The word "camp" may come from the French term se camper (to flaunt)—in this case the flaunting of one's homosexuality. Camp style can be traced back to at least the early eighteenth century and the rise of homosexual subcultures within western European cities. Camp was thus a way of performing a hitherto unseen identity; early camp style celebrated a certain degree of gender-bending, wit, and aestheticism. These attributes became somewhat synonymous with homosexuality and/or homosexual style through the public persona and writings of the playwright Oscar Wilde (1854–1900). Wilde's camp sensibility infiltrated film directly via several silent film versions of his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (1913, 1916). Other silent films—perhaps most famously Alla Nazimova's film of Wilde's play Salome (1923)—also employed camp style via overly mannered acting, highly stylized settings, and bizarre narrative events. (As such, camp styles have often blurred into various art or experimental cinemas—the attention to surface style, often at
The classical Hollywood star Mae West was a camp icon for much of the twentieth century. It is often said that she acted as if she were a man impersonating a woman—that she was in fact a female drag queen. Her bigger-than-life persona (over which she maintained strict control), sexually provocative dialogue (which she wrote herself), and ultimately her refusal to go quietly into retirement with dignity made her a favorite among gay men and other camp aficionados. Even today she remains a much-discussed figure among feminist and queer theorists.
West began her career as a child star in vaudeville and burlesque, playing both boys and girls. As she started to mature, she was sometimes billed as "The Baby Vamp." During the 1920s she appeared on the legitimate stage and began to write her own sexually frank (for their era) comedies. In 1926 her play Sex caused such a furor she was sent to jail for ten days, and her play The Drag was one of the first to deal with homosexual characters. West made a huge impression in her first Hollywood film, Night After Night (1932), and she was signed to a contract at Paramount. She Done Him Wrong (1933, based on her stage play Diamond Lil ), and I'm No Angel (1933) were huge box office hits and catapulted West into instant stardom. Many straight men in the audience lusted after her, while women and gay men responded to her ability to use her sexuality as a playful yet powerful weapon.
But West hit Hollywood at exactly the wrong time. The Motion Picture Production Code was in the process of being revivified and actually enforced, and West was attacked repeatedly in the press by religious and secular reformists who saw her as the embodiment of decaying morality. The title of her next film, It Ain't No Sin , had to be changed to the less suggestive Belle of the Nineties (1934), which was also a big hit. However, throughout the rest of the 1930s, West's characters and dialogue faced increasing censorship and continued harangues from a prudish press. After The Heat's On (1943), she retired from films and returned to the stage, touring for decades with her sexually provocative plays and nightclub acts.
In 1970 West returned to the screen in Myra Breckinridge , a deliberately campy sex comedy about a male-to-female transsexual. In her final film, Sextette (1978), the eighty-five-year-old West was still playing a sex goddess, a campy turn that bordered (according to many critics) on the grotesque because of her advanced years. Although she made only twelve films throughout her long career, West's importance to the shifting terrain of gender and sexuality in twentieth-century America was immeasurable.
Night After Night (1932), She Done Him Wrong (1933), I'm No Angel (1933), Belle of the Nineties (1934), Klondike Annie (1936), My Little Chickadee (1940), Myra Breckinridge (1970), Sextette (1978)
Curry, Ramona. Too Much of a Good Thing: Mae West as Cultural Icon . Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.
Hamilton, Marybeth. When I'm Bad, I'm Better: Mae West, Sex, and American Entertainment . New York: HarperCollins, 1995.
Robertson, Pamela. Guilty Pleasures: Feminist Camp from Mae West to Madonna . Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996.
West, Mae. Goodness Had Nothing to Do with It . Revised by the author. New York: Macfadden-Bartell, 1970. The original edition was published in 1959.
Harry M. Benshoff
the expense of content, was and is a hallmark of camp taste.) Deliberate and queer camp can also be found in the work of the gay Hollywood director James Whale (1889–1957), most famous for directing the classic horror films Frankenstein (1931), The Old Dark House (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), and Bride of Frankenstein (1935). These films all feature a highly stylized mise-en-scène, contain much ironic humor, and make pointed jibes against bourgeois heterosexuality.
Such deliberate queer camp was a rarity in Hollywood after the enforcement of the Production Code (1934), but queer spectators nonetheless continued to decode Hollywood films from non-straight perspectives. A sort of "cult of camp" coalesced among urban gay men (and some women) of the era. This cult laughed at the excesses of Hollywood's naïve heterosexual melodramas, while simultaneously celebrating the indefatigable drive and bigger-than-life personas of actresses such as Joan Crawford (1904–1977), Bette Davis (1908–1989), Mae West (1893–1980), Barbara Stanwyck (1907–1990), Lana Turner (1921–1995), and Judy Garland (1922–1969). Many gay men emulated the style and bitchiness of these leading actresses, identifying with their performativity, their subordinate (but often resistant) position within patriarchal culture, and their frequent romantic troubles with men. Indeed, so strong was the impact of the cult of camp on gay identity during this highly closeted era that some homosexuals covertly identified themselves to one another as "Friends of Dorothy," an allusion to Judy Garland's role in The Wizard of Oz (1939). "Bad" actresses such as Maria Montez (1917–1951), "bad" or cheap movie-making (B movies), and the outlandish stylistic excesses of certain genres (the musical, the horror film, the melodrama) were also celebrated within the cult of camp. As such, it was not unusual to see drag acts and stage shows in urban gay bars that simultaneously celebrated and mocked favorite camp movie stars and the creaky vehicles in which they appeared.
That type of parody/pastiche/appropriation found its way into the work of 1960s experimental filmmakers such as Kenneth Anger (b. 1927), Jack Smith, and Andy Warhol (1928–1987), all of whom made deliberately queer camp films that critiqued or interrogated Hollywood style. For example, Anger was obsessed with Hollywood history, especially its seamier side. In addition to making films that explored gay desire in relation to Hollywood icons (such as Scorpio Rising ), he wrote the trashy tell-all book Hollywood Babylon . Smith's most famous work, Flaming Creatures (1963), poked fun at the idea of the Hollywood bacchanalia as envisioned in countless Orientalist, biblical, and/or Roman epics. Warhol's minimalist long-take films (such as Haircut , Blow Job , and Harlot ) countered Hollywood's continuity editing style, while the films' actors—drag queens, hustlers, lesbians, trade boys, etc., who proclaimed themselves "Superstars"—critiqued notions of Hollywood celebrity. Warhol even made a film entitled Camp (1965), a sort of queer variety show made up of various camp performances. The work of these and other underground filmmakers was an important influence on John Waters, whose independent features starring the cross-dressing actor Divine (1945–1988) (including Pink Flamingos , Female Trouble , Polyester , and Hairspray ) brought deliberate queer camp style to ever-widening audiences.
Camp stresses the performative nature of gender and sexuality—the idea (more recently expanded upon and explored within Queer Theory) that allegedly stable categories of gender and sexuality are in fact shifting and complex subject positions that must be repeatedly performed in order to maintain the illusion of their constancy. Drag or cross-dressing (the performance of a socially constructed femininity by men, or the performance of a socially constructed masculinity by women) is camp by its very nature and is the hallmark of much queer camp in film. Drag acts reveal—through parody and appropriation—that what was thought to be essential
During the 1960s, as countercultural filmgoers began to reject Hollywood's usual formula filmmaking, the camp sensibility became increasingly mainstreamed. Susan Sontag's "Notes on Camp" (first published in 1964) is a good indicator of how the homosexual cult of camp—as a way of finding humor in and satirizing texts—was being absorbed into more mainstream spectatorship and filmmaking. While her essay downplayed camp's queerer political meanings, it did differentiate between naïve and deliberate camp, as well as note camp's ties to previous and current aesthetic movements such as Art Nouveau and Pop Art. Within years, Hollywood was itself producing deliberately campy films (and TV shows such as Batman and Lost in Space [CBS, 1965–1968]). For example, after audiences mocked the bad acting, stilted dialogue, and cliché-ridden narrative of the "serious" Twentieth Century Fox melodrama Valley of the Dolls (1967), its sequel Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) was produced as deliberate camp. Its script (by film critic Roger Ebert) is full of outlandish situations and clunky dialogue, and its overall style (courtesy of sexploitation film director Russ Meyer) is a riot of color, cliché, and condescension.