Pictured Clockwise from Top Left: Joe Dallesandro; Oliver Reed & Alan Bates in Ken Russell's 'Women in Love'; 'Boys in the Band'; 'Sunday Bloody Sunday'; Raquel Welch in 'Myra Breckenridge'; Bjorn Andresen in 'Death in Venice'; & 'The Damned'
The reason these works were so gay is that even if they only included quick images or coded references, they were revolutionary at the time, moving things well into the future with their groundbreaking sexuality. And some of them were less apologetic than others, blazing trails with LGBT wildness that hasn’t necessarily been topped (or even bottomed) all these decades later.
Robert Hofler—the Wrap.com critic who’s written books about gay Hollywood figures Rock Hudson and Allan Carr—knows this topic better than anyone. His recently released book Sexplosion: From Andy Warhol To A Clockwork Orange, How a Generation of Pop Rebels Broke All The Taboos is a well received study of the fiery, liberating culture that seized audiences from 1968 to ’73, when we were all either young or unborn. I asked Hofler for his 10 gayest films, and he obliged, also supplying background information and other welcome accessories. So take off your 3D glasses and let’s dance into the time tunnel of social tumult and other earthly delights. Here are the big 10:
The 1968 Lindsay Anderson-directed film about a British boarding school revolt
Says Hofler: “I remember that movie because of the nude wrestling scene between Malcolm McDowell and Christine Noonan, but when I saw the movie again, there’s one of most erotic gay scenes ever. A schoolboy, about 13, is watching an upperclassman do gymnastics, and it’s done in slow motion, and you can tell the young boy is in love with the older boy. Later in the movie, the boys in the dormitory are all asleep, and finally you come to the shot of the younger boy and the older boy in bed together. The censor in England allowed it because the two boys were sleeping.” The audience wasn’t.
2. Women in Love
The 1969 Ken Russell-directed adaptation of the D.H. Lawrence novel about the complexity of relationships
“It was written and produced by Larry Kramer,” relates Hofler. “Again, it was the nude wrestling scene that I remembered, but if you go back and watch the movie, Alan Bates wants to have a relationship with a man in the same way he has a relationship with his wife. She says it’s not possible, and he says, ‘I think it is,’ and that's how the movie ends. This equality of same sex is what’s amazing.” As for the wrestling bit: “Kramer went back to D.H. Lawrence, and he had a full-blown sexual relationship between men—material Lawrence had cut from the book as a preemptive strike against the censors of the day. Kramer knew he couldn’t insert that into the movie and get away with it, but he knew they could film the wrestling scene if done exactly as done in the novel. The censor agreed. But the actors were very concerned about who had a larger penis. Oliver Reed would wank off a lot beforehand, so it would swell up on camera. On camera, it looks like Oliver’s penis is slightly larger, but Larry Kramer—with his expert eye—reports that actually Alan Bates has the larger penis.” I vote for Glenda Jackson.
3. The Damned
Visconti’s 1969 melodrama about German depravity
“In the Night of the Long Knives episode, you have all these Nazis running around in the country, bathing in a lake, and they’re naked. This is all done with no dialogue. They get drunk and rape a few waitresses and dress in drag and start to make out with each other, and Dirk Bogarde and others come in with machine guns and kill them. It’s very erotic.”
4. Sunday Bloody Sunday
The urbane 1971 love triangle, directed by John Schlesinger, with Peter Finch and Glenda Jackson—her again—both hot for Murray Head
“It’s one of the least-seen great gay movies,” says Hofler. “It holds up. The only thing antiquated about it is that they’re using a phone answering service. But this was the first mainstream movie where they had two men kissing in closeup. John Schlesinger had to fight with [writer] Penelope Gilliatt and his crew—everybody thought it was disgusting. Gilliatt’s screenplay had them kissing, but in long shot. Schlesinger said, ‘No, we’re not going to apologize for this. We’ll have them kissing like any heterosexual couple.’ An interesting sideline is that Ian Bannen, an in-the-closet gay actor, was first cast as the older doctor. But he was so uptight about the kiss and playing gay that Schlesinger had to fire him. Finch was a last-minute hire. After that, everyone had to ask Finch what it was like to kiss another man, and he said, ‘I just thought of the Queen Mother’.”
5. The Killing of Sister George
The 1968 eye popper about fading soap opera star Beryl Reid, her emotionally stunted lover Susannah York, and the predatory dyke, Coral Browne, who comes between them
About the Browne/York sex scene, Hofler says, “I think there was some nipple kissing. The judge in Boston said, ‘We can’t allow that with women.’ I think someone went to jail over that.”
a.k.a. Andy Warhol’s Flesh, directed by Paul Morrissey, 1968
Says Hofler, “It introduced a great gay icon, Joe Dallesandro. Jonah Hill has a plastic dildo in The Wolf of Wall Street, but in Flesh, you see Joe’s real erection for a minute or two. At one point, one of the actors took a bow and put it around his erect penis. They made Flesh because Andy Warhol got pissed off at John Schlesinger for making Midnight Cowboy because he felt Schlesinger was ripping off his scene. He said, ‘Why don’t we make a movie about a male hustler?’ You can’t get around the fact that Joe plays a guy who hustles to pay for his wife’s girlfriend’s abortion. Why would this heterosexual guy be married to a lesbian, and why would the lesbian’s girlfriend be impregnated?” Don’t ask. Instead, let’s go back to that other hustler film, Midnight Cowboy, and Hofler’s bonus item about it: “Warren Beatty wanted the Joe Buck role [eventually played by Jon Voight], and he even said he’d do a secret screen test. But Schlesinger said, ‘Warren Beatty is supposed to play a failed hustler in New York City? The women would be lining up all the way to Fire Island’.” Probably the men too.
a.k.a. Andy Warhol’s Trash, directed by Paul Morrissey. 1970
“Joe Dallesandro’s body’s in great shape, but since he’s playing a heroin addict, he never gets an erection. Holly Woodlawn has to use a beer bottle as a dildo!” Whatever works. Interestingly, porn star Joey Stefano later did the same stunt as part of his act, and I dubbed it a “Heinie-kin.”
8. The Boys in the Band
The 1970 William Friedkin film based on Mart Crowley’s landmark play about bitchy, funny gays combusting at a bash
“All the reviews of my book made such a big deal that Edward Albee had objected to the play because ‘It did serious damage to a burgeoning gay respectability movement in New York City.’ What no one quotes is the response I got from Mart Crowley: ‘It was 1968. There was no gay respectability movement.’ I remember very vividly—because I was a freshman in college in 1968 and I graduated in 1971—what a huge switch there was in those few years. There was this whole thing, ‘Don’t trust anyone over 30.’ Well, it’s a birthday party about a bunch of people turning 30 or who are 30. Crowley—who (unlike Albee) had to come out at the time because of his subject matter—also said, ‘They’re happy homosexuals. They’re just not [happy] at this birthday party.’ The problem is the play had to carry the mantle for far too long. By the way, Friedkin did film a kiss between Laurence Luckinbill and Keith Prentice, but he decided not to use it, and he recently said, ‘I think we should have put it in. I don’t know why everyone was freaking out about the kiss’.” Schlesinger would have filmed it in closeup.
9. Myra Breckinridge
The 1970 camp classic based on Gore Vidal’s transsexual novel
“It’s nearly unwatchable, but it is such a hoot. They tested that movie in San Francisco and a lot of the audience dressed as their favorite star of the opposite sex. Everyone hooted over this scene where Myra has to go down on herself as Myron. But they couldn’t show that, so if you remember the [resulting] movie, they have all these classic scenes from 20th Century Fox movies. There was a scene where Shirley Temple is milking a goat and she accidentally squirts herself with goat milk. The audience went wild, Richard Zanuck went wild. But when he got back to Hollywood, he told director Michael Sarne, ‘The Shirley Temple scene has to go. I just got a call from Richard Nixon.’ Shirley was a U.S. Ambassador. But they left in the whole raped-by-dildo scene of that actor Roger Herren—he was very hot. Being raped by a dildo wielded by Raquel Welch did nothing for his career, unfortunately.”
10. Death in Venice
The 1971 Luchino Visconti adaptation of the Thomas Mann classic
Says Hofler, “I’ve always felt the boy, Björn Andresen, was too coquettish for the role. He seems very aware of his beauty, which is all wrong. He should be gorgeous and totally unaware of that fact. Anyway, Visconti obviously thought the kid was perfect. I had to laugh doing research on the film, because Visconti turned the search for Tadzio into another Scarlett O’Hara hunt. He took ads out in all these newspapers in Warsaw, Oslo, Helsinki, Copenhagen and Stockholm, and scheduled to meet with hundreds of 13-year-old boys who were blond and blue-eyed. He met Andresen—the first boy he interviewed—in his Stockholm hotel. He knew immediately that here was his Tadzio. But of course duty prevailed and Visconti did not want to disappoint all those other boys, so he kept all those dozens of other appointments with 13-year-olds through Poland and Scandinavia. At Warner Bros, they wanted to give the film an upbeat ending, and they wanted to make Tadzio a girl named Tadzia. In fact, the only thing the WB execs liked was the music, and they wanted to sign the composer. Visconti had to tell them that Gustav Mahler had been dead for decades!” They probably then tried to track down Tchaikovsky.
A production number in 'Bullets Over Broadway' | Photo by Paul Kolnik
WOODY ALLEN’S DANCING HOT DOGS
Let’s slice up a piece of Mahler’s and keep the nostalgia coming, since waftings from the past have been barreling toward Broadway with the brio of a nude wrestling match. First of all, Bullets over Broadway is the splashy adaptation of the hilarious 1994 Woody Allen screwball comedy flick about a playwright who sells his soul by allowing his work to be done with a talentless gun moll in a role. Susan Stroman (The Producers, Crazy For You) has fluidly staged the 1929 pastiche, which is graced with lavish Santo Loquasto sets and gorgeous William Ivey Long costumes, as well as vintage tunes from “Let’s Misbehave” to more obscure numbers, like one that ends up featuring four dancing hot dogs, Broadway style. Zach Braff is the nebbishy writer who whores himself out, while Helene Yorke is the strumpet who once starred in a musical revue called Leave a Specimen, Marin Mazzie is diva Helen Sinclair (“Don’t speak!”), and Nick Cordero plays the gangster who actually exhibits an artist’s soul in between shooting people.
Cordero is an audience favorite, getting laughs with his tale of burning his school down for a science project, also scoring with an unlikely gangster tap number of “Taint Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do”. But he growls a little too much and Yorke screeches way too often, and in fact, the whole show feels in need of some pauses and pathos, not to mention loving insight. The result probably could have used more of that gangster’s artistry, but it’s definitely a slickly digestible musical with several numbers that could easily be pulled out for Tonys inclusion. Whatever gift it has to offer, it’s definitely got the shiniest packaging in town.
“Tain’t Nobody’s Business” also turns up in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, starring Audra McDonald as jazz legend Billie Holiday, but this time it’s done with a chihuahua and a glass of booze. In this 1986 interpretation of a Holiday concert in Philadelphia four months before her death, Audra is extraordinary, immersing herself in Billie’s sounds as well as her psyche with astonishing precision and pain. Having last played a wild-living woman on the edge in Porgy and Bess, Audra veers even farther out as her Billie goes from a raucous, funny mood full of sassy anecdotes and silky stylings to boozily falling apart under the weight of a lifetime of sadness and oppression. Fortunately, Lanie Robertson’s play goes way beyond the usual “And then I did…” type of biodrama to instead create a picture of a person, a legend, and a dream, and in her white dress and gardenia, audacious Audra shows why Lady Day could never really become Lady Yesterday, as cynics rudely started dubbing her during her career demise. My only disappointment is that this Billie never sings “Good Morning Heartache,” but maybe that reflects a welcome lack of pandering. In any case, God bless the child who can get tickets to this show.
By the way, Audra is tied with Angela Lansbury and Julie Harris for the most acting Tonys ever—five. (I’m not counting Harris’s special Tony.) Lady Day could be the record breaker. And that, my friends, was one of the 10 gayest columns of all time.