By the 60s the shackles were slipping though, as only a year after Spartacus, Samuel Goldwyn and director William Wyler had another go at bringing Lillian Hellman’s ‘The Children’s Hour’ to the screen, following their forcibly de-gayed These Three in 1936.. In their 1961 version the allegations of lesbianism are muted but definitely there. While it was a step forward in many ways, it didn’t do much for the gay survival rate in film, as the character played by Shirley MacLaine, who is almost certainly a lesbian, joins the long list of cinema’s dead gay characters by hanging herself, while the probably straight character played by Audrey Hepburn, survives.
In 1962 Britain did its bit by making the first film English language film that dared to utter the word ‘homosexual’, in the Dirk Bogarde movie, Victim. The film was a big step forward in many ways, being among the first films to have a pro-gay agenda. However what was pro-gay in 1962, when homosexuality was still illegal on both sides of the Atlantic, looks practically medieval nowadays. The film’s position is pretty much that homosexuals are indeed terrible degenerates, but rather than hating them, they should be pitied and allowed to fester in their own mentally disturbed self hatred, without fear of blackmail or arrest, because they can’t help being diseased.
Right through the 60s and 70s it’s often amazing to see what passed for a pro-gay movie. 1970’s The Boys In the Band was the first Hollywood film dealing predominantly with gay characters and is therefore rightly seen as a major milestone. However the film itself is largely about a bunch of miserable, bitchy people, for whom the only person they hate more than everyone else, is themselves. However, while it’s easy now to look at movies like The Boys In The Band, with their self-hating homos, as negative depictions, it doesn’t mean they’re not accurate.
Matt Crowley, who wrote the play and screenplay of The Boys In the Band, has said the reason the characters in the film are the way they are, is because that’s what him and his friends were like. At the time being gay really was a massive problem for many people, who had to hide their sexuality for fear not just of being shunned from polite society, but possibly arrested, beaten up or even killed. For every Truman Capote who managed to flaunt their sexuality, there was a Montgomery Clift, drinking themselves to death and fighting a continual battle with a part of themselves they hated.
As gay consciousness grew through the 80s and 90s, a whole new subgenre – dubbed queer cinema – sprang up. The emergence of AIDS in particular galvanised gay filmmakers, with many films being made about how the disease had destroyed the sense of freedom many gay men had felt since the early 70s. However Hollywood still had a massive ambivalence to gay characters, and seemed unwilling to allow them to expand from the roles it had given them during the Production Code era.
Brian De Palma had a killer transvestite in Dressed To Kill (1980), while William Friedkin’s adaptation of the novel Cruising (1980), starring Al Pacino as a cop investigating a serial murderer who frequents New York’s S&M bars, sparked protests even before it started filming, because of its perceived anti-gay bias. The result was that the studio felt pressured to put a disclaimer right at the beginning of the film, saying that the movie wasn’t an indictment of the gay lifestyle. Even so, many saw it as perhaps the most extreme example ever of the ‘evil gay’ movie, because whereas in the old days you had a single nasty gay character who couldn’t mention their sexuality, Cruising seemed to openly extend the stereotype to an entire community.
The sissy certainly hadn’t gone away either – they just didn’t have to hide their gayness anymore. For example, Rupert Everett in My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997) does pretty much the same job as Edward Everett Horton did in Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies. The character is essentially asexual, merely allowed to provide arch comments and fashion advice, but never allowed to become a three-dimensional character. Indeed, you can almost see a movie like Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert (1994) as a reaction to the fact that Hollywood still likes to neuter its sissies.
In fact it’s not just the sissies who get desexualised either, as Hollywood is still very squeamish about suggesting that being a gay man isn’t just about sarcasm and bitchiness, while it’s also content with promoting the idea that lesbianism is mainly about titillating straight men. For example the makers of Philadelphia thought they were quite brave to even include a single brief kiss between Antonio Banderas and Tom Hanks, as they believed that even that would turn off a large chunk of the audience and ruin the effect of the entire film. Likewise on TV, in ‘Will & Grace’ the latter character flip-flopped through an almost endless succession of relationships, while Will remained relatively chaste, with hardly any of his relationships getting past a disastrous first date.
Most films with any real gay content have been independent productions, which may have crossed over to the mainstream occasionally, such as with Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho, John Waters’ films and the aforementioned Priscilla, but which are generally only known to a very specialist audience. It’s often such a small audience that most gay people won’t have seen what are considered some of the classics of queer cinema, such as Gregg Araki’s The Living End (1992) and Bruce LaBruce’s Hustler White (1996).
But while it’s definitely a niche audience, there are enough people out there who want to watch gay arthouse movies that an entire distribution network has sprung up to cater to it. In recent years mainstream distributors have also started releasing more specifically gay themed movies, such as EIV (in the UK) distributing Hedwig And The Angry inch (2001) and Brokeback Mountain (2005), Paramount bringing out Queer Duck: The Movie and Universal releasing Shortbus, which even features gay men having ‘real’ sex. Meanwhile arthouse distributors like Peccadillo Pictures and TLA Releasing specialise in releasing films that cover gay themes.
There has been a massive change in the visibility of gay movies and characters in the past couple of decades, however there’s no doubt that mainstream film equality is still a long way off. While there are occasional movies like Brokeback Mountain that focus on homosexual relationships and which break out of the gay ghetto, you’re still far more likely to see a gay man in a Hollywood film being the sarcastic, asexual sidekick, rather than the lead, while lesbians continue to either have sex to please voyeuristic straight men or become the butt of jokes for their butchness.
Hollywood is still scared of fully realised gay characters, largely because they’re afraid the audience won’t like them. Executives even blamed Superman Returns’ relative lack of success on the fact that pre-release publicity suggested the Man Of Steel wasn’t 100% heterosexual in the movie. While that sort of mentality remains, it’s gonna be a long time before there’s true screen equality for gay characters.