By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
The last straw broke two weeks ago when my friend (and fellow journalist) Bob Hofler tried to make plans to go to an afternoon showing with someone who informed him, “Oh, no — I’m going to be there for the very first one at 10 a.m.” It was, Bob told me, as if his friend were “going to vote in an election.” And indeed, that’s what it’s come down to. In the wake of three decades of gay-rights activism in which thousands fought and many died, we are solemnly informed by Frank Rich that a Hollywood movie “is a landmark in the troubled history of America’s relationship to homosexuality.” Oh, yes, Brokeback Mountain is so much more important than Lawrence v. Texas, the 2003 Supreme Court decision ending sodomy laws nationwide!
Unless you’ve been tending a sheep pasture since September, you’ve doubtless heard about Ang Lee’s adaptation of E. Annie Proulx’s New Yorker short story that, according to Newsweek’s puff-adept Sean Smith, “caused a sensation. . . . Its raw masculinity, spare dialogue and lonely imagery subverted the myth of the American cowboy and obliterated gay stereotypes.” You mean like Montgomery Clift in Red River or James Dean and Rock Hudson in Giant? How about Tosh Carillo in Andy Warhol’s Horse? Across the wide cinematic prairie, there’s nothing but gay stereotypes when it comes to cowboys, and Brokeback Mountain is no exception — what with Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal eyeing each other as they stand outside their boss’s office striking poses redolent of a Sunday “Beer Bust” at the Faultline in Silver Lake.
But readers of The New York Times aren’t supposed to know about such things. That’s why the “newspaper of (exceedingly faulty) record” sent fashionista Guy Trebay to talk to “real life” closeted cowpokes, one of whom proudly declared, “I’m a man’s man. I’m not feminine at all.” Sure. Just like those personal ads: “Straight-acting, straight-appearing, no fats or fems.” The record will show that no “man’s men” were present at Stonewall, where out and proud drag queens — far tougher than Brokeback’s poseurs — took on the cops, and jump-started a movement that now seeks to write their politically incorrect effeminacy out of gay history. But why look back? To hear it from Frank Rich, Brokeback “brings something different to the pop culture marketplace at just the pivotal moment to catch a wave.”
The crest of that wave, however, is something not that new at all — “slash” fiction. This genre of homemade homoerotica, confected by and for women, began in the 1970s (and became the subject of many a post-feminist academic paper in the 1980s) by offering gay sexual fantasies involving Star Trek characters. Today “slash” incorporates everything from The X-Files (David Duchovny being seduced by male aliens) to imaginary same-sex-capades by members of the band Franz Ferdinand. Yes, “the sisters are doing it for themselves,” and never more so than in Japan with “Yaoi” — a female-created (and -consumed) publishing genre encompassing homoerotic novels, short stories and manga animation that emerged in the wake of that country’s recognition of gays as a sociopolitical entity 20 years ago. It’s why Merchant Ivory’s Maurice was a hit there, and why primary financing for Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho was Japanese.
That Brokeback Mountain is Japan-bound goes without saying. But it’s surely going to sweep the Oscars too, and break the $100 million mark at the box office. For its “daring” is that of a Stanley Kramer production, while its “slash” is perfectly in keeping with the sort of slosh found in women’s fiction of yore. Heath Ledger’s faithful Ennis Del Mar waits for Jake Gyllenhaal’s straying Jack Twist and his “fishing trip” invites just as Irene Dunne pined away for a “drop-in” from her married lover, John Boles, in 1932’s Back Street. But we’re not supposed to speak of such things, living as we do in what Gore Vidal calls “The United States of Amnesia.” We’re instead encouraged to ignore the precedents shattered by three decades of truly groundbreaking queer films — with Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971) leading a pack that also includes My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), Parting Glances (1986), Todd Haynes’ Poison (1991) and Velvet Goldmine (1998), Gus Van Sant’s Mala Noche (1985) and My Own Private Idaho (1991), Savage Nights (1992), The Long Day Closes (1992), Wild Reeds (1994), Urbania (2000), Les Passagers (1999), Patrice Chereau’s L’Homme Blesse (1983) and Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train (1998), Kinsey (2004), and, just this year, Tropical Malady and Mysterious Skin. No, what’s really supposed to be important is the saddle-packing same-sex equivalent of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.
Newsweek’s Smith is simply agog at how “Gyllenhaal and Ledger don’t dodge it. The kissing and the sex scenes are fierce and full-blooded. But if the actors were taking a risk, they sure don’t seem to think so.” Goodness, you’d swear the thing starred Tom Cruise and Kevin Spacey.
And what about gay actors playing gay roles? Is it beyond their ken? Would they be open to accusations of “simply being themselves” rather than “really acting”? In a marvelously irreverent article published in The Guardian called “Gay for Today,” writer Philip Hensher put it best: “There are no gay actors — or at least, there weren’t until Nathan Lane, to everyone’s utter incredulity, came out. Of course, there were gay actors in America’s past — James Dean, Cary Grant, Dirk Bogarde, Rock Hudson, Danny Kaye. Plenty of them, in fact. But, for whatever reason, there’s hardly a single gay actor of recognizable stature working in Hollywood. An incredible fact.”
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