Raising awareness, denigrating the audience
Hollywood’s post-Philadelphia love-in with all things gay has less to do with equality than with feeling superior to the redneck masses.
‘It’s set in the Sixties, it’s based on a book and it’s about nicely dressed gays talking about being gay. You’ll love it.’
That was how a friend both successfully skewered my personality and piqued my interest in A Single Man. The directorial debut by top fashion designer Tom Ford is one of the most hotly tipped films at the Oscars, with much anticipation that Britain’s Colin Firth could get the Best Actor gong for his portrayal of an LA-based British college professor mourning the sudden death of his lover. Based on the classic novel by stately homo Christopher Isherwood, it seems a dead cert to soften even the stiffest of upper lips.
The Oscars, however, have a dubious history with gays-on-film. Of course much of this is to do with social attitudes and the Hollywood film industry, but there can be little doubt that over the past 20 years, with changing attitudes, progress has been made. Ever since Tom Hanks won Best Actor as a doomed AIDs sufferer in Philadephia in 1993, Oscar judges have been proud to proclaim the Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name. So in 2002 Nicole Kidman’s fake nose won her a Best Actress award for her portrayal of doomed writer and part-time lesbian Virginia Woolf in The Hours, a triumph which came hot on the heels of Hilary Swank’s 1999 win for the moving transgender film Boys Don’t Cry. In 2006 Ang Lee won Best Director – although, controversially, not Best Picture – for doomed cowboy romance Brokeback Mountain and Philip Seymour Hoffman Best Actor for his portrayal of the flamboyantly gay writer Truman Capote. Last year the bloodiest of bleeding hearts – Sean Penn – won Best Actor for his depiction of doomed and flamboyantly gay San Francisco politician Harvey Milk.
It is almost a cliché to complain that Hollywood likes its gays either flaming or doomed. And it is, of course, slightly unfair: Oscar season is when Hollywood pretends to be a grown-up and that means getting serious, and serious here means celebrating films that are either whimsy or tragic, regardless of whom the characters in those films go to bed with. But the Academy Awards, in choosing to celebrate certain films for their message rather than a notion of artistic value (however subjective), are deeply concerned with who you do and do not go to bed with. And they want us to care, too.
So in Philadephia we had Tom Hanks being sacrificed at the altar of family values: through his suffering his wisdom served to enlighten his homophobic family-man black lawyer of his own prejudices. In The Hours, the struggle for female and lesbian equality reached its climax in the cosmopolitanism of literary New York. In Boys Don’t Cry and Brokeback Mountain, we saw smalltown hicks being enriched by the sensitivity of same-sex love, only to reject it violently later. Finally, in Milk, we had gays do politics: though he was assassinated in 1978, American politician Harvey Milk was held up as a kind of saviour of liberal values after a decade of the Bush years, and a reflection of the dreams pinned on Obama.
That is not to say that all these ‘gay films’ are devoid of artistic merit. The Hours, Boys Don’t Cry and Brokeback Mountain in particular are complex and powerful works, worthy of repeat viewings. But their recognition by the Oscars, you tend to feel, has less to do with celebrating their artistic qualities or the historic gains made by gay people, and more to do with Hollywood’s cultural elites’ self-obsession: what can The Gays (or, in other cases, The Blacks or the Mentally Ill) say about us? More significantly, it is not really themselves they are seeking to improve (despite the curious absence of gay actors in a city dedicated to the performing arts), but those dreadful ignorant masses, invariably in small and impoverished towns, and their nasty little prejudices. It is not a question here of striving for equality because people’s humanity transcends superficial differences in sexuality or skin colour: rather it’s a case of the noble wisdom of the oppressed offering a quick fix to today’s problems.
As a big fan of Ang Lee I found Brokeback Mountain to be a powerful and deeply affecting film, although I grew tired of defending it against those who simply went to see the film because they expected, not unreasonably, to be treated to a glorious feast of rampant man-on-man action, and instead were left feeling bored – and cheated – by those long, lingering shots of misty mountains and the tense, unspoken angst. It was interesting to discover then that this was also the view of Best Supporting Actor nominee and star Jake Gyllenhaal, who declared that this film ‘means more to me socially than it does artistically’. When Penn won his award, he said with a sly wink at the audience, ‘You commie homo-loving sons of guns. I did not expect this, and I wanted to be very clear that I do know how hard I make it to appreciate me, often. But I am touched by the appreciation.’ (It’s funny, you see, because the audience weren’t pig-ignorant rednecks but wealthy, successful and well-educated Hollywood types.)
I should admit that I’d heard nothing of Harvey Milk until I saw him portrayed on a cinema screen, so I guess my awareness was raised by a film. But, in my case, that film was not Milk but the wonderful Half-Nelson, in which Harvey Milk appears only briefly: in 1970s newsreel footage, in fact, as a crack-addicted schoolteacher played by Ryan Gosling tried to inspire his class of tough, inner-city deadbeats with political idealism and the civil rights movement. So far, so worthy. The film’s real target, however, was the political hollowing out of America’s contemporary liberal middle class. Hence the teacher’s baby-boomer parents (his inspiration) are depicted as exhausted and cynical bores, trapped in a delusional nostalgia for the good old days of the Sixties and unable to grasp the particular complexities of contemporary politics. For all the feelgood gestures of the film’s protagonists, the political defeat of the civil rights movement is writ large in the poverty of America’s inner cities.
Half-Nelson seemed to be nudging towards the conclusion that real political change only comes from mass mobilisation, an inspiring political vision and a clear sense of the forces of history: if you aren’t serious about that, then all you have are memories and the chance to save the occasional individual. After that I wasn’t in a rush to see Milk, which seemed largely to consist of Sean Penn flailing his arms about before getting shot by a baddie (here: homophobe).
Interestingly, much of the most intelligent TV drama of the last few years – from gritty, hard-hitting shows like Oz and The Wire, to more muted domestic dramas such as Six Feet Under and Mad Men – have offered a wide range of gay characters as part of a rounded, well-written and intellectually enriching engagement with life and the world: liberal, yes, but humanist above all else. I look forward to seeing whether A Single Man and Colin Firth have been lauded for offering just that. But I can’t help but feel that if Firth does win Best Actor, it will be because the Academy feels that his performance will do more to elevate my awareness than my soul.
David Bowden is a writer based in London and a co-founder of the Institute of Ideas’ Current Affairs Forum.