Somewhere over the rainbow: gay cinema’s stylistic decline

Ella Dorn, BA Chinese and Linguistics

What do you think of when you hear the words ‘film history’? 

Only one year after the first ‘talkie’ is made in Berlin, two women, their shadows blown up beyond proportion, are shown kissing on a cinema screen. They are accompanied by a swell of triumphant music. This is 1931 Mädchen in Uniform, and although the film is swiftly pulled from circulation when Hitler comes to power, it ends up inspiring a stream of remakes and imitators from Mexico to Japan. Across the Atlantic, Greta Garbo, already an established star, pulls off a homoerotic portrayal of Queen Christina of Sweden, Marlene Dietrich plays an androgynous cabaret singer in Morocco, and a Dracula sequel made at Universal Pictures (no doubt influenced by the silent classic Nosferatu, which was directed by a gay man) is loaded with lesbian subtext. The Hays Code, a set of strict censorship guidelines, finally came into place in 1934, but the visual language established in these films endured for decades.

In the modern-day logic of representation politics, and of Netflix originals with purpose-built LGBT characters, it seems confusing that many gay and lesbian aficionados adore an era of cinema when the overt depiction of homosexuality was effectively banned. But any research on the topic will set observers straight. 

The star system of classic Hollywood inspired fervent cults of personality, creating icons – Judy Garland, Joan Crawford, Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, Tab Hunter, Garbo, Dietrich – with whom these fans could, and still can, identify with. Only some of these actors portrayed gay people on screen: the great draw was that whatever stories they told existed shamelessly in sensuous, exaggerated worlds of cinematic camp. In their films, which were not relegated to any special-interest category, every emotion was blown up tenfold. Sets and costumes were lavish, scripts scattered with Wildean flourishes and snarky asides. 

Campiness could subvert social mores about age, giving lead roles to actresses who had ‘passed their prime’ (see the eternal 1950 classic All About Eve); it could overturn norms of gender in genre film, as in 1954’s Johnny Guitar. These productions brought gay audiences to the forefront of mainstream culture, both as spectators (queued up to laugh at colourful parodies of heterosexual life), as avid fans of actors and actresses (who often slipped into androgyny), and as active creators. Even the public reputations and private lives of performers, which were composed in equal measure of fairy-tale press release and sordid rumour, became camp objects of high ridiculosity. 

The German director Max Ophüls had pioneered a monochrome but decadent visual language, that of swooping cameras and mirrored walls, which other artists would reuse in later years to give homosexual credence to stories that were heterosexual at face value. Lauren Bacall, playing a bisexual woman in Young Man with a Horn (1950) collects nude Greek statues and is reflected, manifold, into gilt-edged mirrors, suggesting an ‘inversion’ beyond the camera; the same visual pun is used in Olivia (1951), a French pseudo-remake of Mädchen in Uniform. Both men and women could occupy the visual arena with smooth androgyny, appealing to gay and lesbian fans alike. It is too easy to conclude today that this glossy style of filmmaking, in the era of frequent jump-cuts and near-mandatory colour, has all but left us.

“A canon of early role models, of aesthetic delight, of social critique, and of quotable snark sits and gathers dust”

The naturalistic, expository, and understated style of acclaimed LGBT films from the past decade – Blue is the Warmest Colour, Call Me By Your Name, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, even the 50s period piece Carol – betrays a break in a long artistic tradition. The actors themselves decamp, ditching their unbelievable press releases and preaching ‘authenticity’ over social media instead. Listen to classic film enthusiasts when we tell you: this is not a good thing. Against a backdrop of social acceptance and civil rights, gay people are losing an established cinematic identity. A canon of early role models, of aesthetic delight, of social critique, and of quotable snark sits and gathers dust. It is not enough to list films that simply feature LGBT characters but make no attempt to woo their viewers stylistically: modern-day critics should readily acknowledge the gay culture inherent in classic cinema beyond narrative level, and question the factors behind the stylistic decline of the last four decades, not least the potential loss of film industry creatives resulting from the coinciding HIV/AIDS crisis. Don’t let the Netflix listings deceive you: representation is not everything, and all the rest lies with style.

Photo caption: Gregory Peck and Lauren Bacall in Designing Woman (1957), a film where everything is thoroughly homosexual – apart from the characters and plot (Credit: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer).

Post Author: The SOAS Spirit

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