Homosexual sex and passion in mainstream American film

by Stuart Fischoff, Ph.D., Psychology Today

The film, Making Love, was released by Fox in 1982. It starred the then-hot stars Michael Ontkean, Harry Hamlin and Kate Jackson. The story dealt with a married, thirtysomething doctor who collides with his homosexual side and the psychological gantlet he runs in coming out.

One reviewer, looking back, said recently, “…you can’t imagine Brokeback Mountain being made without Making Love coming first.” In fact, athe film broke a lot of film taboos when it first appeared. For one thing, there was some serious kissing and groping. Secondly, the gay lead characters didn’t die or chronically suffer “dysphoric or dystonic identity disorders (didn’t like being gay”) for their sexual transgressions before the end of the movie, unlike some films of the era, like Boys in the Band, Cruising, Philadelphia or more recently, Brokeback Mountain.

Further, this was a film where two attractive, non-effeminate men fall for each other without resorting to garment rending or biblical moralizing. It was also a mainstream movie from a major studio. In other words, this was just the sort of “event” movie that many in the gay Hollywood community had been pushing for years with little success.

Prior to the 1980s, while there were lots of gays in power positions, the closet was very deep and dark, at least in terms of its public face. Playing gay in films was hazardous to your career. But an actor being openly homosexual was a torpedo. Gay-themed movies were still considered very, very chancy, even after the demise of the motion picture code in the early 1960s.

How things would play in middle-America (“Will it play in Peoria?”) has always been of paramount (read “box office”) consideration for the major studios. Middle-America was (and still is) White, Christian and heterosexual. Minorities of race, religion, age, geography, etc., will, except for major stars, be niche-confined and continue to play catch-up on studio production schedules.

Which brings us back to Making Love. Another critic observed that the film was far more daring at presenting male intimacy than Philadelphia would be 12 years later. Philadelphia featured a timely storyline about the ravaging effects of AIDS on a lawyer at a major law firm. It sported some unlikely but clever (and safe) casting as it starred Tom Hanks and Antonio Banderas as the gay lovers. But the real genius was the casting of Denzel Washington as a lawyer who reluctantly defends Hanks in a wrongful termination suit relating to both his character’s AIDS and his sexual orientation. (By way of contrast, most A-list male stars decisively turned down the leads in Making Love. Times change).

Really, how good can a risky movie get: one minority defending another; minds meeting, minds changing). Philadelphia — ultimately a very feel-good movie that audiences could applaud themselves for watching.

Making Love… not so much.

No surprise, then, that the cumulative box office total for Making Love (two successful, white guys who must only deal with their transient angst) was only $11.9 million while Philadelphia accumulated a box office of $77.3 million. Making Love screenwriter Barry Sandler said he knew they had walked out on an uncertain ledge when, at a pre-release screening, half the audience walked out after the ground-breaking, deep kiss and fondling between Ontkean and Hamlin.

Why the huge box office disparity? Casting, the righteous death of a homosexual sinner from AIDS (ala Jerry Falwell), audience fear of AIDS, or the downplay of onscreen, gay sex in the film? Maybe it was the ability to care for the two gay lovers who really seemed to care for each other deeply. Or was it something else entirely?

Which brings me to the trigger event for this blog.

The other evening, a few friends and I watched the DVD of the biopic Milk. This is the film for which Penn won an Oscar as Harvey Milk, the openly gay San Francisco county supervisor who, along with Mayor George Moscone, was murdered pretty much in plain sight by another supervisor, Dan White, in the throes of a mental meltdown.

Of particular interest to me during both our screening of the movie and the occasional junk food breaks, were the comments by some that they found it hard to relate to the Harvey Milk character, the portrayal of whom was reputed to be accurate to the spirit, if not the letter, of the real Milk’s attitudes and behaviors. They found his promiscuity reckless and off-putting.

Later it became clear that some, (mostly the males in the group — but some females as well) have never comfortably adapted to gay onscreen sex play or love making even, though they are totally supportive of gay rights and the rights of gays and lesbians to marry. They sex scenes make it harder for them to identify with the characters.

This audience-character disconnect touches on a cardinal, even sacrosanct rule in filmmaking: Identifying with main characters in a film is an essential component to an audience enjoying or being moved by a film and being concerned about a character’s fates and fortunes. These, in turn, affect word of mouth and, ultimately, box office and rentals.

All this discussion easily segued into the ever-fascinating, gender issue — why both males and females generally have far less difficulty watching-even quite enjoying -film portrayals of lesbian sex (movies along the lines of The Hunger with Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon, Personal Best, and Desert Hearts, were mentioned). This led to even further speculation on theories that might explain such a gender double standard.

One theory that received the most “intuitive” acceptance was the idea that, given the stricter gender definitions of masculinity in our culture, we are more likely to think of two men making out as compromising their masculinity. Two (or more?) women doing the same does not appear to compromise their femininity, if for no other reason than, in our culture, women are in fact given more latitude for expressing same-sex affection and physical intimacy than are men. Think about it: how many straight men a) have sleep-overs and b) accompany each other to the men’s room!?

Yes, there are certainly straight women who find lesbian sex repulsive and heterosexual men who are not at all put off by depictions of gay sex in film. We were just discussing it from what seemed to be the consensus of those in the discussion and our commonplace tendency to generalize from ourselves and our experiences to the population at large.

The movie, Milk, scored nominations for BEST PICTURE, BEST ORIGINAL SCORE, BEST FILM, BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR, BEST EDITING, and BEST DIRECTOR nominations at the 2009 Academy Awards. It won awards for BEST ACTOR and BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY. But even with all those kudos, the film, like Making Love, did not fare well at the box office, pulling in only $31.8 million. To the bargain, it received very little bounce from the Oscar nominations and awards, suggesting that, in terms of ticket sales, the film had already pretty much tapped out its receptive population.

Did Milk barely break even in terms of box office primarily because of gay sexuality, thereby reflecting the sensibilities of my screening guests that night? Its movie rating was R, which may have affected some market potential. Then again, many artistically celebrated movies did poor box office (e.g. Scorsese’sRaging Bull, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner), so this sexual “thing” may have nothing to do with it.

Perhaps the subject matter is of little interest to most people, especially young, straight people for whom Harvey Milk, Dan White, and the whole, tragic episode is ancient history and they couldn’t care less about it. However, studies show that young people (under 30 are far less disturbed by homosexuality in popular culture than are older people, especially those over 60.

My friends and I came from the 1950’s generation. We grew up in a less gay-tolerant or accepting times, one where attitudes were formed in the crucible of group pressure and smug, snarky jokes and demeaning stereotypes about gays; we grew up when Hollywood routinely traded in “butch” and “swish” stereotypes and even had its own fun casting closeted gay actors and lesbian actresses in stereotyped gay parts (e.g., Rock Hudson in Pillow Talk).

In the 50’s, you didn’t “understand” gays, you just mocked them, even if homoerotic play and fleeting, barely perceptible homoerotic feelings were hardly alien to many of these same young men. My friends and their peers were primed to “be distanced” by Harvey Milk and his ilk.

But, then there’s this fact: A far more sexually graphic movie, also heavy with awards and other accolades, Brokeback Mountain, pulled in over $85 million domestically and cost $l1 million to produce compared with Milk‘s $20 million production costs. Clearly gay sex was not a major audience deterrent for Brokeback Mountain. Why would it be with Milk-if it was?

Maybe artistic sensibilities are more complex than disliking gay sex per se? Conscious and unconscious bias against gays is socialized in, there from the get-go, no matter how much one may try to transcend or overlook it. It must be offset by other, more positive observed traits. Among my friends, many had seen Brokeback Mountain and didn’t like its sexuality either. But they got past it. They liked the movie.

The lead roles were easier to identify with and they weren’t portrayed as effeminate or assertive and caustic, as was Harvey Milk. Brokeback’s cowboys also struggled with their sexual attractions as Milk seemingly did not-at least onscreen. Penn’s Milk was also borderline homely, sexually very active, a high-risk sexual “player” during the opening of the AIDS era. Do straights really want their gay protagonists to epitomize promiscuous gay stereotypes?

Milk’s character was, for the most part, in stark contrast to those of the handsome cowboys played by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal. There was a love between them that both straights and gays might envy, if not openly, then in the privacy of their hearts, without guilt or shame.

In the end, then, maybe the audiences for Milk were thin for more reasons than onscreen gay sex. Think about it. If you don’t like someone or are uncomfortable with things they do or are, you tend to be more critical, less tolerant, more readily dismissive with them.

Conversely, if you like someone, you are less dismissive, more tolerant, less easily put off — because you don’t want to be put off! You more readily seek to understand or perhaps even empathize with their life dramas, as movies often try to get us to do with film leads, especially complex leads like, say, Pacino’s Michael Corleone, in the Godfather saga. It may look something like this: “Yeah, they’re gay but, well, I just think I understand what these two cowboys were dealing with…maybe if they hadn’t been stuck out there on the range…”

In other words, in movie tastes, as in life, fortunes depend as much on the singer, as the song. Perhaps the movie, Milk, was playing the wrong song and Harvey Milk as portrayed was the wrong singer.

But then there’s this zeitgeist consideration: Adapting a real life figure like Milk in today’s more assertive, activist gay/lesbian era makes air brushing prickly or controversial gay or lesbian traits to enhance a film’s mass appeal a dicey proposition. It’s likely to satisfy no one. Look at the two biopics of Cole Porter, the early, Porter-hetrosexualized, very successful one, Night and Day, with Cary Grant, and the later, very unsuccessful, gay warts-and-all Porter, It’s De-Lovely, with Kevin Kline.

Or, consider this: What would a biopic of the life, lives and lies of Truman Capote look like if made for a mass or Peorian audience? The two recent, critically received, Capote-centered movies, Capote and Infamous, centered on his chronicling of two mid-western murderers in his book, In Cold Blood. They easily portrayed his lisps and effeminate traits as well as his sharp tongue. But as for his sexuality, nada, zip, zero. But would mass audiences be ready for Truman in the raw?

Portraying gay love and affection is one thing and they go down most easily when in a comedic genre garment, like The Bird Cage or In and Out. But is Peoria ready for explicit reality in homosexual-themed films as they are for heterosexual films, whether fact-based or fiction?

Drama is the serious genre. It casts the action in a more serious light. When heterosexuals are not laughing many are likely also to be less forgiving of gay “kiss, kiss, bang, bang, bad behavior,” unless, maybe, your film is about two likable cowboys… and one of them dies.

via Psychology Today
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