When is a not queer film queer?

Whether it's films produced under the constrictions of the Hays Code or hetero romance that lifts from gay culture, there's a whole canon of cinema which has been embraced by queer cinephiles.


Soma Ghosh

Scene: One sweaty summer in 1950s New Orleans, a tearful, brittle Southern Belle faces accusations of promiscuity from a suitor. He’s discovered this genteel teacher is “not clean enough” to take home to Mother. Seeing her possible meal ticket disintegrate, Blanche (played with grotesque delicacy by Vivien Leigh), stalks forward through the makeshift boudoir that she prefers to cruel daylight. “Yes!” she declares, “Aah have had many meetings with strangers!”

The film, of course, is A Streetcar Named Desire, a movie about straight people that plays queer. Adapted from Tennessee Williams’ stage masterpiece and directed by Elia Kazan, it’s a definitive not queer, queer film: a gay author’s fever dream of ruffled peignoirs and Marlon Brando in a vest, sexy as a swamp alligator. Blanche Dubois is a predatory cuckoo in an impoverished, nuclear family home. Her cruising habits and obsession with youth and beauty ally her to generations of gay men. True, her husband, the one homosexual character (possibly outed by Blanche) has already killed himself, a tragedy that begets her own. But hers is the battle cry of anti-heteronormative movie-making: “I don’t want realism. I want magic!”

Magic, deceit, desire: Streetcar was made under the Hays Code, which banned homosexuality – classed as “sex perversion” – and various other so-called undesirable themes from being portrayed in Hollywood films from 1934 until 1968. Sixty-eight script changes were enforced on Williams’ play, and The Catholic League of Decency further butchered Kazan’s film. Today, we’re supposedly living in a time of sexual honesty, but when you compare Streetcar to LGBTQ duds like The Happiest Season and saccharine rom-coms like Red, White & Royal Blue – films that emulate mainstream cis-het formats – you begin to wonder if, artistically, it was worth coming out of the closet.

The history of queer and not-queer queer films shows the power of the prohibited. Boarding school snogging (Mädchen in Uniform), androgynous bisexual kings (Queen Christina), Daddy-slave orgies and soapy tit baths (Sign of the Cross) are just some of the 1930s thrills before the Hays crackdown. But once queerness was veiled, it became more riveting. Transgression, fantasy, toppling of the social order, poisoned victories – all of this adds up to Drama with a capital D.

Suppressed desire motors Philadelphia Story (1940), Now Voyager (1942), Cat On a Hot Tin Roof (1958) – another Tennessee Williams’ melodrama featuring a homoerotic dead man – Breakfast At Tiffany’s (1961), and My Fair Lady (1962). These are stories about passing and pretending, many written or directed by gay men.

George Cukor (Dinner at Eight, Camille, Adam’s Rib, A Star is Born) presided over many of Hollywood’s finest not-queer queer productions, often with eye-popping design. A gay Jew who styled himself as a suave bespectacled Anglophile, the costumes of his films wink at the performance of gender. In The Philadelphia Story and My Fair Lady, Cukor turns Audrey Hepburn and Katherine Hepburn into wrecking balls wrapped in organza. His pacey tone, grand lighting and intimate framing tilt between revolution and joie d’esprit. Katherine Hepburn’s costumes as Tracy Lord – the chaste, judgmental heiress who learns to be more humane – propose a knowingness about the construction of the social self, whether as a faux library student in a nodding cap, or a jersey-draped, swimming pool ‘goddess’.

The ending of The Philadelphia Story makes no erotic sense unless you have a queerish fondness for platonic and polyamorous love. Stoic, sexless C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) does his bit, lecturing Tracy, but the chemistry is all between Hepburn and lofty author-turned-gossip columnist, Jimmy Stewart’s Mike Connor. Their midsummer night of melting madness, without a single kiss, is a garden sequence so steamy it advocates for better romance under censorship while suggesting the deliciousness of sex outside the home.

Equally, in My Fair Lady, one can’t imagine Audrey Hepburn’s plucky cockney Eliza Doolittle – dressed with dizzying panache by Cecil Beaton – and tweedy Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison) building a love nest, unless that involves a dungeon with Higgins’ lifelong partner, Colonel Pickering. Harrison is a grim romantic lead, his face like a suntanned machete. The conclusion of their power-play is a heart-warming found family story, but incredible as a straight romance.

Dirty Dancing, directed by gay Emile Bardolino, revisits the teacher-student energy of Mädchen in Uniform and My Fair Lady. Virginal 17-year-old Baby (Jennifer Gay) meets grown-up Johnny (Patrick Swayze), a dance instructor, at an upscale forest camp, in a Romeo and Juliet story of class revolution. Sex at the resort is a closeted affair – the staff’s secret ‘Dirty Dancing’ club is a pink and black, bump ‘n’ grind palace (instantly recognisable to patrons of gay clubs) where Johnny and his platonic partner simulate cunnilingus. The plot is second-rate, but the sincere, beautiful focus of Bardolino’s camera is Swayze, pulsating at Baby like a male go-go dancer at Studio 54.

Voyeurism contributes to the watchable but banal pop dramas of the 1980s. Flashdance, Footloose, Purple Rain and Top Gun are all straight films much improved by their queer vibe. Here, 80s music video montage operates like a cinematic wet dream, with young bodies flying through the air. One of cinema’s rare (clothed) depictions of clit-stim occurs in Purple Rain, with a ravishingly feminine Prince embracing the more assured, older Apollonia from behind.

The unreality of such films shares space with the 80s and 90s sci-fi of morphing bodies and monstrous matriarchies. Ridley Scott’s Alien and the Wachowschi sisters’ The Matrix are like Cukor on T. In deep space or eco-devastated rain, vulnerable himbos (Keanu Reeves) and virile, androgynous women (Sigourney Weaver) fight Big Corp. Here, that which is denied, haunts and finally destroys the superficially acceptable. The unseen is finally seen, not in sexual terms – for these are straight films – but by exposing the lies of patriarchal capitalism. We should never underestimate cinema’s visual delight in the ‘reveal’. The legacy of these films has recently given us Julia Ducournau’s electrifying and moving queer horror Titane while a troubling sense of double identities gifts a Hitchcockian elegance to Andrew Haigh’s forthcoming All Of Us Strangers.

At a time when we’re still fighting for more inclusive representation, it may be controversial to point out the ways in which great art flourishes when it’s disallowed. But, while we await more accomplished queer cinema, it’s interesting to consider how the best new work might owe a debt to the golden age of censorship, and the fun – and pain – of sneaking around.

Published 8 Nov 2023

Tags: A Streetcar Named Desire Purple Rain Queer Cinema The Matrix

Suggested For You

How cinema has addressed Section 28: the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law

By Jon O'Brien

The ramifications of Thatcher's draconian homophobic law are explored in Georgia Oakley's new film, but their impact has an additional place in British cinema.

Why the gay conversion therapy drama is having a moment

By Jonathan Mahon-Heap

The Miseducation of Cameron Post and Boy Erased find different ways to confront this harmful practice.

Black Mirror is the perfect antidote to the ‘Bury Your Gays’ trope

By Ella Donald

The new season of the dark social satire features a refreshingly tragedy-free queer relationship.

Little White Lies Logo

About Little White Lies

Little White Lies was established in 2005 as a bi-monthly print magazine committed to championing great movies and the talented people who make them. Combining cutting-edge design, illustration and journalism, we’ve been described as being “at the vanguard of the independent publishing movement.” Our reviews feature a unique tripartite ranking system that captures the different aspects of the movie-going experience. We believe in Truth & Movies.