Saturday 10 December 2016

Coming out: Hollywood and homosexuality

It wasn't until the late 1960s that film-makers faced up to gay elephant in the room

Paul Whitington

Published 13/11/2011 | 06:00

In what must be considered a daring move, Michael Douglas has announced he'll play legendary pianist and entertainer Liberace in a new HBO film to be directed by Steven Soderbergh.

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Matt Damon will co-star in Behind the Candelabra as Liberace's live-in lover Scott Thorson, and filming will get under way next summer in the musician's old stomping grounds around Las Vegas.

Douglas, who was given the all clear earlier this year after a battle with throat cancer, is famous for playing action roles and macho bad guys like Gordon Gekko.

Liberace will be something of a departure for him: camp as Christmas, Valentino Liberace was famous for his flamboyant, fur-lined costumes and his hysterical denials of his homosexuality.

In 1956, he sued Irish-born Daily Mirror journalist William Connor, who wrote under the pseudonym Cassandra, for an article featuring a particularly colourful description of him. Liberace, wrote Connor, was a "winking, sniggering ... fruit-flavoured, mincing, ice-covered heap of mother love".

Liberace won substantial damages, and sent the Daily Mirror a telegram saying: "What you said hurt me very much. I cried all the way to the bank."

In fairness to the man, Liberace became famous in the 1940s, when homosexuality was illegal and severely stigmatised. It's a sign of how much things have changed that a major Hollywood star like Douglas now feels comfortable playing him.

In Douglas's father's day, a leading man would not have dreamed of playing a gay character. The subject of homosexuality was almost totally ignored, and gay actors like Rock Hudson were forced by their studios to enter sham marriages to keep up appearances.

Things didn't begin to change until the 1960s, and even then they did so very slowly. Up to that point, homosexuality had only been addressed obliquely on screen, through such sinister 'sissy' types as the one played by Clifton Webb in the classic film noir, Laura, or by effeminate comedians like Charles Hawtrey and Kenneth Williams in the Carry On... films.

But in the late 1960s mainstream cinema finally began facing up to the elephant in the corner, and portraying gay people as rounded individuals rather than freaks and maniacs. Here are 10 of the films that helped change public perceptions forever.

Midnight Cowboy (1969)

When John Schlesinger's gritty urban drama was released in the US it was given an X-rating because of its "possible influence upon youngsters".

What the censor was worried about was not sex but gay sex, because Midnight Cowboy was one of the first films to explore the seedy underworld to which homosexuals were driven by unjust laws and social stigma.

Jon Voight played Joe, a young Texan who comes to New York to become a gigolo but ends up turning tricks to pay the rent. There are suggestions that Joe might be gay, and the film's most powerful scene involves a misunderstanding between him and an older homosexual. Schlesinger was gay himself, and his film lifted the lid on a hidden, desperate world. Its X-rating didn't stop it winning three Oscars, including Best Picture.

Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

Based on a true story, Sidney Lumet's groundbreaking 1970s film starred Al Pacino as a kind of homosexual anti-hero. He played Sonny Wortzik, a novice crook who attempts to rob a Brooklyn bank with the help of his friend Sal (John Cazale). But things go wrong when they discover that the vault only contains a thousand dollars just as the place is surrounded by cops.

A comical siege develops, during which Sonny shows kindness to his hostages and orders pizza for them. It later emerges that Sonny had robbed the bank to pay for an operation for his 'wife', Leon (Chris Sarandon), a pre-op transsexual. Dog Day Afternoon was a huge hit, and proved that public attitudes were changing.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975, left)

A bizarre comic rock musical based on Richard O'Brien's cult stage play, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, was a gleefully uninhibited creation that introduced homosexual and transsexual elements to the horror genre.

Susan Sarandon and Barry Bostwick play a young all-American couple who get a flat tyre on a windy winter night and call to a nearby castle for help. It turns out to be the home of one Frank-N-Furter, a transvestite inventor who feeds them human flesh and seduces them and anyone else who comes his way.

Tim Curry's portrayal of Frank-N-Furter was fearless, and brought the gay club sub-culture to a mainstream audience. The film did poorly at first, but later became a much-loved cult classic.

Maurice (1987)

Hugh Grant is best known for playing ladies' men in romantic comedies, but in 1987 he played a romantic of a different kind in this Merchant/Ivory film based on a groundbreaking Edwardian novel by EM Forster.

James Wilby starred as Maurice, a young man who falls in love with Grant's character, Clive Durham, while studying at Cambridge. Durham is worried about his reputation, insists their affair remain platonic and later marries a woman in order to secure his inheritance. But Maurice struggles to hide his true nature and later begins an affair with a gamekeeper.

Maurice explored both Edwardian and modern attitudes to gayness: at one point Maurice goes to his doctor to see if he can be cured.

Torch Song Trilogy (1988)

The complexities of gay life were memorably explored by Harvey Fierstein in this critically acclaimed film adapted from his own stage play. Torch Song Trilogy documents the life and loves of Arnold Beckoff (Fierstein), a New York drag queen who wants to live a normal life. After he falls in love with a male model called Alan (Matthew Broderick), the two set up home together and try to adopt a child.

But Alan is murdered in a homophobic attack, and the film climaxes in an epic battle between Arnold and his mother, who will not accept him as he is. Fierstein's film daringly placed a gay character at the centre of a conventional drama, and it worked.

My Own Private Idaho (1991)

Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix were both up-and-coming Hollywood stars when they took the considerable risk of appearing in Gus Van Sant's transgressive drama loosely based on Shakespeare's Henry IV plays.

Phoenix's role was the most demanding: he was Mike, a gay street hustler who falls in love with another hustler called Scott (Reeves) at a party in Seattle. The pair become firm friends and set off to find Mike's mother, but it transpires that Scott is the son of a rich man, and only a tourist in Mike's ugly world.

In the film's most famous scene, Mike makes a heartbreaking declaration of love to Scott at a campfire. It was the highlight of a brilliant performance from River Phoenix, who died just two years later.

Philadelphia (1993)

Hollywood was very slow to confront the Aids epidemic that swept the globe in the 1980s, and in this regard Jonathan Demme's Philadelphia was something of a landmark.

Tom Hanks starred as Andrew Beckett, a high-flying corporate lawyer who is fired from his job after a case he's handling is lost. Andrew thinks the real reason for his dismissal is that someone has found out that he's HIV positive, and decides to sue his old firm.

Denzel Washington played a lawyer who took on Andrew's case after overcoming his prejudices, and Philadelphia attempted to dispel the general ignorance about the disease.

But Hollywood still wasn't entirely at ease with gayness: Tom Hanks later said that scenes showing open affection between Andrew and his boyfriend were cut by the studio.

Brokeback Mountain (2005)

As we mentioned last week in a different context, Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain caused uproar among America's Christian right because of its sympathetic portrayal of a love affair between two men who hardly conformed to the usual gay stereotypes.

Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger starred as two sheepherders in 1960s Wyoming who fall in love during a long summer on the mountainside. Both men later get married but cannot forget one another, and it's implied that the only thing that's holding them apart is a fear of being socially ostracised.

Lee's film included not just sex scenes but overt displays of affection between male characters played by two major stars, and marked a significant shift in Hollywood's approach to homosexuality.

Milk (2008)

Gus Van Zant's Milk could be seen as a gay heritage film, because it celebrates the life and work of one of the most important gay activists of all. Harvey Milk moved to San Francisco from his native New York in the early 1970s in the hope of living a freer and fuller life with his boyfriend. But prejudice followed him, and the hostility and outright brutality he encounters from older locals and the police inspires him to stand for public office.

After two unsuccessful attempts, he was finally elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977, making him the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in the US. But in 1978 Milk was assassinated by a fellow supervisor who later committed suicide.

The Kids Are All Right (2010)

Lisa Cholodenko's 2010 hit comic drama shows just how far mainstream cinema has come in its treatment of gay culture and themes, because The Kids Are All Right treated a lesbian couple as an ordinary American family.

Julianne Moore and Annette Bening are Nic and Jules, a married lesbian couple who have two children by the same anonymous sperm donor.

The trouble starts when the teenage kids decide they want to find out who their father is.

They discover it's a handsome loner called Paul, who tries to bond with the kids but ends up having a fling with Jules.

Nic and Jules faced all the usual problems and arguments that heterosexual couples do, to the extent that it was almost possible to forget that this was a same-sex marriage.

pwhitington@independent.ie

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