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[Originally published as "Gays and Lesbians in Cinema." Cineaste's Political Companion To American Film. Gary Crowdus, ed. Chicago: Lake View Press, 1994.]

In the spring of 1991, the production of Carolco's Basic Instinct moved to San Francisco for some necessary location shooting. Directed by Paul Verhoeven, Basic Instinct is a nasty drama about a homicidal lesbian and her beautiful, deranged bisexual girlfriend; Michael Douglas plays the investigative heterosexual hero.

Even before the crew's arrival, San Francisco's lesbian and gay activist groups were prepared. Earlier complaints about Joe Eszterhas's script--mean and misguided even beyond the standard exaggerations of Hollywood fiction--had gone unreplied. On the first night, filming was interrupted by a furious crowd of protestors who came armed with ear-splitting whistles. Riot police made a number of arrests.

Despite a court restraining order, local news coverage encouraged attendance and continued disruption of the shooting. Photocopies of the script were circulated on Castro Street.

The protests against Basic Instinct were neither new--New York had seen the same thing in 1980 when William Friedkin's Cruising hit the gay bars--nor especially successful in effecting changes to the finished film, but they summarize the feeling of American lesbians and gays in the early 1990s. "Hollywood only understands money," declared one speaker at the Basic Instinct demonstration. "If they're going to make films that endanger my life, they better budget for my anger."

It is true. If Hollywood merely offered career advice, gay men and women would be better off on unemployment. Mainstream movies have presented gays with a repetitive and sinisterly limited range of job opportunities--as spinster school teachers and sly spies; as hairdressers, fashion photographers, gossip columnists, and worried politicians with sweaty brows and secrets to hide; as gossipy best friends, sneaky butlers, poor show prostitutes, twisted prison wardens, serial killers, and assorted borderline psychotics.

But this persistent belittling belies Hollywood's real agenda. In films as different as Adam's Rib (1949) and American Gigolo (1980), A Florida Enchantment (1914) and The Hunger (1980)--from Laurel and Hardy to lesbian vampires--since cinema began, Hollywood has been fascinated with finding ways of representing gayness.

It is a part of popular cultural mythology that homosexuals are meant to be obsessed with Hollywood--all those queens crying for Judy, dykes swooning for Garbo. What is much less remarked upon is precisely the reverse: Hollywood's obsession with homosexuality.

Representations of Gay Men and Lesbians

Confronted by this torrent of lesbian and gay images, subtexts, and sensibilities, the question is not whether Hollywood's homosexuals have matched up to real life, but rather, how has sexuality been represented on the screen? What are the defining characteristics and how do they relate to common ideas about gay men and women?

There are essentially two ideas behind the label "gay cinema": first, that Hollywood's images of homosexuals are worth investigating and, second, that gay filmmakers themselves have been working independently--and in opposition--to these images.

Thus, there are two strands to a gay film history, which only really intertwine in the last two decades, when independent films such as Longtime Companion (1990), Desert Hearts (1986), and Parting Glances (1986) proved that gay and lesbian culture has what Hollywood cutely calls "crossover" potential.

Despite the critical and commercial success of these films, lesbian and gay cinema is not something that happened only since gay liberation--although politicization has provided the impetus to sift through history and tease out what was previously concealed.

Romance and Sympathy

A 1916 Swedish film, The Wings, seems to be one of the first overt gay screen romances; based on Herman Bang's novel, Mikael, it races through the melodrama of sculptor Claude Zoret and the elusive youth of the title. Anticipating the dominant theme of mainstream cinema over the next fifty years, their romance ends unhappily, with adopted son Mikael provoking his patron and lover to a feverish death. In The Wings at least Zoret dies of a broken heart, a genuinely romantic demise; more often, gay characters have died out of guilt or punishment.

Meanwhile, in Weimar Germany, a second version of homosexual tragedy was being played. Magnus Hirschfeld's Institute for Sexual Science in Berlin initiated the first campaign for decriminalizing homosexuality; Different from the Others (1919), starring Conrad Veidt, explicitly pleaded for tolerance. A tale of blackmail and suicide, prefaced by a direct-to-camera monologue by Hirschfeld, Different from the Others set the standard for liberal tolerance and for a durable new genre of gay sympathy films.

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A film still from Magnus Hirschfeld's Different from the Others (1919).
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