Mike's Murder: Revisiting the Complex, Erotic Tale of an '80s Hollywood Hustler

A Double Life

Actor Mark Keyloun plays a piece of ass in Mike’s Murder, the 1984 film set on the fringes of Hollywood in which director James Bridges reveals how much he knew about Los Angeles’s gay underworld — its attractions, tragedies, and personalities.

The unforgettable opening scene features Keyloun on a tennis court, a posterior view of him in short shorts that fit like briefs, his glutes taut and set high; they cup as he moves about. His athletic haunches advertise the fetching possibilities offered by a young sports instructor who is also an available erotic object.

This image was a breakthrough for Bridges, who had directed the hits The Paper Chase and The China Syndrome before enjoying the huge success of Urban Cowboy (1980), starring John Travolta and Debra Winger. As a gay filmmaker who had to negotiate discretion and authenticity in a movie industry that did not openly acknowledge its queer community, Bridges used the plot of Mike’s Murder to observe the temptations we know about but hide.

Mike’s Murder employs a woman-in-peril plot and Winger — Hollywood’s most emotionally ardent young actress at the time — to establish a metaphor for gay experience. (It’s the same prudence found in earlier Hollywood mysteries like George Cukor’s Gaslight and Vincente Minnelli’s Undercurrent.) Winger’s Betty loves Keyloun’s Mike, but Keyloun’s boyish smile and curly, moussed hair sweep past the discreet metaphor. (Keyloun had made his debut two years earlier opposite Kevin Bacon in Paul Morrissey’s Forty Deuce, about male hustlers.)

Mike’s irresistible masculine charms — his innocent looks plus bad-boy danger — take on additional meaning when he is murdered by drug dealers. Grieving Betty searches for the killers and discovers his double life as a Hollywood hustler. (She seemed dim not to grasp it before, but that’s mainstream Hollywood convention.)

Bridges then shifts his attention to one of the deepest gay male characters in Hollywood history: Phillip, a wealthy, middle-aged music producer, tells Betty how he became Mike’s sugar daddy.

Phillip steals the movie. Played by late gay actor Paul Winfield, best known for his Oscar-nominated role as the sharecropper father in Sounder, he displays a subtle passion. This career risk and personal revelation by Winfield and Bridges was historic. Beneath his elegant kaftan, the older gentleman who procures trim young men reveals a gay man’s fully recognizable inner life. Phillip is half-ashamed of the vulnerability indicated by his relationship with Mike (intimately remembered as “Michael”) when recalling their mutual exploitation. He asks Betty, “Were you in love with him? So was I. In the beginning, I was just desperately in love…It was not, as they say, ‘his true bent,’ as you well know.”

Mike’s Murder proves more honest about being “bent,” the lie that blurs sexual attraction and personal identity, than the snickering gay innuendo of American Gigolo (1980).

Phillip’s confession also explains a mystifying home video Mike had that hinted at the complex living arrangement between the urbane black man and the corn-fed white boy
from Ohio.

When Betty questions Phillip’s identification of Mike’s corpse at the morgue, Phillip snaps back defensively, “You think I made a mistake?” Their shared concern for the body and enigmatic spirit of the young hustler goes beyond erotic fixation to an emotional insistence worthy of Tennessee Williams. Much more than just a mystery movie, these male-female conflicts make Mike’s Murder an all-American sexual thriller.

Tags: Armond White

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