In the line of duty for my job as a professional watcher of movies, I saw “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry” last night. And for all my fellow gays out there who were put off by the trailer — you know, the one where Adam Sandler and his faux-boyfriend Kevin James would sooner give each other a knuckle sandwich than a chaste little kiss, even if it means blowing the scam they’re running and losing pension benefits for James’ children — I can officially tell you that it’s not an anti-gay movie. It is, in fact, so cutely rah-rah-gays-rah it makes “Hairspray” seem like it was created by a think-tank of bigots. Everyone learns a lesson about how it’s wrong to say that six-letter (or three-letter, depending on your preferred spelling) F-word that Ann Coulter likes to toss around, and then there’s lots of warm hugs for everyone.
This type of film, though, is still relatively new on the mainstream landscape. Because while gay filmmakers have been making gay-themed films for a while now, movies that have moved past the whole “I am not an animal! I am a human being! I need the approval of Adam Sandler!” thing, it turns out that — surprise — lots of heterosexuals still seem to need reminding that gays deserve simple common decency and respect.
The evidence? Only the history of gay characters from the beginning of Hollywood till… oh… now. It’s enough to make you thank your parents for waiting until after the Stonewall riots to conceive you. And here’s the tangible proof, a batch of movies (and really, just the tip of a huge iceberg) from the pre-rainbow days of homo unhappiness and invisibility. Watch them if you dare...
“Some of My Best Friends Are” (1971)
This “Boys in The Band” knockoff, set in a gay bar on Christmas Eve, is populated by morose, mean-spirited, family-less drunkards, closet cases and drag queens (like future “Buck Rogers” TV star Gil Gerard and Warhol Superstar Candy Darling in a surprisingly affecting wallow), all of whom obviously have nowhere else to go on Christmas because, really, who wants to spend the holidays with those people? Thanks to gay cable channel Logo, this obscure (and never-released-on-video) piece of sad-sploitation pops up from time to time. Call them and ask for it by name, if only to see Rue McClanahan and Fannie Flagg mouthing off as the biologically female queens of the roost.
“The Children’s Hour” (1961)
Audrey Hepburn was never more tragic than in this fearful fable about keeping your mouth shut if you know what’s good for you. And even then, as this movie shows, keeping your mouth shut may not be enough. Two teachers at a school for girls (Shirley Maclaine is the other one) wind up ruined when a student simply accuses them of being lesbians. The answer to this situation? Well in that era, killing yourself was thought of as a reasonable response, a choice these characters are quite ready to oblige. Society thought lesbians and gay men were mentally ill then anyway, so it was a logical next step.
After failing to turn Joey Lauren Adams completely heterosexual in 1997’s “Chasing Amy,” Ben Affleck retreated into his lab and perfected his game, emerging for this laugh-challenged mess where he becomes the Doug Henning of sexual orientation, turning devoutly queer Jennifer Lopez into his adoring-yet-sassy girlfriend. And he does this pretty much overnight. Like on a dime. It proves what everyone secretly already knows: that lesbians just need a good man. It also proves that you don’t have to make your film in the 1960s in order for it come off as clueless and insulting. You just have to be clueless and insulting.
After “Cruising” and the resulting spectacle of emerging gay anger over the final product, it wasn’t like anyone was clamoring for another dark drama about cops going undercover to catch a killer of homosexuals. What the makers of this one were banking on was the idea that audiences were clamoring for a comedy about cops going undercover to catch a killer of homosexuals. Starring Ryan O’Neal as the put-upon, understandably embarrassed straight cop paired with gay cop John Hurt, the movie puts the golden-haired star in one shirtless, objectified moment after another to humiliate him and then asks him to constantly save the terrified sissy Hurt from scrape after scrape. This is because (and it’s a corollary to the whole lesbians just need a good man rule) any homosexual man who is also a trained police officer will invariably crumble into a heap of gay-weeping at the first hint of danger.
“St. Elmo’s Fire” (1985)
Gay director Joel Schumacher? Check. Gay supporting character Ron? Check. There he is, the barely mentioned friend of Demi Moore’s party girl. He saunters in holding a giant strawberry margarita with a big strawberry perched on the side of the glass, waiting patiently for Andrew McCarthy’s character to notice him, hoping to score like Molly Ringwald in “Pretty in Pink.” But wait, Andrew McCarthy’s character isn’t gay here, his possible homosexuality is only a running joke to cover for his incessant pining for Ally Sheedy. Which means we didn’t actually need that incidental gay guy after all. Oh, wait, there he is again being ineffectual (like gays do) while Demi bawls through her cocaine-induced-nude-fetal-position-next-to-artfully-billowing-curtains freak out. Thanks, gay director Joel Schumacher.
“Ode to Billy Joe” (1976)
Bobbie Gentry’s spooky, enigmatic hit 1967 song of the same name, about a teenage boy in Mississippi who jumps off the Tallahatchie Bridge, was the subject of intense pop-culture speculation in its day. The mystery of why her fictional Billy Joe jumped to his death was the fun part. So Hollywood decided to ruin that fun and made a movie that provided you with the concrete solution you never asked for. And why would a handsome country boy leap to his drowning death in muddy water? Because as Robby Benson, the doomed title character, says in the film’s climactic confession moment, “I been (sic) with a man!” This makes perfect sense to Glynnis O’Connor, his girlfriend, who keeps his horrible secret after the fact.
One of the creepiest films ever. Sadly stuck in not-on-DVD limbo, it’s for people who think “Misery” is a love story. Predatory lesbian Elizabeth Ashley, smitten with Talia Shire (already post-“Rocky” typecast as a mousy waif), hires a man to rape the object of her desire, thereby driving the young woman into her arms. As diabolical plans go, it’s perverse and despicable, and the movie’s perverse despicability (as well as its unintentional hilarity) stems from its matter-of-fact presentation. Of course lesbians are out to get innocent young women. Of course they’d hire a rapist to do their dirty work. Of course lesbianism is simply an anti-male lifestyle choice. In other words, it’s like “Cruising” for women.
“The Sergeant” (1968)
If you think “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is an unwinnable situation for gays in the military, try being one in 1968 when it was assumed that there simply were no gays in the military. That’s what happens to Rod Steiger as he battles his attraction to “Barbarella” male bimbo star John Phillip Law. Ultimately, he shoots himself after the angriest man-on-man kiss in screen history. So at least he got a little action before doing the only honorable thing.
“The Fox” (1967)
Put some lesbians on a farm and you’d think they’d turn the place into an organic co-op, but in this movie they simply come undone. One (Anne Heywood) gets cured of her lady-attractions — that whole “right man” scenario again. The other (Sandy Dennis, subverting stereotypes by being the “feminine” one) dies when — and I am not making this up — a giant tree falls between her splayed-wide-open legs and crushes her. If you’re going to die symbolically then that’s the way to do it.
The most mind-boggling one of all. Richard Burton and Rex Harrison star as a long-time gay couple who seethe with stunted fury and attack one another with a seemingly endless supply of hateful insults. They spend their days bickering in a shabby, claustrophobic apartment, pursing their lips and squealing, “Oooh!” like they were an eternally damned pair of old British women in a Monty Python sketch dunked in a vat of pathetic existential despair. And unlike more obvious targets like “The Boys in the Band” or “Cruising,” films where at least the self-hating gay men held a semblance of control over their own lives, these two suffer from a variety of outside problems they can never fix. Try finding the retro appeal in this one. In fact, try sitting through it until the end. Afterward you’ll feel like sending Adam Sandler a cookie bouquet.
Dave White is the film critic for Movies.com and the author of “Exile in Guyville.” Find him at www.imdavewhite.com