Gay, Lesbian, and Queer Cinema


Classical (and pre-classical) Hollywood films (those produced between the 1910s and the 1950s) had little interest in dramatizing homosexual lives or homosexual issues. The very structure of Hollywood narrative form was and is heterosexist: it almost always contains a male–female romance, regardless of story line or genre. If and when homosexual characters appeared in Hollywood films prior to the sexual revolution, they were almost always relegated to walk-on parts or small supporting roles. One notable early exception was A Florida Enchantment (1914), a comedy wherein female characters eat magical sex-changing seeds that turn them into women-chasing lotharios. Much more common was the stereotype of the "pansy," an effeminate male supporting character—often a butler, designer, or choreographer. When the Hollywood Production Code (which specifically forbade the depiction of what it called "sex perversion") was put into effect in 1934, these characterizations were forced further into the realm of connotation. Hollywood cinema under the Code continued to suggest queerness via the presence of effeminate men and mannish women, but these characters were never explicitly acknowledged as homosexual. Actors such as Edward Everett Horton (1886–1970), Eric Blore (1887–1959), and Franklin Pangborn (1888–1958) made careers for themselves by playing such roles.

Female characters in pre-Code cinema were stronger and more sexually forthright than in post-Code cinema, and occasionally they too gave off a queer aura. For example, Greta Garbo's (1905–1990) Queen Christina (1933) wears pants, runs a country, and kisses her chambermaid rather passionately on the lips—before she falls in love with a man. Similarly, in Morocco (1930), Marlene Dietrich's (1901–1992) character wears a tuxedo and vamps both men and women. Both actresses—Garbo and Dietrich—had large queer fan bases and many rumors surrounded their "real life" sexualities. Obviously, many queer actors and actresses worked (and continue to work) in Hollywood. Leading silent film stars Ramon Novarro (1899–1968) and Billy Haines (1900–1973) were gay, but as the Production Code was enforced and Hollywood grew more homophobic, their careers faded. Haines was fired from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer because he refused to go along with studio publicity designed to hide his homosexuality. Such arranged publicity stunts included dates and even weddings—the so-called "marriage of convenience." For example, Rock Hudson (1925–1985) was briefly married in the 1950s to persuade his fans that he was indeed heterosexual.

Queer people also worked behind the camera in Hollywood, many in costume design (Orry-Kelly [1897–1964], Adrian [1903–1959]), set decoration (Jack Moore [1906–1998], Henry Grace [1907–1983]), and choreography (Charles Walters [1903–1982], Jack Cole [1911–1974]). There were also successful producers and directors who led quiet homosexual lives, including David Lewis (1903–1987), Ross Hunter (1920–1996), Mitchell Leisen (1898–1972), Edmund Goulding (1891–1959), Irving Rapper (1898–1999), Arthur Lubin (1898–1995), James Whale (1889–1957), George Cukor (1899–1983), and Dorothy Arzner (1897–1979). The last three of these are the best known, perhaps because their film work does show more obvious touches of a homosexual sensibility. Whale directed four of Universal's classic horror films ( Frankenstein , 1931; The Old Dark House , 1932; The Invisible Man , 1933; and Bride of Frankenstein , 1935) with gay wit and innuendo. Arzner, one of the few women to direct in Hollywood during the classical era, made films such as Christopher Strong (1933) and Dance, Girl, Dance (1940) that showcased strong women and celebrated the bonds between them. Cukor, one of the classical era's most prolific directors, became known chiefly for his women's films and musicals, including Camille (1936), A Star Is Born (1954), and My Fair Lady (1964). Cukor's Sylvia Scarlett (1935) managed to skirt the Code's injunctions against "sex perversion" even as it featured a cross-dressing heroine (Katherine Hepburn as a young woman impersonating a boy) and all sorts of same-sex infatuations.

Queer filmmakers and fans were often drawn to the musical and the horror film, two genres that often acknowledged queer characters and seem to be steeped in queer sensibilities. The musical, although almost always containing a (highly contrived) heterosexual romance, creates a bright carnivalesque world in which fantasy and reality shift and blur. Real-life hatreds and biases are banished, and people are free to be expressively emotional and physical in nonviolent ways. The Wizard of Oz (1939), starring gay favorite Judy Garland (1922–1969) and a cast of misfit effeminate men, has become an iconic film in gay culture. The horror film often uses queer traits to characterize its monsters and mad scientists. For example, in Mad Love (1935) Peter Lorre's effeminate madman quotes Oscar Wilde, and vampires (like Dracula's Daughter , 1936) are almost always queerly sexual, seducing both men and women with their unnatural kisses. In fact, the lesbian vampire was the most common image of lesbians on American film screens before the 1980s. The need for queer spectators to rewrite such distorted images and reappropriate others

b. Hollywood, California, 15 May 1939

Barbara Hammer is by far the most prolific lesbian filmmaker, having made over sixty films and videos since the late 1960s. Hammer's films are excellent examples of New Queer Cinema practice. They cross borders (between documentary, fiction, and experimental filmmaking), and focus on the complexities of human sexuality—especially the ways in which those sexualities have been socially constructed across time and place. Hammer's films explore love, sex, identity, humor, community, relationships, nature, and spirituality. Almost all are deeply personal, drawing on autobiographical elements and centering on the filmmaker as well as her friends and lovers.

Hammer's earliest films are set in and around San Francisco and reflect the mythic femininity that many lesbian-feminists of the 1970s were trying to reclaim. For example, Menses (1974) makes use of bold symbolism (blood, eggs), optical printing, and sound loops in order to exalt the essentially feminine process of menstruation. Superdyke (1975), in which a group of self-identified "Amazon" women wearing "Superdyke" T-shirts joyously overrun San Francisco, is even more playful in tone and form. In Women I Love (1979), Hammer experiments with pixilation (the animation of objects) as dancing fruits and vegetables unveil their inner selves to the camera, just as do the women in her life.

By the 1980s, Hammer was exploring and experimenting with digital technology. In No No Nooky TV (1987), she used computer-generated sounds and images to investigate technology's male biases, as well as to suggest how those forms might be reclaimed for lesbian feminist goals. She tackled the AIDS crisis directly in Snow Job: The Media Hysteria of AIDS (1986) and more indirectly in Endangered (1988), an abstract aural and visual collage that draws a connection between endangered species and the precarious nature of her own experimental film work wherein media technologies threaten to eradicate their living subjects altogether.

In the 1990s, Hammer made a series of longer, more theoretically informed films that investigate lesbian representability. The first of these, Nitrate Kisses (1992), begins with a consideration of how the American novelist Willa Cather's sexuality has been erased from history. The film explores queer sexualities hitherto hidden, including lesbian relationships during the Holocaust and gay male iconography of the 1930s. Hammer counters those historical musings with contemporary treatment of sexualities still considered taboo (even by many queers), including footage of two older women lovers and a sadomasochistic duo. As an interracial male couple has sex, Hammer overlays the written text of the Hollywood Production Code, in effect forcing that document to confront what it had censored for so long. Funny, complex, thoughtful, and challenging, the work of Barbara Hammer expands our notions of both film form and human sexuality.


Dyketactics (1974), Menses (1974), Superdyke (1975), Women I Love (1979), Our Trip (1980), Sync Touch (1981), Snow Job (1986), No No Nooky TV (1987), Endangered (1988), Nitrate Kisses (1992), Tender Fictions (1995), History Lessons (2000)


Dyer, Richard. "Lesbian/Woman: Lesbian Cultural Feminist Film." In Now You See It: Studies on Lesbian and Gay Film , 2nd ed., 169–200. London and New York: Routledge, 1990.

Foster, Gwendolyn Audrey. "Barbara Hammer, an Interview: Re/Constructing Lesbian Auto/Biographies in Tender Fictions and Nitrate Kisses ." Post Script 16, no. 3 (Summer1997): 3–16. Reprinted in Experimental Cinema: The Film Reader , edited by Wheeler Winston Dixon and Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, 283–297. London and New York: Routledge, 2002.

Haug, Kate. "An Interview with Barbara Hammer." Wide Angle 20, no. 1 (January 1998): 64–105. Also includes a critical essay, filmography, and bibliography.

Weiss, Andrea. "Transgressive Cinema: Lesbian Independent Film." In Vampires 161. New York: Penguin, 1993.

Harry M. Benshoff

Barbara Hammer.

gave rise to the camp sensibility, the practice of ironically decoding and making fun of heterocentrist culture. As such, many gay men of the pre-Stonewall generation simultaneously mocked and venerated Hollywood stars such as Maria Montez (1917–1951), Bette Davis (1908–1989), Joan Crawford (1904–1977), and Lana Turner (1921–1995), actresses who always seemed to be performing—even in their real lives.

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