The Closet Syndrome: Gays in Hollywood
June 25, 1979
In January 1969, Variety screeched: HOMO N’ LESBO FILMS AT PEAK — DEVIATE THEME NOW BOX OFFICE. It was the year of The Boys in the Band, the culmination of a decade in which Hollywood seized upon homosexuality as a seamier side of the American dream. In one year, 1968, there were more films dealing with homosexuality than in the three decades since the coming of sound. Lesbians and gay men in the movies were pathological, predatory, and dangerous; we were villains and fools, but never heroes. It was sideshow time.
In The Legend of Lylah Clare, Rosella Falk played a cobra-eyed, dope-addicted dyke with the hots for Kim Novak. In Petulia, Richard Chamberlain was the wife-beater with a lech for young boys. Rod Steiger blew his brains out after kissing John Philip Law in The Sergeant. Sandy Dennis died when a tree fell between her legs in The Fox. Homosexuals were prime suspects in The Boston Strangler, rapists in Riot, and hairdressers or queens in No Way to Treat a Lady and Valley of the Dolls. Fear, hiding, and self-destruction — the closet syndrome — were implicit in all these films. Homosexuality was the dirty secret in the last real.
The mechanism of the closet is exposed in Robert Aldrich’s The Killing of Sister George in which the alternative to invisibility is assimilation. Beryl Reid’s George is “killed” by the safely closeted BBC exec Coral Browne, who uses sex as power to take away her lover and her career. The crime of fat, drunken, tweedy old George is not that she’s a lesbian, but that she’s so repugnantly butch. She is ruined for not “passing.” The ethic of the closet is also advanced in The Boys in the Band, which coincided neatly with the birth of the activist gay movement in America. “If we could just not hate ourselves so much.” Mart Crowley’s passion play was a catharsis. The ’60s had pried open the closet door.
Ten years later, the gay audience has been courted by almost every medium, even when it has not been openly acknowledged. Plays, books, magazines, and even television shows have presented a steady stream of real and fictional gay situations. But at the movies, very little has changed. During the ’70s, gays died violent deaths in Diamonds Are Forever, The Day of the Jackal, Freebie and the Bean, The Eiger Sanction, Swashbuckler and even Truffaut’s Day for Night. We were psychotic killers and tearoom cruisers in The Laughing Policeman and Busting. Fags and dykes were evil white slavers in Drum and Mandingo, gang leaders and dope pushers in Cleopatra Jones. We were “cured” in M*A*S*H and Tell Me That You Love Me Junie Moon, and committed suicide in Ode to Billy Joe, Play It As It Lays and The Betsy. Another decade of villains and fools. But still no heroes.
American screen heroes have changed very little since 1945 when Billy Wilder directed Charles Jackson’s The Lost Weekend for Paramount. In Jackson’s novel the hero’s alcoholism is the result of a father fixation aggravated by false accusation of homosexuality. Onscreen, he is driven to drink by writer’s cramp. The film’s producer best articulated the reason for this change. “If the drunk isn’t an extremely attractive fellow, who apart from being a drunk could be a hell of a nice guy, the audiences won’t go for it.” The hero can’t be queer.
In 1961 Dwight Macdonald reported in Esquire that screenwriter George Axelrod had “straightened out” the Truman Capote character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s for George Peppard. In 1965, references to the unorthodox sexuality of Clyde Barrow were trimmed from the original script for Bonnie and Clyde. Warren Beatty could play an impotent killer, but not a queer. In 1975, Billy Joe McAllister took his secret to a watery grave in Ode to Billy Joe. “He’s on his way to becoming a legend around here,” says his girlfriend. “Can’t have people thinking he killed himself because of a man.” When Alan Parker directed Billy Hayes’s Midnight Express in 1979, it happened again. The consummation of a homosexual affair which Hayes describes in his book is halted in the film by a gentle but manly rejection. “I made that decision,” says Parker, “because I couldn’t afford to have my audience think my hero was a homosexual.”
Gay fiction is big business, but not one homosexual hero has reached the screen. Film projects based on the life story of tennis star Bill Tilden and James Kirkwood’s Good Times/Bad Times were repeatedly announced in the trade press, but never materialized. According to Andrew Sarris, the Tilden project was dropped because of “nervousness about its unsavory nature.” Producers Ira Yerkes and Amie Reisman told the Los Angeles Times in April 1978 that “Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle will be made into a film even if we have to go kicking and screaming into the next decade with it.” Their option recently expired and there are no new offers. Ray Agayhari tried for three years to get a film version of Laura Z. Robson’s Consenting Adult off the ground. The story of a mother who must come to terms with her son’s homosexuality “was turned down by all the major studios with enormous promptness,” according to the author. Hobson could sell Jews to Hollywood in 1947 when she wrote Gentleman’s Agreement, but she couldn’t sell them gays in 1979. “They’re scared to death of this one,” she says. Now the story has been optioned for the New York stage.
The most celebrated failure to produce a film from gay fiction involves Patricia Nell Warren’s bestseller, The Front Runner. Originally optioned by Paul Newman, it was finally dropped when problems arose in obtaining an acceptable screenplay. “I’m not ready for a cop-out,” said Newman in a Blueboy interview. “I won’t tolerate this project being turned into a watered-down love story or substituting a female for Billy, as has been suggested by people who should know better.”
All proposed versions of The Front Runner have included sex between the Olympic runner and his coach, which is the reason it’s been so difficult to cast. “I was willing to do it,” said Richard Thomas, approached to play opposite Newman, “but a lot of key people are afraid.” Most actors are as reluctant as ever to play homosexuals for fear that the audience will confuse them with their roles. When Perry King was about to accept the role of a gay man in A Different Story, he was warned by his friend Sylvester Stallone, “Don’t play no faggots.” Michael Winner’s The Mechanic was originally a story about the love between two professional killers, but Charles Bronson and Jan Michael Vincent agreed to do it only after explicit sex scenes had been deleted from the script.
To do otherwise might have doomed the film. John Schlesinger had the effrontery to show Peter Finch and Murray Head kissing on the lips in Sunday Bloody Sunday and people stayed away in droves. Al Pacino carried Dog Day Afternoon, but Sidney Lumet was careful to wait until halfway through the film before letting his audience know the bank robber’s sexuality. And in most local theaters the reaction was a chorus of catcalls and boos. As Pacino says in the film when John Cazale complains that the TV is calling him a homosexual, “It doesn’t matter, Sal. It’s only a freak show to them.”
What has changed is the heterosexual hero. “Men never used to be able to have emotional lives on film; now they do,” says Ron Gold, media adviser for the National Gay Task Force. “Look at Coming Home, The Deerhunter, and even Saturday Night Fever. As we move into a redefinition of roles in the movies, gayness will become more acceptable.”
Yet, the fact that heterosexuals are more vulnerable on the screen has produced a hesitancy about homosexuality. There is a defensiveness in the way audiences cheer all the violence in Midnight Express and yell “Gross!” and “Disgusting!” when the gay scene comes on. A musical number like “White Boys” can serve as delightful burlesque in a film like Hair, but when Woof is asked if he’s homosexual, the answer is a resounding no. He wouldn’t throw Mick Jagger out of bed, but he’s not queer. John Travolta can dance up a storm in Saturday Night Fever, and even be the kind of hero who refuses to taunt a local faggot on the street. But in Moment by Moment, he goes too far. His “passive” role drew critical wrath clearly aimed at the abdication of his masculinity. David Denby termed him “Jane Russell with a hairy chest — a bimbo.” Stewart Klein chided director Jane Wagner for “knowing nothing about heterosexual relations.” More recently, Klein attacked the French film, La Cage Aux Folles, by implying that only a gay critic could find its role reversal jokes funny.
The waters are being continuously tested. When Casablanca Filmworks recently pre-tested its disco film, Thank God It’s Friday, in the Midwest, producer Kenny Freidman studied the reaction of audiences to a scene of two gay men dancing together amid a sea of heterosexual couples. He found that the gays in the audience “got it” and the straights “never saw a thing.” Which is exactly what he wanted. If there had been any negative reaction, the scene would have been dropped.
Deletions have been common in other films. The lover relationship between William Devane and Roy Scheider in Marathon Man was simply not retained. An Unmarried Woman lost a sequence which made concrete the lesbianism of Jill Clayburgh’s therapist. According to screenwriter Arthur Laurents, a subplot in The Turning Point involving a long-term gay relationship was excised by nervous Herb Ross, a director whose work, The Owl and the Pussycat, Funny Lady, and The Goodbye Girl, has been consistently homophobic. “It wasn’t even a question of saying anything in The Turning Point, ” says Laurents. “It was just my feeling that it was dishonest and lacking in texture to do a movie about the ballet world and not have homosexuals.”
One reason gays haven’t fared well in films, says John Watson of the Los Angeles Times, is that “closeted homosexuals working within the industry obstruct projects that have positive gay themes.” After several attempts to interview gay people at various film companies, I asked a woman in charge of advertising and promotion for the Robert Stigwood Organization (Tommy, Saturday Night Fever, Moment by Moment) if there were any openly gay people in the film industry. She was incredulous. “But nobody is openly anything!” she said.
Recent announcements in the Hollywood trade press that Grease impresario Alan Carr was planning a “gay-themed” film about the rise of The Village People drew swift demands for a retraction. Discoland: Where the Music Never Stops, which begins shooting on Fire Island on August 1, will chronicle the rise of The Village People against the backdrop of a love affair between Bruce Jenner and Valerie Perrine. Bruce Vilanch, co-author of the screenplay, has written for Bette Midler and Peter Allen, and is responsible for an album of gay humor called Out of the Closets. He confirms what I was told on the telephone: “Discoland was never conceived as a gay project. The few gay characters in the film will not appear in any sexual situation unless it’s a heterosexual one. We had to absolutely steer away from that. Trying to have a gay hero is the easiest way to write yourself a flop.”
But what about gays who are victims of their own villainy? William Friedkin, who directed The Boys in the Band 10 years ago, is scheduled to begin shooting Gerald Walker’s 1970 novel, Cruising, in New York this summer. Friedkin has been scouring New York’s gay ghetto, scouting locations like The Mine Shaft, The Anvil, and the waterfront as background for the story of a psychotic killer who murders gay men. Since Friedkin has written the screenplay himself and reportedly thrown out the entire book with the exception of the three main characters, nobody is sure how Cruising will turn out. Author Gerald Walker hasn’t seen the screenplay and knows only what he reads in the papers. “It’s a novel about homophobia,” he says, “about how we hate and fear and try to destroy in others what we hate and fear in ourselves.” But one studio executive speculated that Cruising would be a “cross between The French Connection and The Boys in the Band.”
Meanwhile, the New York gay community seems to be going out of its way to be cooperative. It’s reported that Friedkin even got permission to shoot in The Mine Shaft, usually very touchy about privacy. A few weeks ago, a casting call went out for over 200 extras. Word was that they were looking for costume types — clones, leathermen, and handkerchiefed street cruisers — and that extras were being given 15-minute interviews, unheard of in casting circles. One actor who showed for an audition reported that two employees of The Mine Shaft were present in full dress leather. The casting woman remarked at one point that they would probably have to make a deal with the Screen Actor’s Guild because “SAG extras don’t want to do what’s required.”
So far, no actor has been signed to play the murderer who spends his time looking at old movies with submerged gay themes — like Strangers on a Train — before going out to kill. Al Pacino has accepted the role of the detective (described in the book as “a hater” of Jews, blacks, and homosexuals). After being rejected at Fox,Warners, and Paramount, the film will now be released by U.A.’s Lorimar Productions. Friedkin is said to have changed the basic plot so that events in his film will recall actual incidents of violence in waterfront sex hangouts. “They’re going for the out front sex-for-sex-sake aspect of the gay community,” says playwright Doric Wilson, “and that’s certainly there — it’s not a lie. Are we supposed to expect that as we become more visible, people won’t film this? If the film shows that gays can be the principal enemies of gays, then that’s a valuable thing to say.”
Cruising won’t be alone in its exploration of violence by and against gays. Paramount will release the film version of Lucien Truscott, IV’s Dress Gray, which has at its center the West Point coverup of a homosexual murder. French director Jacques Scandalari’s New York After Midnight, scripted by Louisa Rose (Sisters) tells the story of a woman who discovers that her husband is gay. Her psychotic tendencies are triggered, causing her to murder five — or seven — gay men. The editing isn’t complete yet. Jacques Morali will do the score and his group, The Village People, will sing a song in the film.
This may be the inevitable breakthrough of the “gay film market” everyone predicts. Frank Perry (David and Lisa, Diary of a Mad Housewife) has announced that he has an acceptable script (but no stars) and plans to begin shooting The Front Runner this summer. The dread Herb Ross is busy filming the life story Nijinsky before Ken Russell gets hold of it. Arthur Laurents is set to direct his own screenplay of a film called After Love, which examines the breakup of a heterosexual marriage. “The wife in the film has a brother who is gay and who has been with his lover for longer than she’s been married. It makes a statement about gay relationships.”
Dozens of film people were eager to talk off the record about gay actors who have won Oscars, gay pop stars who cruise Santa Monica Boulevard, performers who use their academy awards as dildoes, and other fascinating ephemera. But when I ask about openly gay people in tinseltown who might risk getting involved in the production of films which explore gay life, there is silence.
One young Hollywood producer wouldn’t even give me the names of people to interview at his production company. “It’s not time yet,” he said. “But it’s bound to happen soon. Someone will make the one blockbuster that proves you can make a million dollars on this market and then everyone will get into the act. It’s just a matter of time.”
Some of My Best Friends Make Movies
Throughout the ’70s, lesbians and gay men with little money and no power in the film business have persistently attempted to capture their own truth about the gay experience on film. In 1971, Melvin Nelson’s Some of My Best Friends Are… was the Grand Hotel of ghetto drama. Boasting cameo performances by Peg Murray, Rue McLanahan, Carleton Carpenter, Gary Sandy, and Fannie Flagg, and a tour de force by the late Candy Darling, the film gained a cult following, but has been buried by American International Pictures.
Slices of gay life outside the U.S. have fared better in recent years. Richard Benner’s Outrageous! was made in Canada for $160,000, financed largely by the Canadian film Development Corporation, a government agency. Money doesn’t come as easily to gay directors in America. Peter Adair and five other filmmakers spent four years trying to raise the money to complete Word Is Out. Finally, WNET put up $50,000 for the chance to air it on Channel 13 soon after its release. Ron Peck and Paul Hallam spent five years in London trying to finance what Variety called “a gay version of Looking for Mr. Goodbar.” Their film, Nighthawk, is about a gay teacher who is caught up in the bar syndrome; it follows his nightly cruising ritual with uncanny perception. The climax is a classroom sequence during which his young students suddenly ask if it’s true that he’s queer. Nighthawk was well-received in Europe and was screened this year at Cannes, but it hasn’t found a a U.S. distributor.
In 1969, Paramount shelved a film called As Pretty Does, the story of a hustler who moves in with a drag queen. The two fall in love, but the hustler, under pressure from his straight friends, finally beats his lover and leaves. The drag queen sings a torch song. Paramount may have missed the boat on that one. Ten years later, Harvey Fierstein’s autobiographical International Stud covered similar ground and became an enormous hit.
Andre Brassard’s Once Upon a Time in the East, a compelling film about gay life in the East End of Montreal, had never had a commercial run in America. Christopher Larkin’s A Very Natural Thing met with such advertising and distribution problems that its director was cowed into silence and disillusionment. “It just isn’t worth it,” he told the L.A. Times last year. “The only way to do it is if you’re risking someone else’s money and then you have to find some pretty naive people or some awfully good friends.”
Yet, with a little help from their friends, gay filmmakers in the last few years have produced scores of movies on all aspects of gay life: Jan Oxenburg’s A Comedy in Six Unnatural Acts, Michael McNeill’s I Love His Legs, and Harvey Mark’s I’m Not From Here. TRUXX documents a recent police raid on a Montreal gay bar and Paul/David: High School is a film about two teenage lovers. Tomas Gaspar has even parodied a series of Oil of Olay commercials, using gay men as ethnic models from all over the world.
There may never be a Hollywood market for this kind of exploration on film. Gays who are seeking a radical celluloid vision of their lifestyle must look to independents. The Grease audience may not be interested, but if we continue to look to Hollywood for a validation of ourselves we’ll all be swallowed up like poor old Sister George, whose only crime was her refusal to be a fake.
Vito Russo is completing a book about lesbians and gay men in American film, entitled The Celluloid Closet, to be published soon by Harper & Row.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on June 5, 2019