The year 1969 bifurcates homo history: The Stonewall rebellion that June launched the modern LGBTQ-rights movement. The pivotal summer uprising has come to demarcate the eras of “bad” and “good” representations of queer life on screen, a Manichean tendency that animates Vito Russo’s crucial 1981 compendium, The Celluloid Closet, and that still endures to some extent today. But “An Early Clue to the New Direction: Queer Cinema Before Stonewall,” the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s vast and revelatory survey, reminds us that complex bent characters and story lines could be found at the movies even during less tolerant times. Spanning decades, nations, and genres, the series advances the idea that queer screen imagery, not all of it ghastly or baleful, stretches all the way back to 1895, to the birth of cinema itself: Made that year, the seventeen-second-long Dickson Experimental Sound Film, the earliest title in the retrospective, shows two men affectionately dancing with each other.
Coincidentally, 1895 is also the year that Oscar Wilde was imprisoned for “gross indecency,” another landmark event in the annals of sexual deviancy. That preeminent aesthete, not surprisingly, serves as the inspiration for one of the queerest films in the lineup: Charles Bryant and Alla Nazimova’s Salomé (1923), a feverishly stylized adaptation of Wilde’s 1891 play of the same name, about the infamous New Testament seductress. Heightening the movie’s delirium is the fact that the teenage protagonist is played by a 42-year-old Nazimova, the Russian stage and screen she-titan who was also the unofficial hostess of Hollywood’s lesbian community in the 1920s. The actress hired Natacha Rambova, rumored to be her lover, to design the film’s outré sets and costumes, all of which mimic the sinister, sensual Aubrey Beardsley illustrations often printed with Wilde’s text. Confined to one elaborate set, Bryant and Nazimova’s movie, like Beardsley’s drawings, upends fixed frames of reference and blurs binaries: Gender, body parts, sexuality, and performance styles are all unmoored from convention.
A similar kind of fluidity and subversion dominates the experimental works in the FSLC retrospective. Andrew Meyer’s An Early Clue to the New Direction (1966; the title repurposes a line from A Hard Day’s Night) not only provides the program with its name but also features the roster’s most charismatic intergenerational cast. Filmed in Boston, An Early Clue brings together the felicitously named Joy Bang, playing a twentysomething who frugs hard for the money at a local discotheque, and Prescott Townsend, a wizened, elaborately bearded sage. The elder, who here riffs on his real-life role as a pioneering gay-rights activist in Massachusetts, enchants his young, curvy friend with his “snowflake theory” of human sexuality: “The he and she are in everybody.” Slinking in the background of this densely packed thirty-minute delight is Rene Ricard, then a prominent habitué of Andy Warhol’s Factory; in Meyer’s film, he is fretted and lusted over.
Mario Montez, Warhol’s first drag-queen superstar, serves as a sort of bewigged ambassador for the pre-Stonewall series, appearing in three titles. Credited as “Dolores Flores,” a dancing Montez stands out from the writhing bodies in Jack Smith’s underground polysexual opus Flaming Creatures (1963). The actor’s brilliantly guileless performance style, accentuated by his deep love of Old Hollywood glamour, made Montez perfect to “play” disgraced Tinseltown goddesses, as he did in several films by Warhol and in Lupe (1966), his sole collaboration with José Rodriguez-Soltero. In this effulgent, high-camp recounting of the short life and ignominious end of Mexican actress Lupe Vélez, Montez is resplendent in an array of cherry-red ensembles, exulting offscreen, “I’m going to be a movie star again! I am!” The cinema-besotted actor also makes a memorable, typically ungainly appearance in Frank Simon’s riveting drag-competition documentary The Queen (1967): Sporting a ratty peruke, thick maquillage, and five o’clock shadow, Montez is introduced as “a hell of a nice guy” by pageant organizer and emcee Jack Doroshow, a/k/a Flawless Sabrina (who is interviewed by Michael Musto here).
The statutes that Wilde was convicted of violating at the end of the nineteenth century were still on the books in the U.K. in 1961, the year that Basil Dearden’s Victim was released (the laws would eventually be overturned in 1967). The London-set film not only marks the first time that the words homosexual and homosexuality were uttered in a feature but also stands as one of the first commercial movies to plead tolerance for same-sexing between consenting adults. Victim unspools as a thriller about Melville Farr (Dirk Bogarde), a married, extraordinarily virtuous barrister on the d.l. who refuses to succumb to a blackmailer. Though burdened occasionally by the heavy-handed dialogue typical of social-awareness dramas, Victim remains a thoughtful, sober work. The corrosive effects of the closet are unsparingly examined across class lines and age groups, and the scenes between Farr and his wife, who is fully aware of her spouse’s gay past (and present), reveal them both to be casualties of enforced silence and attendant deception.
Another London-based film released later that decade, Robert Aldrich’s The Killing of Sister George (1968), focuses on a far more fractious couple: middle-aged, randy butch George, née June Buckridge (Beryl Reid), and Childie (Susannah Yorke), her much younger femme lover, so nicknamed because of her obsessive attachment to her doll collection. Rupturing the relationship is imperious BBC executive Mercy Croft (Coral Browne), who, after telling George that the kindhearted nurse character she plays on a popular soap opera is going to die, proceeds to diddle Childie and spirit her away.
The two-minute “sex” scene between Mercy and Childie earned Aldrich’s movie an X rating; it may be the worst sequence of sapphic seduction ever filmed. Nor does the depiction of George and Childie’s domestic life — defined by hurled scones and sadomasochistic rituals involving the consumption of cigar butts — make The Killing of Sister George a contender for any retroactive GLAAD media awards. And yet this baffling, completely absorbing movie also resolutely celebrates dykes. (For more on Sister George‘s central contradiction and other lez touchstones in the Film Society program, please see my conversation with Terry Castle). Though she has lost both her job and her girlfriend, George never compromises herself or exploits others; in fact, this stroppy, tweedy tribadist is redeemed by her unwavering commitment to her sexuality. Just as devoted to twilight love and life are the actual club patrons of the Gateways Club — a real lavender nightspot on Kings Road — who were used as extras in a pivotal scene that Aldrich shot there. To this viewer, the Gateways (which closed in 1985) looks like lesbo utopia: The all-female house band plays both fast and slow; ladies flirt skillfully; a multiracial group of women, young and old, packs the dance floor. Less than a year after Aldrich’s film premiered — and 3,500 miles away from the Gateways — the shimmying regulars at another crowded boîte, the only gay bar in New York that permitted men to dance with one another, would become insurrectionists.
‘An Early Clue to the New Direction: Queer Cinema Before Stonewall’
Film Society of Lincoln Center
April 22-May 1