They’re Here, They’re Queer

Posted on May 22, 2009


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Sean Penn, in the recently released “Milk,” is just the latest in a long line of exalted actors who stepped out of the closet.

MAY 23, 2009 – 1. Paul Newman in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958): The conservative climate of the time did not allow the screen to hint, as the stage did, at the “love that dare not speak its name,” the love that Newman’s character felt for his deceased buddy Skipper. But all you need, really, is to note that Newman is married to Elizabeth Taylor at her most ravishing, and yet, she isn’t the “one great good true thing in his life” – Skipper was.

2. Laurence Olivier in Spartacus (1960): Beyond a gauzy curtain, in his bathtub, the great thespian (playing Crassus) converses with his manservant about matters of appetite, about liking oysters or snails – but the conversation is really about, you know, preference. Ancient Rome, apparently, struck an early blow for gay rights when Crassus argued that whether one was drawn to oysters or snails, it was simply a question of taste, and as “taste is not the same as appetite, [it’s] not a question of morals.”

3. Shirley MacLaine in The Children’s Hour (1961): Karen (Audrey Hepburn) is soon to be married, so what does one make of the hushed rumours, sweeping like wildfire across the conservative New England community, that she’d rather be with Martha (MacLaine)? And how much worse when Martha discovers that these may not be just rumours, that she may really harbour feelings for Karen? If this morality play doesn’t seem as daring today, it’s still an emphatic plea against the public judgment of private lives.

4. Marlon Brando in Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967): Long before Apocalypse Now, Brando ventured deep into the heart of darkness in this twisted drama about an army major lusting after a private who rides horses in the nude. Brando is married to the magnificently bosomy Elizabeth Taylor, who pulls off her bra and flings it at him in contempt, but his eyes would rather caress the candy-bar wrapper he retrieved from the street, one night, after the private tossed it away.

5. Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy (1969): Joe Buck is unmindful of gender while prostituting himself, but that’s only because he has to survive, somehow, in New York City. But did his “friendship” with Ratso Rizzo (Hoffman) ever transgress the Platonic ideal? Showbiz legend has it that, after furious discussions over whether or not to shoot a love scene between the two, it was decided to leave it up to the viewer to take a call. And four decades on, we still wonder: Were they, or weren’t they?

6. Gérard Depardieu in Going Places (1974) and Tenue de Soirée (1986): Two films with Depardieu as a bisexual thief, both directed by Bertrand Blier, and both featuring Miou-Miou – what are the odds? Compounding the many assaults on middle-class mores in Going Places, Depardieu cheerfully buggers his comrade-in-arms when there are no women to bed, and in Tenue de Soirée, he seduces both halves of a soigné couple and instigates a cosy ménage à trois. Some men, clearly, are from Mars as well as Venus.

7. Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and Angels in America (2003): In the former, Pacino attempts to rob a bank to pay for his lover’s sex change operation, and in the latter, he’s a self-loathing closet case doomed to die of AIDS. To see these two extraordinary films is to see the evolution of Pacino from a truly great actor to a loud, tired caricature of his former self – but at least, he never stopped seeking out roles that were as demanding as they were discomfiting.

8. Daniel Day-Lewis in My Beautiful Laundrette (1985): A gay Pakistani in Thatcherite London begins a love affair with the extremist punk played by Day-Lewis. Those actors who fear playing homosexuals because of the perceived impact on their careers need only look at the mischievous scene where Day-Lewis is embraced by his boyfriend, in full view of the people on the street, and he licks his lover’s neck in return. An Oscar-encrusted career followed.

9. Tony Leung Chiu-Wai in Happy Together (1997): Wong Kar-wai’s mood piece about on-again-off-again boyfriends is one of the saddest love stories ever told, and proof that, gay or straight, relationships are never easy. Leung is exquisitely conflicted as a man torn between the push-pull impulses of needing someone to spend his life with, and yet not just anyone. It’s a gay spin on that oldest of clichés: Can’t live with him, can’t live without him.

10. Judi Dench in Notes on a Scandal (2006): Barbara (Dench) is old and resigned to life with a cat, when she falls for a much younger schoolteacher who’s not quite… available. Elevating the entirely banal hell-hath-no-fury scenario, Dench grabs every available inch of text and subtext and goes to town with a barely repressed fury that you’d find scary, if only it weren’t also so sad. Barbara isn’t acting out against her sexuality so much as her solitude, “the drip-drip of long-haul, no-end-in-sight solitude.”

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