Did you see Howard Hughes' passionate embrace with another man in The Aviator? Or John Nash in various sexual trysts with young men in A Beautiful Mind? Perhaps you remember the scene where Achilles declares his love to Patroclus in Troy?
Naturally you didn't, because none of the above films incorporate any explicit reference to homosexuality, even if the material upon which they are all based may very well have contained it. Somewhere along the line in these adaptations a value judgement has been made, a budget has been green lighted, and the ideological format of our cinema experience preordained. In other words: history has been rewritten.
Homosexual content of biographical and literary subjects has always been something of a representative hurdle for mainstream cinema - the area this article intends to focus on. This is particularly true of Hollywood , often seen as a reactionary industry powered mostly by box office returns as opposed to any conscientious commitment to accurate representation. Thus it should not be surprising that when it comes to biography and adaptation, mainstream cinema seeks to find a balance between fact and fiction that will ultimately appease the maximum contingent of its potential audience.
The recent film Alexander is intriguingly daring in this respect. Oliver Stone presents Alexander (Colin Farrell) as a bisexual man who forms a lifelong bond with his companion, Hephaeston (Jared Leto). Allegedly this representation had a group of Greek lawyers threatening to sue for defamation, although the suit was dropped after it was admitted the film did not show the explicit scenes they were afraid of. Yet although their love is not demonstrated graphically, Alexander does at one point share a kiss with Hephaeston and also professes his love for him. In fact Stone even goes so far as to hint that this love stands in the way of Alexander's functioning as a progenitor: because at his core his sexuality is homosexual. After her marriage to him Roxane (Rosario Dawson) walks in on Alexander's kiss with his companion and is later accused of murdering Hephaeston. Much fuss is made by his council at Alexander's strange decision to marry this barbarian woman from a conquered community, and later on Roxane shows disgust at an erotic dance given by Alexander's eunuch, after whose performance he proceeds to kiss the slave. Furthermore, allusions are made to Alexander's failure to visit her bed.
Although Alexander was a critical and box office disaster, gay organisations such as GLAAD praised the film for its depiction of its figure. Historical novelist Gore Vidal defended it from critics, telling Reuters press that it was "barrier breaking" in its presentation of a bisexual hero and observed that it was "a breakthrough in what you can make films about. Movies are always the last to register changes in society and this movie does it".
This is perhaps an astute observation, given the budget of the film - reckoned at around $160 million. Yet Stone has claimed that he was primarily concerned with an accurate presentation of history: the film certainly takes pains to establish the cultural attitude of the era, using, as a template, the love of Achilles for Patroclus in The Iliad . Hollywood 's double standards with regards to the truth are here displayed, since the recent big budget adaptation of Homer's work itself excises this love - regarded by scholars as Achilles' motivation for returning to the Greek army after Patroclus has been slain in battle with Hector. Instead Troy replaces male-male love with a family tie. Compared to Alexander , Troy was a box office success - thus raising the question of whether or not the changes are justified, given that mainstream film is, predominantly, a money making enterprise.
Naturally enough the answer depends on the extent to which we view the comparative success of both films as a corollary of the changes made. The narrative of Alexander suffers from a lack of distinct story and resolution: Stone's commitment to history seems to prevent him from exercising any artistic license - perhaps, therefore, its failure at the box office and with the critics. Yet sadly, because the film has not been judged a success, and because it did not set the box office alight, there is a high probability that these failures will be attributed to its frankness regarding Alexander's sexuality, and thus used as reasons for Hollywood not to green light future big budget epics that involve such a depiction. Thus could it be that those who extolled Alexander for its daring representation were premature in their praises?
Certainly one might expect some agreement on this point from writer Paula Martinac, who suggested it was a good thing that A Beautiful Mind did not portray John Nash as a homosexual; because his eventual marriage would be seen as making a comment on the (non-)viability of homosexuality. This was a film that came under considerable criticism for conveniently erasing the gay side of its protagonist (not withstanding Russell Crowe's artistic insistence to Entertainment Weekly, "Oh, it's in there. It just depends on how you watch it..."). Martinac writes "What we need aren't films that throw in homosexuality without really comprehending it, but films that deal with the complexities of living as a gay person in the past" - an important point, given mainstream cinema's track record of the presentation of gays. Vito Russel's famous book The Celluloid Closet details this history of representation, presenting it as highly disparaging to both male and female homosexuals, with gay characters often depicted as walking jokes or psychopathological deviants, who the audience is either encouraged to laugh at or to be terrified of. It is significant that Russel's book deals with open portrayals of homosexuals - Queer theory today, following on from the seminal work of theorists such as Richard Dyer, now offers much subtextual analysis of mainstream - what some consider to be 'appropriative' readings, though this term itself is now understandably out of fashion.
The issue necessarily evolves into a matter of ideology. Martinac's article is concerned with an assumed ideological positioning no less than the film A Beautiful Mind itself: the assumption being that the audience will be inclined to view homosexuality in a negative light. "Nash's 1954 arrest for 'indecent exposure' in a public men's room might have looked outright seedy to straight audiences, who have no grounding in gay history..." she writes. But though this may be a valid generalisation - if such a thing exists - little thought is being given over to the importance of ac curacy. The nature of a biography being that it is (to some extent) biographical, this would seem to imply a certain duty towards fact - at least in so far as it can be deduced. And a link between Nash's homosexuality and his schizophrenia need not, as Martinac suggests, become a comment on homosexuality per se. It entirely depends on the film's representation of the issues, both within the context of the protagonist's character and of the society in which he lived.
Yet it would be naive to assume some sort of filter does not have to be put in place. Within any adaptation of a life or work, certain liberties are necessarily taken. There is no way around this. For example, since nobody alive today was actually there when Alexander was alive, all our information regarding him is based on accounts (as Foucault might have us remember to be the case of all history). Thus whilst certain events can be depicted, the particulars must be re-imagined by the screenwriter and director, and rearranged for the function of the story. It is here that the filter inevitably becomes ideological - as in, what to include/exclude in order that the film should appeal to the widest market possible? - meaning that homosexuality is too often ignored or marginalised to ensure perceived box office returns. Mainstream cinema is renowned for romanticising its subject matter to this very end - one can hardly imagine the recent Finding Neverland starring Johnny Depp as James M Barrie receiving its PG rating had director Marc Forster chosen to delve deeper into the rumours of paedophilia that hampered his protagonist's life. But does this mean that he shouldn't have? Is a rewriting of someone's life permitted?
Certainly Hollywood has always been happy to give the subject of its biographies and adaptations a little face lift. A recent example of this might be the recent Martin Scorsese film The Aviator , which chooses either to disbelieve or simply not to represent the rumours of Howard Hughes' alleged homosexuality, or of his seduction as a teenager at the hands of his uncle. The comparative success of The Aviator to Alexander is also interesting to consider, once again particularly in regards to the matter of whether or not it would have achieved this success had a different, rather less safe angle on Hughes been chosen.
On a superficial level, lesbianism might seem to fair rather better at the box office - at least these days. In the past Hollywood has shown a long history of eroticising its women through lesbianism - perhaps the classic biography to do this would be Queen Christina, in which Greta Garbo, as the eponymous Swedish queen, famously declares "I shall die a bachelor!" Last year, however, Charlize Theron won an Oscar for playing real life murderer Aileen Wuornos in Monster, a lesbian prostitute who robbed and killed her clients. Prior to this Hilary Swank received her first Oscar for her portrayal of Teena Brandon, the cross dressing hero(-ine) of Boys Don't Cry. Neither of these biographical films could be said to have used lesbianism to glamorize the lifestyles of their subject - in fact the opposite is more likely true: Theron famously gained weight and used false buck teeth to play Wuornos. Swank's Oscar speech, in which she told the world that she looked to the day when we could not only accept but celebrate our differences, reflected the message in Boys Don't Cry.
Yet recent mainstream biographies Iris and Frida, respectively starring Kate Winslet as Iris Murdoch and Salma Hayek as Frida Kahlo, were less afraid to use their subject's lesbianism as exotic hooks for their audience. Both films present their heroine as strong, daring artists, governed by their passion for life. In Richard Eyre's Iris , Winslet is asked by her prospective husband if she has affairs with women after he spies a woman in man's attire leaving her apartment - unabashedly she admits to it, but the film delves no further, presenting Iris only from her future husband John Bayley's perspective: thus this aspect of her life remains exotic and mysterious. The real life Iris Murdoch was well known for her promiscuity and lesbianism. In Julie Taymor's Frida, Hayek's character enjoys a scintillating tango with Tina Modotti (Ashly Judd), and later we briefly spy her engaging in lesbian affairs while on her travels. Yet Frida does not explain the prevalent attitude towards homosexuality within Frida's native community, or for that matter, her own; it is merely portrayed as another facet to her insatiable desire to live life. The point here is not that the films should not have presented lesbianism as sexy - but rather that this is the only side of it the audience is offered.
One of the most interesting biographies to appear recently would be Kinsey, based on the life of Alfred Kinsey whose famous reports in the fifties on human sexual behaviour shocked the world. Although the film Kinsey is intelligently realised with frank and explicit dialogue, it is hampered by the worst sort of irony - for while it celebrates its protagonist's work towards a sexually permissible society, it is relatively tame in its own depictions, and is acutely aware of its audience's sensibilities: we hear but we do not see. Worse still it propels its narrative by drawing on our fascination with the very matter Kinsey sought to demystify - sexuality. But Kinsey is also interesting because of its representational decision. A number of angles might have been chosen for Alfred Kinsey, but in the end, perhaps predictably, we find that the narrative focus is on his unorthodox marital relationship. This is also true of the recent Irwin Winkler biography De-lovely, about the music writer Cole Porter, which focuses on his life long bond with wife and muse Linda Porter.
The extraordinarily simple question remains - why it should be that the frank depiction of homosexuality still causes such controversy? For an answer perhaps we can turn to Richard Dyer's famous essay Stereotyping from Gays and Film in which he writes of the fluidity of gayness - gayness as a non-fixed identity - and how "... this fluidity is unsettling both to the rigidity of social categorisation and to the maintenance of heterosexual hegemony". Certainly this might help explain the reaction to Alexander's bisexual hero, as well as the implications about its nature in the film itself. And in conclusion perhaps we can recall an observation from Vito Russo in The Celluloid Closet: "So long as Hollywood has one eye on the box office and the other on the lowest common denominator in the audience, it will always be a chickenshit".
William J. Davis