homosexual subtexts


homosexual subtexts
   At the time STANLEY KUBRICK began making films in the 1950s, Joseph Ignatius Breen, the industry censor, maintained that homosexuality was too strong a subject for American motion pictures. He was backed up by the Motion Picture Production Code, which stated flatly that any reference to “sex perversion” was forbidden. Oscar Wilde called homosexuality “the love that dare not speak its name,” and the film censors wanted to keep it that way. As Lily Tomlin says in narrating The Celluloid Closet, the 1995 television documentary about homosexuality in the movies, “The film censor didn’t erase homosexuals from the screen; he just made them harder to find. ”
   Since Breen insisted that the restrictions of the industry’s CENSORSHIP code prohibited Kubrick from depicting homosexuality in any explicit way,Kubrick managed to suggest a hint of homosexuality in THE KILLING (1956). Thus he implies that Marvin Unger (JAY C. FLIPPEN), one of the accomplices of Johnny (STERLING HAYDEN) in planning a racetrack robbery, has a covert homosexual attachment to the much younger Johnny. “There isn’t anything I wouldn’t do for Johnny,” he says. In fact, Marvins’s participation in the caper seems to be motivated by his need to be near Johnny, rather than by greed for money. He even suggests that he and Johnny go off together after the heist,“and let the world take a few turns” while they are alone together without any women along, so they “can take stock of things” on their own. But his invitation is pointedly ignored by Johnny. As screenwriter Jay Presson Allen says in The Celluloid Closet, a clever director like Kubrick could get around the restriction on portraying homosexuality by hints and suggestion. As writer Gore Vidal states in the same documentary, “It was perfectly clear” to the cognoscenti “who were on the right wavelength” when a character was homosexual. There is a major sequence with a homosexual subtext in LOLITA (1962). Humbert Humbert (JAMES MASON) stops at a hotel with Lolita (SUE LYON), his underage inamorata Clare Quilty (PETER SELLERS), who also has designs on Lolita, happens to stop at the same hotel. He decides to employ a crafty ruse in a jealous effort to discourage Humbert from bedding down Lolita that night. Impersonating a homosexual, he introduces himself to Humbert on the shadowy hotel terrace. When Humbert, feigning nonchalance, asks the stranger whom he is with, the response is unsettling:“I am not with someone; I am with you. ” As Humbert starts to bow out, Quilty says, “No, you don’t have to leave at all. ” Quilty then launches into a seemingly casual but really coldly calculated monologue, in which he discusses, among other things, his having been arrested for “standing around on street corners,” presumably looking for male companionship. Humbert does not know what to make of Quilty’s stream of chatter and finds it all the more threatening for that reason.
   “I couldn’t help noticing when you checked in tonight,” Quilty continues. “I noticed your face, and I said to myself when I saw you, ‘That’s a guy with the most normal face I have ever seen in my life. ’ Because I’m a normal guy and it would be great for two normal guys like us to get together—and talk about world events, you know, in a normal sort of way. ” Now Quilty bears down a bit more on his victim. “I noticed you had a lovely little girl with you,” he says. “Your daughter? I figured you might want to get away from your wife. If I was married I would want to get away from my wife. ”With that last thrust, Humbert is completely undone by Quilty and hastily goes upstairs to his room. At all events, the censor had no problem with this scene, since Quilty’s behavior toward Humbert was not portrayed as a blatant homosexual advance; Kubrick instead employed artistic indirection to imply how Quilty managed to scare Humbert into scrapping his elaborate plans to seduce Lolita on that occasion.
   Another Kubrick film in which homosexuality plays more than a tangential role is SPARTACUS (1960), made just before Lolita. While Crassus, a Roman general (Laurence Olivier) is lounging in the splendor of his luxurious villa, he receives a gift of some slaves from the governor of Sicily. One of them, Antoninus (TONY CURTIS), strikes his fancy. “You shall be my body servant,” Crassus says. It is a matter of historical record that Roman generals indulged their proclivities for young specimens of their own sex, as well as for the members of the opposite sex.
   In a subsequent scene, Crassus is being helped out of his bath by Antoninus. As both men stand nearly naked by an open window, Crassus points to some soldiers marching by in the distance. “That, boy, is Rome; the might, the majesty, the terror that is Rome. You must serve her, abase yourself before her, grovel at her feet; you must love her. ” In the context of the homosexual references of the scene, Crassus is making a veiled pass at his body servant. Since he is a powerful general, Crassus symbolizes the might and majesty of Rome, of which he has just spoken. Therefore, it is himself whom he is suggesting that Antoninus must serve, grovel before, and love. Putting it another way, Crassus says to Antoninus, “Do you consider the eating of oysters to be moral and the eating of snails to be immoral? Of course not. It’s all a matter of taste. And taste is not the same as appetite, and therefore not a question of morals. . . . My taste includes both oysters and snails. ”Antoninus has not missed the meaning of Crassus’s remarks, for when the general turns to see what effect his speech has had on the young man, he discovers that he has been addressing an empty room.
   Vito Russo comments in his book The Celluloid Closet (1981), on which the 1995 documentary of the same title was based, “Antoninus’s fear of being involved homosexually with Crassus causes Antoninus to flee” and join Spartacus and the other slaves in revolt.
   After the roadshow engagements of Spartacus were completed, Universal eliminated from the film the scene in which Crassus subtly attempts to seduce Antoninus. The studio probably felt that the general audience would find any hint of homosexuality offensive. With this scene deleted, however, Crassus’s later behavior toward Antoninus was simply inexplicable. Late in the movie, after the failure of the slave revolt, Crassus spies Antoninus among the prisoners who are to be crucified. “Hold this man to the end,” he says, staring vindictively at his former body servant. Since the crucial scene that established the general’s sexual interest in Antoninus had been removed from the film, the motive for Crassus’s peculiar hatred for Antoninus is not entirely clear in the cut version of the film. In reality, it is Crassus’s humiliating sense of rejection by the young man, and not just that the slave had escaped from his household, that prompts him to single out Antoninus for special punishment. Spartacus was released to video in 1991 in a restored version, with the missing footage between Crassus and Antoninus described above reinstated into the film by Kubrick himself. As it happened, Geoffrey Shurlock (who had replaced Joseph Breen as industry censor) had, in concert with his advisory board, amended the censorship code so that homosexuality no longer was outlawed as a legitimate subject for American motion pictures.
   For the record, film director Otto Preminger was largely responsible for getting homosexuality removed from the code’s list of taboo topics in Hollywood pictures. Preminger petitioned the censor, in the case of his film Advise and Consent (1962), that the code be amended to allow the depiction of homosexuality on the American screen. Preminger could point to the precedent established by John Trevelyan, the British film censor, in 1958, when he had decreed that films with homosexual themes would not be banned in England, provided that the subject was treated responsibly. The censor acceded to Preminger’s request. The official press release on this occasion read: “In keeping with the culture, the mores, and values of our time, homosexuality . . . may now be treated with care, discretion, and restraint” in American films.
   However, when the soundtrack was to be reinserted in the video version, it was discovered that it had not survived. Accordingly,Tony Curtis redubbed his dialogue while Anthony Hopkins read the late Laurence Olivier’s lines for the scene. By the time Kubrick made BARRY LYNDON (1975), he was largely free of the censorship restraints about homosexuality that dogged him on Spartacus. Thus he could portray two obvious homosexual types in the film. In order to escape from military service, Barry Lyndon (RYAN O’NEAL) steals the uniform of one of the two homosexual officers bathing in the river.
   Asked why he introduced two homosexuals into the film who were not in Thackeray’s novel, Kubrick told Michel Ciment: “The problem was how to get Barry out of the British army. The section of the book dealing with this is fairly lengthy and complicated. The function of the scene between the two gay officers was to provide a simpler way for Barry to escape. It leads to the same end result as the novel, but by a different route. ” Barry eavesdrops on the two officers and overhears that one of them must carry some secret documents to an army general. “Barry steals the papers and uniform of a British officer, which allow him to make his way to freedom,” Kubrick continued. “Since the scene is purely expositional, the dramatic situation helps to mask our intention,” which is to move the story forward. Although the two men seem on the surface to be stereotypical movie homosexuals, they nevertheless display a devotion to each other that gives their characters some depth, as they lament their imminent separation from each other, while holding hands and staring into each other’s eyes.
   In Kubrick’s horror show, THE SHINING (1980), Wendy (SHELLEY DUVALL), the wife of the caretaker of a resort hotel that is closed for the season, views a spectral orgy populated by some bizarre ghosts. At one point, she sees among the heterosexual revelers a man wearing a teddy bear costume, apparently engaging in oral sex with a gentleman in white tie and tails. “This homosexual intrusion, appearing as a frightening specter,” writes Robert Kolker, suggests to the terrified woman “that all sexuality is to be feared and loathed. ” Needless to say, this explicit depiction of homosexuality could not have appeared in the film before the code was changed.
   The same can be said of the references to homosexuality in EYES WIDE SHUT (1999), as Kolker notes. During an excursion into Greenwich Village, the hero, Bill Harford (TOM CRUISE) is set upon by a gang of rowdy boys (who recall the hoodlums in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE); they berate his manhood by calling him a ‘switch-hitter,’ and a gay hotel desk clerk sidles up next to him in a gesture of sexual familiarity.
   The incident with the hotel clerk occurs when Bill inquires about his friend Nick, who had tipped him off about a private orgy for which Nick was engaged to play the organ. Bill attends the saturnalia strictly as a gate-crasher, and is found out. Fearing that Nick has suffered reprisals for breaking the code of silence that surrounded the orgy, he is distressed when he is told by the hotel clerk (Alan Cumming) that Nick was spirited away from the hotel in the wee hours by a couple of hoods. The clerk’s remarks to Bill are freighted with homosexual innuendo, since he assumes that the “old friend” that Bill says he is looking for is a “buddy” of Bill’s. He says 166 n homosexual subtexts that the two men who strong-armed Nick to check out of the hotel and to leave with them were “big guys, not the kind of people you’d like to fool around with. ” With that, he gives Bill a knowing smile, covers his face with his hand, and titters. When Bill takes his leave, the clerk says that he would be happy to “help Bill anytime,” and looks after him with longing. The clerk’s implication seems to be that, if Bill’s old friend is gone for good, he is still around. Interesting enough, there is no hint in the corresponding scene in the novella that the desk clerk is homosexual, much less that he comes on to Bill as he does in the film. Kubrick presents him as one more character in the film looking for a sexual encounter, which is the order of the day with several of the characters.
   Although homosexuality was no longer a forbidden subject for Hollywood films at this point, Kubrick still preferred artistic indirection to suggest a homosexual advance, rather than to portray it blatantly, because the hotel clerk would obviously have to be discreet in seeking to ingratiate himself with Bill. By contrast, it is evident that Kubrick was free of the censorship restrictions that limited him in dealing with homosexuality in his early films in the brief episode with the rowdy college boys harassing Bill on the street. They do not mince words, as they deride him as a “faggot” and push him against a parked car, assuming he is homosexual simply because he is walking the streets of Greenwich Village late at night without a girl on his arm.
   In summary, in his later films Kubrick no longer had to skirt the issue of homosexuality when it served the purposes of his story. He represented homosexuality on the screen, not as a curiosity, but as an integral part of the human condition. Indeed, in portraying pathetic figures like Marvin Unger in The Killing and the desk clerk in Eyes Wide Shut, as well as the two hapless officers in Barry Lyndon in a compassionate light, he suggested that homosexuals are sad and mixed up, like everybody else.
   References
   ■ Bourne, Stephen, Brief Encounters: Homosexuals in British Cinema, 1930–71 (New York: Cassell, 1996), pp. 141–144;
   ■ Ciment, Michel, Kubrick, trans. Gilbert Adair (New York: Faber and Faber, 2001), pp. 167–177;
   ■ Kolker, Robert, A Cinema of Loneliness, rev. ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 158–159;
   ■ Nelson, Thomas, Kubrick: Inside a Film Artist’s Maze, rev. ed. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000), pp. 277–278;
   ■ Phillips, Gene, Exiles in Hollywood: Preminger and Other Directors (Cranbury, N. J. : Associated University Presses, 1998), pp. 125–127;
   ■ Russo, Vito, The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies, rev. ed. (New York: Harper and Row, 1987), pp. 119–120;
   ■ Tyler, Parker, Screen Homosexuality in the Movies, rev. ed. (New York: Da Capo, 1993), pp. 343–352.

The Encyclopedia of Stanley Kubrick. . 2002.

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