Gay Cinema: The story so far

Brokeback Mountain, a love story between two male cowboys, is up for seven Golden Globe awards. Surprised? Don't be. Same-sex affairs are this year's film storyline of choice,says John Walsh
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The Independent Culture

How much do you want to see Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal having sex on the cinema screen in Brokeback Mountain? Will it make you feel uncomfortable, transgressive, paddling in the dangerous streams of outré sexuality? If the actors were famously "real-life" homosexuals, would you feel happier about watching them, since your function, sitting there in the stalls, would be uncomplicatedly voyeuristic. Since they're both quite famously heterosexual, does the appeal of seeing them - sans working shirts and pants, rooting each other in the dark, their naked bodies discreetly veiled by shadow - lie in admiring the conviction of their acting (are Heath's nostrils distended enough? Are Jake's manly gasps sufficiently wrung from him?) or in wondering whether the boundaries of gayness and straightness in one's own life are more fuzzy than one might think.

Whatever the reason, same-sex relationships are currently the hot theme in the movies. Where once, movies that took gay and lesbian matters seriously, rather than as a shocking and/or comic turn, were confined to the European art-house (the work of Pasolini, Fassbinder, Jarman) or to terrible American B-movies, today, narratives of gay relationships are taking over the mainstream movie world. Brokeback Mountain - about two ranch-hands in Wyoming who fall gruffly in love in 1962 and pursue a secret affair for years while marrying (women), raising children and getting divorced over 30 years - picked up the award for Best Picture from the LA Film Critics' Association and its director, Ang Lee, got Best Director. And yesterday it was nominated for seven Golden Globe awards. Elsewhere, Philip Seymour Hoffman was named Best Actor for his impersonation of Truman Capote, the Louisianan exquisite, in the film Capote. Much anticipated are three other movies with gay leads played by heterosexuals: Breakfast on Pluto, taken from Patrick McCabe's novel and starring Cillian Murphy as a Northern Irish transvestite; The Dying Gaul with Peter Sarsgaard as a gay screen writer and the hugely-praised Transamerica with Felicity Huffman playing a man undergoing transgendering surgery.

The importance of Brokeback Mountain lies not in its controversial and explicit depictions of sex, but the fact that the central relationship, with its concealments and traumas, is being offered to mainstream audiences with an expectation of absolute sympathy. "It will be moving for anyone who is open to seeing the challenges and difficulties of what at that time, and even for many today, is the self-imposed and society-imposed necessity to live dishonestly," said Neil Giuliano, president of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance against Defamation, which monitors the way same-sex partnerships are represented in the media and received by audiences. Not everyone shares his enthusiasm. On Good Morning America, earlier this week, Michael Medved, the right-wing critic, said bluntly: "This is going to be a very tough movie to sell. For most American guys who are not gay, there's a 'yewwwww' factor to the idea of Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger getting too up-close and personal onscreen."

Oh yeah? The history of cinema is crammed with same-sex encounters that, while not involving exchanges of bodily fluids, are stiff with gay flirtation. Like Stephen Boyd and Charlton Heston in Ben-Hur (scripted by Gore Vidal, who later dined out on Heston's innocent naivete about the things he was saying). Or the exchange in Red River between Montgomery Clift and John Ireland as two young gunslingers, who give each other their respective pearl-handled weapons to fondle (and shoot), and change the subject, if women ever come up in conversation.

In British movies, the theme of homosexuality was utterly anathema, although high camp was acceptable (Kenneth Williams and Charles Hawtree in the Carry On movies aren't gay, of course - they're sissies.) But it was the British movie Victim that put down a marker for the serious consideration of homosexuality at a time (1961) when being outed could lead to a prison sentence. The film starred Dirk Bogarde, bravely shedding his usual film persona as super-straight romantic lead, as a gay barrister being blackmailed by a male lover who kills himself. When the police come a-calling, Bogarde elects to tell the truth and take the consequences. The film was extraordinary for two scenes. In one the barrister explains to his wife the ins and outs of gay desire ("...and I wanted him! I wanted him, as a man wants a girl!") in a ferocious snarl that suggested something unwontedly violent. The other scene features a gentlemen's club of posh homosexuals who drink sherry and speak in veddy, veddy clipped tones about "our sort" in a kind of tuxedoed freemasonry. In insisting that there were a lot of them around, however, the film did a service to the gay community - despite the fact that the director, Basil Dearden, was just a teensy bit homophobic and called gays "sexual inverts".

Gay movies that were played for camp laughs (Pink Flamingoes, La Cage Aux Folles, Victor/Victoria, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) have tended to play better with audiences over the years than movies that foreground gay relationships; in the Sixties and Seventies, the latter tended to be gruellingly bitchy and filled with self-loathing (The Boys in the Band, Cruising, Dog Day Afternoon, Staircase - with Rex Harrison and Richard Burton as two gay Brixton hairdressers). A major breakthrough was hailed in 1993, however, with Philadelphia, a major movie about Aids that starred an A-list Hollywood star - Tom Hanks - as the stricken Andrew Beckett, and sought a mainstream audience by looking at issues around the subject of Aids without demanding special sympathy for the central figure's plight. It made $77m in the US, drawing the attention of studio heads to the newly-discovered non-homophobia of a large US audience. Gay rights leaders have been invoking Philadelphia as the film that knocked down barriers, just as they hope Brokeback Mountain will do.

Some recent films with gay components have not done the gay rights world many favours. In American Beauty, Lester Burnham (played by Kevin Spacey) is shot in the head because he rejects the advance of the retired US army colonel living next door - an alarming punishment for turning down a gay snog - while the foregrounding of Colin Farrell's world-grabbing sexuality in the Oliver Stone epic, Alexander, was greeted with cries of ribaldry and scorn by most critics.

It remains to be seen whether 45 years of stereotyping will be overturned by Brokeback Mountain, or whether US cinemas will be full of leather-scented Arizona cowpokes and wintry-faced Utah wranglers shedding a manly tear as Ennis penetrates Jack for the first time. But it's definitely forcing middle America to take a fresh look at its preconceptions about sexual orientation and human love. "I know for a fact that it's going to make [the] love between two men real, for the first time, for tens of thousands of Americans," said Matt Foreman, of the US National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. "In order to move people from not understanding or being supportive of [same-sex] marriage to being supportive is a series of small steps - not a lot, but two or three. I think Brokeback Mountain is one of those steps."