Sunday, January 17, 2010

Plato is So Gay

"Wow. Those are some gay undertones," states my husband, Geoff, during the first planetarium scene in Rebel Without A Cause. Geoff is not a filmmaker, has never taken a film class, and generally avoids reading too much into media. However, even he is not convinced that Plato is, as he is described by others, just "the youthful innocent."

Quickly Googling for Plato+Gay+"Rebel Without A Cause" produces a myriad of results. Seems Geoff isn't the only one picking up on Plato's vibes. Roger Ebert had this to say about Plato's reaction to the planetarium presentation in Rebel Without A Cause:
"What does he know about man alone?" It is clear now but may have been less visible in 1955 that Plato is gay and has a crush on Jim; at the planetarium, he touches his shoulder caressingly. After Buzz dies when his car hurtles over the cliff, the students all seem curiously -- well, composed. Jim gives Plato a lift home and Plato asks him, "Hey, you want to come home with me? I mean, there's nobody home at my house, and heck, I'm not tired. Are you?" But Jim glances in the direction of Judy's house, and then so does Plato, ruefully.

No one brought up the question of Plato's sexuality at "An Afternoon with Stewart Stern" where I, and several lucky others, got to listen to stories of old Hollywood and talk with the screenwriter of Rebel Without A Cause - Stewart Stern. However, Stern did elude to Nicholas Ray having an interest in men. And that Stern was "so naive" about these things when he first started working in the film industry. Indeed, one blogger even went farther with the suggestive sexuality in the film stating:
Sal Mineo—so affecting as the essentially fatherless outcast Plato—later commented that he had portrayed the first gay teenager on film. There are little clues: the photograph of Alan Ladd taped to his locker door, his longing looks at Jim Stark, his disguised declaration of love in the abandoned mansion. Ray was aware of Dean’s bisexuality and encouraged the actor to use it in certain scenes. Dean instructed Mineo, “Look at me the way I look at Natalie,” for their intimate scene in the Getty mansion. It had to be subtle. A Production Code officer had written in a memo to Jack L. Warner on March 22, “It is of course vital that there be no inference of a questionable or homosexual relationship between Plato and Jim.” In real life Mineo was gay, and it is even rumored that he and Ray (who was bisexual) also had a tryst while filming Rebel.
While those of us who have seen the documentary or read the book The Celluloid Closet don't find any of this particularly shocking, the thing that still bothers me about homosexuality in mainstream film, latent or "out", is how much we like to punish the characters for their alleged transgressions. Here is a quick synopsis of mainstream Hollywood films that have come out in the last twenty years, been acclaimed by the masses and critics, featuring gay, bisexual, transgendered or otherwise "out" main characters and their celluloid fates:
  • The Crying Game. Dir: Neil Jordan. 1992. This one is hard to explain, but trust me when I say that this one does not end on a complete happy note. Dead and depressed.
  • Philadelphia. Dir: Jonathan Demme. 1993. Tom Hanks plays a gay attorney with AIDS who eventually succumbs to his disease. Dead.
  • Boys Don't Cry. Dir: Kimberly Pierce. 1999. Hillary Swank won an Oscar for playing a transgendered man who is shot and killed by his former friends once they learn his secret. Dead.
  • Far From Heaven. Dir: Todd Haynes. 2002. Dennis Qauid finally leaves his wife after revealing that he is gay only to be isolated, alone, and depressed in this contemporary re-make of Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows. Depressed.
  • The Hours. Dir: Stephen Daldry. 2002. This film featured several contemporary "out" characters. One was stuck in a loveless relationship. The other threw himself to his death instead of allowing AIDS to take him. Dead and depressed.
  • Monster. Dir: Patty Jenkins. 2003. Charlize Theron won an Oscar for her portrayal of Aileen Wournos, a real-life lesbian/prostitute/serial killer, who is eventually tried and convicted for her crimes and sentence to death by lethal injection. Dead.
  • Brokeback Mountain. Dir: Ang Lee. 2005. Jake Gyllenhaal uttered the classic line "I can't quit you" to Heath Ledger in this story of two cowboys who fall in love with each other. However, eventually Jake Gyllenhaal is viciously murdered by men who learn his secret. Dead and depressed.
  • Transamerica. Dir: Duncan Tucker 2005. Felicity Huffman was robbed of the Oscar for her portrayal of a man transitioning to become a woman and the complications it brings with the discovery that she fathered a child. Alive and pretty much happy!
  • Milk. Dir: Gus Van Sant. 2008. Based on the real story of Harvey Milk who, like his fictional and real peers, is assassinated. Dead.
While there are cult favorites and independent films like But I am a Cheerleader (Dir: Jaime Babbit. 1999) and Kissing Jessica Stein (Dir: Charles Herman-Wurmfeld. 2001) that break taboos and allow for more positive gay, bisexual, and transgendered main characters it is almost unheard of in a mainstream or co-opted (small film that gets a lot of Oscar attention) Hollywood films. In fact, the only film that I could think of that has come out in the last twenty years, received mainstream critical and audience acceptance, and featured a character that did not die or end up completely emotionally devastated by the end of the film was Transamerica. This, to me, very clearly articulates an issue with how we feel culturally about LGBTQ men and women in our society - that they do not deserve happiness and acceptance like the heterosexual population. And while their presence has increased and "come out of the closet" since Rebel Without A Cause was released in 1955 they are still meeting the same fate as Plato time and time again - death. This is troubling. I challenge filmmakers large and small to think of better ways to deal with sexualities that break the heteronormativity mold than this disturbing trend of death, depression, and/or emotional destruction. In the meantime I will revel in the campy brilliance of But I am a Cheerleader.

Mad love to Lane, who, one night on a slow film set, helped to create the list of modern films and the fates of their main LGBTQ characters while simultaneously doing a handstand.


  1. How funny, I just watched "Cheerleader" last night. :-)

    I have a question as one female director to another. (and two "hetro-married" directors on top of that). Do you feel an incredible pressure to not only tell female stories but female gay stories?

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  2. I feel a lot of pressure to tell stories that break the stringent mold that Hollywood sets whether it be about female empowerment or main characters with different sexual orientations.

    The same goes for the Hollywood screenwriting formula. How can we really examine new characters archetypes in a traditional plot-driven 3 act screenplay? It doesn't really give us an adequate place to try something different because so much of that structure is about having a man on a mission and character development is really secondary. Stewart Stern actually talked about this as well. He poo pooed Syd Field structure calling it "boring".

  3. Hmm...I disagree that character development is secondary to the action of a classically structured script. Characters, in a good film, are developed THROUGH the action. They are defined by their actions, by their choices, by what they do to achieve their goal. The "man on a mission" aspect of the classically structured 3-act script is simply there to keep us engaged. Watching characters goal-less and adrift can often (though admittedly not always) leave an audience feeling disconnected and without either empathy or sympathy for them.

    I left the book in my office, so I can't quote it exactly, but to paraphrase "How the Mind Works" by Stephen Pinker: how a character pursues his or her goal is the very definition of intelligence. Without a goal, we would have to assume the toad sitting on the rock was accomplishing its task brilliantly, with pinpoint precision and unerring reliability.

    The other question to ask is "why?" Why is this story happening with these characters and why did we enter it when we did? If a character wants something, that creates a (potentially) engaging answer.

    Also, without goals, there is no conflict, and likely no tension. And I don't think there's a screenwriter on the planet who would argue that conflict isn't the heart of drama. :-)

    Maybe the 3-act structure itself is too well-worn, but the essential aspect of an active protagonist definitely still reigns as the key to a successful film.

  4. Thanks for the comment, Wonder. I am actually going to examine this more in a future post. So please stay tuned. And admittedly, there aren't a lot of us out there that believe that the 3-act structure with an active protagonist creates a situation where we rely on cliched characters versus deeply developed characters that aren't on quite such a strong mission. However, I will present my case shortly and am looking forward to hearing what you think.

  5. In the modern day, I don't think anyone could not get gay vibes from Sal Mineo and James Dean in "Rebel Without a Cause"

    and I loved "But I'm a Cheerleader"

  6. As someone queer myself, when i saw a clip of the interactions between Jim and Plato I IMMEDIATELY got a vibe from it ! What concreted it for me was the screen test actually lol They were literally ALL OVER each other