Nov 10, 2012

Gangster's Boy: Jackie Cooper Falls in Love

Born September 15th, 1922, the blond, pug-faced Jackie Cooper (left, with Freddie Bartholomew and Mickey Rooney) was the Ricky Schroder of his generation.  He got his start in Skippy, an adaptation of the comic strip about kids and dogs and the lunacy of adult society.  Jackie’s ability to shed realistic tears on cue (augmented by authoritarian directing: Taurog threatened to shoot his dog if he failed to deliver) won him a Best Actor Oscar nomination and catapulted him into the ranks of Hollywood royalty.  Sooky, The Champ, When a Fellow Needs a Friend, and Treasure Island followed, all box-office toppers.  By 1934 Jackie had his own fan magazine, half a dozen Big-Little book titles, and enough advertising tie-ins to shame Little Orphan Annie.








When Jackie hit pubescence, his box office draws declined, he re-invented himself la hard, masculine boys’ book hero.  He spent hundreds of hours at the gym, becoming an expert boxer, wrestler, and swimmer.  Movie magazines published photos of him in boxing trunks or skimpy swimsuits, displaying a hard-packed muscularity that made adult beefcake star John Garfield look downright scrawny.  Boys and men rarely appeared shirtless on camera in the 1930s, so instead Jackie wore tight dark-colored t-shirts that accentuated his v-shaped torso and mountainous biceps.








But even with a stunning boys’ book physique, he had become so thoroughly promoted as vulnerable, sensitive, and clingy that audiences simply wouldn’t accept him as tough, not even tough as a façade to hide a sensitive soul, so he was still asked to make with the waterworks in every picture.  And his pictures always featured homoromance, sometimes with heterosexual competition.

In Gangster’s Boy (1938),  Jackie plays Larry Kelly, a whiz-kid valedictorian, a letterman in every sport, yet also a fun-loving regular fella: he drives a jalopy covered with graffiti, plays the drums in a swing band, and litters his speech with goofy  expressions like “Who do you think you are?  Anyhow?”


He is stunningly attractive, so thoroughly desired by the guys, gals, teachers, and townsfolk that they always look like they want to rip his clothes off and ravish him on the spot, but he is devoted to his long-term “particular friend,” Bill Davis (future Broadway star Tommy Wonder).  “We’ll always be together,” Larry exclaims in a tender moment, and indeed after their high school graduation they plan to enroll at West Point together.

When Larry stars dating a girl, Bill seems to resent the competition: every time Larry swoops in for a kiss, he finds some excuse to interrupt them. He claims that pictures of girls are not allowed in cadets’ lockers at West Point: “You’re not supposed to waste time thinking about girls. . .you’ve got important things to think about!”  This may or not be true, but Larry does not challenge him.

The somewhat strained homoromance is further interrupted when Larry’s father, Knuckles, returns from an extended “business trip” up the river and confesses that he is actually a reformed gangster, just released from prison (perhaps the name “Knuckles” should have provided a clue).

When the townsfolk discover the terrible secret, they turn into slathering bigots.  No gangster’s son has the right to sully their town: they kick Larry out of the nightclub where he’s performing, refuse to applaud after his valedictory speech, and forbid their children from seeing him.  On the night of the Big Dance, Bill and his sister both sneak out of the house to see Larry, positioning themselves both as “dates,” as competitors for his affection.  But then the sister is forgotten, and the rest of the movie is traditional homoromance.

Driving home from the Big Dance, they accidentally hit and injure a small child.  Bill was at the wheel, but Larry claims responsibility, recognizing that an arrest for reckless driving will ruin either of their chances of being admitted to West Point.  But Bill is unwilling to let Larry sacrifice his career.


They posture and argue about who will take the blame until the judge uncovers the truth and exonerates them both, intoning that they have “learned a lot about friendship.”  But really it is the adults who have learned a lot. Larry and Bill already knew that they were ready to fight and die for each other, that their bond far transcended any momentary flirtation with girls.  Instead of a heteronormative clinch, the movie ends with the boys gazing at each other with eye-shimmering affection.

Within the Hollywood community, there was considerable speculation that the teenage Jackie’s sensitivity and his many friendships with girls signified that he was gay.  Whispered “anecdotes” had Jackie and former costar Wallace Beery caught with their pants down, and once at a nightclub, brash blue comedian Milton Berle spotlighted him as a “fag”, to gales of humiliating laughter.  These jokes and rumors apparently had a profound effect on Jackie.  In his later years, in spite of his otherwise liberal politics, he has made some mildly homophobic statements,  and he has never formed a close friendship with a man, perhaps out of a fear of what masculine intimacy might signify.















Nov 8, 2012

Dreamboat or Dud?


Mystery Date was a board game introduced by Milton Bradley in 1965.  The object was to assemble the proper cards to create a full girl's outfit for a formal dance, bowling, the beach, or skiing.  Then, if your outfit matched that of the dreamy boy at the door, you got to go on the date.  But you had to be careful of the wild card, a poorly dressed "dud."

The real object, of course, was to get girls used to the idea of being objects of desire, using fashion and accessories to draw the attention of dreamy boys.  The game was for "girls only." 

 I played on occasion, but only when my friend Beth insisted, and even then, I found it annoying to have to pretend to like wearing girls' clothes just to go bowling or to the beach with a cute boy.  Why couldn't boys go on "mystery dates" with boys?












The answer is that no one at Milton Bradley in 1965 ever considered for a moment that any girl  existed who might want to accessorize for girls, or that any boy existed who wanted a dreamy boy at his door.  
















But 47 years have passed, nearly half a century.  Now we have same-sex marriage, gay senators, gay-straight alliances in high schools, a gay teen in Paranorman, and a video of Woody, the cowboy toy from Toy Story, advising gay kids that "It gets better." Surely in new versions of the game, boys can participate, and there might be male or female dreamboats at the  door.

No, not at all.  In 1995 Hasbro released a new version of the game, with a real "mystery" component: you received clues about your date from boys talking to you on the telephone, and had to dress properly for 24 potential dates.  But it was still girls prepping. 

Milton Bradley released several versions to tie-in with Disney's successful (and relatively gay-positive) High School Musical  franchise.  I checked the latest, High School Musical 3  Mystery Date (2008).  You have  to prep for a date with one of the four movie hunks, Troy, Ryan, Chad, or Zeke.  But you still have to be a girl.






Nov 7, 2012

Spellbinder

I keep forgetting the name of Spellbinder (1995) which aired on the Disney Channel in 1996, one of the imported Australian series (others included Ocean Girl and Round the Twist) that would eventually be supplainted by the home-grown Even Stevens, Suite Life of Zack and Cody, and Hannah Montana.  It's nondescript (and it really should be plural).

But the series was unique: Australian-Polish science fiction-fantasy series about alternative realities.  It starred Zybch Trofimiuk as Paul Reynolds, an Australian boy who somehow finds himself in a Medieval world.  Everyone is terrified of the powerful Spellbinders, who look and chew up the scenery like villains out of Power Rangers.



Paul meets a girl, Riana (Gosia Piatrowska) and together they find a way back to his world.  But now the Spellbinders know that the other world exists, and they want to invade it.


The plotline sounds heterosexist.  Except Paul and Riana never fall in love; indeed, when they return to Earth, he introduces her as a "cousin from Iceland."  And he has a best friend, Alex (Brian Rooney).  When Paul vanishes, Alex is distraught.  When he returns, Alex grabs him with an enormous hug, treating him precisely as a lover.






There is also a substantial amount of beefcake.















The sequel, Spellbinder 2: Land of the Dragon Lord (1996), aired on the Fox Family Channel in 1998. It  sends a girl named Kathy (Lauren Hewitt), into a Medieval East Asian world.  She doesn't fall in love with anyone; however, her older brother, Josh (Ryan Kwanten), tags along, fulfills the heterosexism quota by falling in love with a girl.

A lot of beefcake here, too.






Ryan Kwanten went on to star on the Australian soap Home and Away (1997-2002), then True Blood (2008-present) on American tv.  He has become one of the more muscular of the Hollywood hunks. 

Summer 1978: Aaron Takes Me to See Rocky Horror


One warm summer night in 1978, my sophisticated, artistic friend Aaron, who was gay (but he didn't know it yet), invited me to a midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.  I had never heard of it.

“It’ll be fun,” he offered.  “They yell out sarcastic comments, and squirt water and throw toilet paper. But I have to warn you, there’s some gay stuff in it.”

This was a week or so before Grease, so I said “I don’t mind.  I'm secure in my masculinity."

So I saw, for the first time but not the last, newly-engaged naifs Brad (Barry Bostwick) and Janet (Susan Sarandon) driving through the American Midwest in the pouring rain, getting a flat tire, and knocking on the door of an old castle to solicit a telephone.  Instead they encounter a group of gleeful Transylvanians from the galaxy Transsexual, who dance in non-polarized pairs, who sing “Time Warp.”

And they encounter Dr. Frank-N-Furter, who smashes their preconceptions in pearls, black fishnet stockings, and heavy makeup but a tight black jockstrap and a tenor voice belting: “I’m not much of a man by the light of day, but by night I’m one hell of a lover.” He does not look like a woman, but he doesn’t look much like a man, either.  Gender is irrelevant to him.  Janet faints.

Stripped to their underwear, Brad and Janet get intimate access to Frank’s laboratory while he unveils his creation: Rocky, a heavily muscled goldenboy in gold lame shorts.  “He’s good for relieving my tensions,”  Frank sings, and though they stepped out of 1950’s Dentonvale a minute before, Brad and Janet are not at all shocked by this confession of homoerotic interest.












Similarly, “newborn” Rocky sings about a “feeling of unnamable dread,” but it is not the prospect of a homoerotic liaison that unnerves him, rather a premonition of his demise – he will be killed in a few hours.


Later, Brad and Janet, bedded down in separate rooms, are seduced by the horny Frank. They have second thoughts, but no homophobic revulsion: Brad is upset not because Frank is male but because he thought Janet was “the real thing,” and when Janet spies on Brad and Frank together, she is upset only because Brad has been unfaithful.

Janet’s seduction of Rocky is actually an initiation into pansexuality: she imagines herself with everyone in the castle, including Frank, Brad, and Rocky, but also the maid Magenta and the groupie Columbia. 

Frank is shriekingly jealous when he catches Rocky and Janet together, even though he has just been bedded both of them.  But jealously is forbidden in Transylvania, so he gives himself a more acceptable motive for disliking the duo, accusing them of being government agents assigned to infiltrate his alien invasion headquarters.  He gets revenge at dinner, by arranging for them to dine on "delivery boy" Eddie!



The party breaks into chaos, Janet panics, and Frank’s first human lover, Columbia, rebels:

First you spurn me for Eddie, and then you throw him off like an old overcoat for Rocky. . .I loved you, and what did it get me. . .a big nothing!  You take, take, take, and drain others of their love and emotion.  Yeah, well, I’ve had enough!  You’ll have to decide between me and Rocky!

Now vulnerable for the first time, Frank responds with a ritual designed to force the Earthlings to acknowledge their inner pansexuality.  He zaps the humans into trance states, dresses them in corsets, black fishnet stockings, and boas, and stages a “floor show” in which they sing about their unconscious feelings.  But still he is not successful:


Columbia avers that “the only thing that gives me hope / Is the love of a certain dope,” that is, she remains monogamously devoted to Eddie.



Brad, horrified, regresses to childhood: “It’s beyond me – help me, Mommy.”

Rocky warns that “my libido hasn’t been controlled,” that is, pansexual orgies will not help him become human.

Only  Janet, the true convert, is positive: “My confidence has increased – reality is here.”

Then Frank sings: “Give yourself over to absolute pleasure, swim the warm waters of sins of the flesh.”  While a chorus repeats the anthem “Don’t dream it – be it,” the humans stumble hesitantly toward a pool (surely a pool of death and rebirth).  They jump in and begin an orgy of jubilant but somehow chaste hugging and kissing.  They have become Transylvanians!  Janet exclaims “God bless living sincere!”

A moment later, Magenta and Riff-Raff enter in silvery space suits, brandishing ray guns, to announce that they’re taking over: “your mission is a failure, your lifestyle’s too extreme.”  In the ensuing melee, Frank, Rocky, and Columbia are killed, and the castle is transported with the Transylvanians back to their home planet.  Brad and Janet are left staggering about in the smoking ruins.

Why is Frank’s mission a failure?  Riff Raff no doubt means that he has been unable to prepare for the alien invasion, because he has devoted too much time to seducing the local inhabitants.  But his “real” mission in the movie is to rescue Brad and Janet from their bondage to heterosexism, to encourage them to be true to themselves, to “be it” instead of “dream it.”

He fails because he does not practice what he preaches: he advocates truth, yet he is constantly deceptive; he advocates a quest for sexual pleasure without regard to monogamous commitments, yet he is shrilly jealous when Rocky finds pleasure with others; he advocates following the dictates of one’s heart without regard for external constraints, yet he himself places constraint on the others.

The narrator announces that Brad and Janet are “lost in time, lost in space, and [bereft of] meaning,” and a 1981 sequel, Shock Treatment, completely ignores same-sex desire except for a few homophobic jokes.  The orgiastic “don’t dream it – be it” did not lead Brad and Janet to rebirth and a new life, but to a staid heterosexual marriage.  The mission was a failure -- they forgot that sometimes men fall in love.

See the post on the stage version, The Rocky Horror Show Live; and Shock Treatment, the sequel.

Aaron's story concludes here, after I figure it out.

Nov 6, 2012

Military Comedy Beefcake: Ensign Pulver

I hate military dramas.  People dying in foxholes is not my idea of entertainment.  But military comedies, such as McHale's Navy and Hogan's Heroes, are ok.  No combat. Lots of semi-naked men lying around on their bunks.  And, in spite of some discussions of how horny the soldiers are, few women present amid the buddy-bonding plotlines.

Ensign Pulver (1964), a sort of sequel to Mister Roberts (1955), stars Robert Walker Jr. as an irreverent, sassy Navy ensign who is adept at breaking rules, impersonating senior officers, whatever needs to be done to get what he wants.  Usually "what he wants" means three things: getting out of work, finding black market booze, or meeting women.  But he does good deeds, too.  e gives an emergency appendectomy to the overbearing Captain (Burl Ives); and he talks the Captain into giving command to the less authoritarian LaSeur (Gerald S. O'Loughlin).










1. Semi-naked men lying around on their bunks: Larry Hagman (of Dallas), James Farentino, Jack Nicholson, Tommy Sands, and Robert Walker Jr. himself.











2. Lack of women.  There are women in bikinis on the poster, but none in the movie itself.  The only women present are a cadre of nurses whom Pulver tries unsuccessfully to impress.  No fade-out-kiss.







3. Buddy-bonding plotlines.  Pulver bonds with Bruno (former teen idol Tommy Sands), attempting to help him get a pass to he can go home to attend his young daughter's funeral, and when that falls through, counseling him as he becomes more and more despondent, restraining him when he tries to kill the captain. (Yes, this is a comedy.)

Nov 5, 2012

The Chicken Chronicles

The movies have been portraying teenage boys as "girl-crazy," unable to think of anything but curves and breasts, since Mickey Rooney's Andy Hardy series of the 1930s, but the "teen sex comedy," about tongue-lagging teenage virgins trying desperately to find willing partners for heterosexual intercourse, is characteristic of the 1980s.  The Chicken Chronicles is arguably a precursor, but far superior.



1. The teen sex comedies minimize beefcake. Occasionally a boy takes his shirt off, but it's hard to tell because you're busy hiding your eyes from the endless closeups of the breasts of girls in bikinis walking along the beach or squirting each other with water as they wash their cars.  But The Chicken Chronicles minimizes cheesecake to give us shot after shot of the shirtless, nude, and underwear-clad David (19 year old Steve Guttenberg, in his first credited role), not to mention a shirtless shot of the surprisingly muscular Gino Baffa as his younger brother, Charlie.


And teen idol Clark Brandon.

2. The teen sex comedies minimize buddy bonding.  Best friends exist, but only to act as sounding boards, confidants, and instigators.  In The Chicken Chronicles, David actually seems to care for his best friend, Mark (Branscombe Richmond).

3. The teen sex comedies are about trying to get laid.  Although David has the usual choice between the hot girl he pines for and the plain girl who cared for him all along, the main plot threads involve his job at the chicken joint and the threat of being shipped to Vietnam (the movie takes place in 1969).








4. In the teen sex comedies, the teenagers spend a lot of time competing to see who is the most homophobic. Every third word they say is "fag."  In The Chicken Chronicles, anti-gay slurs are absent.  Gay people don't exist, but erasure is a lot better than hatred.


Unfortunately, the movie has been almost forgotten; it is not available on DVD.  And Gino Baffa made two more movies and dropped out of sight.  But Steve Guttenberg has had a long and extraordinarily gay-positive career.


Nov 4, 2012

Richard Gere




Along with Ryan O’Neal, Richard Gere was a poster boy for affluent, well-groomed heterosexuality, but with an added dash of provocative eroticism.  Ryan was clean-cut, Richard dangerous.  Ryan fell in love, Richard had sex.

His break-out role came in the homophobic Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977), a cautionary tale about the 1970s culture of one-night stands:. Tony (Richard Gere) dates Theresa (Diane Keaton), and stalks her after their breakup.  But she’s actually murdered by Gary (Tom Berenger),  a closeted gay man she picks up in a bar.

The full-frontal nudity in American Gigolo (1980) made him famous in gay circles.  Julian Kane (Richard Gere) is a high-priced prostitute. His clients are women, he hates “fags,” but he’ll do them if necessary.  He also has a distinctly erotic, albeit manipulative relationship with his pimp, Leon (Bill Duke), whom he ends up pushing out a window.

About that time, some right-wing nutjob (no one knows who) made the ridiculous claim that gay men often have sex with gerbils. Before you know it, several celebrities were accused of the practice, Richard Gere among them.  He has wisely said nothing.  One can imagine a Tom Cruise going to the trouble of denying such a ridiculous rumor, but not Richard Gere.







Richard has dlso done extensive buddy bonding roles, as well as playing in the gay-positive Bent on Broadway (1980); in the AIDS drama And the Band Played On (1993); and in the gay favorite Chicago (2002).

A practicing Buddhist and an advocate of liberal political causes, he is a strong gay ally.



Ryan O'Neal

Ryan O'Neal was a Hollywood presence through the 1960s, with five years as rich kid Rodney Harrington on the evening soap Peyton Place (1964-69), plus guest roles on Bachelor Father, Leave It to Beaver, My Three Sons, and Perry Mason. But it was Love Story (1970), a rich boy-poor girl romance that ends tragically, that made him the poster boy of hip heterosexism.







I never saw it, but during the early 1970s, I saw copies of the original Erich Segal novel in endless book bags, I heard Andy Williams singing the theme song every five minutes ("Where do I begin, to tell the story of how great a love can be?"), and I overheard random teenagers telling each other, "Love means never having to say you're sorry." It was awful.

Ryan went on to proclaim the supremacy of the fade-out kiss in movies pairing him with some of the most famous actresses of the era: Barbra Streisand in What's Up, Doc (1972)  and The Main Event (1979), Jacqueline Bisset in The Thief Who Came to Dinner (1973), Madeleine Kahn in Paper Moon (1973), Candace Bergen in Oliver's Story (1978).

Like Richard Gere, the New Sensitive Man was not shy about shirtless, underwear, and nude shots, giving us ample views of his smooth, lean chest and smooth, lean backside. But he was more about romance than eroticism.












And  he was hard to watch. He set the Gay Rights Movement back twenty years with Partners (1982): to solve a series of murders of gay men, the heterosexual Sergeant Benson (Ryan O'Neal) and the closeted Officer Kerwin (John Hurt) go undercover as a couple.  Benson tries to camp it up as much as possible to fit in with the flitty queens, but he keeps being overcome by disgust.

The homophobia doesn't end there. In Tough Guys Don't Dance (1987), Ryan plays a tough guy detective who trounces a gay villain.


With all the heterosexism and homophobia, it's hard to imagine that Ryan would have the time or inclination for buddy-bonding, but he has some.

Wild Rovers (1971), a buddy Western, pairs Ryan with William Holden for hugs, last minute rescues, and a tragic ending.

Barry Lyndon (1975) gives Barry (Ryan) a buddy-bonding friendship with professional gambler, the Chevalier de Baribari (Patrick Magee), with lots of hugs and French-style kissing (plus he stumbles upon two men having sex in a pond).










Ryan's career began to fade during the 1980s, as models of heterosexual masculinity moved in the direction of the man-mountain.  But he's never been out of the public eye, in a life awash with scandals and tragedies.  And, in spite of his heterosexism,  he's always been a quiet supporter of gay rights.