Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Review: Out at the Movies: a history of gay cinema

Out at the Movies
Steven Paul Davies with a foreword by Simon Callow

Published by Kamera Books

Reviewed by Max Fincher


Out at the Movies is an accessible, decade-by-decade overview of important gay and queer films that have pushed political buttons and touched audiences worldwide.

The opening chapter considers the stereotypical representations of gay men and lesbians in classic Hollywood cinema. Davies illustrates several examples of classic films that encode queerness through characterisation, reflect a gay sensibility or portray queer fear. Davies also weaves into his narrative biographical snippets of information. Montgomery Clift, Rock Hudson, Marlon Brando and James Dean, all idols and ideals of masculinity in the 1950s, were all gay, bisexual or just curious. Each chapter closes with critical snapshots of the major films, and/or biographies of key actors and directors.

Along with Victim (1961), the social realist films of the early 1960s such as A Taste of Honey (1961) The L-Shaped Room, and The Leather Boys (1963) depicted queerness on screen in more honest ways. Concurrently, this was also the period that saw Andy Warhol’s films which did not shy away from showing sex on screen, with shorts like Blow Job (1963) and Lonesome Cowboys (1968). Lesbianism received frank, if rather tragic representations in The Killing of Sister George (1968) and The Children’s Hour (1963) Refreshingly, this study gives equal weight to gay men and lesbians on screen.
The Stonewall riots of 1969 prompted further positive representations, beginning with Midnight Cowboy (1969). Cabaret (1972), Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971) and A Dog Day Afternoon (1975) mark an improvement in how gay life was shown on screen. The avant-garde work of John Waters and Derek Jarman explored camp in more intelligent ways, while the cult of Rocky Horror allowed straight audiences to flirt safely with queer culture, while they could laugh at camp drag antics in the international French hit, La Cage Aux Folles (1979).

William Friedkin’s Cruising (1980), a film set in the gay S&M subculture, ignited a debate about ‘positive’ representations on screen that continued in the reception of many films that dealt with the impact of AIDS in the mid-to late 1980s. While mainstream Hollywood ignored the issue, the films of Gus Van Sant, Stephen Frears and Pedro Almodovar championed realistic representations of sexually active gay men on screen in stylish, smart ways that broke away from stereotyping.

AIDS continued to be a theme in the early 1990s with films like Longtime Companion (1990) and And the Band Played On (1993). Throughout the 1990s, and the noughties, new avenues were explored in genre, especially documentaries, and subjects like drag, transexualism, hustlers and cross-generational/racial relationships treated with sensitivity. Davies exposes the crass homophobic currents in situation comedy from mainstream Hollywood, contrasted against the progressive representation in independent films. An impressive array of international examples is covered and reveals the variety of contemporary films on offer. Although Hollywood productions are still stifled by homophobia from within the industry, successes such as Brokeback Mountain (2005), TransAmerica (2005), Milk (2009), and the forthcoming, I Love You Philip Morris (2009) seem to proclaim a sea change in audiences.

Simon Callow’s reflective foreword argues how film can subtly achieve social and political changes. This entertaining study describes all those examples that have moved with the times, and documented the diversity of queer life in the last 50 years.


Max Fincher wrote his PhD at King’s College London, a queer reading of late eighteenth-century Gothic fiction that was published as Queering Gothic Writing in the Romantic Age by Palgrave Macmillan (2007). He has taught part-time on eighteenth-century fiction and women’s writing, at both King’s College London and Royal Holloway, and is an occasional book reviewer for the TLS. He is currently writing his first novel, tentatively titled The Pretty Gentleman, a queer historical thriller set in the Regency art world.

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