How many Channing Tatum fans will get the joke that the sailor suit he sings and dances in in Hail, Caesar! is gay code? Joel and Ethan Coen, the film’s writing-directing team, known for antiquated lingo and snarky satire, spoof the sexual underground of post-World War II Hollywood. The Coen's cast Tatum as Burt Gurney, a musical-comedy star who figures in the plot about a studio executive dealing with various “kooks, misfits and oddballs.” Tatum’s gay Gurney represents Hollywood’s unspoken chorus-boy, closeted subculture.
Tatum’s young dumb and full of cum features finally find their perfect context in Hail, Caesar!’s elaborate dance routine “We Ain’t Gonna See No Dames.” Tatum performs with squads of male dancers, all attired in Navy dress whites—obviously modeled after a Paul Cadmus orgy tableau. The all-male prancing turns a saloon into a gay bar—one bit of choreography even spit-roasts Tatum as he bump-and-grinds between two guys. The number climaxes when a new group of horn-dog swabbies invade the bar, grinning at the free-for-all. (Too bad the song itself lacks the naughtiness of Seth MacFarlane’s gay jokes on Family Guy.)
The Fleet’s In! (1934) by Paul Cadmus
Hail, Caesar! winks at Tatum’s gay audience through a trove of butt-pirate innuendo about Old Hollywood. Burt Gurney isn’t really a character, just a Village People conceit based on rumors we’ve read/heard about famous actors who put themselves on the meat market or frequented Sunday brunches at the home of famous “women’s directors” (to use a popular Hollywood euphemism). Ralph Fiennes plays one of those types, named Laurence Laurentz. Fiennes’ effete, ascot-wearing caricature combines gossip about Laurence Olivier with the personages of James Whale, George Cukor and Mitchell Leisen.
At one point, Fiennes’ Laurentz approaches the film’s lead character Ed Mannix (Josh Brolin) with the coded question “Do you enjoy physical culture?” The come-on, alluding to body-builder porn, is as obvious as “I like your hat.” It’s later revealed that Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), a vain, Clark Gable-style, overly tanned actor (even his thighs are bronzed), was propositioned by musical-comedy star Danny Kaye, a rumored intimate of Olivier’s.
Tatum, in dress whites, evokes the infamous gay sailor erotica pamphlet “Shore Leave.” (The Coens only forget to outfit Tatum with the button-front access of the legendary sailor’s uniform as in Fassbinder’s Querelle.) Tatum dances serviceably (but undulated more impressively in Magic Mike XXL). Unfortunately, his uniform isn’t as trim as ‘50s Hollywood’s actual musical sailor boys—those dancers from Jerome Robbin’s legendary Fancy Free ballet that appeared in movies like On the Town and in gang drag in West Side Story. And Gene Kelly, Michael Kidd, and Dan Dailey’s athletic rumps were cheekier in It's Always Fair Weather. Instead, the Coens turn sexual innuendo into political satire, making Gurney the patsy for Communists screenwriters who become seamen, with dreams of socialist revolution, awaiting a Russian submarine—arising erect from the Pacific-- to penetrate Hollywood.
Maybe the campiness of Hail, Caesar! can help educate viewers about the history of gay codes and erotic symbolism. Dancing sailor icons also figure in Jacques Demy’s Lola and The Young Girls of Rochefort as well as David Bowie’s 1987 Never Let Me Down, a music-video collaboration with Jean- Baptiste Modino, that polished Bruce Weber’s layouts of sailors on leave. Hail, Caesar! caricatures are not homophobic. Think of Burt Gurney’s comic gay villainy as simply the Coens’ copping a feel of Tatum’s rump-shaking pulchritude.