It's 23 years since the late Vito Russo published his groundbreaking book about homosexuality in the movies, The Celluloid Closet. Later made into a documentary featuring everyone from Susan Sarandon to Harry Hamlin, the book has certainly dated. Read today, it seems awfully prescriptive. Russo's central thesis, that gay men and women have always been portrayed as one-dimensional figures, may have appeared true at the time, but fails to allow for the fact that some gay films, for example the much-maligned The Boys in the Band, were actually written by gay men who knew only too well the self-loathing stereotypes they were describing. Russo also forgets that one man's "negative image" might be another man's "own special creation", to quote from the popular gay anthem "I Am What I Am". But The Celluloid Closet still has much to recommend, not least its exhaustive account of how early films such as 1895's The Gay Brothers were celebrating gay relationships long before the Hays Code and the McCarthy witchhunts put a stop to positive representations of lesbians and gay men.
There have been several similar studies since, most notably the books of Richard Dyer, who combines academic insight with an obvious love of the movies. Now comes Out At The Movies. Subtitled "A History of Gay Cinema", Steven Paul Davies's book boasts a preface by Simon Callow, who played gay Gareth in Four Weddings and a Funeral. Somewhat self-congratulatory, Callow suggests that Gareth was "a new kind of gay character in films: not sensitive, not intuitive, kind and somehow deeply sad" and most importantly, "flamboyant but not camp". Well, I guess that depends on your definition of camp. For me Callow's fruity performance did as much to challenge gay stereotypes as those two interior designers who are forever throwing hissy fits on Channel Five.
Strictly speaking, this is not "A History of Gay Cinema" but "A History of Cinema Enjoyed by Gays". There are no gay characters in Mildred Pierce, for instance, and while Bette Davis may have earned her status as a gay icon, to compare her character in All About Eve to "every gay man who struggled to come out or get laid with a not-so-safe stranger" really is stretching things a bit.
Davies is better when he's drawing out the gay subtext of films such as Rebel Without a Cause, or tackling difficult films like William Friedkin's gay serial killer thriller Cruising, which has a reputation as one of the most homophobic films ever made – an opinion I have disagreed with on several occasions, and am pleased to see that Davies disagrees with too. As he points out, "gay life isn't always pretty rainbows, Pride marches and Will & Grace reruns." It certainly wasn't in 1980, which was the year Cruising came out. Rainbow flags and Will & Grace followed long afterwards.
It wasn't until the mid-Eighties that we began to see a steady stream of films dealing with real gay lives – and deaths. Aids brought homosexuality out of the shadows and into the headlines, and gave a greater urgency to gay film-making. Independent films such as Parting Glances helped pave the way for the Hollywood treatment of Aids in Philadelphia (1993). Meanwhile, British films such as My Beautiful Launderette and Prick Up Your Ears showed gay men in many different lights, some more flattering than others.
While the 1990s brought us the self-consciously transgressive films dubbed New Queer Cinema, the decade also saw gay men – or at least, drag queens – go mainstream in the films Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar. It also saw the appearance of sexy lesbians, like Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly in Bound, a far cry from frumpy old Beryl Reid in The Killing of Sister George. And who can forget Beautiful Thing, which arrived like a breath of fresh air, even if it was set on a housing estate in Thamesmead?
Since 2000, there have been a glut of gay romantic comedies, most of them pretty lame and designed to please the happy-clappy brigade who enjoy watching cute boys with their shirts off. But the defining moment was the release in 2005 of Brokeback Mountain. Gay critics are divided on the film. Some say that it merely retreads familiar territory, with the main characters ending up dead or grieving; but others celebrate the fact that two sexually attractive, leading Hollywood actors playing a sympathetic gay couple represents a major leap forward. I'm in the latter camp. And so, I'm glad to see, is Davies. Now all we need is for some sexually-attractive, leading Hollywood actor to come out of the closet. But that may take some time yet.
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