'Gay Images': A Rainbow Starts Out Black-and-White

"Brokeback Mountain," with Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, omits some of the stereotypes and cliches. (Focus Features)
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 4, 2007

By now it's a truism. The history of homosexuality in America has a natural dividing line -- before Stonewall and after Stonewall, BS and AS. However it sounds to the naked ear, "Stonewall" was not a prison but a gay bar in Lower Manhattan. New York cops tried to stage one of their quotidian raids there in June of 1969, but this time clientele balked, refusing to leave or be carted off to jail and instead staging a riot that lasted for days.

It was the homosexual equivalent of Rosa Parks refusing to move to the back of a bus. Or, to be less reverent about it, the gay Boston Tea Party.

So much for the real history; how about America's communal fantasy life? It seems obvious: Gays in film divide naturally before "Brokeback Mountain" and after it -- BBM and ABM (or ICBM?). "Brokeback Mountain" may not be the most sophisticated, intelligent or even most resonant big-scale mainstream movie about gay life and love, but as an event it towers over most others, and it seemed to commit fewer of the reigning stereotypes and cliches to celluloid than any other major film had ever done.

The film is nowhere to be seen, but is likely to be frequently discussed, as part of "Screened Out: Gay Images in Film," a Gay Pride Month series featuring major or minor homosexual characters that starts tonight on Turner Classic Movies, dazzling best of all entertainment cable channels. "Brokeback" has aired frequently in recent months on such standard movie channels as HBO (on Logo, the weak-kneed gay and lesbian channel, it was severely censored).

And program notes for "Screened Out" indicate that those who put the series together may think it still too soon to name an all-time, definitive watershed: "Despite the occasional success of a 'Brokeback Mountain,' the movies are still grappling. 'Screened Out' . . . can serve as a prologue to everything still being discussed both on and off the screen." One hundred years and still in the "prologue" stage? It hardly sounds like the gayllennium has arrived.

Part of the problem, as the impressive collection of films will show (with screenings Wednesdays as well as Mondays through June 27), is that for years gays on film were invisible, transparent, illusory. They weren't there. Tonight's selections will show that there was a gay presence (albeit often negative) in silent movies -- going back to "Algie, the Miner," the 1912 oddity that kicks off the festival at 8. TCM describes Algie as "an effeminate Easterner who makes his fortune out West."

Effeminate males -- "pansies," "fairies," "sissies" or other stereotypes -- were the cinematic equivalent of homosexuals, while lesbians almost always sported short-cropped hair, men's jeans or overalls, and cigars or cigarettes. The stereotypes were derogatory, no question, but not for the most part hatefully rabble-rousing. One of the most prominent sissies appears in "The Broadway Melody," a primitive musical that won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1929. As in many backstage shows, the gay character was a swishy costume designer who traded insults with a tough lesbian.

Wednesday night's fare includes, of all things, a Cecil B. DeMille biblical spectacular. That will be surprising only to those who've failed to notice that DeMille reveled in displaying sinful revelry before sounding the reveille that ended it. The shocker in "The Sign of the Cross" (1932) is an explicitly seductive dance with which a shameless hussy tempts and torments a virtuous virgin. For years, the dance was snipped out of prints of the film, robbing it of its most notorious interlude.

Less blatant but still evident is the assortment of muscular and scantily clad gentlemen who attend to the needs of a pale and powdered Nero, played knowingly by Charles Laughton. Other films Wednesday night include "The Sport Parade" from 1932, with Joel McCrea as the equivalent of an Abercombie & Fitch pitchman, and "Wonder Bar" (1934), included mainly for one brief shot of two elegantly dressed dandies dancing together, close enough to each other, and to the bandstand, for Al Jolson to roll his eyes and scoff, "Boys will be boys!"

Such films and many more were excerpted in "The Celluloid Closet," a fascinating documentary about gay images in the movies that HBO showed in 1996. What effectively banished gay characters from the screen was the infamous Hollywood Production Code that came along in 1934, stipulating that any "out" gays would be thrown out of the movie and onto the cutting-room floor.

Thus "These Three," the first film version of Lillian Hellman's play "The Children's Hour" -- about how two women's lives are ruined when a rotten little girl spreads the rumor that she saw them kiss -- eliminates the rather crucial details of (a) the kiss and (b) the rumor of lesbianism. This sort of bowdlerizing was common; in "Crossfire," a highly regarded film noir of the '40s, there was a major change in the violent act committed in the book on which the film was based. The homosexual victim of a gay-bashing in the novel, the character became the Jewish victim of an anti-Semitic hate crime in the film. At least they retained some kind of relevant realism, and the censors were appeased.

The sissy stereotype survived censor-meddling partly because the sissy was an essentially sexless creature, an androgynous poof who never made eyes at another guy much less took one to bed. Gay actors who made their living playing effeminate sissies sometimes received the same kind of scorn (albeit posthumously) as African Americans who played slow-witted, shufflin' black comic relief. Some actually were required by scripts to say, when confronted with a fright in a haunted house, "Feets, don't fail me now." The racial stereotypes seem, in retrospect, incalculably more hurtful; then again, hate is hate.

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