In praise of ambiguity

The love that dared not speak yells at auds on the bigscreen

Although the Oscar statuette is male in name and form, his minimal anatomical details allow him to stay hip and iconographically correct in a more sexually amorphous world.

As the Academy has moved, rather surprisingly, to accommodate films that celebrate a more adventurous view of human sexuality, Oscar remains shape-appropriate for all manner of modern perversities: not only boy/boy and girl/girl pairings, but boy-as-girl/boy and girl-as-boy/girl duos undreamed of in the more conventional imaginings of the Hollywood studio system.

You might even say that a certain gender bending was built into Cedric Gibbons’ sleek, art-deco design, so that even during periods of maximum conformity to the boy-girl rules of romance, there was always room for a nod to the weird and transgressive.

You are unlikely to find this in the all-important best film category, perhaps, where the safe and commercially certified are likely to reign.

But it’s apparent elsewhere, in the acting nominees for example. Consider the actors and actresses who brought the Gothically dysfunctional Southerners of Tennessee Williams to the screen, Katharine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor both nominated for their performances in the unnominated “Suddenly Last Summer,” 1956, Geraldine Page and Shirley Knight, likewise, for “Sweet Bird of Youth”, 1985. Then there is Jack Lemmon, nominated for “Some Like it Hot” (1959), and Peter Finch for “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” (1966).

In these years, musicals, epics and socially responsible melodramas dominated, and many years’ lists of nominees were more interesting for what was left out than for what was included.

A deeply puritanical Hollywood was more comfortable with a muscular chariot race like “Ben Hur” than with Wilder’s sly transsexual comedy “Some Like it Hot.”

In 1960, Hitchcock’s Oedipal disturbing “Psycho” and Jules Dassin’s oldest-profession-honoring “Never on Sunday” with Merlina Mercouri weren’t included among the nominees.

When “West Side Story” won in 1961, films that didn’t make the cut of five were “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” with its “kept-man” relationship between Patricia Neal and George Peppard; “The Children’s Hour” based on Lillian Hellman’s play about teachers accused of lesbianism in a girls’ school; and “Splendor in the Grass” the Elia Kazan-William Inge drama of teenage sexual passion.

In the late sixties, times they really were a changin’. In 1967, “In the Heat of the Night” an old-fashioned thriller about racial tensions in the South, won, predictably, over “Bonnie and Clyde” and “The Graduate.”

But what was amazing was that these two films, one the violent saga of an impotent, poetry-writing gangster, the other, a romantic comedy in which the hero beds the heroine’s mother, could be nominated at all, pointing to a sea change in Academy tastes.

The watershed for bringing the sexually unsavory into the mainstream was “Midnight Cowboy” in 1969, John Schlesinger’s mordant buddy film about two seedy hustlers who migrate to Times Square.

Of course the deviancy was but a smokescreen for the sentiment, sexual encounters, hetero- or otherwise, being less important than the romantic bonds uniting and simultaneously redeeming two grungy losers in the Big Apple.

The 1970s and 1980s witnessed a pushing of the envelope of sexuality often, but not always, with an overlay of romance. Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange,” nominated in 1971 and “Deliverance,” in 1972, both had literary pedigrees, but their deviancy and violence nevertheless shocked critics inured to both.

In earlier decades, the love that dare not speak its name remained unspoken. It was suggested in Sal Mineo’s crush on James Dean in “Rebel Without a Cause,” but the emphasis was on love and loneliness.

Later, as the sexual revolution ushered in a more open discussion and portrayal of sexuality, shades of gay began to emerge.

“Cabaret,” nommed in 1972, won best actress and best supporting actor for Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey as a sexually odd couple. “The Dresser” (1983) featured Tom Courtenay as the maternal mincing dresser to Albert Finney’s bombastic actor. Both were nominated as Best Actor. William Hurt won best actor as the gay prisoner in “Kiss of the Spider Woman” (1985).

These relatively muted examples of non-straight personae were followed by all sorts of more complicated and lurid crossdressing and transgender fantasies.

Who could have imagined, back in the eighties, Julian Schnabel’s decidedly downtown movie Julian Schnabel’s “Before Night Falls” in which a mainstream star, Johnny Depp, would play in flamboyant drag and Javier Bardem, as the graphically and promiscuously gay protagonist, would be nommed best actor!

Movies have always played around with sexual identity and role reversal, not only within the film — beautiful women in top hat and tails, men in drag — but in the process of audience identification.

What are movies, after all, but an opportunity for viewers to identify not only with characters/stars of their own sex, but of the opposite sex as well.

Women can be, for the same brief moment, Juliet Binoche or Julia Roberts, or Tom Cruise or John Wayne, and the gruffest of macho men, like Rex Harrison’s Professor Higgins in “My Fair Lady.”

Jimmy Stewart’s obsessed cop in “Vertigo” can creep inside the skin of a woman by writing her life, shaping and instructing her, enjoying the range and beauty of her clothes and make-up: her “vestments” as in transvestism.

From “Tootsie” to “Being John Malkovich” and “Boys Don’t Cry,” movies took up the challenge posed by feminism in enchanting and unorthodox ways with scripts that explicitly allowed men to try to find out what it felt like to be a woman and vice versa.

Dustin Hoffman (nominated for Best Actor) had one of the great roles of his career as an actor so desperate for work he transforms himself into a middle-aged spinster and becomes not only the star of a soap opera but also a critic of sexism in the workplace.

In “The Crying Game” (1992), an Irish soldier (Stephen Rea) falls for a black beautician only to discover, in a shocking denouement, that his beloved has a penis.

The “did you realize?” game was played everywhere, with some viewers insisting that Jaye Davidson’s Adam’s apple betrayed him, while others confessed they’d been taken by surprise. But the inclusion of the film among the five nominees shows just how blithely audiences took it in stride.

Not that such bravado doesn’t contain hidden tremors of fear. The currently chic idea promoted by certain movies that gender is irrelevant because we fall in love with a person, not a man or a woman, is as absurd as the monogamous, one-man-for-one-woman forever ideal of times past.

Our sense that sexual borders are more fluid than we thought is as unsettling as it is liberating. If anything, the playful and serious sexual ambiguities that are taking an ever larger part in films and film awards may be a metaphor for larger uncertainties, the collapse of all sorts of structures and supports, and the risks and possibilities that have come in their wake.

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