Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!
Last week’s fascinating look by Alan at previously coded gay relationship between Marvel cartoon characters made me once again fully aware of how secretively (and also inventively) homosexual characters and relationships were allowed to feature in mainstream popular culture before the proper arrival of LGBTQ+ cinema in the past two or three decades or so.
Before, homosexuality was not only a legal issue but also defined as a psychological condition, with most Western countries only abandoning their anti-gay criminal laws and medical theories by the late 1960s. Consequently, openly gay characters hardly ever featured in popular entertainment, and if they did they were either depicted as delinquent, maniacal or disturbed. The standard documentary classic on this era still is The Celluloid Closet (1996) by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. It shows the dire conditions under which gay talent was allowed to work and be represented in Hollywood and where there was still a simplistic, binary view of gender identities (either queer or straight) without any of the all-encompassing present-day LGBTQI+ distinctions. Only last year, AppleTV released an excellent television-focused companion piece to The Celluloid Closet called Visible.
By the late ’60s, there was then a fascinating shift in the depiction of gay and lesbian characters. 1968 was a turning point and inspired social liberation through protest movements. Also, the strict moral codes of the past were finally questioned and replaced. A major event for American cinema was certainly the abandoning of the infamous Hayes Code and the introduction of new age categories by the Motion Picture Associaton of America (MPAA) in 1968: G (General Audiences), M (Mature Audiences), R (Restricted) and X (not under 16). One can certainly see and feel the new freedoms this inspired in 1970s American cinema, with nudity, violence and profanity featuring noticeably but also New Hollywood filmmakers prospering and indelibly refreshing stories and techniques filling the screens. The first X-rated film to win a Best Film award at the Oscar’s immediately followed suit: Midnight Cowboy in 1969.
It seemed therefore only logical that different depictions of homosexuality would eventually find their way into mainstream cinema. However, what might have seemed vaguely progressive at the time feels almost shockingly cliché when watched with present-day sensibilities. Going through especially some of the male gay characters of early 1970s Hollywood, I found myself wondering if such ‘progress’ did not actually make things worse, now not only painting these gay men as maniacal and delinquent, but also increasingly as flamboyant villains intent on causing their movie’s hero suffering and the audience a confirmation of their worst gay clichés. There is certainly a kind of guilty pleasure entertainment value to them (which I can safely enjoy from my vantage point of the 2020s), but I wonder how people felt about their own representation vis-à-vis such examples on the screen. Did they feel offended, beaten down, or could they laugh with their fellow audience members?
As a quasi anti-progressive haunted house gallery, I thought I’d remind our readers of three horrifying (and horrifyingly entertaining) examples of such gay clichés, starting with the pair depicted at the beginning of my article: Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd in the 1971 James Bond adventure Diamonds Are Forever. Rather than throw sexy superspies or hunky henchmen at Sean Connery’s (admittedly tired) 007, American screenwriter Tom Mankievicz (yes, Mank’s nephew) introduced the probably oddest opponents to the Bond universe: a serial killing, one-liner dropping and perfume-dispersing gay killer couple. They drop scorpions down enemies’ backs, drown little old ladies in Amsterdam, dispense of shady Las Vegas comedians and, of course, fail at offing 007 in the film’s finale. Connery, after detecting the two thanks to their ‘ratty’ aftershave, flambéing one and throwing the other overboard, drily remarks “Well he certainly left with his tail between his legs.” Gay men at the butt end of sarcastic comedy, for sure!
In another campy British horror classic, Theatre of Blood (1973), Vincent Price plays Edward Lionheart, a maligned Shakespeare actor, who apparently kills himself after critics deny him their Actor of the Year award, but in reality he comes back to take gruesome revenge on every single member of the critics’ circle. Two scenes stand out in terms of terrible 70s gay clichés: Price himself dressed up as a sleazily fruity hairdresser electrocuting one critic in her chair (his future wife, Coral Browne, no less!) and, especially, the scene in which one other critic (Robert Morley in atrocious toupé and attire), who is unaware of Price feeding him his own two poodles in a pie for dinner (in a twisted nod to Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus), dies an absurd movie death choking on that canine candlelight dinner. Notice a pattern? We are supposed to laugh at their flamboyance but, even more so, cheer sadistically at their demise.
The same can be said about our third representative of the flamboyant villain I remember and who appeared in Clint Eastwood’s directorial debut in 1975, The Eiger Sanction. Possibly to underline his manliness and beefy charm, Eastwood (as the protagonist mountain climber) faces off against scheming and hammy Miles Mellough (played by Columbo regular Jack Cassidy), who orders frozen daiquiris while Eastwood sternly looks on. While Mellough apparently flirts and plays with the hard-edged hero of this mediocre tale, Eastwood ends up depositing him on top of a rock to fend for himself (i.e. die).
There were many more representatives of this character type for sure and while my selection might come across as random, rather comedic and fun, the ’70s and ’80s also held numerous darker and more problematic examples in store. Gladly, thanks to tireless protests and community work since the ’70s (most notably against gay- and trans-themed slashers like Cruising and Silence of the Lambs), there has been a slow and steady emergence of positive representation of LGBTQI+ characters in both cinema and TV, supported by international film fests, home entertainment releases and current streaming platforms. With films like Love, Simon and the wide success of Call Me By Your Name, we find ourselves in a completely different place than the initial post-1968, falsely liberated years.
To our eyes, the ’70s gay cliché discussed here might seem an absurd oddity or an amusing time capsule. However, we should not overlook the darker truth behind the campy facade: for far too long, these types were the only representations in mainstream cinema of a ‘gay lifestyle’ and it would take tough fights for political say and against societal discrimination, a devastating pandemic (no, not the present one!) and the ongoing fight for marriage equality for mainstream audiences to stop laughing at silly clichés and finally take this seriously as well.
Visible and The Celluloid Closet are available on AppleTV.