Thursday, 9 July 2009

Fifty Years of Comedy Queers: The 1960s

Part 2: 1970s
Part 3: 1980s
Part 4: 1990s and 2000s

The Motion Picture Association of America was finally prompted to change its policy following the release of two serious films about the life of Oscar Wilde in 1960, and films like “A Taste of Honey” (1961) and the blackmail drama “Victim” (1961). On October 3, 1961, the MPAA announced, “In keeping with the culture, the mores and the values of our time, homosexuality and other sexual aberrations may now be treated with care, discretion and restraint”. This didn’t mean homosexuality was acceptable or tolerable, but it did mean that films could now include it in attempts at more mature material. If the public didn’t want to see serious films about homosexual anguish, then characters who were identifiably gay flitted about the light sophisticated comedies of the early 1960s. Film comedies until then had deftly employed actors like Clifton Webb and Edward Everett Horton as coded gay players (and England had its counterparts in Michael Ward and, I think only occasionally, Reginald Beckwith)

Clifton Webb

Edward Everett Horton

Michael Ward

Reginald Beckwith

But now there was a flowering of supercilious gallery owners and interior decorators, fussy bachelors and prissy artistic types. These incidental characters spiced up the urbane milieu of these new comedies. The homosexual hints these minor characters provided were in counterpoint to the livelier and sexier romantic intrigues these films offered over their bland and innocent 1950s predecessors. The highpoint of this genre is probably the convoluted pretences and peekaboo sexual disavowals of the romantic leads played by Rock Hudson in “Pillow Talk” (1959) and “A Very Special Favor” (1965). When Britain began swinging, films began to feature gay cameos as representative of the many bohemian types one would expect to populate the trendiest of metropolises. Gay habitués of this stylish world appear explicitly in the case of “Darling” (1965) and in a rather more insinuating fashion in “Smashing Time” (1967).

"Pillow Time"

"A Very Special Favor"

Murray Melvin in "A Smashing Time"

Meanwhile, from 1961-1963, comedy homosexuals began appearing via a new avenue of entertainment. The loosening of social and artistic constriction in popular entertainment was most rapidly realised in the Satire Boom of the early ‘60s. In America, where standards of propriety were more enduring, satire had to be sought out in the big cities in nightclubs, cabaret, and in-group magazines like “The Realist” and “Monocle”. In the UK, satire became common coin, colonising the theatre, achieving groundbreaking popularity on TV, and responsible for the lasting success of “Private Eye” magazine. Satire flattered its audience by suggesting they were intelligent, worldly and adult enough to appreciate its subversive laughter. Satire was the magic word granting respectability upon topics otherwise taboo to popular serious entertainment. It was a new thrill to hear comedians discuss race, religion, and politics, but satire also meant jokes about sexual relations could be employed without being merely “blue”. As the comedian Frankie Howerd noted at the time, “That’s not filth, that’s satire”. Gay allusions crop up unexpectedly, and it is easy to forget that the novel “Catch 22” (1961) eventually pulls the rug out from underneath its queerly suggestive opening lines: “It was love at first sight. The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.” At this point, it’s worth pointing out, whatever the modern audience of today might think of the clichés and crashing stereotypes to be found in the comedy of the 1960s, these were jokes cracked by people who knew homosexuals and believed gays were an oppressed minority. Anyone who disapproved of homosexuality at this time wasn’t going to make jokes about it, since they would have believed it to be a topic too distasteful and unfit for public humour. When someone like Lenny Bruce jokes about “faggots”, it must be remembered he hasn’t really got any better word to use, and that he is broaching new material for his style of honest discussion. Homosexuality is at first comedically acceptable as a social problem.

If previously, writers could barely hint at homosexuality in serious drama, now the freedom to confront it face-on was one of the benefits of the new, more liberal society satire was supposed to portend. Comedy about homosexuals was one of the privileges of smart, adult-oriented humour, and so was actually an indicator of slight acceptance. Humorists almost always avoided disgust, condemnation and the belief that a homosexual was a failed heterosexual. Residual condescension or incomprehension may be trickier threads to disentangle – the pervasive belief that boys will be girls, and that cross-dressing meant gay men really wanted to be women. Effeminacy was a new source of humour. The stage revue “Beyond the Fringe” (1961-1964) raised the banner for popular satire, but even its stage directions couldn’t help falling foul of the censor because of homosexual allusions. A sketch mocking TV advertising with camp male models butching it up was forced to amend its stage directions to satisfy the Lord Chamberlain, responsible until 1968 for approving every English theatre script. The production was informed the actors could not call each other “love”, and changed the stage direction “Enter two outrageous old queens” to “Enter two aesthetic young men”.

Jonathan Miller, Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett and Peter Cook in "Beyond the Fringe"

Satirists would argue for acceptance of homosexuality and ridicule bigotry. American cabaret would look at gay sexual attraction, visits to a gay bars and the problems of coming out to one’s family. The enormously popular British TV programme “That Was The Week That Was” offered a carefully considered reversal affairs by casting a spotlight on “The Twilight World of the Heterosexual”. Being sympathetic didn’t mean that writers were free of out-of-date expectations. Much of the early satire in favour of homosexuals employs rough irony, and homosexuals sometimes received a comic elbow to the face as the humorist’s arm was drawn back to stab at homophobia. While mocking bigotry and panic about homosexuality and gay stereotypes, there was always the temptation to get a guaranteed laugh by indulging those some gay clichés, exercising shared anxieties about perversion and the tell-tale signs of homosexuality.

Indeed, many of the emerging humorists were eager to revive the gay stereotypes that had until recently been taboo. In America, the humorist Terry Southern found homosexuals and stereotypes about them hilarious, although, of course, he knew many as friends. With gusto he re-established the enduring stereotypes and mannerisms. Lisping, bitchiness, effeminacy, and transvestism comically disgraced assorted bastions of macho American pride, making for “insane faggot hassle”. In the UK, the ex-school-boys of “Private Eye” likewise found gay men silly and funny in themselves. References to mincing, limp wristed, fashion-obsessed pooves were scattered about its issues. In its earliest years, “Private Eye” was very fond of throwing the word “poove” around as an all-purpose comic word. It was almost a catchphrase for the magazine - a word they would use which most magazines couldn’t or wouldn’t. They even offered an “I am a Poove” T-shirt for sale. There was little thought given to its use. “Poove” was a silly, slightly transgressive word that would enliven any piece they happened to be writing at the time.

Homosexuality stepped out of the realm of social satire to become a matter of political importance around 1963-64. A number of political scandals of national importance in the US and UK arose whose homosexual elements could not be suppressed. In England, John Vassall had been arrested for spying for the Russians. He had been blackmailed because of his homosexuality, and it could not be kept from the papers. The homosexual element of the 1950s Burgess and Maclean “Missing Diplomats” crisis had been omitted at the time. Since Vassall’s homosexuality was front page news, editorial cartoonists and satirists could now claim the right to also treat the same material. Now we start to see the entrenchment of longstanding jokes about the British navy, Establishment and civil servant being riddled with ‘em, as popular cartoonists discover how they are going to portray a recognisable homosexual. Gay spies were in the air and 1963 also saw Ian Fleming give his blessing to Cyril Connolly’s attentive gay parody of James Bond, “Bond Strikes Camp”, in which Bond is forced to dress as a woman and seduce an enemy general. The US had its own anxieties about gays in the government, the “Lavender Scare”, and there was a profusion of coarse gags when President Johnson’s closest aide was arrested for soliciting sex in a public toilet in 1964. In all of these satirical critiques there was the recurring consideration that if homosexuality was legalised then many of these scandals would not have happened.

By the mid-1960s camp clichés are well on the way to being firmly established, as old associations are revived about camp behaviour and theatricality. For many, a certain type of theatricality is identical to camp and therefore homosexuality - bachelor actors with perpetual smiles and twinkly eyes, whose humour of irony, triviality and aestheticism alternates between blithe chirpyness and passive/aggressive bitchery. The male models of “Beyond the Fringe” were full blown caricatures, complete with cries of “Whoops!” and limp wrists. The assorted media types who crop up “A Hard Day’s Night” (1964) elicit a few stinging, knowing comments from the Beatles. 1965, however, was the breakout year for “camping it up” and “camping about”. The public would soon know instinctively that camp was gay, and gay was camp. Camp, as both an aesthetic and a particular word, had obviously existed prior to 1965, but Susan Sontag’s much discussed “Notes on Camp” (1964) gave it popular currency. 1965 saw the appearance of several mass-market entertainments allowing critics the opportunity to throw around their new-found familiarity with camp, at ease that the general public would know what they meant, and which also meant they didn’t have to use words which directly referenced homosexuality.

Victor Spinetti in "A Hard Day's Night"

“The Loved One” was intended to be the break-out black comedy of 1965. In Terry Southern the film shared a writer with 1964’s success “Dr Strangelove”. (Rumours persist that the weak President in “Dr Strangelove” was originally intended to be more obviously fey, while some critics took General Jack D. Ripper’s concern about “loss of essence” and impotence as suggestive of homosexuality). The idea that camp was an in-crowd style led a number of critics to think that “The Loved One”’s smarmy, creepy “faggot” grotesques were for the benefit of gay audiences and might exclude the straight crowd. Since its director Tony Richardson was bisexual, the co-writer was Christopher Isherwood, and half the cast (Gielgud, Liberace, Tab Hunter, Roddy McDowell) were gay, this may not be a wholly erroneous assumption. The sprinkling of gay stereotypes in “black”, “sick” and irreverent comedies and brash satires of the 1960s is not merely because there is a growing license in sexual matters in society but because the films are often either written by Southern, adapted from his works, or else the film-makers are trying to capture the same tone. They are usually brief but unfairly noisy and histrionic eruptions. Candy” (19 68) features a riot in transvestite bar. “The Magic Christian” (1969) features a homoerotic stripping Hamlet, two kissing wrestlers and Yul Brynner in drag singing to Roman Polanski. Polanski’s comedy “The Fearless Vampires” (1967) offers Herbert von Krolock, a foppish, flirtatious vampire intent on the young male lead. Mel Brooks’ “The Producers” (1968), a send-up of the theatrical world offers a theatrical couple, the bombastic silly transvestite Roger De Bris and his “assistant”, the haughty, preening, hissy queen Carmen Ghia, both also casting glances at the male lead. The homosexuality of Severn Dardin’s Soviet spy Kropotkin in “The President’s Analyst” (1968) is largely incidental, and the character is a positive play on audience expectations. It seemed in the late 1960s every other stylish thriller/crime caper featured some sort of camp or gay character adding a little titillation of perversity and outré mannerisms to plain criminality: Dirk Bogarde in “Modesty Blaise” (1966), Eric Porter and Murray Melvin in “Kaleidoscope” (1966), Eric Portman in “Deadfall” (1968), Noel Coward and “Camp Freddie” in “The Italian Job” (1969), George Sanders in “The Kremlin Letter” (1970), and Martin Balsam in “The Anderson Tapes” (1971) (besides the non-gay but camp villains of the TV series “Batman” and “The Monkees”).

Roger de Bris in "The Producers"

Yul Brynner in "The Magic Christian"

Hebert von Krolock in "The Fearless Vampire Hunters"

1965 in England saw the arrival of Julian and Sandy (played by the gay actors Kenneth Williams and Hugh Paddick) on national radio, eventually achieving audiences of 15 million. The two characters appeared in regular sketches on the show “Round the Horne” (1965-1968) written by Barry Took and Marty Feldman. Julian and Sandy were two camp men, who, besides delivering the show’s usual broad puns, unusual innuendoes, double-entendres, extravagant characterisations and catchphrases, also introduced an unwitting British public to the gay slang Polari. The daring in the appearance of these sketches was that previously there had been an outright ban on gay characters on comedy radio shows. In 1949 the “Green Book” set BBC policy for variety writers and producers. One of its commandments was that there was “an absolute ban upon jokes about effeminacy in men” (so unspeakable is homosexuality the word’s not even used in its censorship). Any jokes about gay men in light entertainment (as distinct from satire) had to be sufficiently ingenious they would escape the notice of BBC officials. The sketches usually involved Kenneth Horne visiting some new commercial venture - Bona Books, Bona Pets, Bona Drag, Bona Law, etc. As Horne entered, Julian (Hugh Paddick) would say "Ooh hello! I'm Julian and this is my friend Sandy!" Sandy (Williams) then following with “Why Mr Horne, how bona to vada your dolly old eke”. The pair were bright and chirpy, offering a torrent of polari and barely concealed innuendo to the bemused Horne’s questions. The characters were originally conceived as two aging out of work actors, but the producer thought the characters were too sad and suggested making them younger "chorus boy" types. Instead of being posh, nancy-boys, the two were gossipy queens, slightly bitchy, speaking in a camp East End demotic laced with Polari. They were among the first of their kind to reach a mass audience. The exuberance of the performances was funny itself without the audience necessarily being in on secret gay codes.

Hugh Paddick and Kenneth Williams

Julian and Sandy stand out as being the only recurring identifiably gay characters up to this point in popular entertainment. Kenneth Williams’s earlier turns in Tony Hancock’s radio and TV shows are too bizarre to classify. Casual, throwaway gay gags start to crop up more readily in comedy shows in the late 1960s as homosexuality gradually became more mentionable. Alan Sues was “Laugh In”’s “resident pansy” (1968-1972), contributing assorted nelly one-liners. Likewise, in the UK, at this time the enormously popular and long-running radio sketch show “I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again” would usually reward any mention of the words “gay”, “camp” or “poof” with some simpering retort or bitchy “ooooh”ing. Even “Mad” magazine and the horrendously stolid “Punch” realised that gags about homosexuals wasn’t going too far. The gay stereotype had reached the point that a comedy queen was usually some flaring bitchy, narcissistic monster (as repeatedly portrayed by cameos by Tim Brook-Taylor and Graham Chapman), corresponding to the new figures in such contemporary films about the gay lifestyle as “The Boys in the Band” and “Staircase” (both 1969). These brittle, self-loathing, pitiable psychological cases are reflected in Barry Humphries’s stark but intelligent portrait of the horrors of the closeted life, his character Brian Graham. This brand of homosexuality is noted for the gossipy vindictiveness encapsulated in “Valley of the Dolls” (1967) deathless line “You know how bitchy some fags can be”. While America had also established its own idiosyncratic belief that “Bruce” was THE stereotypical gay name.

"Brian Graham"

Alan Sues in "Laugh-In"

Part 2: 1970s

1 comment:

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