Gay, Lesbian, and Queer Cinema


Hollywood responded to the nation's changing sexual mores throughout the 1950s and 1960s by slowly amending and then eventually replacing the Hollywood Production Code with the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) Ratings System. In 1961 the Code Administration agreed to allow onscreen homosexuality, as long as it was treated with "care, discretion, and restraint." What that really meant was that homosexuality could be represented, but that it should also be condemned. For example, the British import Victim (1961), which centered on a gay blackmail case and argued that social prejudice against homosexuals was wrong, was denied a Seal of Approval. The first few American films dealing with homosexuality that were approved by the Code suggested that homosexuality would only lead to tragedy. For example, in Advise and Consent (1962), a past gay relationship is shown to be cause for suicide, and in The Children's Hour (1962), a young woman hangs herself after admitting that she is a lesbian.

Throughout the 1960s, homosexual innuendo became a staple of smarmy sex comedies ( That Touch of Mink , 1962; Staircase , 1969; The Gay Deceivers , 1969), and functioned as a signifier of ultimate villainy in action and adventure films ( Lawrence of Arabia , 1962; From Russia with Love , 1963; Caprice , 1967). A few films attempted to deal with sexuality in more complex ways: Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967) and The Sergeant (1968) centered on (repressed) homosexuality in the military, even as their queer characters still met death and destruction. Two of the most famous (and least offensive) Hollywood films dealing with homosexuality during this era were The Killing of Sister George (1968, about lesbians in the British television industry) and The Boys in the Band (1970, about a group of gay friends in New York City). Both of these films had been based on successful stage plays and explored issues of romance, the closet, the possibility of blackmail and job loss, internalized homophobia, and the burgeoning (but still mostly underground) gay and lesbian culture of many cities. While these films may seem overly melodramatic or stereotypical by today's standards, they did capture a certain slice of reality for many urban homosexuals of their era. Perhaps most importantly, no one died at the end of them.

Throughout the 1970s, as homosexuals were becoming more visible in the real world, they once again retreated from American movie screens. Queers were occasionally seen as minor supporting figures, when they were seen at all. Then, in the early 1980s, another small cycle of gay-themed films appeared. Several of these reworked the old queer psycho-killer stereotype: in Dressed to Kill (1980), Cruising (1980), and The Fan (1981), queers slashed their way onto multiplex movie screens. Perhaps to atone for such images, Hollywood also released a handful of films that featured sympathetic queer characters. The World According to Garp (1982) featured a male-to-female transsexual, while Personal Best (1982) dramatized a lesbian relationship and issues of bisexuality. Twentieth Century Fox released Making Love (1982), a melodrama about a married couple coming to terms with the husband's latent homosexuality. By far the most popular of these films was the old-fashioned musical sex farce Victor/Victoria (1982), a film that featured Julie Andrews as a cross-dressing nightclub performer and Robert Preston as her flamboyantly gay best friend.

Frances Lorraine and Sally Binford in Barbara Hammer's Nitrate Kisses (1992).

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