History of Homosexuality on Film

Something amazing happened last week – the Supreme Court of the United States made gay marriage legal! About time, right? Well, I think part of the reason that this took so long has to do with how homosexuality has been portrayed in our culture. So with that let’s take a look at the history of homosexuality on film. You’re looking at the first instance of homosexuality on film ever recorded. Made in1895, the film demonstrates that the social norms around male interaction were far less stringent than they became in subsequent decades. That’s why Jack can kiss David in Wings back in 1927 without people getting up in arms. That film actually went on to become the very first Best Picture winner, too. Yep! At the same Academy that denied Brokeback Mountain the award 78 years later. During this period, The first half of that sentence is pretty important because there still is the misconception that being homosexual and being transgender are the same. They’re not. Which is what defined the pervasive stereotypes about both gays and lesbians at this time. For gay men, the stereotype was the pansy or the sissy. In other words, an effeminate man. Someone who should be ridiculed. Like how this man does when he sees Charlie Chaplin kissing what he thinks to be another man. The sissy is a character that appears as background dressing of numerous films throughout the 1920s and early 30s in oddly specific ways. The color lavender for example was unequivocally a sissy color.
“I designed the costumes for the show not the doors for the theater.” “I know that. If you had, they’d’ve been done in lavender.” “Huh.”
The female counterpart to this was the mannish woman usually wearing a men’s suit, men’s hat and having slicked back hair like a man. In Morocco, a woman performs on stage wearing a tuxedo and later kisses a woman. But these kinds of explicit lesbian interaction were rare. Even in Morocco, that kiss only happens for a moment and then she spends the rest of the film pursuing
Gary Cooper’s character. But then the Great Depression happened and film studios became desperate to get people into the theaters. So, they shocked the audience with violence nudity and homosexuality. It basically became HBO. Cecil B. DeMille’s biblical epic, The Sign of the Cross,
is a great example of this. Emperor Nero has a slave boy who is his implied lover. The Empress demands to be disrobed by women. And in one scene, there is a woman on woman erotic dance. But all that didn’t sit well with several Catholic and Protestant groups who organized mass boycotts against these kind of films. The Catholic Church even created a group called, I kid you not, The Legion of Decency, to publicly oppose abnormal sexuality on film. This led to the creation and later the strict enforcement of
the Production Code around 1934 which heavily censored what could and could not appear in Hollywood movies. You see back in 1915 the Supreme Court had ruled that films did not have First Amendment rights. Movies, they said, were primarily a business and could be censored by the state.
Pre-empting state laws, the industry created its own regulation backed by the tastes of religious groups. This resulted in some pretty outlandish situations. Like the plight of Samuel Goldwyn when trying to adapt the play, The Children’s Hour.
The play is about the rumors of lesbianism between two teachers at an all-girls school. In the movie, it had to be changed to two women fighting over a man and not only that, the title had to be changed to These Three as the original was thought to be too well known as a lesbian work. In other adaptations, homosexuality is similarly erased from the story.
The film version of The Lost Weekend swaps out sexual confusion for writer’s block. The Brick Foxhole, a novel about homophobia became Crossfire, a movie about anti-semitism. The character of Joel Cairo in The Maltese Falcon is a homosexual in the book but that had to be smothered in subtext in the movie. But the filmmakers found ways to sneak it in. I mean, why do you think he’s fondling his cane so often in the film? One strategy was to have the man married to mask his homosexuality like in Top Hat. Here the men even kiss while the wife looks on.
“Oh!” “Go right ahead boys. Don’t mind me.”
But what was the easiest way to get a homosexual into your movie? Make them irredeemably the villainous, preferably a Nazi. There’s the Nazi in the house on 92nd Street who turns out to be a woman in drag.
The Nazi and saboteur who is effeminate. And then in another Hitchcock film, Rope, the villains are two homicidal homosexuals who speak sensuously about the pleasures of suffocating a man. “I felt tremendously exhilarated. How did you feel?”
It’s not just the suffocation that gets them excited. Probably the first example of this is the sneering villain, Waldo Lydecker, in Laura who was explicitly gay in the screenplay. Laird Creger basically made a career out of playing psycho queers in
I Wake Up Screaming, The Lodger and Hangover Square. Meanwhile, lesbians were obsessive and creepy or hardened prisoners. And just like most movie villains, the homosexuals in these films almost universally died by the end of the movie.
In Rebel Without A Cause, a gay man is ostracized by his friends for his sexuality
and eventually killed. And in Suddenly, Last Summer, a gay man is killed by a mob. Yep! A gay on screen had a shorter life expectancy than a red shirt. So not only did the production code erase homosexuality from the American consciousness, it burned it in effigy again and again and again. In 1952, the Supreme Court reversed its decision giving films the right to free speech. Meanwhile, the Production Code was torn down piece by piece as studios became less afraid of church boycotts. Of course, this didn’t immediately improve the representation of homosexuals on film. Instead, the old archetypes morphed into something more sinister: self-hating, suicidal homosexuals.
In Sergeant, the gay man kisses another man. He later commits suicide. In Advise & Consent, in 1962 a gay man cuts his own throat. And when The Children’s Hour finally got an adaptation that could bear its title, the main character hangs herself after allegations of homosexuality. Which were, of course, true.
“Oh, I feel so damn sick and dirty.
I can’t stand it anymore!” In all of these stories, the homosexual characters are told so often by others that they are wrong and filthy, that they start to believe it. And by extension, the audience starts to believe that as well. Hollywood had succeeded in helping people
hate homosexuals. Now it helped them to make them hate themselves.
But then in 1969, Stonewall happened. Members of the LGBT community demostrated against the police raid in New York, opening America’s eyes up to the plight of homosexuality. in Hollywood it dawned on producers that they could make money by aiming films to the homosexual community. Boys in The Band was the first effort in this vein.
It features a cast of gay male characters. But even its writer admits that it is colored by his own self-esteem issues as a result of the constant negative images of being a gay man in popular culture. But after this and along with the sexual revolution at the time, the 70s became a great moment for homosexual cinema. Sunday Bloody Sunday, Midnight Cowboy, Cabaret and Making Love were all huge leaps forward in depicting homosexuals and homosexual romance on screen. But these advances were rolled back in the 80s, at least in the mainstream. Religious boycotts made a comeback. Film historian, Vito Russo, estimated that Deathtrap lost 10 million dollars after it was leaked that Alfred Pennyworth and Superman share a kiss on screen. That’s one expensive smooch.
On top of that, gays were the focus of intense hatred
because of the AIDS epidemic. And once again we see the gay as villain stereotype in film as in Cruising. Meanwhile, several low-budget independent films including Born in Flames, Mala Noche, Parting Glances, and She Must Be Seeing Things all presented a new queer identity and led to what critic B. Ruby Rich would call the New Queer Cinema. That began in the early 1990s with films like My Own Private Idaho, the documentary Paris is Burning, Poison and
The Living End. Films of this movement presented groups of outsiders who embraced non-traditional lifestyles. For them, identity and sexuality were fluid, changing things. Not rigid black and white ideas as in decades prior.
Of course, Hollywood smelled money and pumped out a series of Disneyfied queer films in the late 90s. Homosexuals became campy,
comic characters often in drag. An exception is Philadelphia which came out a few years prior and examined the struggle of living with AIDS. But while gay people in mainstream film could finally be portrayed as good people.
People that we didn’t laugh at or pity or fear, we still rarely saw them engage romantically.
Tom Hanks and Antonio Banderas never kissed in Philadelphia. That is until this happened… It is impossible to understate how important
Brokeback Mountain is in the history of homosexuality on screen and to the history of film in general. It presented a true romance between two men, two fully fleshed out characters. Neither of whom are killed in ways that the audience is meant to cheer. It was nominated for eight Oscars and won three. It didn’t win Best Picture, but it didn’t need to to cause a seismic shift in the public perception of homosexuality. So, if there’s one thing to take away from this history it’s this: fiction matters. How we represent each other in media changes the way we think about each other, how we treat each other and ultimately, how we govern each other. But the second lesson is that history is not a linear thing. We didn’t just become more progressive about homosexuality over the course of a century. It was a roller coaster. The sissy archetype of the 20s was by no means positive, but at least it was visible. That’s more that could be said about the repression caused by the Production Code that followed.
The films following Stonewall in the 70s hinted
at a step in the right direction but that was countered by fear mongering around the issue during the 80s. It’s an ebb and flow of progressivism and conservative reactionaries and the battle is never really over. So, share this video with someone who supports gay rights or better yet, someone who doesn’t, because the only way this Golden Age of queer cinema will continue is if we learn from the history that got us here. My name is Sage Hyden and thanks for watching! This video is part of The Best Pictures, a series examining every Best Picture winner and the ones that should have won. Make sure to subscribe to this channel for more film analysis.
I post new videos every Wednesday at noon and next week I’ll talk about the film that actually won the award in 2005: Crash. But until then I’ve got to
get a few figure eights in before chow!

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