Ready for Their Close-up
If not for the work of director James Broughton, gay cinema may not have progressed as quickly as it has.
The Films of James BroughtonDirector: James Broughton
MPAA rating: Unrated
First date: 2006
Alan: I have a question.
Arnold: The answer is yes.
Alan: You don't even know what I was going to ask.
Arnold: Whatever it is, the answer is yes. I'm too tired to argue.
Alan: ...Good. Because I love you, too.
-- Matthew Broderick and Harvey Fierstein, Torch Song Trilogy
The lights dim in the movie theater. I sit alone, certain that none of my friends would want to see a film such as this one, equally certain that it would raise questions I didn't want to answer if they knew I wanted to see this film. The film starts. For the next hour and a half, I watch. The people on the screen are who I want to be: hip, witty, involved, and out. They have relationships and discuss who they are openly and freely. They fall in love with people of the same sex and don't feel ashamed, odd, wrong. I didn't know they made films like this. I didn't know people lived like this. I left the theater with my mind afire: absolute joy that there was a world for people like me, detached hope that I would one day screw up the courage to join that world, utter despair because I knew that courage was a long time coming and I would continue to live in the place of denial.
So profoundly was I affected by Stephen Frear's My Beautiful Laundrette that I began to seek out other gay-themed films, in theaters and on video: Merchant and Ivory's Maurice, Donna Deitch's Desert Hearts, Bill Sherwood's Parting Glances, Norman Rene's Longtime Companion, and Marek Kanievska's Another Country, to name a few. These films appealed to me for their honesty; there were no campy portrayals by straight actors winking at the camera, "I'm just playing gay". For instance, in My Beautiful Laundrette, straight actors Gordon Warnecke and Daniel Day-Lewis engage fully in their characters and create one of the most sensual love scenes captured on film.
During the '80s, when most of the above films were released, gay films truly came into their own. Watch the honesty of emotion in Longtime Companion and then watch the dreadful 1969 Stanley Donan film Staircase. Despite its star power (Richard Burton and Rex Harrison) and serious subject matter (caring for a sick parent destroys the longtime relationship of two aging gay men), the film is an insult to the lives of gay men. In his original review of the film, Roger Ebert puts much of the blame on the stars: "Harrison minces about in a parody of homosexual mannerisms - not that many (or perhaps any) homosexuals ever acted as he portrays them… Neither he nor Burton is believable for more than seconds." (4 November 1969, SunTimes.com)
From High Kukus
Certainly, changing social mores played a large role in how gay men and women are portrayed on screen, and the solidarity which arose in the gay community during the AIDS crisis forced many straights to view gays and lesbians as serious, responsible individuals outside of the stereotypes through which they had been viewed, allowing films such as Longtime Companion to be accepted by a larger audience. Still, if it wasn't for the work of director James Broughton, gay cinema may not have progressed as quickly as it has.
Odds are, you've never seen one of Broughton's films. His filmography is rather brief, and there are no feature-length films listed. Now, however, 17 of his 20 short films have been collected into a three DVD set by Facet Videos, allowing fans of cinema to view the work of one of the '60s and '70s most noted experimental filmmakers. Most of Broughton's work won't appeal to those who like their films to follow a traditional narrative format, but these film shorts are revelatory in their subject matter.
From The Bed
After The Pleasure Garden, Broughton took a 15-year break from films, returning with 1968's The Bed. The film is simple in its structure, showing a bed in a field and all the activities that occur in bed -- sex, sleep, death, reading, playing, and so on. Young and old, male and female appear in the bed in various stages of undress. As Broughton's film career continued, resulting in 13 more films over the next 20 years, his fascination with the human body, and in particular the male body, grew. The Golden Positions (1970), Erogeny (1976), and Song of the Goodbody (1977) all explore the nature of human flesh.
However, it was 1979's Hermes Bird that truly revealed Broughton's love of the male body. This 11-minute film shows a grainy shot of a nude man's crotch as his penis goes from a flaccid to erect state. To be blunt, the most intriguing part of the film is that it took the guy 11 minutes to get hard. As with all of his later films, Broughton's poetry is featured prominently in voice-over, revealing his adoration of humankind and the pleasures of the human body.
From The Pleasure Garden
Of all the films on the DVD collection, though, it was 1983's Devotions that most reminded me of my experience watching My Beautiful Laundrette. Devotions is a beautiful film that delves into the subject of male love. The relationships here are sweet and honest, and come in all manners of expression. An elderly male couple bathes one another, washing one another's hair. Two middle-aged men lay in bed reading, their pets gathered on the bed with them. A rough-looking leatherman sits whisking icing for a cake; his lover enters, pulls his own whisk out and joins him, with each feeding the other icing as they work. Two men sit sharing a moment of peace while their toddler son sits between them. Two men look longingly at one another while masturbating the other in the back seat of a car. And on and on. The vignettes are short, but each clearly portrays the loving nature of the relationship shown.
Featured prominently throughout Devotions is Broughton himself, along with his lover and cameraman / co-director Joel Singer. Although Broughton was married and had two children with his wife, he was unashamed about displaying his love and passion for Singer. Their love affair is one of the first "real" gay relationships documented on film in unabashedly flattering terms.
The focus of short films such as Devotions helped pave the way for the sensual foreplay in Personal Best and the sweet coming of age story in Beautiful Thing. Today, gay cinema is an industry in its own right. High profile films such as Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain and Bill Condon's Gods and Monsters find themselves in the running for major awards, while even juvenile comedies such as Wet Hot American Summer and the current I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry treat the subject of homosexuality with a sensitivity previously not seen in such films.
This is not to imply that all gay or lesbian related cinema is worthy of praise. Gay men and women are still the subject of much ridicule in films (see the Queer, Isn't It? article, "That Ain't Right"). What's more, many gay films are not just poorly made, but "I can't believe I wasted two hours of my life on that piece of crap" bad. Much of the reason for that is the films are made by aspiring filmmakers with little experience and no money.
Despite shortcomings in the current crop of gay and lesbian films, there is much to celebrate. At least we are represented on screen in both positive and honest ways (even when such honesty is not positive). Gay men and women can see films that represent their lives, as well as see themselves represented in films intended for straight audiences (My Best Friend's Wedding, The Mexican, Be Cool, As Good as it Gets, to name just a few). And for that pleasure of seeing ourselves, we owe a debt to men like James Broughton.