Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Gay Men in Film: From Victim to Sidekick, Isn't there More to Being Gay?

After watching the film I Love You Phillip Morris this past week, which stars Jim Carrey as Steven Russell who starts off the film in a hospital bed as if he is dying; he talks about his story and how he was very religious and married but was hiding his sexual orientation.  Carrey states that it costs a lot of money to be gay so he becomes a con man and swindles people out of money in order to keep up with the gay lifestyle.  Eventually while in prison for pulling off one of his latest cons Steven (Carrey) meet Phillip Morris (Ewen McGregor) and they fall in love.  The portrayal of Steven Russell is a somewhat typical representation of gay men in that he represents the materialistic gay man who wants everything. Phillip Morris represents the victimized gay male.  The love between Phillip and Steven is real, but their relationship rarely seems about them, and is more about Steven's misunderstanding his own life.  After watching this I saw a direct correlation with the film Catch me if you can, the whole con man story, but DiCaprio's Frank Abignale is far more redeemable and even celebrated in the end, while Steven is never seen as sympatheic.  Maybe the connection is limited, but I felt comparing a hetersexual and homosexual con man story and showing their differences helps show the disparity in the way that different groups are portrayed in film. 

Carrey's character does represent a different type of role for gay man and it was fun to watch, but there are such a small number of films made where gay men are represented in leading roles where they aren't the victim of violence or die of a disease (most likely HIV or AIDS).  The other complicated part is that this movie was ready to be released last year but because of the content and the original NC-17 rating it did not get released until over a year after its initial release date.  Even in the original poster there is only a picture of Jim Carrey's character (the lead in the film), but there is no picture of his male love interest Phillip Morris.  The above seen movie poster is a later version.  When people create movies like this that dare to be different and push boundaries there is often push back and real stories do not get told.

One of my friends asked me once, "Why do you get excited when you see a gay character in a movie?"  My answer was simple, because it is someone whose story I can relate to.  This happens more in television.  When i was coming up with the list of some of my favorite mainstream movies (and I emphasize mainstream) here is what I cam up with: The Birdcage, Brokeback Mountain, Philadelphia, Milk, Rent  and A Single Man.  Four out those six films portray men who are either killed in a violent act (Brokeback Mountain, Milk) or dying of AIDS (Rent, Philadelphia).  The Birdcage is hilarious but gives the impression that gay men are obsessed with being woman (although the other undertone is that Robin Williams and Nathan have a stronger relationship than most heterosexual couples).  The constant portrayal of gay men as victims presents gay males with that as a constant and singular identity.  The media can be the primary source where people learn about gay males and thus seeing many gay men dying on screen with AIDS paints the picture that it is only gay men who have the disease.  

In comedies gay men have become overrepresented as the gay best friend to a girl.  This plays out in My Best Friend's Wedding, The Object of My Affection, Mean Girls, Monster-In-Law, She's the Man, and many more.  Within the context of the film movies rarely show gay males as the lead in a romantic comedy without leaving room for certain stereotypes (The Birdcage-La Cage Aux Folles does it a little better).  There are niche companies that have created their own gay films that are romantic comedies, but they are rarely seen by a non gay audience.  Movies like The Broken Hearts Club, All Over the Guy, Adam and Steve, and Trick.  These non mainstream companies make these movies on small budgets and rarely attract big talent, so the quality tends to suffer.  How can you not laugh at Nathan Lane and his attempt to play it straight in The Birdcage, or at Rupert Everett as he pretends to Julia Robert's fiance in My Best Friend's Wedding.  The problem is gay men need to have their romantic stories told also so viewers can see that there are more stories in this world.

One other probelm is that within film gay males are portrayed as mainly white.  There is a lack of racial and ethinc diversity when showing gay men.  The one black gay male I can think of is Cuba Gooding Jr. in As good as it gets who is the movie for maybe fifteen minutes.  The only movie I can think with an all black male cast is Noah's Arc: Jumping the Broom, which is essentially a TV movie because they made it as a conclusion to the cancelled TV show.  Lee Daniels who directed the Precious is an openly gay male and hopefully this will help bring some racial diversity to gay films.  I could not think of any Asian or Latino gay males represented in film, and no Hank Azaria in The Birdcage only plays Latino.

Hollywood has started to do better, but it just isn't enough.  There are numerous gay film makers out there that are starting to make waves and creat movies that create an opportunity for people to understand what it means to be a gay male.  Ryan Murphy (Glee, Running with Scissors), Gus Van Sant (Milk), Todd Haynes (Far from Heaven).  Murphy has taken on the characters Kurt and Blaine in Glee, but has never had any gay men in his film subject matter.  Van Sant has taken on numerous gay male characters but most of his films are small independent films, and Todd Haynes had Dennis Quaid in Far from Heaven, but most of his material has focused on women.  As television continues to break more ground, the film industry needs to step up their game and market to different audiences, now is the time to take risks and reach a new niche market.


Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

In my view, the worst kind of portrayal of gay men is to be found in the so-called backlash films of the 70s which can now be seen as straight male society's panic reaction against the increasing social and media visibility of gay men.

There was this one about youth gangs whose name unfortunately escapes me. It depicted gay men as utter psychopaths and ended with a gang of gay men being apparently battered to death by a gang of black straight youths, although the scene discreetly closes just before the bloody orgy is about to commence. A gang of white straight youths outs the young gay men and, in a cruel gesture of dehumanisation, hands them over to the black youths to be beaten.

It is significant that although one of the gay men has committed murder, and the beating is apparently in vengeance of this, the situation is carefully manipulated to make it seem as though the beating is really as much a righteous act of justified hatred against corrupters of manhood as anything else.

It is also important to see the way the scene is coded racially to make it appear as though the white youths are offering the gay youths to the black youths as a gesture of ethnic sympathy. The constellation of characters is like a triangle in which three groups, straight white youths, gay white youths and straight black youths, are depicted as comprising their own discreet "ethnicities," and these ethnic units are then put into interaction with one another to communicate an ethics of race and sexuality.

In my view, the most heartbreaking, although apparently not homophobic, example of the classic fate of gay men in films is Four Weddings and a Funeral. There are five couples, one of them gay. The informed gay film-goer does not have to guess twice which one of them will be separated in death.