Gay marriage was legalised in Massachusetts nearly two decades ago and across the U.S. back in 2015 (Australia lagged behind until late 2017), yet somehow, the new film Bros represents the first mainstream gay romantic comedy ever released by a major studio — or so the marketing department of distributor Universal Pictures would have you believe.
Soaked as I am in gay comedies, this claim struck me as rather dubious, if not based on a definitional technicality (didn’t we all cheer on Fire Island, from the Disney-owned “indie” Searchlight Pictures, earlier this year?)…until I remembered that LGBTQ representation in the modern blockbuster era is generally limited to half-hearted queer-bating (Poe/Finn), background smooches between minor characters, or the cautious, sexless relationships of the sort trotted out in Eternals. Next to those, Bros might as well be My Big Fat Gay Wedding.
On another level, Hollywood has been making gay movies since the advent of the form — albeit with plausible deniability. The late 1920s and early 1930s were a golden age for movies that explicitly (or nearly so) dealt with queer characters (Garbo, Dietrich, and Hepburn were bisexual icons before that term wasn’t as commonly used); the same can be said of the independent-minded 1970s. At other times, representation was all about subtext — sometimes pointedly, the filmmakers sneaking in themes that would go over the heads of the censors but land with the right audiences, or arising as unintended subtext. Which is to say, sometimes even the straightest movies are gay as hell — the inevitable result of straightness trying too hard.
Some of the following movies have a definable context that makes queer readings essential, or at least plausible. Others are just really gay, without necessarily meaning to be.
Christopher Strong (1933)
Any movie featuring Katherine Hepburn is queer almost by definition; though her sexual orientation (if she considered herself to have any fixed identity) is shrouded in old-Hollywood mystery, her blend of movie-star glamour and gender-bending (particularly for her time) fashion made her a queer icon.
This was all particularly pronounced early on, before the Hays code and audience tastes led her to femme things up a bit in order to maintain her box office appeal. The great Dorothy Arzner directs her here, and it’s a match made in lesbian heaven: the Arzner was not only one of the only, and most successful women to direct during the days of the studio system, she was also a glorious and unashamed example of what we used to call butch. Christopher Strong casts Hepburn as an aviator more interested in aeroplanes than an illicit love affair with Colin Clive; the real sparks fly between Hepburn and Billie Burke, his put-upon wife.
Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
Following the events of Frankenstein, the eponymous doctor is all ready to settle down with his fiancée when his old college mentor shows up: Dr. Septimus Pretorius, who lures Henry away from the arms of his promised in favour of the two of them getting together after hours and building more bodies. Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger), given to sassy retorts and chain-smoking in mausoleums, was high-camp before the notion was codified. Although there’s nothing explicit here, there’s no real queer-coding, either: the fascinating Thesiger never made any effort whatsoever to hide his queerness, nor to accommodate anyone’s ideas of masculinity, and he certainly doesn’t in this role. Following an injury while serving in World War I, he took up needlework and passed the skills on to other injured soldiers, despite formal warnings that the work was too “effeminate.” Later, he was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire for both his embroidery skills and his acting career. Even with all that, he remains most famous for luring Colin Clive’s Frankenstein out of retirement.
This movie is so gay it inspired 1998’s Gods and Monsters, a super queer biopic of its director, James Whale, played by Ian McKellen, who came out publicly in 1988.
Rebecca represented a unique blending of sensibilities: new to Hollywood, Alfred Hitchcock didn’t yet have the clout that he would quickly gain, and so was forced to work with powerful producer David O. Selznick — who had notes. Hitchcock was adept at dodging Selznick’s requests and was always a highly organised filmmaker who never left studios with miles of footage from which to edit, meaning they were ultimately forced to go with what he’d produced.
The queer subtext here revolves around the character of Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), housekeeper of the gothic mansion at Manderley. When the master of the house, Laurence Olivier’s Maxim de Winter, brings home a new bride following the death of his first wife, Mrs. Danvers becomes a problem. What might have played as excessive mothering to straight audiences in 1940 seems less subtle now: her obsession with the late, first Mrs. de Winter forms the spine of the film, and moments in which Mrs. Davers nuzzles the dead woman’s clothes or fixates on her hair and lingerie suggest that her interest was something other than maternal. Gone were the days of Garbo, Dietrich, and early Hepburn, who made lesbian overtones chic and sexy; by 1940, lesbians were dowdy spinsters, and threatening ones at that. And yet Mrs. Danvers still manages to be the most interesting character in the movie.
The Uninvited (1944)
Surprisingly enough, The Uninvited represents Hollywood’s first serious attempt at a pure ghost story, and it remains one of the best: flawlessly atmospheric, poignant, and filled with hidden depths. The setup involves a cohabiting brother-and-sister couple, which itself invites speculation, but the lesbian themes aren’t overly obscured (they were noted at the time, often in tones of dire warning). The two buy an out-of-the-way house on the Cornish coast at a rock-bottom price; no wonder, given the air of tragedy that surrounds the property, including the slightly mysterious death of Mary, the previous owner, alongside her husband. Miss Holloway (Cornelia Otis Skinner) runs the local sanatorium where Mary was a resident for a time, and everything from dialogue to cinematography frame the two as having been a romantic couple. As with Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca, Miss Holloway’s continued obsession paints her as slightly creepy, but she’s more sympathetic, and there’s ultimately little ambiguity about the relationship having been reciprocal. In fact, the movie’s plot only really makes sense when viewed in that light.
In 1924, Leopold and Loeb, two wealthy University of Chicago boyfriends kidnapped and murdered a 14-year-old largely to prove that they could, the pair having read just enough Nietzsche to convince themselves that they were the Übermensch of whom he wrote. They weren’t, of course, but they wouldn’t be the first rich white boys to believe themselves inherently superior.
The murder was a tragedy, but for someone with Alfred Hitchcock’s sensibilities, it was also too juicy a story to pass up. Rope is most famous because of its unique filming technique: it’s presented as one continuous take, though in reality the takes were about ten minutes long, limited by the film technology of the era. But Rope is based on a play loosely inspired by the Leopold and Loeb murders, and in the play, the pair are explicitly gay. The movie, being a product of its time, obscures that without really suggesting anything else. These effete and sassy “roommates” — played by Farley Granger (who came out late in life) and John Dall (who is widely believed to have been gay, though he never came out publicly) — hold a party at which the body of their murder victim has been concealed. Screenwriter Arthur Laurents, who was gay, was an expert at dodging the restrictions of the Hays code in order to sneak in subtext that was just subtextual enough, a trick Hitchcock likewise excelled at.
Growing up, Rope was by far my favourite Hitchcock film, and now I’m an adult, I realise it’s because everyone in it is a raging homo. This was one of the gayest Hollywood films ever made, and it’s wild how younger me implicitly knew that before I even knew I was queer myself🌈 pic.twitter.com/FNTnmrEzAJ
— David Opie (@DavidOpie) September 20, 2022
Was it truly lost on 1940s audiences that these characters were more than friends? Apparently, Laurents and company didn’t clue in Jimmy Stewart about his character, and the actor never caught on. Viewers did, eventually.
Johnny Guitar (1954)
This low-budget Nicholas Ray film isn’t one of Joan Crawford’s better-known movies, but it is one of her best and most fascinating, earning its entry into the vaunted Criterion Collection. Playing a saloonkeeper in the wilds of old-west Arizona, Crawford’s character is introduced by one of her employees just so: “I never met a woman who was more man.” Her arch-nemesis is a “cattle baron” played by Mercedes McCambridge, a straight (as far as we know) actress who became a gay icon for her portrayals of strong, queer-coded women. There are male love interests here, but they’re largely incidental. It’s the seething energy between the two leading women — frequently facing off while decked out in black leather that borders on the fetishistic — where the film’s true heart lies.
One of the essential thrillers of the 1950s, the film version of Boileau-Narcejac’s novel removes the explicit lesbian relationship between the two women at the plot’s centre, the wife and mistress of a man whom they team up to murder, radically altering the ending in the process. Much of that relationship remains regardless; the closeness between Nicole and Christina is remarked upon by the students and faculty of the boarding school where the two live. They travel together, sharing rooms and even a bed. A climactic moment is played very much as a breakup scene. Simone Signoret and Véra Clouzot are one of French cinema’s most memorable couples, even if their romantic pairing is never made explicit.
Don’t tell Charlton Heston, but everyone else involved in crafting Judah Ben-Hur’s relationship with his old friend Messala was down with the idea that the two were lovers. Script doctor Gore Vidal claims to have convinced the producer, director William Wyler, and actor Stephen Boyd that none of the rest of the film’s high drama involving the relationship would make any sense if there weren’t strong hints that the two had been knocking sandals. Everyone was in on the bit, except for Heston (who was pissed when he found out about it decades later, calling the suggestion an insult to the director).
The Haunting (1963)
The more recent Haunting of Hill House, also based on the Shirley Jackson novel, made the subtext text, but the gay vibes between chic and sassy Theo (Claire Bloom) and repressed, mousy Eleanor (Julie Harris) radiate through the early ‘60s original. Theo rebuffs the men who flirt with her in favour of making eyes at shy Eleanor, the two forming a charmingly traditional idea of a lesbian couple: one glamorous and fashion-conscious, the other more of an awkward tomboy.
Fear No Evil (1981)
A low-budget cult classic with a tone that’s absolutely all over the place, Fear No Evil follows a somewhat effete young man (Stefan Arngrim) who slowly comes to learn that he’s the literal antichrist. He’s bullied relentlessly by the middle-aged actors playing high school jocks, who love nothing more than to strip down to their buff, bare asses and case him around locker rooms (so many male butts on display!). When he finally comes into his own as a Satan figure, our hero announces it by throwing on some make-up and getting revenge. The movie muddles its message; we’re not necessarily meant to cheer for gay Satan’s climactic rampage, but plenty of viewers have.
A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985)
The subtext here comes through so strongly that it can hardly even be considered subtext, but back in 1985, plenty of straight audiences still missed it. There’s a role reversal in the film’s basic premise, which puts Jesse (Mark Patton) in the position that would be taken up by the “final girl” in most slasher films of the era. Freddy toys with Jesse, at one point, caressing his lips with those finger blades; Jesse flees from danger and his girlfriend in equal distress, and nearly always half-clothed. He runs into his gym teacher in a leather bar, and that same jerk later gets bare-arse spanked to death in a locker room. As a metaphor for the torments of being a closeted teen, you could do a lot worse.
Fright Night (1985)
When Chris Sarandon and Jonathan Stark move in next door, it’s the usual formula: “I did hear he’s got a live-in carpenter. With my luck, he’s probably gay,” says the main character’s mum. It’s usually “friends” or “roommates,” so “live-in carpenter” is an innovation, but it’s not hard to see what’s really going on. The two turn out to be vampires and familiar, but they share an easy rapport and a genuine concern for each other — a picture of a healthy, supportive relationship, even if they are evil vampires.
Top Gun (1986)
Coming out in the military in 1986 would have seen one dishonourably discharged, which is surely why Top Gun takes a time out, every so often, to reinforce the fact that Tom Cruise really, really likes kissing Kelly McGillis — even though the movie’s central relationship, and heat, is found between Cruise’s Maverick and Val Kilmer’s Iceman. The rest of the movie? Frequently shirtless, often sweaty (well, oiled) Air Force boys do things like play volleyball to Kenny Loggins’ “Playing with the Boys,” with sample dialogue including lines like: “I want somebody’s butt! I want it now!” and “I’d like to bust your butt, but I can’t!” Late director Tony Scott copped to using books of gay beefcake photography as his primary reference for how to photograph the movie’s man meat — which probably explains the proliferation of slightly porny moustaches.
The Lost Boys (1987)
There’s a lot going on here, and I’m not sure how much of it was intentional (out director Joel Schumacher, later of Batman & Robin, wasn’t known for subtlety). Leather-clad bad boys who want nothing more than to suck (the blood) of slightly more straight-laced teenagers, with a climax that turns on vampiric seduction; a poster of a sweaty Rob Lowe placed prominently in Corey Haim’s room without explanation; that oiled and gyrating sax man, who almost singlehandedly queers the entire film. It’s not straight, I’ll tell you that.
Red Heat (1988)
Writer/director Walter Hiller described Red Heat as a “love story” between devoted cops played by Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jim Belushi, and though I’m not sure he meant it literally, you wouldn’t have to alter much of the screenplay to make their relationship explicit. This one serves as a stand-in for a lot of hyper-violent, hyper-masculine movies of the 1980s (many of them featuring Schwarzenegger): full of the kind of sweaty man-on-man action that you’d expect, with an entire opening sequence that takes place at a bath house. It’s co-ed, but the male characters are overwhelmingly the focus, fighting in coverings that could barely be described as loincloths.
As with Hitchcock’s Rope, Scream screenwriter Kevin Williamson was inspired, in part, by murderous couple Leopold and Loeb when he created the movies-and-murder-obsessed duo of Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich) and Stu Macher (Matthew Lillard). Even before he spoke about it explicitly in interviews, however, queer fans got it; at the very least, Stu is obviously way into Billy.
Batman & Robin (1997)
Start with the generally camp sensibilities of gay director Joel Schumacher (who once claimed to have had sex with tens of thousands of men during his life; not that queer cred is a function of mathematics, but damn), and throw in a batsuit with pronounced nipples, a massive codpiece, and deeper-than-strictly-necessary arse cleavage, and you’ve got a recipe for the gayest superhero epic ever. And that’s all before George Clooney’s Batman adopts a nearly grown man only nine years his junior.
Fight Club (1999)
There’s a point at which hyper-masculinity starts to look an awful lot like homoeroticism, and you have to wonder how many sweaty, shirtless men you can literally toss together in a space that excludes women entirely before it starts to look like a gay club. Oh, and let’s make sure not to mention anything that goes on here to our wives, girlfriends, or co-workers.
Bend It Like Beckham (2002)
Rumour has long held that, as originally conceived, football teammates Jess (Parminder Nagra) and Jules (Keira Knightley) were intended to end up together in a romantic sense, but that changes were made in deference to more conservative American and Indian audiences. Even without that, though, the chemistry between the two star players is palpable, and the moments of hand-holding and even kissing allow for more romantic readings of this above-average entry in the underdogs-win-at-sports genre.
Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
If the characters of Sam and Frodo were of different genders, it would be almost impossible not to view their relationship through a romantic lens. Even if we dodge queer readings, though, it’s certainly the case that their story (as in the novels) is a model of male intimacy rare enough in film as to be almost nonexistent. The trilogy is full of male relationships that are almost shockingly supportive and healthy — Sam and Frodo hold hands, cuddle, and literally carry each other at various points. The wise old drag-queen-as-mentor is an age-old trope of explicitly gay movies, and, though his wardrobe is limited, Ian McKellen’s Gandalf, with his luxuriant hair and mid-trilogy glow-up, fits the role flawlessly.
300 practically screams “no homo!” whenever Leonidas or some other nearly naked character talks about the general hardness of the Spartans, but Zack Snyder’s comic book-based breakthrough is also literally every fetish party I’ve ever been to. We’re meant to see the queer-coding in the heavily made-up and bejewelled Persians (Snyder has been explicit in interviews about his intention to make the Persians scarier to his intended male audience by making them gayer), but that feels like a movie missing its own point, while also wildly overestimating the heterosexuality of the ancient Spartans.
The Covenant (2006)
The story of four young men (oddly old for high schoolers) who are descended from witches and have to fight some kind of evil or something…the plot doesn’t really matter, and the movie’s not very good. But it is an unintentional cult classic, one in which a series of soon-to-be-famous guys do a Craft-lite, but with more locker room scenes. A movie doesn’t have to be good to subvert the typical male gaze of the genre; it’s nice to see the camera leering at the men for once.
Let it go, Elsa. It’s partly that Elsa is hiding a secret about which she’s terrified that people will discover, and the subsequently joyous sense of liberation that she experiences when she finally does own her power. That all speaks to queer people, but there’s also the fact that there’s no love interest for Elsa in Frozen, when the story of pretty much every other Disney princess has been centred around getting a boyfriend. Frozen 2 left the question of Elsa’s romantic interests open, which feels like a teeny-tiny step forward for a company that’s notoriously desperate not to offend its straight audience. Plus, that climax where she races across the sea on her magic horse is super gay.
The Babadook (2014)
The Babadook became a gay icon quite by accident. Though there had been a bit of social media discourse on the topic previously, it all exploded when Netflix lumped the movie into its LGBTQ category for no particular reason. Queer readings were suddenly validated — and fairly, I think. Though, on the surface, The Babadook represents grief and the dangers of trying to sweep trauma under the rug, he works every bit as well as a metaphor for closeting. With flawlessly goth style, he torments a mother and young son who try to ignore him and pretend he isn’t real. The more mum tries to shove him back into the metaphorical closet, the more horror he inflicts. It’s only through acceptance that their small family has any hope at all of moving forward.
You’ll never convince me that the story of two men who meet-cute during an impromptu coordinated bridge rescue and then proceed to spend every waking minute together, except for the ones they spend agonizing over the secrets that might tear them apart is not an action-packed rom-com. These guys love three things: taking off their shirts, fighting colonialism with tigers, and each other.