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What We Owe to ‘The Boys in the Band’—and Other Classics of Gay Film

I’m grateful to every straight director, actor, and writer who has taken up the cause over the last 60 years, and to their closeted friends and colleagues who inspired them.

· 15 min read
What We Owe to ‘The Boys in the Band’—and Other Classics of Gay Film
A scene from the 1927 film Wings, believed to be the first same-sex kiss in a commercial film.

Ryan’s Murphy’s new Netflix production of The Boys in the Band is a time capsule of gay life in New York City, 1968. A group of friends, all but one closeted, get together for a birthday party that makes Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf look like a strawberry social. Shame, guilt, fear, and self-loathing rip through a night of pills, alcohol, and panic attacks, ending with the lines, “Show me a happy homosexual and I’ll show you a gay corpse,” and “If we could just not hate ourselves so much… If we could just learn not to hate ourselves quite so very much.”

I was 18 when I saw the original production, alone, and 19 when I saw the 1970 film adaptation, also alone. I furtively entered and exited the theatre both times, terrified that someone I knew might see me at a show about gays. Would they wonder if I was gay, too? If they guessed, then what? I could end up like those characters, cast off by friends and family, no hope, no future, and no way out but the pills I’d been considering.

This wasn’t personal paranoia. Every gay cast member of The Boys in the Band stayed closeted for fear of career suicide. Straight actor Laurence Luckinbill lost work, including a contract for cigarette commercials: According to the company, “No fags smoke our fags.” This was a time, after all, when sodomy was illegal in every state but Illinois, and Philip Roth, an icon of the Left, was comfortable attacking Edward Albee in the New York Review of Books for his “ghastly pansy rhetoric.”

The Boys in the Band, depressing and self-lacerating as it is, was a pivotal work in the representation of LGBT lives on film; one of the first, in fact, to represent our lives at all. Its 2020 Netflix incarnation, featuring an entirely out gay cast, comes at another inflection point: this time, not over how or whether minorities can be represented on film, but by whom.

Film and TV have been our most popular art forms for the better part of a century. Since their production typically relies on significant financing, which in turn requires a mass audience to break even, they also tend to represent an inherently conservative art form: Few private investors will put money into a production that turns viewers off. But sometimes, when bold artists and entrepreneurs sense that their audience is ready for something radically new, a movie like The Boys in the Band can establish a new baseline for what ordinary people allow themselves to say and think.

Now pushing 70, I’m acutely aware of how my relationship with culture has affected my self-image and place in the world. As a little boy, I’d run around the house singing Snow White’s “Someday My Prince Will Come,” and harboring a secret wish-upon-a-star for the prince from Sleeping Beauty. Age 10, I had a thing for older brother Wally on TV’s Leave It to Beaver. I pictured us hugging and wrestling, like Batman and me (if I were Robin). In my tweens, my crushes on Bonanza’s Little Joe, My Three Sons’ Robbie, and Beach Party’s Frankie Avalon were much more interesting.

By then, I’d figured out three things: Boys on screen—and, by extension, real life—were only interested in girls. I was the only boy anywhere who wasn’t. And if anyone found out my secret, the world would end. Most LGBT adults were in the same boat: Exposure meant risking your job and even your home. Police officers cracked heads while raiding bars and clubs, all of them illegal; and teen gangs went “fag-bashing” for sport, sometimes killing us. Happiness was as far as Oz from Kansas.

Same-sex attraction wasn’t just “the love that dares not speak its name.” It was the love that couldn’t. In many ways, in fact, the situation was even worse than it was in the 19th century, when gay burlesque (and then the Pansy Craze of the 1920s) presented gay men semi-affectionately (if not explicitly). Similarly, the moving same-sex kiss in the Oscar-winning Wings (1927) demonstrated sympathy for homoeroticism in male friendships.

Whatever goodwill and tolerance there was ended in 1930 with the Hays Code (more formally known as the Motion Picture Production Code), America’s first systematic film-censorship regime. The code prohibited, among other things, “sex perversion or any reference to it”—which primarily meant homosexuality. From then on, movie themes and characters were straightwashed: Gay icon Cole Porter was transformed into a happily married man in Night and Day (1941). George Peppard became the straight stand-in for Truman Capote in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. And Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) were purged of homosexual plot points. The gay husband of Blanche DuBois who’d killed himself following her rejection was suddenly straight. And Brick’s homosexual love for his friend Skipper, who’d likewise committed suicide, went pouf. (Suicides were common for gay men in fiction and life, tragedies which predated the demise of Tchaikovsky and continue to this day.)

LGBT themes and characters were so rigorously erased that even the word “homosexual” wasn’t heard in English-speaking cinema until 1961’s Victim, which came out when I was 10. The movie argued for the repeal of Britain’s sodomy laws, which had led to gay men being blackmailed as national-security threats. In the film, Melville Farr is a married barrister who’s had a romantic but sexless friendship with a young working-class man. Blackmailers take a photograph of him with his arm around his friend’s shoulder and things get grim. The Motion Picture Association’s Production Code Administration refused to approve Victim because of its “overtly expressed pleas for social acceptance of the homosexual, to the extent that he be made socially tolerable.” Ultimately, Victim was released, and the code was amended, although it would take another seven years for British law to change.

Hollywood often paired straightwashing with a negative LGBT subtext. Characters coded lesbian were either butch sadists, such as prison warden Hope Emerson in Caged and Mrs. Danvers in Hitchcock’s Rebecca, or icy manipulators such as Eve Harrington in All About Eve. Characters coded as gay males were either prissy queens such as Charles Hawtrey and Kenneth Williams in the Carry On series, or psychotic killers like Peter Lorre’s Joel Cairo in The Maltese Falcon (identified by his swishy music intro, gardenia-scented business cards, and his stroking of his phallic cane). Film thereby solidified negative attitudes to LGBT lives, impeding public acceptance.

In a roughly parallel phenomenon, the 60s brought much-needed changes to Hollywood’s treatment of race. Just as LGBT movies made us human to straight audiences, films such as Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (1961; play 1959) brought the evils of racism to white audiences. Raisin starred Lou Gossett Jr., Ruby Dee, and Sidney Poitier, who went on to top the 1967 box office in three other race-related movies: In the Heat of the Night, To Sir, with Love, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, a story about interracial marriage released just six months before America’s miscegenation laws were struck down. Women’s representation similarly benefitted from a wave of 60s feminist films, such as The Group (1966), The Girls (1968), The Happy Ending (1969), and Rachel, Rachel (1968, based on the novel A Jest of God by Canadian author Margaret Laurence).

But the analogy to LGBT treatment is inexact. Unlike visible minorities, gays and lesbians can fly under the radar if we’re able to mimic straight behaviour. (That’s why we make good authors and actors: We’ve grown up pretending to be someone else.) But visible-minority kids grow up in families that understand discrimination and can offer support; whereas the parents of LGBT kids are straight, their understanding at best indirect, and their support uncertain. As a result, cultural erasure meant that we grew up in a bell jar, alone, afraid, and confused, unable to speak about our differences even to parents or friends. As adults, we continued to live our dark secret under threat of exposure. The result was sham marriages or life on the down-low.

The years between Victim and The Boys in the Band broke the cultural dam. Those years included Midnight Cowboy and adaptations of (depressing) LGBT plays such as StaircaseThe Killing of Sister George, and Lillian Hellman’s 1934 Broadway hit The Children’s Hour, in which two women run a girls’ boarding school until a malicious student falsely accuses them of having a lesbian relationship. The women and their school are destroyed—Hello, #BelieveAll—but the girl’s lie causes one of the women to realize she actually is a lesbian. (Spoiler alert: She kills herself.) Director William Wyler’s 1961 film was true to the play, unlike the straightwashed version he’d done 25 years earlier called These Three. In that movie, the student’s lie was that she’d seen one of the women having sex with her friend’s fiancé. Nobody died, but the play did.

Special mention also should be made of Canadian John Herbert’s groundbreaking Fortune in Men’s Eyes (play 1967, film 1971). Based on Herbert’s experience as a teenage crime victim who’d been thrown in jail for being in drag at the time he was mugged, Fortune calls out the unjust imprisonment of gay men, their frequent gang-rape behind bars, and the need for prison reform. (The lurid trailer can be found here. But equally interesting is a recently discovered 16mm excerpt from the 1969 production featuring Sal Mineo and Don Johnson. Mineo, a star in the 1950s, became unhireable as a leading man after rumours of his homosexuality surfaced. At age 37, the actor was murdered during a parking-lot robbery. Without evidence, police claimed “a homosexual motivation.” It was assumed we got what we deserved.)

Many of today’s LGBT activists consider these films homophobic, because the characters represent negative stereotypes, demonstrate internalized homophobia, and use homophobic language against each other. I see these critics as a subset of the modern Puritans who think art should reflect the world the way it ought to be rather than the way it is; that instead of holding the mirror up to reality, it should provide an edifying dose of moral instruction. To be fair, such criticisms circulated at the time as well, and I do understand the cringe factor when faced with unpleasant representations. But, as someone who was there, I can attest that these films were true in broad brush strokes, widely appreciated, and an important step in achieving equality and acceptance.

Maybe our lives were presented as a cautionary tale, but better that than a tale untold. The world saw human beings faced with cruelty and injustice. That mattered. Some may find it coincidental that, following the release of so many ground-breaking gay films in the 1960s, sodomy was legalized in England in 1967, in Canada in 1968, and that Stonewall followed in 1969. I don’t.

Yet this progress came with an asterisk: While all but two of the stories mentioned above were written by members of the gay community, all but one were directed by a straight, white man. That’s because straight, white men were the only ones who could get these films made, much less with big stars and screened for a mass audience.

Sure, there were gay directors such as George Cukor, but they stayed closeted, in part because of the “moral-turpitude” clauses contained in their contracts. (Early in his career, Cukor was fired from Gone with the Wind when Clark Gable exploded on set: “I won’t be directed by a fairy! I have to work with a real man!”) And Hollywood actively shunned black directors until 1969, when the old studio system was collapsing and Gordon Parks was hired to direct The Learning Tree.

Mainstream LGBT and black films were aimed at white, straight, middle-class Americans—who were also the ones who needed persuading that we were fully human, a precondition for the growth of political support. And it’s why we welcomed allies such as directors Stanley Kramer, Sidney Lumet, and William Wyler—liberal Jews who’d faced discrimination themselves, and so were prepared to risk their careers and social standing on our behalf. Back then, human rights weren’t seen as a zero-sum game: It was understood that the act of artistic representation itself was based on empathy, among individuals and groups alike.

Since the dam broke, the flow of LGBT-themed films has been unstoppable. Straightwashing has remained an issue, but coding has mostly been limited to deliciously fey actors such as David Hyde Pierce in Frasier and Dom DeLuise in, well, everything. Or Disney villains Ursula, modelled on drag superstar Divine, and Scar, the decadent queen who slums with rough-trade hyenas. On the other hand, an absence of code meant a slew of explicitly gay and lesbian psychos (Basic InstinctCruisingThe Talented Mr. Ripley) and trans psychos (Dressed to KillThe Silence of the LambsBlowout).

Fortunately, these have been balanced by diverse Oscar-winning movies, such as CabaretDog Day AfternoonKiss of the SpiderwomanPhiladelphiaBoys Don’t Cry, and Moonlight—and cult hits such as The Rocky Horror Picture ShowLa Cage aux Folles, and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. We also appear in countless films as everybody’s best friend.

Visibility has provided three critical conditions for mass coming out: role models, road maps, and safety in numbers. Throughout the 70s, enough gay men self-declared that Hollywood took notice with Making Love (1982), the first film about coming out. Although I worked in theatre and had gay and lesbian friends at the time, I was still paralyzed in the closet. Seeing Michael Ontkean thrive on the big screen was reassuring. I took the leap soon after, ending up in New York in 1983. Not the best timing.

AIDS decimated our community in the 80s. Aside from the grim death toll and suffering, the consequent fear led to a spate of violence, firings, evictions, and expulsion from family circles. It was so terrifying that we hid our diagnoses from each other, and so shameful it was never mentioned in obituaries. But film sympathetically reflected the way AIDS pushed us to bond and organize for justice. Ironically, that fight eventually opened the public’s heart and led to greater mainstream understanding and sympathy. As early as 1985, well before politicians were saying the word “AIDS,” the issue was made personal on the small screen in An Early Frost. America’s beloved star, Tom Hanks, opened hearts even more in Philadelphia (1993). Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart and Tony Kushner’s Angels in America are two other essential works that have documented the era and cemented support.

Today, a diverse field of top directors is out of the closet. There are LGBT love storiesthrillers, biopics comic and tragic, and everything in between. You can see today’s lesbians raising a family (The Kids Are All Right) or losing their children in the 1950s (Carol). GleeWill and Grace, and Modern Family have shown that a mainstream audience is comfortable with us camping it up in its living rooms, as well as being open to grittier trans stories like Transparent and Pose. And have you noticed that I’ve gotten this far without having to mention Brokeback Mountain?

So, we’ve reached rainbow-celluloid Nirvana, right? Well, no. Now that our stories can be told, the new fight is over who can tell them. Laurence Olivier’s black-faced Othello is unthinkable today, as is Mickey Rooney’s yellowface in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Many activists say the same should apply to pinkface—straight actors in LGBT roles. Culture-war extremists even retroactively attack milestones in the canon as homophobic (Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) or transphobic (Boys Don’t Cry) because of decades-old casting decisions.

The frustration is understandable. With three exceptions, the films mentioned here have exclusively straight acting leads. Sixty-one straights have received Oscar nominations for LGBT characters, and 11 have won, while only two gays (and zero lesbians) have ever been nominated after coming out. LGBT biopics are constantly cast straight: Harvey Milk, Alan Turing, Queen Anne, Don Shirley—even Freddie Mercury, Liberace, and Elton John, for God’s sake.

But our anger is misplaced. The truth is that straight actors have played those roles because gay actors wouldn’t. Until you’re established, the closet remains a necessity for lead actors. Ask Ian McKellenRupert EverettAnne Heche, or Matt Bomer. Even in 2020, leading men walk a fine line. In the words of a top talent manager: “It’s all about perception.” The audience “wants to believe that the lead guy is fucking the lead woman.”

It’s irritating when straight actors are called “brave” and “courageous” for playing what we call everyday gay life. But the second truth is, they are. Even well-credentialed heterosexuals often stare at their shoes when offered LGBT roles, for fear of being assumed gay. Early on, Harry Hamlin crashed and burned after Making Love. Cast members from the AIDS classic Longtime Companion (1990) were all warned off. Denzel Washington famously told Will Smith not to take the gay hustler role in Six Degrees of Separation (1993).

In the end, most LGBT directors are like The Boys in the Band’s Joe Mantello, who “wants the best possible actor in the role.” He points out that he cast Russell Tovey as the very straight Nick for his Broadway remount of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. “If I ruled him out because of his sexuality, that would’ve been a real loss, because he was brilliant in it. His sexuality to me was beside the point. We have to be very careful, because if you’re going to apply a rule, you have to apply the rule across the board.”

Indeed. And the concern that appropriation arguments could lead to questions about gays and lesbians in straight roles is real. In the ’60s, the New York Times’ Stanley Kauffman argued that gay playwrights—meaning Edward Albee, Tennessee Williams and William Inge—couldn’t write straight lives because of their sexuality. Albee fought against this notion his whole life. At the 2011 Lambda literary awards, he made the non-controversial “controversial” remark that: “A writer who happens to be gay or lesbian must be able to transcend self. I am not a gay writer. I am a writer who happens to be gay. … Any definition which limits us is deplorable.” That’s the difference between an artist and an ideologue.

So yes, it would be nice if LGBT actors had been up for playing those Oscar-nominated roles. But it would only be better if they had been as good. Frankly, I find it impossible to imagine greater performances than those of Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain, a story, incidentally, written by a straight woman from New England and directed by a straight man from Taiwan. The need for audiences also highlights the conflict between identitarian purity and pragmatism. Tangerine is a case in point. A personal favourite, it’s a perfect, authentic, universally applauded, award-winning and no-name trans movie. But it pulled in just $920,000.

By contrast, the producers who planned to make Rub ‘n’ Tug, a movie about larger than life transman Dante “Tex” Gill, took a different approach. To get financing, they contracted Scarlett Johansson. The trans community blew up because she’s cis, Johansson backed out, and the movie fell apart. Victory or own goal?

Most LGBT film people are open to straights playing gay and lesbian roles if the work is done with respect. But some reviewers and Twitter activists aren’t. New TIFF movies starring Viggo Mortensen and Mark Wahlberg are already facing headwinds. One possible result may be that producers will find it easier to simply avoid LGBT projects. Another is that actors and directors may make choices based on fear, a disaster for the arts wherever it’s happened.

Jill Soloway, whose series Transparent was based on her father’s trans coming out, is reconsidering past choices. She cast Jeffrey Tambor as transwoman Maura, but now says that was unacceptable, despite acknowledging that he’s a great actor who got more attention for her show than it would have gotten otherwise, and that he “looked and felt much more like my parent than a trans woman or a fully transitioned person would have, because my parent was at the beginning of their transition, as was Maura.” (When Tambor left the cast, the show died.)

Likewise, Darren Criss has made a decision about his future. He leapt to fame as America’s favourite gay boyfriend in Glee and went on to win Emmy and Golden Globe awards for his role as gay serial killer Andrew Cunanan in The Assassination of Gianni Versace. He says those days are over: “I want to make sure I won’t be another straight boy taking a gay man’s role.” What makes his concern interesting is that he was cast for both those roles by gay power producer Ryan Murphy, whose record for diverse creations and casting has few rivals in the business. Murphy is paralleled by internationally renowned gay director Pedro Almodóvar, who has cast the straight Antonio Banderas as his alter ego over a lifetime of autobiographical movies.

Personally, I’m grateful to every straight director, actor, and writer who has taken up the cause over the last 60 years, and to their closeted friends and colleagues who inspired them. Their intuition and empathy have built bridges, opened doors, knocked down walls, creating works that are emotionally authentic—the only kind of authenticity that matters in a world of pretend. Sure, there’s work to be done in casting, but that’s a function of the public expanding what it accepts, not of us trying to limit what’s allowed. You can’t closet the imagination. You shouldn’t try.

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