Does Martyr Equal Oscar?

2.17.2009

By Nathan Lee

Harvey Milk is the ultimate homo martyr, but the AIDS hero played by Tom Hanks in Philadelphia runs a tight second. Make that tight-assed second: Despite the poofy hairdo, penchant for swooning to Maria Callas arias, and tendency to cross his legs really, really tight, Hanks more or less eschews stereotypical gay behavior. Philadelphia is predicated on a gay man passing in a corporate context, but a funny thing happens as Andrew Beckett, the AIDS-afflicted lawyer, grows increasingly ill and angelic in his suffering. As the trail wears on, revealing the appetites and afflictions of his gay flesh, Hanks affects a subtle touch of the pinched urban dandy -- locked lips, erect posture, a slight craning of the neck -- as if, marshaling the last of his resources, he dons a crisp, faggoty armor to protect himself from public humiliation.

Philadelphia is dignified -- to a fault -- by Hanks's immaculately tasteful performance. His Beckett is as spartan as Samuel Beckett compared to the ugliest of Hollywood AIDS cases, Ed Harris's monstrous turn as the dying poet in The Hours. Lurching around like Jeff Goldblum in The Fly, Harris rages against the dying of the light in a fit of Acting so hysterical it literally flings itself out the window. The Academy evidently found such histrionics preferable to Dennis Quaid's terse, thoughtful role as the closeted executive in Far From Heaven. Would Quaid's neo-Sirkian tour de force have been nominated if, rather than exiting the narrative more or less happy with another man, he'd shot himself in the head?

Nominated, like Harris, for Best Supporting Actor, Bruce Davison played the first mainstream movie AIDS casualty in the 1990 weepie Longtime Companion. Though his death occurred offscreen, elided by the film's unnerving chronological leaps through the horror show of early AIDS, the acclaim he gets for the role rests largely on the famous deathbed scene, when he gives his lover permission to 'let go.' Perfectly scaled and pitched for Oscar telecast excerpt, it's a fine moment, albeit one whose emotional intensity triggers a flurry of odd facial tics in Davison, as if he were beset less by heartbreaking resignation than a swarm of invisible gnats. Campbell Scott's leading role as a shifty, AIDS-phobic gym bunny is the movie's true triumph, if insufficiently sacrificial for Oscar recognition. As for Dermot Mulroney's bouncing, flouncing, ultra-authentic 'ber-gay: girl, two snaps up!

Nearly all the major Oscar faux 'mos play manly men who love men (or, in the case of Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon, manly men who love men who want to be women). When going gay for the movies, the rule of thumb seems to be that one should never go full gaytard. Hoffman's celebrity riff notwithstanding, the most flamboyant performance to win a Best Actor Oscar can be credited to William Hurt in Kiss of the Spider Woman. Gentle, elegant, wry, and soft-spoken, Hurt is the least alpha of American leading men, so it's ironic to note the obvious mechanics involved when he summons the swish. Wrapped in silk robes, rhapsodizing about old movies, wrists flung willy-nilly nelly, Hurt plays Luis Molina, a mincing pederast jailed in a cell alongside a righteous political prisoner done up with aggressive heterosexuality by Raul Julia (Valentin Arregui). Hurt has never loomed so physically large as when tasked with shrinking himself into a flopsy, wincing faggot. You can feel the exertion involved in minimizing his personal space, the effort to play passive. This tension between Hurt's natural carriage and the effeminacy of the role neatly plays into a thematic crux of Kiss: the notion of the stereotypical gay man as weak-willed and duplicitous. Molina is recruited by prison officials to rat out his cell mate, suss out information on his subversive activities. Milking the setup for all it's worth (roasted chickens in butter, canned peaches, heart-shaped boxes of bonbons), Luis strings them along to the bitter end. Once again, martyr = Oscar: Released in a bid to entrap Valentin's connections, Luis takes a bullet for love.

Speaking of gaytarded: The whole homo Oscar thing was burlesqued by In & Out, a grimly unfunny comedy starring Kevin Kline as a small-town teacher who's outed by a former student. Accepting a Best Actor Oscar for the role of a gay marine, Cameron Drake (Matt Dillon) singles out his old high school drama teacher, Howard Brackett (Kline), as a gay role model -- which comes as a surprise to Howard and his fianc'e (Joan Cusack). The joke is that Howard is in fact gay gay gay, as hinted right up-front in a credit sequence that has him reveling with a locker room full of hormonal teenage jocks who douse him with champagne in a manner less suggestive of post-game victory than a Bel Ami bukkake. 'Oh, you guys!'

In & Out trades on every idiotic gay clich' less in a bid to subvert them (a la the underrated fauxmosexual burlesque I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry) than to ratify a retrograde paradigm for the amusement of multiplex squares. The butchest thing Howard manages is to attack someone at his bachelor party who claims Streisand was too old to play Yentl -- one of several tiresome Babs gags better suited to the self-loathing ghetto gays of The Boys in the Band than a comedy from 1997. Worse than all this limp-wristed minstrelsy is the thankless task given to Joan Cusack in the shrill, frankly misogynistic role of Howard's abandoned wife, a humiliation for which she was -- what do you know? -- Oscar-nominated.

Never underestimate the power of pity. The annual orgy of self-regard that is the Academy Awards provides a forum for the celluloid closet to feel sorry for itself. Sorry about AIDS, sorry about suicide, sorry about heartbreak, sorry about martyrdom, sorry about remaining so deep in the closet. The queer thing about Milk is that, while it ultimately plays into this pity party, it gets there via the most unabashedly elated and empowered of routes. Two steps forward, one step back -- hand on hip, striking a pose.

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