Sep 1, 2012

Corey Haim



What gay boy in the 1980s didn't thinking of Corey Haim as a kindred spirit?  His cute lopsided smile, his metrosexual fondness for hair care products, his slight-but-firm physique, his well-publicized bromance with fellow teen star Corey Feldman.



Whether he was playing cute kids -- in Secret Admirer (1985), Silver Bullet (1985), Lucas (1986) and The Lost Boys (1987) -- or horny teenagers -- in License to Drive (1988), Dream a Little Dream (1989), and Fast Getaway (1991) -- Hollywood censorship decreed that his characters could not be gay.  Yet he often played them as gay anyway -- subtly, cautiously, with a leer at a passing hunk or an intensely emotional buddy-bonding moment that stood out like a beacon in the midst of the "fade-out kiss" plotlines, telling gay kids "You're not alone.  You're ok."









According to Corey Feldman, he was sexually abused by a "Hollywood mogul" as a child, and he doubtless did his share of same-sex one-nighters, but he was undeniably a ladies' man.  He had relationships with nearly every female actor, model, and singer in Hollywood: Alyssa Milano (of Who's the Boss), Nicole Eggert (of Charles in Charge), Spice Girl Victoria Beckham, Holly Fields,  Cindy Guyer, Tiffany Shepis.

During the 1990s, fame -- and his draconian workload -- hit him hard.  Like Tommy Kirk 30 years before, Corey abused drugs and alcohol; his teen idol dreaminess vanished, and he became haggard, craggy, and tattooed.  His movie roles grew sleazy and sinister.  He died of pneumonia in 2010.

To the end, Corey was welcoming and gracious to his fans, both gay and straight.

Aug 31, 2012

One Life to Live

Gay boys in the 1960s hated soap operas -- there wouldn't be any same-sex plotlines for 30 years, so they were occupied entirely by the heterosexist "true love between a man and a woman" mantra.

And it would be 20 years before the shirts dropped and soap hunks were regularly put on display.

And they always made you feel guilty for wasting your time with opening shots that pointed out how little time we have on Earth:

"Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives."

Better get busy with something useful.

But in 1968 when my friends and I gathered at 3:00 every afternoon to watch Dark Shadows, we sometimes stayed put for the new soap opera One Life to Live.


I saw it enough to think that Dr. Larry Wolek (Michael Storm) filled out his 1970s hipster uniforms nicely, in spite of his plotline, which was both stupid and disturbing: he found "true love" with town heiress Meredith, though her father disapproved of the match.  Shortly after they married and she gave birth to twins, she was shot and killed by a burglar, and Larry moved on to a new "true love."



And I saw it enough to see Meredith's uptight sister Vicki developed a split personality, becoming the funloving Nikki.  While slumming, she hooked up with muscular truck driver Vinnie (Antony Ponzini), Larry's working-class brother (no class distinctions in Llanview).














But then Vicki was cured and decded to marry Vinnie's best friend, newspaper reporter Joe Riley (gay actor Lee Patterson who starred with Van Williams, left, in the homoerotic Surfside Six).  

How did this incessant, absurdly exaggerated search for heterosexist "true love" fade-out-kiss resonate with gay kids?

1. Every heterosexual relationship played out against a background of  same-sex relationships.  Larry and Vinnie discuss their desires for Meredith and Nikki, respectively.  Vinnie and Joe discuss their desires for Nikki and Vicki, respectively.

2. Heterosexual relationships are doomed.  In a week, or a month, or a couple of years, your "true love" will die or fall in love with someone else.  But same-sex bonds are permanent.

We stopped watching in 1971, when Dark Shadows ended.  But my mother remained a fan until the series ended in 2012, through 30 years of diseases, infidelities, and fade-out-kisses, and, eventually, when Dan Gauthier joined the cast, gay subtexts.

Jack Russell's Boyfriend: Werewolf by Night

Speaking of werewolves, the only Marvel comic I read regularly in the 1970s were Kamandi, Doc Savage, and Werewolf by Night, which appeared from 1972 to 1977.  I read it mostly from 1975 to 1977, when I was in high school.

Jack Russell turns 18 and inherits the family curse; during the three nights of the full moon, he turns into a ravaging werewolf. Afterwards, of course, his clothes are gone, revealing an amazing physique.  In the second issue, he tries to explain his dilemma to the man he lives with -- "more than a friend" -- a middle-aged writer named Buck Cowan.










Buck also has an amazing physique and is allergic to shirts.







There is a "damsel in distress" being threatened on most covers, but surprise!  It's not some girl, it's his sister.  Jack doesn't have a girlfriend, girl admirer, or female crush of any kind.  He likes men.

In 2013, he appeared in a guest spot on The Ultimate Spider-Man, voiced by Disney hunk Ross Lynch.

See also: Jim Steranko

Naked Werewolves

Vampires resonate with gay teens because of their metrosexual sophistication, their unconventional sexual practices, and their "secret," but they tend to be Don Juans, courting women, biting only women. But werewolves are working class to the vampires' elite, they're rugged and macho, and they usually inhabit a male-only world.  Besids, after a night of howling at the moon, they always end up naked.


Gay boys in the 1960s loved the Gothic soap opera Dark Shadows (1966-71), because cute werewolf Chris Jennings (Don Briscoe) was always getting ripped out of his clothes, revealing a firm hairy chest.  David Collins, young heir to the family fortune, had a fairly obvious crush on him.






Thirty years later, a new generation of gay boys got to see the cute, diminuitive Oz (Seth Green) nude in a cage on Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003).













David Naughton played a gay-coded werewolf in American Werewolf in London (1981).

There were gay-coded werewolves in comics during the 1970s.

But the quintessential werewolf hunk appeared on the inaugural season of the Fox network, in a series aptly entitled Werewolf (1987-88).  The physique of college student Eric Cord (John J. York) was on display throughout most of most episodes, the camera zooming in obsessively on his massive chest, biceps, and backside.


The future soap hunk knew that his body was the main draw of the program, and he worked it, obtrusively strutting and flexing like a male model in the middle of a story about fleeing deadly danger.  Even when he hadn't just reverted from werewolf form, his shirt was usually off.  His chest was hairy or smooth, depending on whether he'd shaved recently.











The plots were male-centered, too.  In the first episode, he wolves out and attacks his college roommate. Fleeing from an obsessed bounty hunter, Eric gets involved with the personal problems of the people he meets along the way (usually men), but rarely if ever looks at a girl.



Aug 29, 2012

Sliders






If Time Tunnel got everything right, Sliders (1995-2000) got everything wrong.  This time four people are lost among infinite parallel dimensions, zapping at random through a world where the British won the Revolutionary War, a world where the 1967 "Summer of Love" never ended, and so on.  Jerry O'Connell (previously of Stand By Me and My Secret Identity) starred as the sullen but hunky physics student Quint; the others were his physics professor (John Rhys-Davies), his platonic gal-pal (Sabrina Lloyd), and a R&B singer who just happened to be driving by at the wrong moment (Cleavant Derricks).


The hunk factor was immense.  Jerry O'Connell is no stranger to beefcake shots; really, the only reason to rent his moves (Body Shots, Tomcats, Buying the Cow) is to fast-forward to the inevitable underwear scene.  In Sliders his body was on display, often, but always when he was romancing a woman or being tortured by men.












Whatever the parallel world they zap into, men exist to befriend and then betray you; they always have an ulterior motive, they always are in league with the enemy.  Women exist to be rescued, to offer alliances,  and to fall in love with men.  

And there were no gay characters, no gay themes, no nothing.  Everyone in every parallel world was heterosexual.  This is surprising, since John Rhys-Davies played gay characters elsewhere, and Jerry O'Connell is one of the most gay-friendly actors in Hollywood. 

But maybe not surprising.  Science fiction as a genre has been very resistant to gay characters. After thirty years and eight different series, there are no gay characters in any Star Trek franchise.  None in Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, Stargate -- well, actually, none anywhere.  Producers continue to dream of gay-free new worlds.


Time Tunnel




Time Tunnel lasted for only a season (1966-67), but it was an obsession; I bought (or rather, asked for) every merchandising tie-in available, a coloring book, Gold Key comics, a Viewmaster, a board game.

When the government threatens to shut down the costly Time Tunnel project for lack of verifiable results, impetuous scientist Tony (former teen idol James Darren, dark and intense in a green turtleneck sweater) decides to become a human guinea pig.  He runs through the tunnel, and is transported through time and space to the Titanic hours before it hit the iceberg.  Coworker Doug (Robert Colbert, tall and broad-shouldered in a dumb-looking business suit) decides to follow, for no logical reason except that he can’t imagine living without Tony.

In each episode, Doug and Tony are transported to moments of tremendous danger (Jericho just before the walls fell, Krakatoa just before it exploded, Pearl Harbor just before the attack).  Fortunately, they are experts in many forms of self-defense and fluent in dozens of ancient languages.  Their co-workers can only watch in horror, and sometimes repair the tunnel sufficiently to send them on a new jump to a moment of tremendous danger.  “At least they’re together,” fellow scientist Lee Meriwether muses.

Doug and Tony are constantly landing on top of each other, being tied together by villains, and otherwise forced into intimate physical contact, as if the Time Tunnel is playing matchmaker.  But perhaps it has no need: neither of the scientists ever refers to a wife or girlfriend back home, and only rarely do they flirt with any of the women they meet on their travels.  Instead, they grab wrists, touch shoulders, wrap arms around waists, exactly like romantic partners in peril.  Nearly every episode has one of them captured and imprisoned or strung up somewhere, so that the other can embark on a daring rescue and say teary-eyed, “Doug [or Tony], I thought you were. . . .”

Tied spread-eagle side by side in “Pirates of Deadman’s Island” (February 1967), they seem to be holding hands; Tony’s hand is actually poised slightly above Doug’s, but this is discernable only with a modern freeze frame.  In the last episode of the series, “Town of Terror” (April 1967), Tony is startled by gunfire and jumps against Doug, pressing both hands flat against his chest, a gesture that I have seen elsewhere only in women seeking comfort in the mighty arms of men.  They are being presented quite overtly as lovers.

I cannot imagine that anyone could be oblivious to the romance between Doug and Tony,  even in the dark ages of 1966; certainly not the producer, Irwin Allen, whose 1970’s science fiction series often resist heteronormativity , and least of all the actors themselves. Robert Colbert, who has guested on forty years of tv programs, from Hawaiian Eye to Frasier, is best known as James Garner’s foppish (i.e., gay) brother on Maverick.



James Darren spent his twenties playing outcasts, loners, victims of prejudice, a jazz musician in love with Gene Krupa (Sal Mineo), and a  race car driver so smitten with a male acquaintance that he marries his sister (in The Lively Set, 1964), while hitting the pop charts with remarkably bitter songs about romantic betrayals: “Goodbye Cruel World” (1961), “Hail to the Conquering Hero” (1962), “Pin a Medal on Joey” (1963).  After Time Tunnel, he took no more outcast or loner roles.  Perhaps playing someone who found love cheered him up.

By the way, in 2006 there was an execrable tv movie version that heterosexualized the characters.


Aug 28, 2012

Salem's Lot


Speaking of Lance Kerwin, he offers a strong same-sex romance in Salem’s Lot (1979), based on the Stephen King novel.  When failed writer Ben Mears (former Starsky and Hutch hunk David Soul) returns to his home town of Jerusalem’s Lot, Maine to exorcise his demons, he demonstrates that he is heterosexual by dating a glamorous art teacher (Bonnie Bedelia), but mostly he bonds with middle-aged men, the town doctor and his former English teacher.  Meanwhile, local teenager Mark Petrie (Lance Kerwin) finds that his love of theater, art, and his best friend Danny makes him an outcast in his small town. Go figure.



Ben immediately notices Mark and asks who he is, but he never gets the nerve to speak to him.  They stare wide-eyed at each other, but each looks away when the other turns.  Later, at an antique shop, they meet each other’s gaze, and each pauses as if waiting for the other to speak.  Ben smiles shyly: he is determined to wait for Mark to make the first move.  But the teenager quickly rushes on.

Soon the boys and young men of Salem’s Lot start disappearing, or dying of pernicious anemia, and returning with glowing eyes and fangs.  Even though the hard-bodied handiman Mike (Geoffrey Lewis) grows fangs after the English teacher invites him home for the night, most of the suspicion falls upon the elderly owner of the antique shop, and upon Ben himself, who was a child during a previous run of boy-murders.  However, the real culprit turns out to be Mr. Barlow, a blue-faced Nosferatu who likes to bite boys.

The heavy-handed association of vampirism and pedophilia, absent in the original novel, adds a cringe-factor to Ben and Mark’s erotic intensity.  One wonders why director Tobe Hopper didn’t cut the endless longing gazes and have Ben take a big-brotherly interest in Mark.  Surely in 181 minutes there's enough time for scenes with the two of them throwing a football around or going to a monster movie.

Or else cast Mark with someone much younger.  In the novel he is 11,  one of Stephen King’s stable of wounded outsider boys seeking replacements for fathers who are distant, dead, or psychotic killers.  But Lance Kerwin is 19, obviously an adult, not a child, and obviously in the market for a boyfriend, not a big brother.


And the wounded Ben, desperately seeking approval from father figures of his own, is pitiably unfit to be a big brother.  His mute, inept attempts at connecting with Mark suggest that he is fighting an attraction that he himself finds deeply distressing.

The climactic scene nicely combines staking vampires with staving off same-sex desire.  Ben goes to a standard crumbing, evil mansion outside of town to confront Barlow, and Mark, who was captured and tied up earlier, now escapes and literally bumps into him on the front porch.  They grab at each other: after three hours of staring, they are finally touching!

Horrified (but not shrinking away), Ben shouts “Run as fast as you can, and keep running!”  Ostensibly he wants to protect the boy from vampires, but Mark has just demonstrated that he can take care of himself.  Ben’s urgency seems precipitated more by the touch: perhaps it brought his hidden passion dangerously close to the surface.    

After Ben goes into the house, Mark waits on the porch for a moment, but he cannot run away: taking the initiative in their relationship, he confronts Ben in the crumbling drawing room.  “I told you to go!” Ben shouts.  “No!” Mark shouts back. He is not going anywhere.

Seething with rage and passion, they stand face to face, inches apart.  They must either fight or kiss.  Are they still thinking about vampires?

But then they are distracted by the gruesome death of the town doctor, the last of Ben’s old mentors.  It is time for Ben to grow up. The rest of the scene involves only a few words of dialogue, mostly “Mark!” and “Ben!”, as they stake Barlow, set the town on fire to “cleanse it” of the other vampires (the human residents have all fled), and head south in Ben’s land rover.

Two years later, they are living together in Guatemala (the surviving vampires are out for revenge, so they have to keep moving).  Both blond, tanned, and grungy, they could be brothers, but their unselfconscious touching of hands denote lovers.



One night the glamorous art teacher re-appears, a vampire with glowing eyes and fangs, and Ben stakes her.
We might conclude that Ben has finally exorcised the last of his heterosexual demons, that homoerotic love wins – except that the dread with which he first approached Mark has not subsided.  They have never relaxed and gotten to know each other.  In the novel, Ben wakes from an nightmare calling Mark’s name, and when he asks “Do you love me?”, Mark responds with a hug .  But here the two are still strangers, together out of necessity rather than love.

Salem’s Lot fails because Mark and Ben cannot express a coherent relationship. They are of the wrong ages to be substitute parent and child, they never establish a homosocial friendship, and their wide-eyed stares of unstated attraction never give way to tenderness or intimacy.  Both of the actors were comfortable with the possibility of same-sex desire. But the director linked same-sex desire too inextricably linked to pedophilia, vampirism, and dark sinister secrets to allow the love between Mark and Ben to ever break out into the light of day.

Aug 27, 2012

Conan the Barbarian

Robert E. Howard created Conan, the barbarian hero who wanders an antediluvian sword-and-sorcery world,  in a series of stories for the pulp Weird Tales beginning in 1932.  Though not terribly muscular, according to the taste of the age, Conan was aggressively heterosexual.  Other barbarian heroes in 1930s pulps traveled alone or with same-sex sidekicks and disdained women as unwelcome harbingers of civilization.  But Conan rescued women, fell in love with them, and usually intended to marry them before they were killed by sorcerers or turned out to be witches.  He had no room for a sidekick; those men he did manage to befriend invariably betrayed him before the story ended.

The stories fell out of favor for a generation or two, but they were rediscovered during the Swinging Sixties.  In 1966, heroic fantasy writers L. Sprague DeCamp and Lin Carter put them in chronological order, added additional materials, and published the series.  Other authors added their own tales to the mythos, specializing in endings in which Conan ravishes the naked lady after rescuing her (the original stories kept Conan chaste).

The covers, often by Frank Frazetta,  showed a nicely muscled Conan, but it was hard to find one that didn't also show a naked lady.










Marvel began the comic book series in 1970, with both adaptions and original stories. In 1974, the magazine-size Savage Sword of Conan printed more "adult" material (that is, you see breasts).
















I bought the comic books whenever the covers DIDN'T show a naked lady lying on the ground, clutching Conan's leg (couldn't they stand up?).  So about one issue in six.

The stories inside had not a hint of bonding; women exist to be rescued and then either betray Conan or fall in love with him, and men exist to torture him.





But at least there was plenty of beefcake.








Meatballs


I never liked Bill Murray. When he first appeared on Saturday Night Live in 1977, I was still somewhat homophobic, and I found his flamboyantly feminine manner and Castro Clone outfits disquieting.  Though I was out by 1979, my initial disquiet remained, so when my brother recommended Meatballs (1979), I said "No way!"  But then he made a cryptic comment: "It's the kind of move you'll like."

Bill Murray played hetero-horny summer camp counselor Tripper Harrison, who leads the boys in his care on panty raids at girl’s camp across the lake, and meanwhile romances female counselor Roxanne (Kate Lynch). Heterosexual desire is assumed the goal of every journey and the motivation for every action; an Internet Movie Database reviewer writes that it is about: “teens and young adults living their summer with no concerns other than guys hooking up with girls and girls hooking up with guys.” Even in his pep talk to the track team, Tripper presumes that the only reason boys participate in sports is to get girls:

Even if we win, if we win, hah!. . .It just wouldn't matter because all the really good looking girls would still go out with the guys from Mohawk [the rival camp] because they've got all the money! It just doesn't matter if we win or if we lose. It just doesn’t matter!

Director Ivan Reitman got his start with the sleaze-fests Foxy Ladies (1971) and Cannibal Girls (1973), and went on to produce Kindergarten Cop (1990) and Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot (1992), films that manage to defuse the erotic potential of man-mountains Arnold Schwartzenegger and Sylvester Stallone by making them comedy dupes. Could we expect even a moment of love to intrude into Meatballs?

But then there was Rudy.


Chris Makepeace, a fifteen-year old Montreal native with dark blue eyes, pale soft skin, and oddly red lips, plays the shy and feminine Rudy, who falls in love with the boisterous Tripper. In an early scene, Rudy notes that Tripper jogs past his cabin every morning, so he conspires to jog himself and arrange an “accidental” meeting. Though oblivious to the romantic signals -- or pretending to be to avoid having to tell the boy "sorry, not interested" -- Tripper accepts Rudy’s friendship with panache, and even adopts him as a special project, coaching him to become star of the camp track team.



 Oddly, Tripper never tries to force heterosexual desire upon Rudy, never asks what girl he would care to sleep with or invites him on a panty raid. Perhaps on some level, everyone concerned with the film knew that it would do violence to the character of Rudy to make him abandon his sweetly romantic attraction to Tripper and fixate on some girl.

Chris Makepeace went on to play many other characters informed by same sex desire; he fell in love with high school bully Adam Baldwin in My Bodyguard (1980), sleaze-teen Lance Kerwin in The Mysterious Stranger (1982), and a young Tom Hanks in Mazes and Monsters (1982), before settling down to the more heteronormative Captive Hearts (1987) and Aloha Summer (1988).




 More recently, in Synapse (1996), he played a man who gets his brain transplanted into a woman’s body, allowing him both gender-bending and nudity. To the best of my knowledge, he has never married.


Aug 26, 2012

Big Wednesday


Big Wednesday (1978)  covers twelve years in the lives of a trio of goldenboy surfers: troubled Matt (Jan-Michael Vincent, fresh from his homoerotic role in Danger Island); blue-eyed, curly-haired innocent Jack (William Katt, who would go on to star in Greatest American Hero); and joking outsider Leroy (Gary Busey).



Beach scenes in most movies involve slow-motion close-ups of bikini-clad women,  with an occasional guy in the distance, but Big Wednesday lingers over shots of glistening male bodies so tight that you can see the veins running across biceps and count the vertebrae on backsides.  Even scenes set far from the beach are populated chiefly by gorgeous muscleboys.





The trio shares a quiet, subdued homoerotic bond from the first moments, when they awaken on the beach in 1962, wrapped in each other’s arms under blankets, then surf “the morning glass” on a single board.  But Leroy goes even farther, eschewing the girl-grabbing that most buddy movies emphasize to “prove” that the protagonists are all heterosexual.  When they invade the Star Burger Café (still shirtless) and flirt with a pretty waitress, Leroy pointedly ignores her, horsing around with Matt instead.  Later, at a party, dozens of (still shirtless) muscleboys locate girls to grab and kiss, with the exception of Leroy – he’s in the kitchen, half naked, being oiled up by some male friends (to facilitate sexual congress, I presume).



When Matt and Jack get girlfriends, they all head down to Acapulco, and Leroy remains a “fifth wheel” who doesn’t even flirt with the local girls.
Years pass, and the water grows cold.  Matt battles the bottle, Jack goes to Vietnam, and Bear (Sam Rockwell), the South of Market leatherman who runs the beach surf shop, becomes a wealthy surfboard magnate.  All of them (except Leroy) abandon the homoerotic paradise of surfing for marriage.  Yet at Bear’s wedding, he proposes a toast:
Jack: What are we drinking to?
Bear: Only to your friends.  To your friends, come hell or high water.

It is an odd toast for an occasion that usually marks the end or severe circumscription of same-sex friendships in favor of heterosexual bondng, and striking when one notes that Bear’s fiancee appears only in that scene.  It is as if he married simply to celebrate his love of his friends, “the most important thing you got.”

The trio concurs.  Heterosexual practice comes and goes; there are flirtations, sexual interludes, marriages, and divorces (except for Leroy, whose romantic interests are never specified).  But their most important, most permanent bonds are with each other.

In 1974, at the end of the movie, they gather for another “Big Wednesday” at the beach, and the camera lingers again (for a full ten minutes) on their bodies glistening and straining under the bright summer sun.



We don’t have to look far for clues about how the possibility of same-sex desire became so overt into this plot-riddled extension of Endless Summer (1966): director John Milius, a surfer in his own right and sometime workout buddy of Arnold Schwartzeneggar, specialized in the bonding of brawny, heavily-muscled buddies in Conan the Barbarian (1982), Red Dawn (1984), and Flight of the Intruder (1991), and here he cast three goldenboys who would play much the same roles throughout their careers.  Jan-Michael Vincent plays troubled, aging muscleboys. Gary Busey has played soldiers, villains, lunatics, rock stars, and heavily-muscled regular guys, pairing with Willie Nelson in Barbarosa (1982), gay-friendly Corey Haim in Silver Bullet (1985), and Fred Williamson in South Beach (1992), but he is almost always a lost soul aching for love.

Tommy Kirk


In the 1960s, the room my brother and I shared was cluttered with the likeness of Tommy Kirk, on coloring books, comic books, Little Golden Books, games, and toys.  A former Mousketeer, Kirk was packaged as “the all-American boy” and “the epitome of young masculinity”  in such Disney products as The Hardy Boys (1956-57) with Tim Considine,  as Old Yeller (1957) and Swiss Family Robinson (1960), with James MacArthur and Kevin Corcorran.  Plus several movies with Fred MacMurray as his beset-upon dad or favorite professor. My first date was to see him in Village of the Giants in 1968.

 But he entered his twenties, it became apparent that he lacked the tongue-lagging heterosexual horniness necessary for masculinity in the Cold War Era.  Although his intense brown eyes and respectable physique were by no means repellant, he was bookish and shy, an “oddball” (that is, gay).


In The Monkey’s Uncle (1965), his last gasp for the Disney Studios, the 24-year old Kirk plays Merlin Jones, a “scrambled egghead” studying science at Midvale College, oblivious to the heterosexist world of girls and sports around him.   To demonstrate that he is nevertheless straight, director Robert Stevenson cast beach movie babe Annette Funicello as his girlfriend.

Annette spends the opening credits singing, accompanied by the Beach Boys, a hard look of defiance on her face as she dares us to disbelieve that “I’m in love with the Monkey’s Uncle and I wish I was the monkeys aunt!”  Otherwise we would never know: they behave precisely as best friends, not as persons in love.
  
Midvale College is oddly deficient in collegiate beefcake; standing in for football jocks are hefty, slack-jawed Norman (“Woo-Woo” Grabowski) and balding, befuddled Leon (Leon Tyler).  One wonders why a college set omits any trace of hunky extras; perhaps it is for the same reason that Merlin’s best friend is a chimp:  human men might bring homoerotic desire too close to the surface.



Merlin does bat his eyes flirtatiously at girls, but even that gesture seems transgressive, flamboyantly feminine.  Instead, the various plot strands of the movie continuously return to the question of kinship: how does one form intimate, permanent associations in the absence of heterosexual desire?

Merlin finds two answers:

1. He adopts a chimpanzee.  A judge rules that he cannot become the chimp’s father; he must settle for an avuncular relationship, becoming a literal monkey’s uncle.





2. He joins a fraternity.  The "jock" Leon becomes his test case in a human-flight experiment and promptly crashes, forcing Merlin to grab him, cradle him in his arms, and whisper “Are you ok?”

At a pivotal moment, Leon begins to return his interest, expressing a shy, tentative, hand-on-shoulder affection: “All the brains I ever knew were snobs, but not you. You’re just like a regular stupid fellow. That’s why I like you.”  He adds coyly “Let’s go back to the [fraternity] house,” rather an odd suggestion, since it’s the middle of the day.  What precisely does he expect that he and Merlin will do there?  But Merlin flashes a knowing smile, and we recall that this is the last of Leon’s film roles; though only about thirty years old, he will never work again.  Did the adroitness of his hand-on-shoulder affection cause Disney to abandon him?

About halfway through the film, all of Merlin’s plans have failed, and dark-eyed from despair he wails to the chimp, “[Do] you know what it’s like when the whole world is against you?  Everyone on campus hates me.  I’m being expelled from Midvale. . .kicked out. . . disgraced. . . .”  Years later, I learned why Tommy Kirk left Disney so abruptly: Walt discovered that he was gay and summarily fired him.  Although he was asked to return to finish The Monkey's Uncle, he was being expelled, kicked out, disgraced, and most likely everyone at the studio did hate him (except for Annette Funicello, who continued to support him).  That was the penalty in 1965 for taking the next step beyond fraternity, for falling in love (something similar apparently happened to Peter McEnery).

After some beach movies and teen horror like Village of the Giants (1965), Tommy was abandoned into a ghetto of drug abuse and late-1960s sleaze movies like Mars Needs Women and It's a Bikini World.  Eventually he pulled himself together and started a carpet-cleaning business.