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.”
Needless to say, Hensher is being cheeky. All the actors he mentioned lived and worked in an era when the closet was an unavoidable reality and living a free and open gay life well nigh an idle dream. But that dream is now a reality, and in coming to grips with it, the speculation and whispers of the past are being reconfigured as matters of simple fact. Those guys were gay. Deal with it. More importantly, today’s out gay actors — Chad Allen, Craig Chester, Mitchell Anderson, Dan Butler, David Drake and Peter Paige — have to deal with the “incredible fact” that they’ve been left to fend for themselves in indie and pay-TV climes. But when it comes to parts like Ennis Del Mar, Jack Twist and Truman Capote, they’re not even going to get an audition. Only heterosexuals need apply.
Yes, things have changed, but not all that much, as Craig Lucas shows in his deliciously mean-spirited The Dying Gaul. In a key scene, Campbell Scott’s scheming bisexual producer tells Peter Sarsgaard’s sensitive gay writer, “No one goes to the movies to have a bad time, or to learn anything,” before going on to declare matter-of-factly: “Americans hate gay people.”
“What about Philadelphia?” Sarsgaard counters.
“Philadelphia was about a man who hated gay people,” Scott replies.
But Scott’s most telling remark comes as he prepares to seduce Sarsgaard (far more graphically than Ledger does Gyllenhaal): “You can do anything you want — just so long as you don’t call it by its name.”
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And the name you can’t use around a gay movie called Brokeback Mountain is “gay.” Critic after critic has enthused that the film is at heart about “two people in love” who “just happen to be men.”
Yeah, right. Tell it to Antonin Scalia!
“The magnificent thing, though,” notes novelist Rick Moody (hardly a disinterested party, given that it was Lee who brought his suburban-angst tale The Ice Storm to the screen), also writing in The Guardian, “that happens . . . during the unraveling marriages of these two men, as the film hastens toward its heart-rending completion, is that you stop thinking of these men as men, or gay men, or whatever, and you start thinking about them only as human beings, people who long for something, for some kind of union they are never likely to have.”
In the immortal words of my favorite drag queen, Bugs Bunny, “Oh, Prunella!”