Speaking about the paucity of gays and lesbians onscreen in the 1995 documentary The Celluloid Closet, film historian Jan Oxenberg comments, 'We are starved for images of ourselves on the screen.' When it comes to mainstream Hollywood films, unfortunately, that's still pretty much the case.
The Celluloid Closet is a primer for anyone wishing to see the way we were in the last 100 years of cinema history. Mostly the way we weren't—because for much of that time the 'Moral Code' kept us off the screen.
Movie-going was one of America's great, shared pastimes (still is) and in the dark no one knew how intensely you were looking at Cary Grant or Robert Redford, Marilyn Monroe or Sophia Loren. Films were a safe haven for gays and lesbians to not only revel in the physical beauty of the actors on the screen but also, to let their imaginations reinvent what they were seeing. It became part of the gay and lesbian film-going experience to subconsciously wedge oneself into the place of the characters and the stories as they were played out on an alternate, lavender screen.
When I was growing up, it was second nature to conceive of completely different scenarios for even the most macho of screen archetypes. However, although John Wayne did have that girlish saunter, it was still tough to picture getting it on with him. But not so Michael Anderson, Jr., James Caan or one of the Duke's other too-pretty younger generation gunslinger-toadys. So, when Caan wrestled with wildcat Michele Carey in the barn in the western El Dorado it was easy stuff to transport oneself into her place in the hayloft, pinned under Caan's rippling biceps. Lesbians simply had to switch the fantasy around to make it work for them (and if her character, named Joey MacDonald, doesn't scream butch-femme, then Judy Garland was not married to lots of gay guys.)
I saw El Dorado in 1967 when I was 10 and that was the first of hundreds of gay storylines and subplots that I've superimposed on straight, mainstream films since. After awhile, it became a matter of course. I knew that Luke Skywalker and Han Solo were meant for each other until Princess Leia showed up and spoiled everything, for example. And show me the lesbian film fanatic that doesn't read Foxes and Little Darlings as coming-of-age dyke stories. When I talk with my gay and lesbian friends and mention this they all nod their heads—they find the fantasy and subtext in the straight product, too. My straight friends do this projecting as well—it's part of the innate lure of movies, after all. They just don't have to use quite as much imagination.
With the rise of queer cinema it would seem that the need for this fanciful undertone would have evaporated but the opposite has happened. As gay culture inches ever closer to the mainstream, it's like a feeding frenzy for the imagination is taking place. Besides, it's much too much fun to let go of this whimsical gay conjecture. Thus, The Lord of the Rings becomes the gayest movie of all time: Frodo and Sam were lovers. Gollum was their sexual servant. Gandalf and Saruman were ex-lovers, taking out their messy break-up on each other. Saruman built himself the studly Uruks for his own pleasure—just like Frank N. Furter built the blond Adonis in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Ad nauseum.Read more story below....
People tell me that Hollywood and independent cinema are world's apart—that queer films are the only place where we can see true images and stories of ourselves—that we must be patient and be happy because we've taken gigantic steps in the last almost 10 years since the release of The Celluloid Closet. Blah blah blah.
However, until the day—and I think it will happen in my lifetime—that some James Caan-Hugh Jackman-male ingénue type erotic wrestles on the floor with his lover-mentor John Wayne-Denzel Washington-Thomas Jane after they've killed the bad guys in a $150 million dollar mega blockbuster movie (or Julia Roberts with her lover Kirsten Dunst)—and not in some nice little film seen by 15 people on Tuesday—my imagination is going to continue holding sway.
So forgive me if I refuse to be satisfied seeing gays and lesbians shunted off into a cinematic subculture. Not that I haven't loved The Fluffer and But I'm A Cheerleader and Big Eden and look forward to more more more—don't get me wrong. It's just that I know better. Life is grander, larger, richer, and much more colorful because we're part of it. New slogan: 'We're here, we're queer and we're in the movies.'
And have always been—one way or another.
Richard Knight, Jr. is a certifiable cinema nut with an interest in movies that encompasses everything from Elizabeth Taylor to Elizabeth Hurley. He was film critic for I Do I Do, a couples radio talk show on WCKG-FM from 1999-2002. Knight's 18-year career as a freelance writer for the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Reader, and New City has included everything from celebrity profiles to subculture pieces. As alter ego Dick O'Day, Knight spent six years as a correspondent with WTTW's Wild Chicago and won two Emmys for his segments on the show. He is working on two books about his favorite subject: Film Camp: Notes on Essential Camp Movie Classics and The Movie Diary, a book of film essays.