‘Brokeback’ Wins Gays Place in Hollywood History
By Bob Tourtellotte
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – For more than 100 years, mainstream Hollywood movies largely shunned gay subjects, which were either disregarded, closeted or dealt with by independent filmmakers.
But in 2005, “Brokeback Mountain,” the story of two cowboys in love, broke big at box offices and earned eight Oscar nominations, including best film. It was a hit and Hollywood loves a hit.
“Gay people are now living more honest and open lives and that leads to others wanting to know more about our lives,” said Neil Giuliano, president of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. “People want this product and we can provide it in a compelling and powerful way that can be profitable.”
Historians and experts divide Hollywood’s portrayal of gay life into three periods: years before the early 1930s “production code;” self-censorship under the code until the late 1960s; and the years since then as gays and lesbians have been slowly accepted into mainstream culture.
The production code, also known as the Hays Code, was devised by a forerunner of today’s Motion Picture Association of America and was strictly enforced by Hollywood’s major studios starting around 1934.
It set out general guidelines specifying that no film would lower moral standards of an audience member and included warnings against nudity and positive portrayals of crime and illicit sex.
Before the code, historians said movies showed no depictions of gays or lesbians because they largely kept to themselves and were ignored by mainstream society. As a result, the movies also set them aside, reflecting the culture of the day.
“It was not so much keeping a secret. It was more like, ‘How could you write about something that wasn’t being written about?”‘ said William Mann, author of “Behind the Screen: How Gays and Lesbians Shaped Hollywood 1910-1969.”
TO GAY, OR NOT TO GAY
Although the production code did not allow portrayals of gay life, some male roles were often built around effeminate personality traits. By association, the characters were deemed homosexual, although such a distinction was never talked about, said Jonathan Kuntz of the film and television school at the University of California at Los Angeles.
Some actors such as Franklin Pangborn enjoyed careers playing effeminate men and closeted homosexuals like Rock Hudson could live in privacy and still take heterosexual roles.
“Sexuality is overtly talked about now but wasn’t really in those days,” said Robert Osborne, author of “75 Years of Oscar: The Official History of the Academy Awards.”
The sexual revolution of late 1960s brought an end to the production code, and in 1969 “Midnight Cowboy” the relationship between Joe Buck (Jon Voight) and Enrico “Ratso” Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) was widely considered a love affair, although the two never had sex on screen, as do the cowhands of “Brokeback.”
“Midnight Cowboy” became a box-office hit and won the best film Oscar, but what followed were film flops such as 1982′s “Making Love,” which made “gay film” sound like “money loser” to mainstream Hollywood. As a result, homosexual stories were fodder for independent filmmakers and art-house cinemas.
In 1993, “Philadelphia” starred Tom Hanks as a gay man, won Oscars and earned $206 million worldwide, but it was largely seen as an AIDS movie, not a gay film.
In the late 1990s, gay television shows such as “Will & Grace” and TV stars like Ellen DeGeneres helped mainstream Hollywood get to a point where it could promote a film such as “Brokeback,” the experts said. Now, they expect the major studios to be more accepting of gay stories and screenplays.
“I don’t know if we’re going to see any $200 million movies built around a gay character but certainly this will spark other films,” Kuntz said.