maurice, cutting through all the bourgeois bullshit and ‘decency’ by climbing up that ladder into ‘masters’ bedroom and giving him a right proper fucking. ‘Scudder’ is lust, in all its filthy, rough, irresistible ‘inappropriateness’.
I wonder what would have happened if Ivory had been allowed to direct Call Me? Fewer clothes and hang-ups, probably – but perhaps also fewer awards and takings.
Films set in a self-consciously working class world can actually be worse, however. Boring as it is, Call Me is still a more enjoyable movie than 2005’s miserably mawkish Brokeback Mountain. Not only did the ‘gay cowboy movie’ as it was dubbed (they are in fact shepherds, at least when they meet) have rather more hetero sex than the homo variety, the original story was written by a woman who is not gay (Annie Proulx), adapted by a man and woman who are not gay, directed by man who is not gay (Ang Lee), starring actors who are/were not gay (Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal). Hooray for the non-gay gay cowboy movie!
In fairness, the characters themselves in the ‘gay cowboy movie’ are not gay, or even particularly bisexual – they just have a love-affair that causes them a lot of pain because of their place in the world: one of rural, working class poverty with attendant homophobic/traditional masculine attitudes. It was precisely this emotionally painful aspect for the otherwise straight men that the main audience of the film – straight women – seemed to enjoy the most: a kind of sex war schadenfreude.
Hollywood loves gloomy gay movies. Moonlight (2016) the first LGBT film – and the first with an all-black cast – to win the Best Picture Oscar sometimes makes Brokeback look like a musical. Set in the Miami projects, it tells the story of young gay black man Chiron Harris [played at different stages of his youth by Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders, Alex Hibbert] coming of age and coming to terms with his sexuality in a tough environment where his softness makes him a target—even for his own mother’s homophobic abuse.
Moonlight is artful and affecting. It even won Best Kiss at the MTV?Movie Awards, which alone puts it streets ahead of Call Me. Like Brokeback, it makes a point about masculinity and identity–but this time in a black urban context that is far more relevant than sheepherding. It is also in many ways a more beautiful film than the moneyed, white, self-consciously ‘beautiful’ Call Me.
Of course, it is almost unremittingly gloomy. I watched Moonlight with subtitles on, and the descriptions of the soundtrack—“[tense droning music]” or “[ominous music]”—began to look like complaints.
Only toward its end does Moonlight’s gloom begin to lift. An adult Chiron, now a drug-dealer, reunites with Kevin—a friend/crush from high school and “the only person I let touch me”. And it really was just a touch, which makes Chiron come almost instantly – a nice touch. It’s an unlikely happy ending, even more so than the original uncensored end for Two Of Us—but a welcome one after all that “tense droning music.”
But yet again, neither Chiron nor Kevin seem to know anyone else gay. And there is even less gay sex than in Brokeback—that touch and a wet dream is all you get.
Given the always small but now fast-diminishing number of men employed in raising sheep, and the even smaller – one assumes – number of them involved in fucking one another, and even smaller number of those who fall in love, it seems very odd, bordering on the downright fetishistic, that someone would want to make another shagging-shepherds movie. But that’s exactly what Francis Lee, the gay writer and director of God’s Own Country did.
Oft-described as ‘Britain’s Brokeback Mountain’, it might be better described as a gayerBrokeback Mountain. Though the love-birds are straight-acting straight actors again, with apparently no connection to a wider gay world of other gay men, it has a lot more man-on-man sex and (unlike Call Me) there is full-frontal nudity (that’s flaccid cocks to you and me) and was heralded by Vice as part of the ‘lineage of queer cinematic greats’. Foolishly, as with Call Me, I thought at least some of this hype must be merited and dutifully went to see it. But it struck me as being an even more boring movie than Call Me or Brokeback – and much soppier and soapier. A kind of underwritten PG Emmerdale omnibus.
Set in the Yorkshire Pennines somewhere in the not too distant past – or perhaps in an imaginary place in England where there is no internet and no mobile coverage and thus no Grindr, just lots of gritty, analogue authenticity – it follows a disgruntled young sheep farmer Johnny (Josh O’Connor) who is having lots of casual sex with men (despite the lack of Grindr) and drinking too much. The film begins with him dry-retching at dawn over a toilet bowl in his father’s farmhouse. Who will save our Johnny? Who will be his Good Shepherd?
Enter a young(ish) bearded Romanian farm-hand Gheorghe (Alex Secareanu), hired to work on the family’s small sheep farm. Johnny initially taunts him, calling him, in unconvincing scenes, a ‘gyppo’ and a ‘Paki’, on account of his dark, Latin looks – but ends up of course having mad passionate sex with him. In the freezing mud. Lots and lots of mud. Locally-sourced, organic, artisan mud. Because that’s what shepherds do.
Gheorghe/Secareanu is smolderingly handsome as well as infinitely patient and knowledgeable – and spends much of the movie looking up at the camera through his dreamy Latin eyebrows. Dreamy is the word because he is not an actual human being, but rather a walking liberal wank fantasy – a woke gay Jesus figure, or a European ‘magical negro’ (a character in American fiction and film who only exists to help the white characters). Gheorghe turns the other cheek, heals the sick, raises the dead (lambs) and teaches the repressed, blocked, stupid, bigoted miserable working class Brexit-voting English how to live, love, do their job and make Ewe’s cheese. My dear, he’s a whizz in the kitchen! He even manages to spice up a Pot Noodle!
The smouldering Romanian is coded as ‘exotic’, but also ‘middle class’: “my mother taught English”. ‘”Fancy!” mocks Johnny’s mum. He is reduced to working as a farmhand in the UK because ‘my country is dead’ – but he’s just a better person in every way than the people he has been sent to save. No wonder the film was a hit with critics, gaining a 99% critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It plays to almost every single metropolitan middle class prejudice – on a super-squeaky viola.
Johnny, who is a kind of fucked-up Scudder, falls for Gheorghe – how could he not? – and is slowly saved from his semi-feral lifestyle, domesticated by his Good Shepherd with the Great Eyebrow Game. But Jesus, sorry Gheorghe, has to be spurned before he can be fully accepted – so Johnny gets drunk and lapses back into his casual sex ways in a pub toilet, while Gheorghe has beer flicked at him by a threatening bigot. You can almost hear the cock crowing.
Understandably, Gheorghe fucks off. Johnny is left to hug, sniff and wear the chunky cable-knit sweater Gheorghe has abandoned in his haste to off fuck. It’s an echo of an earlier scene where Gheorghe puts the fleece of a stillborn lamb on a living one so it will be fed milk by the bereaved Ewe – and also of course the shirt-sniffing scene at the end of Brokeback, a movie this one is clinging to like a security blanket.
Johnny tracks down Gheorghe to Scotland, persuades him to come back with him and move into the farmhouse, which they share with Johnny’s grandmother and invalid father. The farmhouse door closes behind the happy couple. The End.
This movie may have begun with Johnny dry-retching, but it ended with me sicking up a bit in the back of my mouth. If only, I found myself wishing, the BBC could have censored the happy ending the way they did with Two of Us!
Annie Proulx recently complained about all the men who write to her after seeing the film of her short story:
‘They just can’t bear the way it ends – they just can’t stand it. So they rewrite the story, including all kinds of boyfriends and new lovers and so forth after Jack is killed.’
God’s Own Country seems to have done exactly that, giving it a gayer, happy ending. But the unhappy ending of Brokeback was, as Proulx has said, the point. It’s not a point that I thought made the film version worthwhile, but it was the point nonetheless.
God’s Own Country has done away with that point. It’s a gay shepherd movie with a happy ending.
Yes, like Call Me, it’s a post-gay movie which mercifully accepts that ‘coming out’ isn’t enough of a story-line and homophobia can’t stand in for drama any more – the shepherds’ sexuality isn’t really an issue for them, or as it turns out the other characters. But by the same token, a sentimental, soapy love story isn’t enough to carry a movie either now, just because your lovers both happen to have penises. Or are highly unlikely characters (again). No matter how beautiful or brooding or straight acting they might be, or how impeccably metropolitan and liberal the sympathies of the impossibly rurally-located film might be.
Then again, perhaps the raptures of the critics over brilliantly mediocre and impressively unoriginal gay movies like this suggests that maybe we’re not so post-gay after all. Apparently gay movies still can’t be judged honestly, or by the same jaded standards as non-gay ones.
For all its failings, Two of Us, definitely had a point – with either ending. It was after all the kind of gay propaganda that Section 28 was supposed to stamp out. Despite or perhaps because of the strictures of its making, it was also rather more erotic, and dare I say ‘liberated’, than the current crop of critically-praised Anglo-American cinematic gay lurve stories, even though much less happens. (The 2014 film The Way He Looks, about a blind boy’s growing friendship with a schoolmate, is a notable, touching exception – and is in some ways an updated and improved Two of Us – but then, it’s definitely not an Anglo movie: it’s Brazilian.)
Thirty years on it’s probably time to come out to ourselves about the fact that after all the dramatic changes that have occurred in gay lives and gay equality, gay cinematic love stories, at the very moment they have become mainstream enough to be ‘Hollywood’, seem to have run out of road. Much like straight ones.
Without Mr Bowtie-n-Tache yelling ‘BLOODY DEVIANTS!’ the ‘oneymoon is so over.
Mark Simpson on how Sean Connery’s ‘overgrown stuntman’ sired a generation of young men licenced to thrill
So, Mr Bond finally did what Mr Goldfinger expected him to do. Even if it took 56 years.
This October, two months after his 90th birthday, Sir Thomas Sean Connery, the first, most definitive, most popular, most alluring, most stirring incarnation of the unshaken British secret agent, died.
Connery made six official and one unofficial Bond films. And of course, many more non-Bond films, some of them classics, such as Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964), The Man Who Would be King (1975), and The Name of the Rose (1986).
But frankly, I’m not very interested in them.
It was his astonishing, revelatory appearance in the first Bond film, Dr No, in 1962 that stunned and changed the world. And made those other roles possible. Although he famously came to detest Bond, seeing him perhaps as a kind of insult to his own ego or simply his own freedom, Connery’s appearance in the early 1960s on the big screen as Mr Bond was by far his greatest achievement – cinematically, culturally and sexually.
The plaudit ‘Sexiest Man of the Century’ handed him by People magazine in 1999 probably made him guffaw loudly – but was in fact entirely plausible.
And this was precisely for the reason that author Ian Fleming initially disdained Connery’s casting.
“He’s not what I envisioned of James Bond looks, I’m looking for Commander Bond and not an overgrown stuntman.”
Dismissing him as an ‘overgrown stuntman’ and also mentioning his ‘lack of refinement’ was code for class – Connery’s lack of it. Born in the slums of Edinburgh in 1930, the air redolent from a nearby rubber factory and several breweries, his mother a cleaner, his father a lorry driver, Connery was Scottish working class through and through. With ‘Mum & Dad‘ and ‘Scotland Forever‘ tattoos from his three years as a rating in the Royal Navy to prove it.
He was discharged due to a duodenal ulcer – later claiming that it was his inability to take orders that caused it:
“I’ve never had ulcers since. Looking back it was probably my inability to take orders from officers – especially those I found had reached their position largely through privilege – that gave me ulcers.”
Fleming, who liked to be photographed cigarette holder in hand, was born in London’s moneyed Mayfair to an upper class English family, and rather than the school of hard knocks, was sent to Eton, the school for the scions of the ruling class. During the war he served in Royal Naval Intelligence as a Lieutenant Commander. He wanted Richard Todd, the smoothly handsome, stiff upper lip, ‘OK chaps!’, Squadron Leader star of The Dambusters (1955) to portray his alter ego.
Instead he got a Scottish, working class, bolshie able seaman.
And this was of course part of the thrill of Connery’s sado-exhibitionistic Bond – who exploded onto UK cinema screens a year before The Beatles released their first album. As I wrote back in 2006 on the release of the Casino Royale reboot:
Most working-class U.K. males in 1962 were licensed to marry young, impregnate their wives three or four times, and then take up pigeon-fancying. Wartime-rationing of food and luxury items didn’t end until 1954, two years before Elvis’s first hit and less than a decade before Dr. No was made – although sex-rationing continued for decades afterwards.
Connery, born and braised in slum district of Edinburgh, presents a Bond who, by contrast, is a vain, single young man jetting around the world and literally taking his pleasures where he pleases, living a glossy magazine lifestyle, albeit as an undercover agent. This lifestyle was not to come out of the secret-service closet until over 30 years later with the emergence of the metrosexual – a man whose mission was also to save the West, but by shopping instead of shooting.
If Connery’s Bond was proto-metro, he was equaly proto-sporno. Fleming’s phrase ‘overgrown stuntman’ also alluded to the fact that Connery had a body. Which was terribly, terribly vulgar by mid-century upper middle class British standards. And, for that matter, still is today.
And what a body! By underfed post-war British standards he was totally hench. Or, less anachronistically, totally Athletic Model Guild. Connery had been seduced by bodybuilding when he was 18, and from 1951 took on a professional trainer, a former British Army gym instructor. He was worth every penny.
Connery even entered NABBA’s 1953 Mr Universe contest in London, but the winner in the amateur category was American Bill Pearl. Connery abandoned his pro bodybuilding dreams when he realised that he was never going to be as big as his steak-fed colonial cousins, later saying:
“Despite what many claim, I never won any awards. I appeared ridiculous next to the winner…. I looked like a seven stone weakling.”
That seems harsh, if typically self-deprecating. Connery would likely have fared better in today’s Aesthetic/Beach Body/Board Shorts category.
But his physical culturist habits did open up another career – one that would garner him much more success, cash and attention than bodybuilding could ever have done before the invention of YouTube, Instagram and, er, OnlyFans.
The Edinburgh College of Art was in the entirely understandable habit of employing buff lads from his gym as life models. ‘Big Tam’, as he was known at the time (Connery was 6’2″ tall: a regular giant back then), was not averse to attention, nor an easy way to earn a few bob – since leaving the Navy he had worked in various manual jobs: lifeguard, brickie and even coffin polisher. So he followed his gym pals into the the posing-pouched life classes.
(Around the same time the ‘Naked Civil Servant’ Quentin Crisp was also doing modelling for life classes in London – sans the bodybuilding.)
“I was a student at the art college at the same time he was a life model. He inspired me. You weren’t supposed to talk to the artist’s models, but I got away with it because I knew him. He and I used to spend lunch breaks together… as an artist’s model he was the perfect example of a young Greek God.”
Demarco has also reportedly described young Connery as “very straight, slightly shy, too, too beautiful for words, a virtual Adonis”. Googling around doesn’t provide much context, and it’s not entirely clear whether ‘straight’ here refers to his posture, plain-dealing or his sexuality – perhaps all three.
Demarco claims he nudged Connery in the direction of acting, telling him to try out for a part as a guardsman extra in a production of Sixty Glorious Years in Edinburgh. Big Tam got the job, his first appearance on stage.
Likewise his participation in Mr Universe might have left him without a trophy, but it did push him up the showbiz ladder a bit further: another competitor tipped him off that the London Drury Lane production of South Pacific was looking for ‘muscular men’ to play US Navy sailor chorus boys in the Drury Lane production of South Pacific. Ironically, given how his bodybuilding dreams were dashed by the pumped Americans, he was cast because his size meant he ‘looked American’.
It was during his nautical-themed time in South Pacific that Connery decided that the actor’s life was for him. He was taken under the wing of fellow cast member Robert Henderson, an experienced middle-aged American Thesp, who gave him an improving reading list that included Stanislavsky, Wilde, Ibsen, Proust and Thomas Wolfe.
Despite his earthy Edinburgh accent wasn’t proving popular with 1950s British casting directors, perhaps fearing dreaded English assimilation, Connery wasn’t very interested in elocution – and his accent was to remain pretty much unchanged throughout his half-century career. Whatever nationality he happened to be playing. But he did take ‘movement lessons’ from a Swedish male dancer, Yat Malmgren for three years. Something that was to prove to be of great use to him in the visual and global medium of movies.
After South Pacific, he landed a series of small acting parts on stage, TV and film, mostly playing boxers, hoodlums, lorry drivers and welders. His first starring role came in 1961 in Adventure Story, a BBC TV play based on the stage play by Terence Rattigan about Alexander the Great and his conquest of Persia. Both Rattigan and Alexander were famous fans of ‘Greek love’ – Alexander famously ‘yielding’ to his life-long friend’s Hephaestion’s ‘thighs’. But Rattigan was very ‘discreet’, and this was mid-century BBC – so there wasn’t much of that in the script, save as a subtext for Classicists.
(Camp trivia #1: Alexander’s friend/lover Hephaestion was played by future Dr Who companion William Russell. Camp trivia #2: The other great alpha male bewigged sex object of the 1960s screen, William Shatner, also played Alexander the Great a couple of years later in a 1963 pilot for US TV that wasn’t picked up.)
Connery’s dynamic Alexander provoked praise. The Times observed: “certain inflexions and swift deliberations of gesture at times made one feel that the part had found the young Olivier it needs”. (You can watch scenes here.)
Those ‘movement classes’ with the Swedish dancer, along with all that bodybuilding in his early years, were finally paying off. When he met with producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman to discuss the role of Bond, Broccoli’s wife Dana overruled their objections.
“Women – and men – will love him,” she said. And she beckoned the pair over to the window to watch Connery as he crossed the street outside, and told them: “He moves like a panther.”
She was right, of course. Just as right as Fleming was wrong.
After Connery’s death last month, Dana’s daughter and – in a sign of the changed world since the 1960s – James Bond producer Barbara Broccoli released a statement acknowledging that he was largely responsible for the success of the film series. Adding that Connery had “revolutionized the world with his gritty and witty portrayal of the sexy and charismatic secret agent.”
She was as right as her mother had been six decades previously. It was Barbara Broccoli who insisted, against many naysayers, that Daniel Craig step into 007’s bespoke suit in 2006, in Casino Royale. And out of it into a pair of powder blue Speedos. Casino Royale saw the belated realisation of the sex object promise of Sean Connery’s Bond, squandered by his stodgy successors: Bond finally became his own busty Bond girl.
But perhaps the most proto-metrosexual aspect of the first James Bond is that he is also a sex object almost as ravishing as any of the ladies he ravishes, almost as fetishized as any of the objects of desire he toys with: a playboy we would like to play with. Raymond Chandler might have famously described the Bond of Ian Fleming’s novels as “what every man would like to be and what every woman would like to have between her sheets,” but the original screen Bond, for all his masterfulness, was a voyeuristic pleasure that men might want between their sheets and women might want to be.
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!’.
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.
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.