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A Brief History of Queer Cinema


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

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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.

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The Sissy
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 fingerwagging. Sissies were a fixture, indeed a sine qua non, of betweenthe-wars caf society, an instant signifier of everything sophisticated and
pleasurable, if also transgressive, about modern urban culture. AstaireRogers 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

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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.

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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.
The "pathology" of homosexuality,
dovetailing with the medical
establishment's negative attitude
toward it, became rife in cinema in
the late 1950s and beyond. Crazy
queers were the driving force in films
like the 1957 The Strange One (with
Ben Gazzara as a crypto-homo
sadist at a military school),
Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967)
and The Sergeant (1968). It's
significant that these films share a
military or quasi-military setting, the
implication being that such all-male
environments are in danger of
breeding homosexuality, which in turn creates a murderous pathology.
In The Boys in the Band, one of the characters says, "Not every faggot
gets bumped off in the end." But that's precisely what happened in the
subgenre of the suicidal queer. Two notable films in this realm are The
Children's Hour (1962), in which the accusation of lesbianism (not
entirely unfounded) ends with a rope suicide; and The Sergeant, in which
the title character kills himself after kissing a private. (The queer kiss is
yet another subgenre, and a fascinating one. The producers of the 1982
film Deathtrap calculated that the brief kiss between Christopher
Reeve and Michael Caine cost the film $10 million in lost revenues due
to negative publicity - an expensive smooch by any standard.)
Notorious in the killer dyke genre is the 1992 Basic Instinct, with its
central image of an ice-pick-wielding lesbian who may be the thriller
writer (Sharon Stone) or the police psychiatrist (Jeanne Triplehorne).
Some critics complained that the extensive protests by the gay
community were unnecessary, that the film was as nasty to its
heterosexual characters as to its queer ones - perhaps a sign of progress.
Cruising (1980), despite predating Basic Instinct by more than 10 years,
could be called the latter's companion piece, with its portrayal of a queer
maniac murdering members of New York's leather community. Both films
share something else: charges that, by the end, the audience still can't
be sure of the identity of the killer, an indication perhaps of a failed
attempt at complexity - or of the confusions that continued to surround
cinematic portrayals of homosexuality.

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After the 1969 Stonewall riots, queer cinema changed. That event
made positive portrayals possible. Even The Boys in the Band, often
pointed to as the ultimate self-hating homo film, has positive
characterizations. Some of the "boys" like Larry and Hank appear to be
average guys in every particular except one. And directors like John
Schlesinger (Midnight Cowboy, 1969; Sunday Bloody Sunday,
1971) and Bob Fosse (Cabaret, 1972) were among many who showed
that homosexuality could be treated in an adult manner and even
incorporated into larger stories of human frailty or historical events. A
film like The Killing of Sister George (1968), with its unrepentant,
garrulous dyke heroine, slightly predates Stonewall but has much of the
spirit of defiance that defined that event, showing that Stonewall was
more a culmination than a breakthrough.

Beryl Reid in The Killing of Sister George (1968)


Soon after AIDS appeared in the early 1980s, an "AIDS cinema" could be
identified. Films like An Early Frost (1985) and Parting Glances (1986)
established the template for the genre, which mostly portrayed the plight
of white middle-class queers in a mournful, sometimes maudlin way, a
resurrection of the "sad young man" syndrome of 1950s paperbacks with
the added inflection of a terminal disease. Perhaps the major work in the
genre was Philadelphia (1993), a film criticized in some quarters for its
reluctance - seeming to hark back to an earlier, more repressed time - to
show the physical attraction of the two male leads.
Following the AIDS drama, and in many ways an answer to it, were the
sunny queer comedies of the 1990s, a backlash that coincided with
shifting attitudes towards the disease from incurable to manageable.
Films like Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss (1998) and Trick (1999) are
typical of the genre, with robust, well-scrubbed young leading men, an
upbeat musical motif and a coy attitude toward sexuality that makes
them palatable to a wide audience while also reassuring queer viewers
that there was life after AIDS. These films appear to have been key in
opening the way to the tidal wave of queer television shows like Boy
Meets Boy and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy that have become a cause
celebre.
On a more ambitious note was
the New Queer Cinema, so
identified by critic B. Ruby Rich
in the early 1990s to define a
group of more sophisticated,
politically minded queer films
that were making the rounds,
including Poison (1990),
Swoon (1992), The Living End
(1992), and The Hours and
Times (1991). Unlike other film
movements, this one had no
manifesto, no rules and no particular canon, making it in essence not a
movement or a genre but, perhaps more accurately, a trend. These films
frequently featured one producer, Christine Vachon, and most came
from the independent scene, making them less answerable to corporate
or mainstream interests. This links them to some of the earlier mature

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one of the lures of the New Queer Cinema was the lack of polish exhibited
by those earlier films, as if truths were more easily located in a rougher,
less predictable format. Featuring complex characters with flaws and
foibles, and sophisticated stories, the films showed a world far removed
from the screaming sissies, tragic homos, and killer dykes of the late, and
in some ways lamented, Old Queer Cinema.

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Gary Morris edits the incomparable Bright Lights Film Journal, a


GreenCine favorite and "a popular-academic hybrid" (for a fun read,
check the list of banned words). He's also written for both San Francisco
alternative weeklies, Images and other publications.

GreenCine Recommends...
Where to begin. For one thing, as Gary writes,
"interpretations in this realm are always debatable."
Our recommendations won't be necessarily limited to,
say, films with gay protagonists or films made by gay
directors; but at the same time, space does limit us
from open-armed though perfectly legitimate
definitions like Dmetri Kakmi's when he writes of
queer movies in Senses of Cinema, "I interpret
Cukor's 1939 classic The Women, which boasted an
all female cast, as a gathering of bitchy backstage
drag queens all competing for the affections of their
unseen men."
Can't argue with that. But to hit the highlights without
repeating titles Gary's mentioned, what follows are
some clear favorites among GreenCiners, going by
lists and ratings. Gary has, in fact, covered the
pre-Stonewall era so very well, we'll simply mention
one documentary to supplement his choices, The
Celluloid Closet (1996). Based on the book by Vito
Russo (and if you read Kakmi, you'll notice he has a
few bones to pick with it), Closet chronicles the
portrayal of gays and lesbians on screen, delighting
particularly in the homosexual subtext of Hollywood
films when the Hays Code was in full force.
To the recs, then, sliced up in all but arbitrary
categories:
More Landmarks
Can't underestimate the impact of the films Paul
Morrissey directed in the late 60s and 70s. With
Andy Warhol's name on them (though he rarely had
much to do with their actual making), films like Flesh
(1968), Trash (1970) and Heat (1972) but also
Blood for Dracula (1974) were able to travel far,
bringing unabashedly gay iconography and characters
to art houses and college campuses from coast to
coast.
La Cage Aux Folles (1979). AKrizman writes:
"This movie featured out gay main characters in a
healthy committed relationship, and portrayed them
as loving parents as well.... Considering the
self-hating nature of the gay films that were its
contemporaries (Querelle [1983] and Cruising
[1980]), this film was way ahead of it's time; it would
be almost 20 years before its Hollywood remake
would find mainstream success in the US."

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Glances, there was also Donna Deitch's Desert


Hearts and, from across the Atlantic, Stephen
Frears's My Beautiful Laundrette. It'd be a bit
longer before anyone could talk of a New Queer
Cinema, but this was the year when the first
rumblings were heard. Soon to follow would be Torch
Song Trilogy (1988), based on Harvey Fierstein's
Broadway smash, and a significant entry into the
subgenre Gary identifies as "AIDS cinema," Longtime
Companion (1990).

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And then, mention should be made of two


American directors, GreenCine favorites, whose sexual
orientation may inform but certainly does not define
their work: Gus Van Sant and Todd Haynes have
made a few films each that some file as NQC, but also
a few each that have nothing to do with any school or
movement.
Foreign
The same could be said of Rainer Werner
Fassbinder and Derek Jarman; and of Pedro
Almodvar and Franois Ozon.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder's The Bitter Tears of


Petra von Kant (1972)
Dutch director Marleen Gorris won an Academy
Award for Best Foreign Language Film with Antonia's
Line (1995).
The much loved and sorely missed Leslie Cheung
lives on in movies and music as a gender-bending
icon. He delivered one of his most moving
performances in Kar-Wai Wong's Happy Together
(1997).
Stanley Kwan filmed his tale of an entrepreneur
and an architecture student in love in Beijing without
permission from the government. What's more, Lan
Yu (2002) is based on a novel published on the Net
anonymously in 1997.
Another country that frowns on homosexuality is
Turkey. Many thought the languid Steam: The
Turkish Bath (1997) had a shot at an Oscar, but the
authorities refused to even submit it. Some Turkish
gays have it easier gay-friendlier environs in Europe,
though not always much easier, as can be seen in
Lola and Billy the Kid (1999).
The Argentine crime story Burnt Money (2001) is
"a ripe and juicy slice of gangster hell," writes the
Austin Chronicle, full of "betrayal, madness, and a
whole mess of energetic sexual couplings that run the

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between."

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Drag Queens
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the
Desert (1994), featuring a pre-Agent Smith,
pre-Elrond Hugo Weaving.
The late great Divine simply must be on the list, of
course. John Waters's Pink Flamingos (1972) and
Female Trouble (1975) would be the pair to start
with.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001), the
"post-punk neo-glam musical." Read our interview
with director and star John Cameron Mitchell.
More "sunny queer comedies"
The Broken Hearts Club made its mark in 2000 as
a just another comedy about a bunch of guys who
were all friends... and yes, they just happened to be
gay. The selling point for the film at Sundance was
that this aspect was played down.
In the same ballpark would be All Over the Guy
(2001), which gleefully hands out neuroses to its
straight and queer characters in equal measure.
Bedrooms and Hallways (1998). Rose Troche's
Go Fish (1994) was undoubtedly a landmark
independent lesbian film, but most prefer this lighthearted romp.
Men shooting lesbians
It's odd, isn't it. The milestone is probably Robert
Towne's Personal Best (1982), which was quickly
followed by John Sayles's Lianna (1983), a film
many lesbians expected to hate - but didn't.

Lukas Moodysson's Show Me Love (1998)


Two notable foreign examples are Max
Frberbck's Aimee & Jaguar (2000) and Lukas
Moodysson's Show Me Love (1998), both widely
acclaimed.
Peter Jackson's a foreigner, too, of course, but
he's also an English-speaker whose Heavenly
Creatures (1994) backpeddles the lesbian aspect of
the relationship between the two leads in favor of
fantastic elements which came in rather handy for a
certain bigger project that would follow.
The Wachowski brothers also caught the attention
they needed for a bigger-budgeted project with their
lesbian thriller, Bound (1996).
Suggestions for further clicking:

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Lesbian List has been a long-time favorite around


here. A terrific supplement is hamano's The
Penultimate Lesbian List. AKrizman's Out Gay
Directors list is outstanding.

2009 2012

Bright Lights Film Journal, of course. Gay and


lesbian-themed articles have been conveniently
gathered on one page.
Thoughts? Comments? Reactions? Suggestions?
Discuss!

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