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Out at the Movies: A History of Gay Cinema

Out at the Movies: A History of Gay Cinema

by Steven Paul Davies, Simon Callow (Foreword by)

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Over the decades, gay cinema has reflected the community's journey from persecution to emancipation to acceptance. Politicized dramas like Victim in the 1960s, The Naked Civil Servant in the 1970s, and the AIDS cinema of the 1980s have given way in recent years to films which celebrate a vast array of gay lifestyles. Gay films have undergone a major


Over the decades, gay cinema has reflected the community's journey from persecution to emancipation to acceptance. Politicized dramas like Victim in the 1960s, The Naked Civil Servant in the 1970s, and the AIDS cinema of the 1980s have given way in recent years to films which celebrate a vast array of gay lifestyles. Gay films have undergone a major shift from the fringe to the mainstream—2005’s Academy Awards were dubbed "the gay Oscars" with statues going to Brokeback Mountain, Capote, and Transamerica. Producers began clamoring to back gay-themed movies and the most high profile of these is Gus Van Sant’s forthcoming Milk, starring Sean Penn as Harvey Milk, the first prominent American political figure to be elected to office on an openly gay ticket back in the 1970s. The book also covers gay filmmakers and actors and their influence within the industry, the most iconic scenes from gay cinema, and the most memorable dialogue from key films.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal

In this lavish history, Davies (A-Z of Cult Films and Filmmakers) examines gay cinema from its earliest days through the present. He organizes the material by decade, beginning with pre-1960s cinema, and discusses various films within their social contexts-from when the subject was off-limits and expressed on-screen only via symbolic codes and icons, through Stonewall and AIDS, to when gay people and gay themes were openly accepted and became central to certain films. Davies follows each chapter with biographical summaries of key actors and directors and includes in-depth examples of the genre's development, from Midnight Cowboy(1969) and La Cage aux Folles(1978) to Torch Song Trilogy(1988), Philadelphia(1993), and Brokeback Mountain(2005). A generous selection of photos and movie stills and an excellent foreword by Simon Callow nicely complement this work. A thoughtful and well-presented overview of the subject with insightful perspectives on the complex role and social, political, and artistic impact of gay cinema within modern culture.
—Carol J. Binkowski

From the Publisher

"A thoughtful and well-presented overview of the subject with insightful perspectives on the complex role and social, political, and artistic impact of gay cinema within modern culture."  —Library Journal

"A detailed decade-by-decade look at the movies, actors and directors who defined each period, with plenty of gems for your 'to watch' list."  —Gay Times

Product Details

Oldcastle Books
Publication date:
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7.50(w) x 9.60(h) x 0.80(d)

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Out at the Movies

A History of Gay Cinema

By Steven Paul Davies

Oldcastle Books

Copyright © 2008 Steven Paul Davies
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84243-404-8



'Hey, you wanna come home with me? ... If you wanna come, we could talk and then in the morning we could have breakfast ...'

Plato (Sal Mineo) to Jim (James Dean) in Rebel Without a Cause

From the days of Chaplin-era silents, through the early talkies, into the changing – though not always progressively so – standards of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, gay characters were stereotypically portrayed as stock sissy caricatures, humorous swishy sidekicks and tragic figures to be pitied.

Welcome to one very large pre-60s closet ...

Homosexual imagery can be traced back to the very start of American cinema, with the Thomas Edison film The Gay Brothers (1895), directed by William Dickson, in which two men dance together while a third plays the fiddle. In fact, this primitive test is one of the earliest surviving motion picture images.

Female impersonators and women playing male roles began appearing in films of the early 1900s, such as the Vitagraph release The Spy (1907), the feminist satire When Women Win (1909), or DW Griffith's Getting Even (1909). However, looking at this work today, the imagery can seem more overtly gay or lesbian than it did in its time, when the notion of homosexual desire was more strictly taboo.

By the teens, American silent comedies began relying on the audience's recognition of homosexual types and filmmakers began to feature the 'sissy'. One of Hollywood's original stock characters, the sissy was the one who everyone laughed at. So in the films of the teens and 20s, homosexuality was, quite literally, a joke.

In The Florida Enchantment (1914), two women dance off together, leaving their bewildered men folk to shrug their shoulders and dance off together themselves. Meanwhile, even one of cinema's greatest stars was facing a challenge to his masculinity. In Behind the Screen (1916), Charlie Chaplin is seen kissing Edna Purviance passionately when she's disguised as a boy; that is until bully Eric Campbell spots them and starts mocking the pair as two gay lovers.

In the spoof westerns of the 1920s, the limp-wristed sissy was dropped into the macho cowboy world for comic effect. In The Soilers (1923), a parody of the rugged western The Spoilers, made in the same year, the laughs come from a gay cowboy who adores the macho men around him. Later, Stan Laurel played the pansy creating consternation in With Love and Hisses (1927), and together with Oliver Hardy starred in Liberty (1929), as escaped prisoners who shed their prison uniforms but inadvertently slip on each other's trousers. The farce involves the duo trying to hide and swap pants, but whatever they do and wherever they go to do this, they are constantly caught with their pants down by shocked passers-by.

Lesbian references in film also began in the late 20s and into the 30s. Step forward Countess Geschwitz (Alice Roberts), the first movie lesbian in Pandora's Box (1929), although this character was deleted from British and American versions of the German film. Later, in 1931, also from Germany, came Maedchen in Uniform, in which a young girl's crush on her female schoolteacher becomes public knowledge at a boarding school. Probably the most famous early lesbian film, Maedchen in Uniform was the first to be seen publicly in America and the UK and was the first in a long line of lesbian-themed films set in boarding schools.

'Listen, sister, when are you going to get wise to yourself?'

Miriam in The Women

Meanwhile, back in America, a tuxedoed Marlene Dietrich caused a storm when, in the 1930 film Morocco, she finished a song in a nightclub by kissing a young woman in the audience full on the lips. And Greta Garbo raised eyebrows with her portrayal of Queen Christina (1933), based around the inner conflicts of a Swedish lesbian ruler. While the film invented a hetero romance with John Gilbert, hints of lesbianism remained, most notably in her affectionate relationship with her lady-in-waiting. Christina kisses Elizabeth Young, and claims she'll die not an old maid but 'a bachelor'. Hollywood glanced again at lesbianism with the women's-prison film Caged (1950); and in the same year came All About Eve, whose title character's lesbianism was obvious to those in the know.

'Fasten your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy night.'

Margo (Bette Davis) in All About Eve

As for the men, the first years of sound saw – and heard – the same sissy characters of the silent era, with more cliched images in such films as The Gay Divorcee (1934), Call Her Savage (1932) and Top Hat (1935); and character actors like Edward Everett Horton and Eric Blore began to make a name for themselves through playing pansies whose humour was all based around effeminacy.

In the mid-1930s, however, Hollywood decided to begin censoring its own films. The result was the infamous Hays Code, led by Postmaster General Will Hays, and while the Code didn't manage to completely eliminate the presence of gay characters in films, it ensured that filmmakers had to make them less obvious. So around this time writers and directors ditched the in-your-face camp sissy for another type of homosexual character: the unhappy, suicidal, desperate figure whose inevitable end was to be destroyed. In Tea and Symphony (1956) even the false accusation of 'Sissy Boy' was enough to nearly destroy the character. For decades, anyone of questionable sexuality would meet with a bad end by the close of the last reel. Gay characters found their natural comeuppance via bullets, fire or suicide.

Another image of the homosexual was as victimiser rather than victim, the shadowy psychopath, cold-hearted villain or perverted killer. This is a cliche resonating through such films as Dracula's Daughter (1936) and Alfred Hitchcock's Rope (1948). Hitchcock, always fascinated by the darker byways of sexuality, was a master of sneaking gay-shaded content past the censors and Rope was a barefaced attempt to pull the wool over their eyes. The director knew exactly what he was doing and slyly cast gay actors John Dall and Farley Granger in the parts of gay child-killers Leopold and Loeb. Scripted by Arthur Laurents, his film both perpetuated and subverted homosexual stereotyping.

So although the Production Code was aimed at curbing social change and banning all reference to sexual diversity, filmmakers like Hitchcock were still getting away with it. Interestingly, if Hitchcock had been a filmmaker in France or Italy, he wouldn't have had to worry about the censors. In Europe, writers and directors were free to make great gay-interest films: Luchino Visconti completed the brilliant, Italian-based production Ossessione (1942); and in France, Jean Cocteau made the magical Orphee (1950). One exception, though, was Jean Genet's French production, Un Chant d'amour (1950), which was simply too explicit and remained unseen for decades.

Back in Britain and the US, gay characters were visible only through subtext and innuendo. Reined in by the Code, the prudishness of studio executives, and the pressures of social conformity, moviemakers learned to write between the lines. And audiences learned to view the films that way.

As soon as filmmakers wrote on the lines rather than between them, they were caught out. The Hays Production Code Director, Joe Breen, was successful in making many producers play by the rules. When Lillian Hellman's play The Children's Hour was filmed in 1936 by director William Wyler, its lesbian theme was cut and the film re-titled These Three; the sexual confusion strand in The Lost Weekend (1945) was also cut, as was the gay-bashing subject matter in Crossfire (1947).

Therefore most of the pre-1960s homosexual content only found its way into movies that simply winked at the audience. If you got the joke, you were one step ahead of the morality taskmasters behind the scenes. Take, for instance, Peter Lorre in The Maltese Falcon (1941). Or the John Wayne western Red River (1948), where six-shooters are phallic playthings and John Ireland says to Montgomery Clift, 'There are only two things more beautiful than a good gun: a Swiss watch, or a woman from anywhere. You ever had a Swiss watch?'

'There are only two things more beautiful than a good gun: a Swiss watch, or a woman from anywhere. You ever had a Swiss watch?'

John Ireland to Montgomery Clift in Red River

Censors were even fooled by directors who made epics from the era of Hollywood's studio system. Stanley Kubrick's epic Spartacus (1960), for example, included an attempt by Roman general Laurence Olivier to seduce his slave Tony Curtis as they shared a bath, yet this 'snails and oysters' scene was cut and remained unseen until the film's 1991 restoration and re-issue. Then there's the gay subtext in Ben Hur (1959) that subsequently sent Charlton Heston's blood pressure soaring.

During the 1950s, with 'masculinity' on the up, the vitriol against being gay grew more pronounced. One of the biggest stars of the era, Rock Hudson, like many male stars of the silver screen, had to be very careful to keep his homosexual experiences and lifestyles firmly in the closet. He is now known to have had gay affairs and in the latter part of the 50s a scandal sheet threatened to out him. His studio hastily arranged a sham marriage that lasted just three years. There were always teasers though, sprinkled by scriptwriters, throughout Hudson's movies of the 50s and 60s. Scenes in Pillow Talk (1959) involve Hudson having to drag up and get into bed with Tony Randall because his character poses as gay in order to get a woman into bed. A gay man impersonating a straight man impersonating a gay man – all very amusing to those in the know at the time. Similarly, in Lover Come Back (1962) Hudson feigns impotence and says, 'Now you know why I'm afraid to get married'.

At the time, Hudson's fans wouldn't have given a second thought to the notion that he was really gay. It wasn't until 1984, when the actor revealed he had AIDS, that his sexuality became public. He died a year later.

Slightly more nonchalant about his experiences in the 50s and early 60s was Marlon Brando who was rumoured to be carrying on an affair with the actor Wally Cox. Later, the Hollywood great admitted: 'I have had homosexual experiences and I'm not ashamed.'

James Dean, who worshipped the ground Brando walked on, was known to frequent various backroom gay bars in LA and also dated several influential Hollywood execs. In his 1994 autobiography Songs My Mother Taught Me, Brando said he thought that Dean based his acting on his and his lifestyle on what he thought Brando's was. On the night before his death, at a Malibu party, it was reported Dean had stormed off after an argument with either a lover or friend over the actor dating women for 'publicity purposes'.

Another real American teen rebel in the 50s was Sal Mineo, who co-starred opposite James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955). He played a rich, lonely, gay teenager called Plato who's not only in love with Alan Ladd (whose picture is pinned to his school locker), but also with his only friend, Jim, played by Dean. For his tender, soulful performance as the abandoned Plato, he earned a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination. Unlike many of his 'confused' contemporaries, Mineo was probably the first major actor in Hollywood to publicly admit his homosexual lifestyle, and was a pioneer in paving the way for future generations of gay actors. It was rumoured for years that Mineo's 1976 knifing death was a result of his homosexual lifestyle. But in 1979, the killer was caught and convicted and it turned out Mineo was actually the victim of a robbery.

'If I had one day when I didn't have to be all confused and I didn't have to feel that I was ashamed of everything. If I felt that I belonged someplace. You know?'

Jim (James Dean) in Rebel Without a Cause

Unlike Mineo, one of the most handsome actors of the 50s, Montgomery Clift, kept his homosexuality quiet from his adoring public. Clift managed to get police charges for picking up a hustler on 42nd Street dropped so as to protect his on-screen persona. But his gay lifestyle was well known in Hollywood, and on the set of The Misfits (1961) Clark Gable referred to his co-star as 'that faggot'. Like James Dean and Sal Mineo, Clift died young. But Clift's death seemed to be brought about by the sheer torment he put himself through over his gayness. Eventually, through a mixture of drink and drugs, he died of a heart attack in 1966, aged 46.

While Montgomery Clift had pretty-boy good looks, Clifton Webb, another popular Hollywood actor of the 50s, wasn't traditionally handsome but more the suave, sophisticated type. Webb's sexual preferences were no secret amongst Hollywood circles; several young, fit actors reportedly came to him for a helping hand, most notably James Dean.

'Yeah, it's sad, believe me missy; when you're born to be a sissy ... I'm afraid there's no denying; I'm just a dandy lion.'

The Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr) in The Wizard of Oz

Back in Britain, actors were also finding it difficult to be open and honest about their gay lifestyles. The Carry On stars Kenneth Williams and Charles Hawtrey played sissies on screen throughout the 50s, but in private both were finding it tough to come to terms with their sexuality. Hawtrey turned to drink while Williams preferred to socialise with friends, opting for a sexless life without lovers. Another British comedian, Frankie 'titter-ye-not' Howerd was gay but preferred to present an on-screen image of a man never happier than when surrounded by a bevy of buxom beauties.

'But, you're not a girl! You're a guy, and, why would a guy wanna marry a guy?'

Joe in Some Like it Hot

Gay audiences, like many of the stars they paid money to see, were also having to deal with life in the closet. In the 30s, gay men had latched on to the gay code dialogue in films like The Wizard of Oz (1939) and worshipped divas such as Judy Garland, Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. But even by the 50s, they were struggling to find gay-interest material in the movies. However, the clues were certainly there.

In Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), one scene shows a gym full of bodybuilders working out and they have no interest whatsoever in Jane Russell who strolls through – and the well-oiled men are singing 'Ain't There Anyone Here for Love?' Meanwhile, in the 1959 Hollywood gender-bending comedy Some Like it Hot, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon have the time of their lives dragging up. When Lemmon, disguised as Daphne, tries to persuade Osgood (Joe E Brown) that they can't get married because Lemmon is really a man, Osgood remains unfazed, declaring, 'Nobody's perfect!'

'Is that what love is? Using people? And maybe that's what hate is – not being able to use people.'

Catherine in Suddenly Last Summer

By the end of the 50s, after lengthy discussions, the Motion Picture Production Code Office finally granted a special dispensation permitting Suddenly Last Summer (1959) to include the first male homosexual in an American film. The Production Code board felt they could compromise on the theme of homosexuality as long as it was 'inferred but not shown'. So the 'H' word was never uttered, the gay character never spoke, and his face was never shown on screen. Nevertheless, director Joseph L Mankiewicz's film was a huge milestone. As the 60s approached it looked like the Production Code Administration was beginning to lose interest in its traditional hostility towards gay material.



Germany, 100 mins

Director: GW Pabst

Cast: Louise Brooks, Franz Lederer, Fritz Kortner

Genre: Silent lesbian-interest drama

Based on two Frank Wedekind plays, Erdgeist and Die Buchse der Pandora, Pandora's Box is widely considered the finest film of its director, GW Pabst – an extremely significant figure of silent and early 30s cinema.

A silent screen classic, it's about a girl with loose morals who drifts from promiscuity to whoredom – and she's only interested in one thing: pleasure. One night she makes the fatal mistake of catching the eye of Jack the Ripper.

The film's portrait of a shameless callgirl surrounded by exploitative characters met with anger and derision at the time of its original release. Perhaps the reaction was something to do with the film's open critique of bourgeois sexual hypocrisy, its inclusion of the source's lesbianism (watch for an eloquently erotic dance scene that reminds us of Bertolucci's The Conformist) and adherence to Wedekind's Lulu as a 'personification of primitive sexuality who inspires evil unawares'.

Upon its release, Pandora's Box largely failed in Germany and was barely reviewed in the United States. The style of the film's star, Louise Brooks, was so natural that critics complained she either couldn't or didn't act.


Excerpted from Out at the Movies by Steven Paul Davies. Copyright © 2008 Steven Paul Davies. Excerpted by permission of Oldcastle Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Steven Paul Davies is the author of A-Z of Cult Films and Filmmakers, Alex Cox: Film Anarchist, Get Carter and Beyond: The Cinema of Mike Hodges, and The Prisoner Handbook, and the coauthor of Brat Pack Confidential.

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