This is turning out to be a smashing year for LGBT movies, which makes it a good time to sit back and reflect upon the periods when that wasn’t necessarily the case. So many times, movies have shied away from gay issues, usually because of a fear that such things would upset the masses and hurt the box office. The result was a parade of sanitized, asexual films that sometimes failed with the public anyway because they lacked guts and integrity. Here are some of the most glaring de-gayings in film history.
There were glimmers of fabulousness in Mark Christopher’s film about the ultimate ‘70s disco, Studio 54, especially in Mike Myers’ spot-on performance as feisty co-owner Steve Rubell. But the movie—which starred Ryan Phillippe as an upwardly mobile bartender—had been basically disemboweled and removed of its beating heart, so it was bound to fail. Supposedly, test audiences didn’t like the same sex kiss between Phillippe and a character played by Breckin Meyer. What’s more, Harvey Weinstein reportedly got nervous because Phillippe seemed on the verge of stardom and Meyers had just had a smash as Austin Powers. Putting them in a gay-tinged epic was supposedly out of the question, no matter how inaccurate any other version of that club would be. And so, 45 minutes were replaced by 25 minutes of new scenes and voiceovers, and the tampered-with product failed to score with either critics or audiences. But when stuff was restored for a director’s cut, it got a great response at Lincoln Center this year and a potential gay classic was born.
A BEAUTIFUL MIND (2001)
Mathematician John Nash was reportedly bisexual, had dalliances with men in his early years, and was busted for indecent exposure in a rest room. But the Ron Howard-directed film stayed away from all that, because you can’t taint a mentally ill person with negatives, after all. It won the Oscar for Best Picture of 2001.
BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S (1961)
The film adaptation of Truman Capote’s novella is enchanting, but it ain’t the book. In the book, the narrator seems a bit ambiguous as he becomes captivated by call girl Holly Golightly. It’s certainly far from the flat-out kissing-in-the-rain romance that ensues in the movie. Also, the film decidedly steamrolled over Holly’s bisexuality while they were at it. In the book, she reveals that she once lived with a “dyke” and that everyone assumed that made Holly gay too. “And of course I am,” she goes on. “Everyone is a bit. So what?” Well, Hollywood wasn’t so blithe about the whole thing. In movieland, the character could be a neurotic, social climbing hooker, but not a dyke!
THESE THREE (1936)
Based on Lillian Hellman’s 1934 play The Children's Hour, centered on a child’s lie about a lesbian affair, the movie became a straight love triangle with no mention of same-sex happenings, thanks to the Production Code in effect at the time. Joel McCrea, Miriam Hopkins, and Merle Oberon play the trio, with nasty student Bonita Granville wreaking havoc with her tawdry gossip. It’s actually a very good movie, and I must say when the lesbianism—and title—were restored for the 1961 movie (with Shirley MacLaine killing herself because of the lezzie talk), it was deeply disturbing.
NIGHT AND DAY (1946)
Cary Grant is songwriter Cole Porter and Alexis Smith is his wife Linda, but this being a 1940s Hollywood biopic, there’s no mention of Cole’s proclivity for boys. True, Cary does sing “You’re The Top,” but that’s not addressed to his male lover, lol. De-Lovely, the 2004 film with Kevin Kline as Cole, was somewhat gayer, but not necessarily better.
WORDS AND MUSIC (1948)
Similarly, this Hollywood bio about composers Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart conveniently left out Hart’s homosexuality, choosing a more accessible tune. I guess Mickey Rooney could play Japanese (as in the aforementioned Breakfast at Tiffany’s), but never gay. One hopes movies will stay away from biopics of other songwriters like Sondheim, Sam Smith, and Elton John.
THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY (1965)
Charlton Heston plays Michelangelo, battling it out with Pope Julius II, played by Rex Harrison. But they took the sissy out of the Sistine Chapel. This artist is not the least bit light in the easel, despite all that time laying on his back. It’s not exactly surprising since Heston didn’t always embrace gay issues so eagerly. Let’s not forget that the gunslinger always denied that Gore Vidal got any homosexual subtext into the script for Ben-Hur.
CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF (1958)
In this heated adaptation of the famed Tennessee Williams play, Liz Taylor is the braying sexpot whose impotent hubby Paul Newman is fatally obsessed with an old school chum. Williams was devastated that the movie caved in to the Hays Code and snipped out practically all the gay innuendo. The playwright was so perturbed by the omissions that he reportedly told people who were waiting on line at one theater, “This movie will set the industry back 50 years, Go home!” It’s amazing that Cat still packs quite a meow, despite the trims. But for a film about the power of the truth, it’s a shame that the requirements of the time precluded it from telling some whopping ones.
THE DANISH GIRL
Let’s talk about a major 2015 film, shall we? The back story is that Gerda Wegener was a bisexual erotic artist who married Einar Wegener, a fellow artist who famously wound up transitioning to Lili Elbe. But the movie—starring Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander—snips out Gerda’s bisexuality (“so as not to complicate the film’s politics,” according to the Variety review), while serving you an extremely healthy dose of transsexualism. A fair trade?
This epic saga of a Roman slave rebellion was re-released in 1967 in a shorter version, but in 1991, the cut minutes were restored, in addition to 14 other minutes of sizzling stuff. Among those gems was a scene where, sitting in a glorified hot tub, general Laurence Olivier tried to seduce slave Tony Curtis while invoking analogies about “eating oysters” and “eating snails.” Because of detritus, Olivier’s voice was lost, so Anthony Hopkins stepped in to gamely supply Sir Larry’s vocals. Watching it now, one can picture the proverbial oysters and snails served with a nice Chianti. Anyway, the gay restoration rights the wrongs of Hollywood’s squeamishness and allows future generations to take in the full story. Let’s follow suit and fix all the other films on this list! Come on Hollywood, make them gayer!
CAROL AND FREEHELD CELEBRATE LESBIAN LOVE
Fortunately, there are two new movies where the gay was kept in big time, and they’re both about lesbian passion. At the New York Film Festival, I saw Carol, Todd Haynes’ adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel about a withdrawn but headstrong shopgirl/photographer and her growing involvement with a glamorous divorcee-in-the-making in the otherwise denial-prone 1950s. In the film—which is being released in November—the saturated art direction reflects the glowing, superficial ‘50s gloss that covered up all the real issues, and the direction captures the weight of a glance and the electricity of a touch when it comes to two women finding each other amidst a world of bossy, undeserving men. (“My eyes have never been so wide open,” exclaims Rooney Mara’s character, Therese, when her boyfriend claims she’s in a trance.) Mara and Cate Blanchett are absolutely terrific as the mismatched yet chemically clicking twosome, and Sarah Paulson also scores as Cate’s wise old friend and ex-lover. It’s not a thrill a minute, but the whole thing exerts a hypnotic pull, exploding into fine drama when Blanchett’s Carol battles her husband’s use of a morality clause aimed at keeping their daughter away from her.
May/December lesbians also turn up in Freeheld (which I saw at a special screening at MoMA last week), but this isn’t a moody art film, it’s a nitty-gritty biopic based on a story that rocked the nation. Terminally ill New Jersey police detective Laurel Hester (played by Oscar winner Julianne Moore), who had previously been closeted because of her concerns about the workplace, became a volcanic force in the battle for equal rights when she fought for her partner, Stacie Andree (Ellen Page), to ultimately gain her pension and estate. The first half of the movie is wonderful, as tough, efficient cop Laurel meets younger mechanic Stacie and learns to act like less of a police officer around her while ceding control to the relationship. Laurel is very cautious at work, but she eventually tells her policing partner, Dane (Michael Shannon), about her relationship, and he’s touchingly pissed that she didn’t trust him to be honest about this before that. And that’s the end of the closet for her. When Laurel comes down with advanced lung cancer, her primary goal becomes to make sure Stacie is taken care of, so she battles the Freeholders (the county officials), with the help of Dante, other local supporters, and activist Steve Goldstein (a campy, media-savvy queen hilariously played by Steve Carell, who squeals, “I’m a big, loud, gay Jew!”). Laurel thinks she’s fighting for equality, not marriage, but Goldstein reminds her that if she were married to a man, this whole thing wouldn’t be an issue. Her pivotal 2005 case was a landmark step on the way to the Supreme Court’s approval of same-sex marriage across the country earlier this year. Kim Davis is probably still mad about it!
The movie? I had to pinch myself that two lesbian-positive flicks are hitting us, virtually back to back. I loved the story of the two women, and though the second half is more schematically formulaic, I was still a blubbering mess by the end. As for Julianne and Ellen, they’re perfection in calibrating the lovers’ evolving interplay, though I wouldn’t be surprised if the former takes a break from disease movies for quite some time.
KEEPING UP WITH THE GRACE JONESES
Lately, some LGBT icons have been battling it out thanks to Grace Jones saying that Lady Gaga has borrowed too much from her, creativity-wise. That’s fine since Madonna said the same thing, and besides, Grace herself has borrowed from Piaf, Dietrich, Bowie, Josephine Baker, and Eartha Kitt. It’s all about glomming onto your inspirations and making them into some newfangled magic for yourself. And that’s what Ms. Jones does with her new book, I’ll Never Write My Memoirs, which paints a vivid portrait of several decades of avant garde diva-liciousness. To me, the most trenchant passage in the book is this one about how fame changes one’s life: “You can get all the pussy and dick you want. Everything becomes available. It goes to your head….You drink too much, You take drugs. You get arrested. You are in a situation where your new position is always being celebrated. Every day is like a wonderland. You start spinning.” And spinning our heads. Bravo to Grace who, unlike the 10 movies I started this column with, edits nothing out.