Sep 29, 2012

Hell Night

Almost every psycho-slasher movie features teenage girls in their underwear, or taking a shower, or having sex with full-nude backsides, while the teenage boys stay full-clothed, even during sex.  The opposite, fully-clothed girls and and nude boys, is vanishingly rare.

So Hell Night (1981) stands out as a non-heterosexist gem.  It's about some fraternity pledges, including Seth (Vincent Van Patten) and Jeff (Peter Barton), who have to spend the night in a haunted house occupied by a psycho-slasher. The girlfriends go along, too.

But the girls are fully clothed or hidden under the covers of the bed the whole time.  And Seth and Jeff spend about half the movie showering or dressed only in boxers.

But it's not just about the beefcake.  I could swear that Seth and Jeff were being presented a same-sex couple, in spite of some heterosexual dalliances.

1. When in danger, the two together as tightly as boy-girl couples in heterosexist flicks.

2. Jeff investigates a mysterious noise twice, once with girlfriend Marti (Linda Blair) clinging fearfully to his back, and then with Seth clinging to him in the exact same position.

3. Jeff escapes from the haunted house and runs into town.  When no one believes him he steals a gun, uses it to hijack a car, and rushes back to rescue -- not his girlfriend, who is already dead -- but boyfriend Seth.

4. They escape together and walk off into the sunrise together, a gay reversal of the standard "fade-out kiss."

Director Tom DeSimone got his start directing gay porn in the 1970s, so it is understandable that he might accentuate the beefcake and the bonding.

Sep 26, 2012

Star Wars

Like Silver Streak, Star Wars (1978) is often read as a heteronormative fable. Luke Skywalker (25-year old Mark Hamill), an innocent, sleepy-eyed young man from the provinces, becomes involved with Rebel forces struggling to defeat an evil intergalactic Empire (in 1977, code for the Soviet Union), and, inevitably, meets a Girl. Except there’s no romance with the girl – in later episodes she turns out to be his sister. And there is a romance with the handsome space cowboy Han Solo (35-year old Harrison Ford).

Han is a loner (“Solo”), traveling with no one but a hairy, six-foot tall Yeti-like creature named Chewbacca (another animal sidekick to diffuse homoerotic potential), and unwilling to investigate potential human relationships.

At first he refuses to speak directly to Luke, and when he lets down his guard sufficiently to acknowledge Luke’s existence, he calls him by the diminutive “Kid.”

We wonder what he’s afraid of, and so does the Girl, brassy Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher): “Your friend is quite a mercenary!” she snaps at Luke. “I wonder if he really cares about anything. . .or anybody!”

Han finally warms up to Luke: they fight together, rescue each other, hug; at the end of the movie, Han asks Luke to go away with him (“I could use a partner”), and, when he refuses, decides to stay with Luke. But now Luke has competition in Princess Leia, who is “infuriated by” (that is, infatuated with) Han. She manages to insert herself into every shot featuring the two together.

When they are slamming against each other in a jubilant bear-hug, she squeezes between them, so they are actually hugging her.

When Han tries to walk off with his arm around Luke, she squeezes between them again.

Even in the last scene, when Han and Luke receive medals and then turn to receive the applause of the Rebel troops, the camera pans out to present the illusion that Princess Leia is between them (she is actually standing behind them).

Director George Lucas, not well known for accentuating the homoerotic potential of his films, worked very hard to ensure that Han and Luke never connect in any substantive way. What was he afraid of?

Sep 25, 2012

Kilroy Was Here

In the 1965 Disney miniseries Kilroy, 27-year old Warren Berlinger (who won acclaim for his role in Blue Denim with Brandon DeWilde) plays a  bright-eyed, square-jawed young man named Oscar Kilroy, fresh from the War (the producers are never sure whether it should be Vietnam, Korea, or World War II).  

By the way, if you google the movie, the first hit is a review from a white supremacist website, but ignore them; Kilroy is not at all racist.   

Oscar drops on on the Fuller family of small-town Wilton Junction, and explains that he is a close friend of their son Greg – close friends, inseparable, comrades de foxhole, sharing chocolate bars and letters from home and who knows what else?  Impressed by his fervor, the Fullers allow him to move into Greg’s old room, so he can await his buddy’s return with open arms.

Oscar swaggers down the street like a movie star, bigger, brighter, more colorful, more alive than anyone else, expecting attention, used to being an object of desire.  He sits with his legs spread wide in the John Wayne style, taking up as much space as possible; one expects him to rip his shirt off at any moment to demonstrate the bulge of his biceps. 

Soon a young blonde woman walks up the Fullers’ front steps: Gladys, a previously unmentioned daughter, returning from a long trip.  One expects malt shops, shy walks in the dark, and a Reason for Oscar to stay in Wilton Junction.  But upon meeting Gladys, Oscar manages no stunned attraction,.  He looks positively disgusted as he recites his line: “Hello. Greg told me a lot about you.”  The other actors look surprised and uncomfortable, as if wondering how they should play the scene.  They were evidently expecting something like: “Hel-loo!  Greg told me a lot about you!”  

When Gladys’ fiancĂ©, nerdish but cute Harvey (23-year old Tom Lowell), arrives, he stares awestricken, eyes wide with desire – at Oscar!  The two shake hands for so long that the camera pans away, while Harvey stammers nervously until he musters the courage to ask Oscar out on a date!  
When Gladys, whom he has not seen in months, descends the staircase, Harvey busses her cheek as if she is a favorite aunt, all the time still gazing longingly at Oscar.  

Miffed but not surprised – evidently Harvey flirts with men quite often – Gladys drags him out the front door.  He calls a final invitation at Oscar: “I hope you come over later . . . .”

We discover that, like many closeted gay men of the 1960’s, Harvey is living a double life.  In the dull daylight world, he works as a bank teller, saving up money so he can marry Gladys and “settle down.”  But after hours he descends to an underground workshop full of odd mechanical devices, flashing lights, and deep secrets. When Harvey comes over for dinner and ignores Gladys for Oscar, she has had enough; she breaks off the engagement.  Now we assume that, like a “good queer,” Oscar will help Harvey reconcile with Gladys, promoting heterosexual responsibility over the dark and dangerous possibilities of the nightworld.  But Harvey and Gladys stay broken up. 

 Oscar does not engineer a reconciliation. Instead, Oscar and Harvey form a new couple, meeting secretly in Harvey’s lab – to share what desires, we can only speculate.   Harvey quits his job at the bank to become a professional inventor, and Oscar decides to stay in town. The two go down to City Hall, not precisely to acquire a mtwo arriage certificate, but by this point who is quibbling?  A homoerotic bond has definitively triumphed over the strictures of heterosexual narration.

But the last episodes got a new director, Norman Tokar.  Harvey, Greg, and Gladys no longer exist; the Fullers appear for only a moment; and Wilton Junction is populated almost entirely by balding, paunchy, unattractive men, seemingly cast because they are unlikely targets for Oscar’s dazzling smile.  Oscar remains, but no longer as the cocky, self-confident, screen-filling con artist. 

 Now he is a bumbler, a Dagwood Bumstead who has traded in his dreams for a newspaper and couch, a George Jetson who is tyrannized by his boss and outwitted by his wife and kids.  Except Oscar has no wife, no kids, just a big, scruffy dog.   

Deferring same-sex desire into a safely non-sexual passion for animals is a standard film tactic, especially for Disney, but here it is abrupt and jarring.  Who mandated the deletion of any possibility of same-sex desire, the absence of Harvey, the exchange of a brilliant, potentially subversive supporting cast for a stable of conventionally heterosexist B-movie actors?  These are changes too abrupt to represent merely a new director’s take.  Someone noticed the same-sex desire intruding into the first two episodes, and decided to take no chances in removing it from the last two.  Disney himself, perhaps?   

Sep 24, 2012

Advise and Consent

I just saw Advise and Consent (1961), the first Hollywood movie to mention gay people openly (almost). It's about the appointment of a new Secretary of State, Robert Leffingwell (Henry Fonda). The Senate has to vote to "consent" to the appointment.

But when evidence surfaces that Leffingwell attended meetings of the Communist party years ago, Senator Brigham Anderson (Don Murray), a young, wholesome "family man," leads a committee to refuse their "consent."  Then Anderson starts receiving telephone calls ordering him to report favorably on Leffingwell, or they will reveal an incriminating letter and photo about a long-ago romance with a man.

It's all very convoluted, with plots and subplots, schemes and counterschemes, and so many characters that you need a score card, not to mention interminable Senate roll calls.  The only interesting plot point is the parallel drawn between Leffingwell's dalliance with Communism and  Anderson's gay relationship, both "mistakes" that could ruin the men's lives.

Anderson tries to track down his ex-lover (thinking that he is the blackmailer), and finds himself in a gay bar full of pomaded, dissolute types who all leer lasciviously, ready to pounce on the straight guy.  When the bartender calls "Come on in!" in a cheery voice, we're expected to shudder in dread.  And of course, the "Hollywood queer" must always die; Anderson kills himself.

Oddly, the movie was controversial in 1961 because it was so liberal, criticizing the anti-Communist witch hunts and suggesting that married men might be "that way"!  There were several gay actors playing witch hunters, including Will Geer and Charles Laughton.

At least we get a nice beefcake shot of the hirsute Don Murray, standing in front of a mirror, confronting his demons.

Don Murray appeared in many other movies and tv series, and often found himself required to take baths or change clothes on camera.  He seems rather skinny by today's standards, but in the 1960s his lithe, firm physique was all the rage.

Sep 23, 2012

Paul Petersen's Family Values

I've never seen a single episode of The Donna Reed Show (1958-1966).  It was before my time,  and it hasn't been rerun often.  Apparently not a lot of people were watching in the early 1960s.  Like other nuclear family sitcoms, such as Ozzie and Harriet and Leave It to Beaverit barely hit the top 30, regularly being trounced by Westerns (Gunsmoke), medical dramas (Dr. Kildare), and reality tv (Candid Camera).   

But the squeaky-clean suburban sitcom left a lasting legacy: Paul Peterson, aged 13 to 21, played Donna's dreamy teenage son, Jeff.  I don't know if his character was portrayed as girl-crazy or not during the later seasons, but the teen magazines  seemed oddly obsessed with pushing him into girls' arms.

In the shirtless shots, he is almost always shown with a girl -- even if that girl is his little sister, and he's reading to her in pajamas.  What were they trying to prove?

Paul had the clean-cut handsomeness beloved in 1950s teen idols, and a dreamy voice, so he began recording songs in 1962: "Keep Your Love Locked," "Lollipops and Roses"; "She Can't Find Her Keys."   Before long he released five albums and contributed to a sixth.   His biggest hit, "My Dad," was, of course, a paeon to his real-life father, with no girls mentioned.

After Donna Reed, Paul continued to perform, acted occasionally, and published a series of novels about a macho adventurer named The Smuggler.  His most enduring legacy came in 1990, when he founded A Minor Consideration, dedicated to improving the working conditions for child actors and helping them transition to adulthood.

While no one would deny that this is a praiseworthy goal, and there are no specifically homophobic statements on his website, there is also not a word about gay child actors in a heterosexist workplace -- not one word -- and the editorials veer uncomfortably toward exclusionary family values" rhetoric.

See also: Beefcake Dads of 1950s Sitcoms


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