American film audiences have had a struggle with open and positive depictions of gays and lesbians relationships. In 1930 the film industry was forced to follow a code named the 1930 Production Code that forbid representation of any kind of “sexual perversion” and homosexuality at that time was classified a “sexual perversion”. The industry complied by removing overtly homosexual scenes, but was able to keep homosexuality themes in more subtle and suggestive methods of representation. The gay themed characters were still present in some earlier movies, such as “The Maltese Falcon” when the homosexual character Joel Cairo was introduced to Mr.
Spade with a card that smelled of gardenias. But like Cairo they usually were portrayed as criminal types and swindlers. Or some of the movies left you guessing or maybe thinking there was some underlining current of homosexuality like in “Double Indemnity”. Was there something between the characters Fred MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson played? Fred uttered a couple of time “I Love ya” to Edward. Or was Barbara Stanwyck the perfect model for a lesbian? Her manly strength with emotions or her cold heartless ability to commit crime could have been indicators of her sexuality.
The film “The Maltese Falcon” was made during the time of the Production Code. This code was created by the Hays office between 1930 and 1934 to satisfy the pressure from groups pushing morality and Americanism. The codes forbid depictions of criminals as heroic characters, figures who might possibly encourage some spectators to follow their example. Classical Hollywood films such as “The Maltese Falcon” and “Double Indemnity” had little interest in dramatizing homosexual lives or homosexual issues.
The very structure of Hollywood narrative form was and is homophobic almost always contains a male–female romance, regardless of story line or genre. If and when homosexual characters appeared in Hollywood films prior to the sexual revolution, they were almost always relegated to walk-on parts or small supporting roles. Homosexual actors were not allowed to publicly act gay the studios arranged publicity stunts that included dates and even wedding, the so-called “marriage of convenience. ” For example, Rock Hudson (1925–1985) was briefly married in the 1950s to persuade his fans that he was indeed heterosexual.
Queer people also worked behind the camera in Hollywood, many in costume design, set decoration, and choreography. There were also successful producers and directors who led quiet homosexual lives, including David Lewis (1903–1987), Ross Hunter (1920–1996), Mitchell Leisen (1898–1972), Edmund Goulding (1891–1959), Irving Rapper (1898–1999), Arthur Lubin (1898–1995), James Whale (1889–1957), George Cukor (1899–1983), and Dorothy Arzner (1897–1979). The last three of these are the best known, perhaps because their film work does show more obvious touches of a homosexual sensibility.
Whale directed four of Universal’s classic horror films (Frankenstein, 1931; The Old Dark House, 1932; The Invisible Man, 1933; and Bride of Frankenstein, 1935) with gay wit and innuendo. Arzner, one of the few women to direct in Hollywood during the classical era, made films such as Christopher Strong (1933) and Dance, Girl, Dance (1940) that showcased strong women and celebrated the bonds between them. Cukor, one of the classical era’s most prolific directors, became known chiefly for his women’s films and musicals, including Camille (1936), A Star Is Born (1954), and My Fair Lady (1964).
Cukor’s Sylvia Scarlett (1935) managed to skirt the Code’s injunctions against “sex perversion” even as it featured a cross-dressing heroine (Katherine Hepburn as a young woman impersonating a boy) and all sorts of same-sex infatuations (Benshoff and Griffin, 2006). Queer filmmakers and fans were often drawn to the musical and the horror film, two genres that often acknowledged queer characters and seem to be steeped in queer sensibilities. “The Wizard of Oz” (1939), starring gay favorite Judy Garland (1922–1969) and a cast of misfit effeminate men, has become an iconic film in gay culture.
The horror film often uses queer traits to characterize its monsters and mad scientists. For example, in “Mad Love” (1935) Peter Lorre’s effeminate madman quotes Oscar Wilde, and vampires like “Dracula’s Daughter”, in 1936 are almost always strange sexually, seducing both men and women with their unnatural kisses. In fact, the lesbian vampire was the most common image of lesbians on American film screens before the 1980s (Benshoff, 1997). Another depiction of homosexuality in film is the effeminate males with the ever so stereotypical limp wrist, like with Joel Cairo in “The Maltese Falcon”.
At one point he had been manhandled by Humphrey Bogart’s character and by Mary Astor’s character. They both had slapped him around proving his weakness. In one scene Joel Cairo had make a gesture with his cane to his mouth, that I thought was rather bold, but apparently that move didn’t red flag the regulators of the Production Code. The manliness of Barbara Stanwych was a little harder to see it was more subtle, but still fit into the stereotyping of homosexuals nonetheless. Many associated homosexuality with “Criminal madness” along with the psychopathology of Nazism” and author Harry M.
Benshoff credited the military for this stereotyping. He suggested that just before WWII the military was working on tests that would alert them if someone was homosexual from psychiatric examinations and testing. This testing was supposed to identify “Sexual psychopaths” and remove them from the service. The ideal the military was trying to give Benshoff wrote was, “that normal people could be “infected” by gay presence and that homosexuality like other pathologies could be cured” (122).
Members of the medical establishment argued back and forth for decades about what “caused” homosexuality, and some still do. In so doing, researchers assumed that heterosexuality was the norm, and that homosexuality was a disease of the norm that could be cured. “This assumption that heterosexuality is the only normal sexual orientation and that it should be celebrated and privileged above all others, is called heterosexism. Heterosexism is pervasive and usually un-remarked upon in our culture, and is somewhat different from the more extreme practice or prejudice of homophobia” (Benshoff, 2006)
While queer activists were demonstrating in the streets, something called Queer Theory began to be discussed in universities across the nation and in Canada and Europe. Unlike the more essentialist queer activists, queer theorists focus on how sexuality was and is a product of culture, with no biological bearings. Through the work of Michel Foucault they define sexuality as being socially constructed through various discourses of medicine, law and media. From the work of feminist philosopher Judith Butler they understand gender and sexuality as performative acts, not essential identities (Benshoff & Griffin, 2006).
With this in hand Hollywood became increasingly intolerant of anyone who was different. It was during this time that homosexual artists worked with films that were produced outside the traditional industry. But with the 1960’s the breakdown of the production code and the new sexual revolution, Hollywood began experimenting on sexuality. In a book by Harry M. Benshoff and Sean Griffin they said, “Hollywood’s potential to depict the complexity of human sexuality was evident in films such as “The killing of Sister George” (1968), “Midnight Cowboy” (1969) and “Performance” (1970)”.
But still the general public was not buying tickets and independent films were of a successful outlet for the homosexual artist. Benshoff wrote “Historically, most gay and lesbian filmmakers were forced to work in avant-garde or independent circles, but there were also several important gay and lesbian filmmakers who worked within the classical Hollywood cinema: James Whale, George Cukor, and Dorothy Arzner, to name just a few. Today, many queer people in Hollywood (especially actors) remain in the closet although that is slowly changing.
The first important book about how homosexuality has been represented in the movies was Vito Russo’s The Celluloid Closet (which was also turned into a film in the 1990s). In the book, Russo examined the depiction of gay and lesbian characters on screen in Hollywood and independent film, compiling list of stereotypical stock characters, many of whom are still with us today. In the late 1970s and 1980s, gay and lesbian independent feature filmmaking came into practice.
These first feature films focused on positive images, positive role models, coming out stories, and narratives of self and community acceptance. They were often love stories and were produced in the realist or classical style of most Hollywood filmmaking”. Homosexual film genres have been coming out with new views on homosexuality. Benshoff writes, “One of the important traits of New Queer Cinema is having stories that question models of essentialist identity formation.
In other words, characters are not merely nice gay and lesbian stereotypes, but rather complex queer characters who may challenge the simple binary “straight versus gay. ” Queer Film also tends to challenge master narratives such as “objective history. ” Films like SWOON and EDWARD II examine historical issues of queerness to show how history itself has been constructed by those in power. Queer Film also tends to focus on race, gender, and class issues, again representing these as socially constructed categories, not essential identities.
There is a focus on permeable boundaries, the crossing of styles and genres, and issues such as trans-nationalism. The films dabble in minimalism and excess, appropriation and pastiche, the mixing of Hollywood and avant-garde styles, and even the mix of fiction and documentary tropes. Finally, queer film tends to be more or less activist and in your face: it is energetic, provocative, unruly, demanding, and sometimes shocking”. In the movie “L. A. Confidential”, a movie depicting Hollywood during this time, showed homosexuality as corrupt and illegal.
But also gave you the impression that homosexuality at that time was around and thriving. It didn’t hide homosexuality; it just gave it a bad light. The struggling young male actor who was killed before photos were taken of him and a gentleman caller showed how homosexuality is still portrayed to the general public as a criminal activity associated with prostitution and something to be shunned. When the young black men were interrogated by the cops over a killing spree at a diner. The officer used homophobia as a tactic to get one to accuse the other of the crime.