by Gary Morris
The history of queer cinema stretches almost as far back as movies themselves, though, as with all queer history, interpretations in this realm are always debatable.
Edward Everett Horton takes Leslie Henson down the aisle in It's a Boy! (1933)
Is Chaplin in drag (A Woman, 1915) a queer image, a camp image or simply a critic-proof comic trope that has more to do with whimsy and naughtiness than homosexuality? Silent film is rife with arguably crypto-queer motifs, from the obligatory drag performed by virtually every silent comic, to the groundbreaking kiss between Richard Arlen and Buddy Rogers in Wings (1927), to director Frank Borzage's homoerotic studies of Charles Farrell in films like Seventh Heaven (1927) and Street Angel (1928). It's now generally agreed that the dancing men in the Edison short The Gay Brothers, circa 1895, represent the first identifiable homosexual coupling in cinema, but, typical of the confusions around queerness, even this can be disputed by invoking the different view of homosexuality that supposedly existed at the time. These waltzing brothers may have been acting more fancifully than queer.
Between The Gay Brothers and the New Queer Cinema movement and its aftermath are a wealth of queer presences - before and behind the camera and in themes and subtexts. For the sake of simplicity we can reduce this long stretch to a few major archetypes to encapsulate the general trends and show briefly how societal views of homosexuality changed. The sissy was the first archetype and probably the most enduring, remaining an identifiable, often unchanged presence from the silent era to today. In the 1940s, the sissy became the killer queen (or dyke), acquiring power by mutating into threatening pervert, tragic "third sex" or homicidal maniac. Such characters are less noticeable today, replaced by a third queer presence, or actually two related ones: the dying homosexual of the AIDS era and the healthy, well-adjusted gay or lesbian of the New Queer Cinema and beyond.
The sissy holds a special place in cinema history. Just as drag queens radicalized legions of queers at the Stonewall Riots, so the sissy, in his quieter way, was the revolutionary of 1930s cinema, brazenly countering the hetero hero's often foolish attempts to get laid (or at least steal a kiss) with an arsenal of arched eyebrows, rolling eyes and finger-wagging. Sissies were a fixture, indeed a sine qua non, of between-the-wars café society, an instant signifier of everything sophisticated and pleasurable, if also transgressive, about modern urban culture. Astaire-Rogers musicals like The Gay Divorcee (1934) and Top Hat (1935) are unimaginable without mincing queens like Eric Blore, Edward Everett Horton and Franklin Pangborn demonstrating to their often clueless master (or mistress) how to act, dress and even triumph in a heterosexual love affair. Despite his marginalization from the narrative, the sissy displayed instant thrilling power with every appearance. In George Cukor's Our Betters (1933), the standout sissy Ernest (Tyrell Davis), complete with lipstick, rouge and a commandingly effeminate manner, appears at the end like a perverse deus ex machina to help resolve the hapless heteros' romantic confusions. (This role was much remarked on at the time, with Variety calling this "pansy... the most broadly painted character of the kind yet attempted.") The classic comedy My Man Godfrey (1936) broke the sissy's cardinal "look but don't touch" rule when it had the fey Franklin Pangborn lovingly - and lengthily - stroke the beard of Godfrey (William Powell) to see if it was real, an indignity that Godfrey must endure due to the sissy's power.
Clifton Webb in Laura (1944)
Sissies continued to flourish in the decades to follow, but with variations. The 1940s saw the "killer sissy" emerge in the form of Clifton Webb in Laura (1944) and The Dark Corner (1946). In the 1950s, the much-remarked "sad young man" - the tragic homosexual familiar to readers of pulp paperbacks - appeared in films like Rebel Without a Cause (the Sal Mineo character, 1955) and Tea and Sympathy (1956), where even the accusation of "Sissy Boy" (which turned out to be false in the latter film) was enough to nearly destroy the target of such phrases. In the 1960s, sissies continued to make their presence known, often in a kind of leering, sniggering way, as in the Rock Hudson vehicles Lover Come Back (1961) and A Very Special Favor (1965). There, Hudson pretends to be a sissy in order to win over a woman, a dizzying collision of reality and fiction in the case of a gay actor such as Hudson. The 1960s abounded with sissies, but the most notable appeared in the often reviled Boys in the Band (1970), in the persons of Emory ("Who do you have to fuck to get a drink around here?") and Harold ("Michael doesn't have charm. Michael has counter-charm.") Here, for once, the sissies are the main characters, not cracked reflections of their heterosexual bosses or phony sissies a la the Hudson roles. A related phenomenon of "playing gay" - hetero actors dressing in drag - that began in the silent era remains a popular trope, viz. movies like To Wong Foo... (1995) in which straight actors don drag to show their mettle, their range, and their ability to laugh at themselves.
Killer Queens and Deadly Dykes
Societal fears around homosexuality, negatively energized by the darkness of war, spawned Clifton Webb's murderous homo Waldo Lydecker in Laura. This character was the first to combine the sissy manner - extreme sophistication, verbal command, effeminate gestures - with homicidal urges based on a kind of twisted heterosexual impulse. Only Webb's intensity as an actor could convince audiences that he was in love with Laura and not with Laura's love interest, hunky cop Dana Andrews. Lydecker, who kills one person and nearly kills Laura and her cop boyfriend, spawned many a criminal queer in the decades to come.
Alfred Hitchcock's fascination with homosexuality has often been remarked, and two of his most notable films in this regard are Rope (1948) and Strangers on a Train (1951), both featuring sophisticated killer queers who think they're above the law. Criminal dykes, too, make their appearance around this time. Caged (1950) is a veritable catalog of evil butch women, including vicious matron Evelyn Harper (memorably played by Hope Emerson), whose repertoire includes S&M games like head shaving, and a female crime boss who practically licks her lips when she sees a new "cute trick" walk by. Typical of this era, Harper's sexuality is coded: she's straight on paper (she mentions a boyfriend), but queer on screen.
Bookmark/Search this post with: