Don't look now, but upfront homoeroticism seems to have arrived at the multiplex. Fancy a romp in the Australian outback with a troupe of drag queens? Try Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Or perhaps an exploration of the ambiguous boundaries of human sexuality, a Jules et Jim for the Nineties?
Try Threesome. Prefer your queer cinema with a bigger budget and bigger names? You won't have to wait long because coming soon is Interview with a Vampire starring Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt.
Just what is going on at the movies? Only a few months ago, if you wanted to see same-sex desire that was a text rather than a buddy-movie type subtext in a mainstream film you would have had to make do with the spayed, no- touching-please portrayal of the Hanks-Banderas relationship in Philadelphia. After the commercial success of the New Queer Cinema and the popularity of 'lesbian chic' and Go Fish, has Hollywood decided that the public is ready for what was always deemed unshowable in mainstream movies: male-male physical love?
Well, no. Not yet. What is playing at the multiplex right now is not upfront homoeroticism but downright dissimulation, the product of a dizzying sleight of hand. The promise of queerness is used to titillate and fascinate but - don't worry - actually turns out to be heterosexual.
Threesome, starring Stephen Baldwin, Josh Charles and Lara Flynn Boyle, about the triangle between two male college room-mates and a girl, is a classic of queer dissimilation. The film begins with a voiceover by Charles.
According to his dictionary 'deviant' is 'one who strays from the path'. The story which follows is about how 'for a while all three of us were deviants'.
In fact, the film delivers nothing of the sort. The catch-line on the posters may be 'One girl, two guys, three possibilities', but there are only ever two: Baldwin and Boyle, or Charles and Boyle. The much-hyped third possibility is never seriously on the cards. Even the long-awaited 'threesome', when it comes (in tasteful soft-focus), is an embarrassing repudiation of the threat that Charles poses to Baldwin's bubble- butt - Boyle is sandwiched between them like a high-voltage insulator. When 'homo' contact is finally made, its purpose is to defuse. While kissing Boyle, Charles gingerly reaches over and touches Baldwin's derriere. Baldwin takes his hand and replaces it on his hindquarters (to fade out). So Baldwin graciously allows his fag buddy to touch his butt while he balls Boyle - the only 'homo' contact in the whole film is not about sexual ambiguity, or even sex, but about tolerance.
The irony of Threesome is that, for all its younger generation hipness and self- confidence, it is Philadelphia all over again: a film which is a plea for the acceptance of homosexuals but which cannot bring itself to show homosexuality - and cannot even be honest about its intentions. The only deviance is where Charles, struggling against his homosexuality, sleeps with Boyle; here we are being didactically instructed that this is 'against his nature'.
Moving hastily out of Threesome into the adjoining theatre where Priscilla is showing, we experience more disappointment. Priscilla is a curious example of a film which is both very 'gay' and very straight. Raucous drag queens, fierce frocks, blue language, and a hilarious collision of Sydney Culture with Outback Nature - but no homo-desire, thank you very much. Only Terence Stamp's sour and feisty transsexual Bernadette (ie a 'woman') is allowed a hint of a sex life. She starts a romance with a sheep farmer abandoned by his ferocious Bangkok bar girl wife (and here, not for the first time, Priscilla comes perilously close to the misogynist trap of Neil Jordan's The Crying Game, arguing that men can make better women than women).
The nearest Priscilla comes to same- sex contact is when Felicia, alias Guy Pearce of Neighbours fame, is nearly raped by a queerbasher; but the horror of the moment is not just in its violence but the notion of (queer) sex raising its head at all. Even Pearce's never-off- the-screen pumped body is a disavowal of homoeroticism - no drag queen would virilise his body like this. Like his hammy queening, it serves to remind that the actor is playing a role - it's really nice Guy Pearce, the straight surfer dude out of Neighbours. And the only tender contact between males in the film is, safely, between father and son. That the loving father is one of the drag queens is rather adventurous, but the fact remains that homo-desire in this film is sublimated into outrageous frocks and an ache for acceptance by heterosexuals.
So should we wait with baited breath for Neil Jordan's much heralded Interview with a Vampire, a film featuring some of Hollywood's most desirable young men biting each other's necks? Surely a film with Tom Cruise as Lestat, Brad Pitt as his 'beautiful male companion' Louis, and Anthony Banderas as the older vampire with an interest in young Pitt, a film produced by America's first 'out' gay media mogul David Geffen, will 'come clean' about its homoeroticism?
The signals are at best mixed - which in itself suggests that we may be in for more queer dissimulation. Rumours abound that when all-American hero Cruise accepted the part of Lestat he insisted that all the 'gay stuff' be excised from the script. However, Anne Rice, author of the original and avowedly homoerotic novel, who loudly complained when the wholesome Cruise was cast, recently made an astonishing public recantation after viewing an early print, in which she stated that she was 'honoured and stunned to discover how faithful this film was to the spirit, the content, and the ambience of the novel'.
Nevertheless, Jordan himself recently complained to Vanity Fair, 'the homoerotic stuff is what everyone talks about, isn't it? But these guys are beyond sex. Their lust is for blood.' So that's okay, then - after all, a lust for blood is so much easier to portray, so much more natural, than lust between men. Cruise, apparently, has found his own way of sidestepping the issue. 'Lestat certainly loves Louis,' he admitted recently. 'He wants a companion . . . But, also, Lestat created this creature that Louis has become, so he is very fatherly about it.' In other words: it may look queer, but it's okay - this is really just heterosexuality again.
Mark Simpson's 'Male Impersonators: Men Performing Masculinity' is published by Cassell at pounds 12.99 (Photograph omitted)
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