That sinking feeling: Waiting for the epithet (Or, “Frickin’ Faggot!”)

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By Scott Ross

In my 1930s Hollywood play The Dogs of Foo, the character Paul Lehrmann, based slightly on George Cukor, confronts his leading actress on the set of the movie they’re shooting. She’s just ordered Paul’s young assistant, whom she suspects, quite accurately, is also his lover, to carry a note for her. Paul steps in, reminding his star that “Johnny takes orders from me, Lita, not from you.”

“And what else does he take from you?” She snaps back. “Dick-tation?”

PAUL: Sooner or later, it always comes out, doesn’t it?

LITA: Paulie—

PAUL: Who needs vino for veritas?

LITA: I didn’t mean it, Paulie. I’m upset, I’m sorry.

PAUL: They always are—after they’ve said it. Never before, never during, but always, always after.

If you, as they say when pussyfooting, happen to be gay, much of your entertainment life is spent waiting for that insidious other shoe to drop. Especially if, as I do, you enjoy reading old novels and perusing old movies.

(For the purposes of this essay, let us define “old” not as a month or two ago, or however long it now takes the average American to forget, or lose interest, in, anything, but as from, say, the early 1980s backward. Although as late as 2003, in The Frumious Bandersnatch, Ed McBain rather gratuitously, and falsely, has a young singer think the phrase “Frickin’ faggot” toward her music-video dance partner when, asked by her how she looks in her fantasy get-up, has the faggoty effrontery to reply, “Hot!”)

No matter how sterling the qualities of the people involved, or how identifiably “liberal” they may be, sooner or later the reader or viewer of an older novel or movie written or directed by someone he or she admires is going to be hit with one of the many lurking epithets. Faggot. Queer. Sissy. Nance. Or, in the 1956 Ed McBain 87th Precinct installment The Mugger I began reading as I was pondering this very subject, “pansy.” (“Faggot” shows up a few pages later. Why? Because the eponymous felon has the odd habit, after assaulting and robbing his female victims, of bowing from the waist and saying, “Clifford thanks you, madam.” It isn’t merely the strangeness of this post-violation ritual that elicits so much speculation concerning his sexuality but his very name. Clifford. Faggoty, right? A real man would presumably call himself “Cliff.”)

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Sometimes it isn’t the words themselves that you anticipate with dread but the characters, usually, although not always, peripheral. Yesterday afternoon I watched, with a good friend, the 1965 movie of Edward Lewis’ The Pawnbroker. We were both somewhat flabbergasted by the unspoken allusions to queerdom in the film, and the inescapable sense we both had of a strange, coded homophobia in the undercurrent. First: The character of Rodriguez, the studiedly elegant gangster for whom Rod Steiger’s Shoah-haunted broker, Sol Nazerman, acts as a money-launderer. (Although he bears a Latin surname, the character is played by the unmistakably, and I think beautifully, African-looking Brock Peters. But let that pass…) In Rodriguez’s first on-screen appearance, we see him waited upon by a young blond man. At the climax of his second, a pivotal scene in which he cajoles, threatens and humiliates Nazerman the young white man again appears and climbs the staircase of Rodriguez’ large and well-appointed apartment. Rodriguez trails him up the steps, in what to our rather dazed eyes could only be an indication that the pair is ascending to the bedroom.

Second: The aging, heavily-set and curiously undulating dancer at the club Nazerman’s assistant (Jaime Sánchez) goes to with his black girlfriend (Thelma Oliver) and who is revealed at the end of her set to be a drag-queen. Third: Among the many Harlem regulars who appear in Nazerman’s shop hoping to barter furnishings and personal items to make their untenable present just a jot less desperate is a man of indeterminate age (he might be anywhere from 30 to 50) who brings in, first, an award he won from a field of (he says) 22,000 entrants and, later, a pair of bronzed baby shoes we can only assume are his own. Although neither this character nor the un-credited actor who plays him exactly screams “Fag!” I suspect it would take a veritable social hermit to miss the implications. And at least, unlike Rodriguez, this sad, defeated specimen of lower-depths humanity is not a threat, and in his touching hopefulness at the prospect of digging out yet one small turnip from a diminishing store to sustain his otherwise hopeless existence, he is no different from the lonely, intellectual and prating elderly gentleman played the great Juano Hernandez who comes to Nazerman’s pawnshop less to scare up a few pfennigs than to connect, however tenuously, with another human being. Or, indeed from any of Sol’s downtrodden regulars.

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Which brings us to the fourth, and by far most disturbing, example of the seamy homo underground of The Pawnbroker. Sánchez decides to kick over Nazerman’s safe and enlists the aid of an old associate (Raymond St. Jacques.) The night before the theft we are given a glimpse of St. Jacques’ hoodlum pal, played by the instantly identifiable, flat-nosed Charles Dierkop, playing with his pistol while thumbing through what in those antediluvian days, and to avoid legal entanglements with the U.S. Postal Service, were called “male physique” magazines. Did I mention he’s holding an obvious penis substitute, in this case a harmonica, in his mouth?

What was Lumet thinking? What, if these elements also make a showing in the novel, was Lewis? What the hell was everyone on???

Anent The Pawnbroker: Both St. Jacques and Peters were themselves gay. (Although St. Jacques, notably closeted and ultimately a victim of AIDS, legally adopted his younger lover.) One wonders how they felt about all this. Especially as, at that time, being both black and actors was more than marginalization enough for one lifetime.

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Last winter I undertook a novel I’d long avoided, by one of the favorite writers of my youth: WIlliam Goldman’s Boys and Girls Together. While the author, interestingly, depicts only two heterosexual relationships among his quartet of main characters, and while none of these liaisons can in any reasonable way be called ideal (and while none of the boys or girls a model of probity or psychic wellness) it is to the novel’s gay characters that the worst degradation accrues. In the preface to a recent reissue, Goldman admitted he’d done badly by them. But short of wholesale revision of the kind no author would wish to undertake, and certainly not in his 70s, I don’t see how even a writer of Goldman’s imagination could undo the damage. I  do know I could have lived the rest of my life happily without reading that final chapter about Aaron. As it is, I doubt now I’ll ever be able to block out its deeply unpleasant memory.

Goldman is interesting in that his subsequent book on the Broadway scene, The Season, constitutes one of the few important cases of the time (1968) of a heterosexual writer seriously considering the case of gay playwrights, the subterfuge they felt it necessary to indulge in at least as far as their work was concerned, and the prevailing pop culture of what Goldman would not have known to call heterosexism that surrounded them. Goldman’s was one of the rare calls for openness in that period, so I’m not singling him out for approbation. But for a man who (with his gifted brother James) was a one-time musical theatre librettist and a long-time Hollywood fixture and who, presumably, both knew and worked with any number of homosexual men to get an entire book of queer characters so wrong is telling.

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It can be a relief of nearly cataclysmic proportions when, in the middle of a popular novel of even recent antiquity, one encounters the slightest positive portrayal. In the late James Clavell’s series of Eastern novels (Shogun, Tai-Pan, Gai-Jin etc.) the reader runs across homosexual characters with fair regularity and, while the Westerners in the books may express disgust or derision, their Oriental counterparts accept the difference without even a shrug. One learns, after painful experience, to look (and feel disproportionately grateful) for the little things. In, for example, the decidedly heterosexual The Seven Year Itch, George Axelrod and Billy Wilder have Marilyn Monroe casually mention the two men who live upstairs from her. They’re interior decorators, and never seen (making them even more invisible than the then most visible homo of the period, the faceless Sebastian Venable in Suddenly, Last Summer) and while their profession is certainly a coded inference of their being a couple of fags, at least they’re mentioned. A year later Sal Mineo would create what is arguably the first important gay character in a mainstream movie, the doomed Plato of the gay Stewart Stern and the bisexual Nicholas Ray’s influential Rebel without a Cause, but again you have to pay fairly close attention. (Note the Alan Ladd pin-up in his high school locker.) And since he’s only the queer-boy, Plato’s violent death isn’t even properly mourned in that overrated potboiler’s ludicrous finale (“Mom, Dad… This is Judy…”)

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While some very good authors (Ross MacDonald in his Lew Archer novels, for one) toss fags into the mix as an especially unsavory element of their rot-gut ragouts, others, such as Raymond Chandler, seem to be working out more something personal, if coded to the point of the subliminal. Chandler was no friend to the faggot, yet one of his most deeply felt Philip Marlowe novels (The Long Goodbye) seems to hinge on Marlowe’s homoerotic friendship with Terry Lennox. They damn near meet-cute, and there is virtually no reason for their instant liking of each other beyond the physical. Yet I feel sure that, like the man who made the best extant movie of one of his books, Chandler (or Marlowe, anyway) would have presented a knuckle-sandwich to anyone who suggested such a thing, just as Howard Hawks was known to dismiss film critics who commented on the nearly incessant, and occasionally risible, instances of intense male friendship in his movies. (The infamous scene of John Ireland and Montgomery Clift comparing pistols in Red River springs instantly to mind, and the entire, and central, Clift/John Wayne antagonism in that movie seems, pretty clearly, a sublimation of unspoken erotic and emotional desire.)

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A friend recently asked me if I found the gay characters in The Maltese Falcon offensive. I replied that, at least as far as the movie was concerned, I was more amused than anything else. It tickles me that, in 1940, John Huston (and in his debut as a writer-director, no less) actually got away with a supporting cast made up entirely of fairies: The lavender-scented Joel Cairo, the garrulous Caspar Gutman and, not incidentally, The Fat Man’s catamite, Wilmur. It amuses me as well, as it did my friend, that so many ignoramuses have assumed the word “gunsel” was street patois for “cheap, gun-toting young hood,” and that it has come to mean that, when in fact it refers to a kept-boy: The passive partner in anal intercourse. Sam Spade knew it, and so did Wilmur; it’s why Wilmur gets so angry whenever Spade refers to him by that name. And as one who enjoys every subterfuge smart filmmakers used in those dread days of official (and Catholic-driven) censorship, my delight when someone like Huston could pull the wool over the Breen Office’s eyes — busily gyrating as they were for any moist sign of immorality — far outweighs my sense of hurt.

But I appear to have wandered far afield. My point is that every gay reader, or viewer, knows, and dreads, that moment when a writer he admires or a movie he’s enjoying, turns against him. And turns in a more deeply unsettling way than against nearly any reader or viewer aside from women, who, unless they’re brain and/or soul-dead, or have otherwise inured themselves to insult, know that sinking sensation all too well. That soul-chilling moment when they do it to you again. That nano-second when you sense it coming, and cringe in advance, and hope against all hope that your instincts will be proven wrong. That stomach-churning moment when a writer or filmmaker instantaneously devolves from your erudite companion to your sudden, and very possibly lifelong, nemesis. And, unlike the actress in my play, they’re never in the least sorry for it afterward. As Paul Lehrmann asks, and answers, at the end of The Dogs of Foo, “Do you know the Hollywood definition of a faggot? A homosexual gentleman who’s just left the room.”

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

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