Searching For a Gay Hero

Will Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia make up for his Silence Of the Lambs— and Hollywood’s history of homophobic cowardice?

Mark Freeman looks at Movieland’s hidden queer history in this cover feature of SF Weekly from January 12, 1994


OK, I’m gay and I demand movie heroes who are, too. Is that so much to ask? I’ve been waiting for years and years. Now my hopes have been raised again. Will Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia provide Hollywood’s vindication?

If you watch TV, you’ve seen the trailers for Philadelphia, which opens Friday. It stars Tom Hanks as a junior law partner with AIDS who is “let go” by his elite firm, and Denzel Washington as an ambulance-chasing lawyer, homophobic to boot, who can’t turn down a good case.

Those commercials have been on for weeks now, trying to prepare you for this film’s “difficult” subject matter. And just what is the problem?

Is it the black-on-white pairing of the two protagonists? No. Maybe that was risky in 1958, when Stanley Kramer chained Tony Curtis to Sidney Poitier as two ecapees who hate each other in The Defiant Ones. But by 18HRS  in 1982, or the mega-lucrative Lethal Weapon franchise, such mixed pairs merely provided a zebra motif to an otherwise straightforward action comedy.  Note that the black member of the pair has traditionally been the clownish one, or if not, is sure to die an “honorable” death defending a white survivor. Playing the fool or a Noble Savage has been, since the days of Emperor Jones or Stepin Fetchit, the only role reserved for a black male. Whenever, that is, he is not a sex-crazed murderer—from the “razor-totin’ coon” in D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance to Ice-T as a crack kingpin in Mario Van Peebles’ New Jack City

Sure, there are a few black heroes, like Charles Dutton (TV’s “Roc”) and Danny Glover, but these two actors have pushed hard their entire careers for ethical and positive roles against the “type” cast by Hollywood. And Glover could never have made Mandela or To Sleep With Anger or even the uneven Grand Canyon without the financial success of Lethal Weapon

So perhaps the problem with Philadelphia is that one of its two characters is… gay? Or that he’s afflicted with what is always called “full-blown”–an adjective that, as Freudian Slip, is quite a mouthful– AIDS.

In some ways, gay characters have always been visible, from Greek drama and Kabuki to Shakespeare, when males played all the female roles, and gender mix-ups provided many of the laughs. This tradition continued in Hollywood with fey character actors like Grady Sutton or Edward Everett Horton—you may recall him as the tall prissy one in Astaire/Rogers films who made even Fred look butch, or later as the sardonic narrator of Fractured Fairy Tales on “Rocky and Bullwinkle.” 

In his now-classic text The Celluloid Closet, the late Vito Russo goes back to Thomas Edison’s early sound film, The Gay Brothers 1895, in which two men dance in each other’s arms, then recalls Chaplin’s skirt role in A Woman and Fatty Arbuckle as ingénue in Coney Island. And let’s not forget dear Stan Laurel in nearly every one of his scenes opposite Ollie. Or that wascally wabbit’s love/hate affair with Elmer Fudd, he of the big blunderbuss. Of course, these characters weren’t truly queer; by simply reversing standard sex roles, they served to validate gender as something with only two poles.

As a “sensitive” child of the 1950s and member of the first television generation, I could watch without any danger of finding an overtly gay role model. I was one of a legion of pre-gay fans of the hidden homoeroticism of Disney’s Spin and Marty on “The Mickey Mouse Club.”

I also loved the Dr. Seuss-designed 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, especially when little Tommy Rettig (of “Lassie” fame) puts his head on Peter Lynd Hayes’ paternal shoulder while sitting on his lap, as they sing a love duet. Then Hans Conreid as Dr. T camps it up, stealing the show with his “Dressing Song” featuring such lyrics as “I want my undulating undies with the marabou frills!”. Delightfully nellie, but nevertheless he is the villain. 

I wanted to be the young cobbler’s apprentice who protects the hopeless dreamer Danny Kaye in Hans Christian Anderson, though Hans only has a eyes for a ballerina who inspired his “The Little Mermaid.” This buddy theme also resolved in a sadly heterosexual way in the film that invented teenage-dom, Rebel Without a Cause. I knew the love that sissy-boy Plato (Sal Mineo) showed for his “friend” and savior Jim (young James Dean), after his face-off with Buzz, the cute juvenile delinquent. But Jim finally winds up in Natalie Woods’ arms and Plato, his love for Jim reduced to the merely platonic, of course must still die. Even in 1955 everyone knew that Sal Mineo was a homosexual. But I resent having had to wait decades to find out about James Dean’s erotic male liaisons, as well as Brando’s and Montgomery Clift’s; those three constituted the central antiheroes of that sad and closeted decade.

And then there were Spartacus and my favorite swashbuckler The Vikings, –a film I loved and saw numerous times at matinees. This was decades before videotape!  In Kubick’s 1960 anti-slavery epic based on leftist Howard Fast’s novel, the African-American actor Woody Strode plays a Nubian who sacrifices his own life rather than kill his buddy Spartacus in the gladiatorial ring. The white hero of the title is Kirk Douglas (himself Jewish, but in The Vikings a Norseman playing opposite the Brooklyn-accented Tony Curtis) who goes on to win freedom for all the slaves. This includes pretty Tony Curtis, again, who here flees from his slave-owner Laurence Olivier’s shared hot tub. The decadent bath’n’oysters scene in the script was so suggestive as written by Gore Vidal that parts were omitted until the 1991 re-release—at which time the ever available Anthony Hopkins dubbed Olivier’s voice. Olivier had died three years earlier.

During the era of the dreary Motion Picture Production Code (from 1930 into 1968) explicit homosexuality was verboten in Hollywood movies—as were heterosexuals in bed without at least one of their feet on the floor! Also a strict no-no was any depiction of police brutality. But by leaving sensitive things unsaid (yet not un-thought) censorship actually helped some clever filmmakers. Hitchcock’s tales of terror, for example, rely on audience identification with men who, like Reds or gays, are unfairly persecuted and chased by the authorities. And his bad guys are often at least subliminally homosexual. The two male lovers of 1948’s Rope, based on the Leopold and Loeb case, get away with murder—nearly. Strangers On a Train (1951) starred Robert Walker as Bruno, a fag with a mother complex. Speaking of which, in 1960 Hitch upped that ante considerably when he gave us cinema’s first cross-dressing killer, Norman Bates (played by closeted actor Anthony Perkins) in Psycho. In the field of horror repression turns out to be good for business.

Tony. As over-mothered Norman Bates in the Hitchcock classic Psycho. Or as Tony himself?

As The Code finally came to an end, it was anything goes. 1967 saw a flaming faggot vampire in Roman Polanski’s fearless comic ode to the genre, and Lenny Bruce indelibly limned a delicate Lone Ranger in the animated short Thank You Masked Man. Rod Steiger played the next in what would be a long line of woman-hating transvestite psycho killers in No Way to Treat a Lady (1968). In ’69 two men literally wrestled with naked repressed sexuality in Ken Russell’s Women in Love, based on the novel by sexually tormented D.H. Lawrence. Then two sad loners played by Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voigt had an unacknowledged love affair set against wintry Manhattan in the Warhol Factory era in John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy, from the gay novel by James Leo Herlihy. In 1975 Al Pacino robbed a bank to pay for his transsexual lover’s surgery in Dog Day Afternoon, and in ’82 even Christopher Reeve and Michael Caine had their turn as homo lover murderers in Death Trap, both films by Sidney Lumet. And let’s not forget all the villains who just happen to be queer in DarkmanDead Ringers, DuneBlue VelvetRoad Warrior, even JFK, to name a few. 

The list could go on but won’t; it should serve as a reminder that gay men have always been in the movies in switch roles—both behind and in front of the camera. But we’ve always been either minor positive characters—like the “nice” single neighbor Harvey Fierstein has been playing since Garbo Talks in 1984) or more likely tragic ones who must die or be otherwise punished before the end of the last reel. See Six Degrees of Separation. Really, it is worth seeing.

As with screen portrayals of Blacks, overt homos had to be either ridiculous, evil, dead, or all the above. I find myself wondering if Tri-Star’s publicity budget for Philadelphia had to be so high because the movie features two such “types” as its leads, and nary a real (e.g. White) man. Or maybe it’s just because of AIDS.

Television, in its crisis-of-the-week mode, has so far done much better than Hollywood in confronting the AIDS pandemic. TV produced An Early FrostLongtime Companion (which had considerable success in theaters), And The Band Played On, and TV put Sandra Bernhard on “Roseanne”. During these years Hollywood played the Reagan-Bush game: ignore AIDS and hope the sex fiends and crackheads will dry up and simply “go away”—which the Reagan administration saw as a perfectly acceptable loss.

Dare we hope that Demme’s Philadelphia might give us two characters who are real men, though one is gay and one is Black? Hollywood, of late, has very little experience in portraying actual men, as the heroes it cranks out range all the way from infantile to inorganic, eternal adolescents like Bruce Willis to constipated soldierboy Van Damme or cyborgs like Robocop or Terminator 2‘s Schwartzenegger.

Even with the recent emergence of female heroes in mainstream American cinema (Carol Clover’s book “Men, Women and Chainsaws” explains why teenage boys love this trend in horror movies), lesbianism gets written out of such films as Thelma & Louise and Fried Green Tomatoes. Male homosexuality was likewise deleted from the original novel when “Man Without a Face” was directed by a homophobic has-been (Mel somebody) from Down Under, and the queerness of the source novel will also reportedly be dimmed out in Neil Jordan’s film version of Interview with the Vampire.

A more basic problem lies with the anxieties of straight male moviegoers, or at least with Hollywood’s sense of those anxieties. So let me address that sector of the readership for a moment. Guys, can’t we just admit it? Each of us is more or less queer, with the “more or less” being crucial to our identities. I can hear you muttering, “Those gay guys, all they want to talk about is how everyone’s a fag!” Fine. Can we move on? What I am talking about are: childhood romances; adolescent crushes on same-sex heroes and role models; activity in non-sexual but totally homo settings like male sports, the Scouts, a prep or Catholic school, prison or the military,; plus any past experiences one might rather forget–positive or negative. And ongoing fantasies that don’t quite fit into one’s current relationship status.

I certainly have some dearly bittersweet recollections of girls and women I’ve known and loved. I suspect that most non-gay men harbor deep, and deeply hidden, homoerotic secrets. Certainly, the increased visibility and volubility of an openly gay subculture can threaten such unexamined homo feelings in some non-gay men, and can lead to homophobic acting out. Even for those of us with a live-and-let-live approach to other people’s “lifestyles”, when we sit in a theater and watch a movie we agree to make ourselves vulnerable, receptive to the potent, dangerous force of human emotion. We’ve always seen homosexual images used in movies for thrills or laughs. But undisguised gay sexuality, not despised nor apologized for, that can still be scary.

This is the challenge that Jonathan Demme took upon himself, and Hollywood finally decided to risk. First came the deaths of Rock Hudson, Brad Davis, Tony Perkins, Denholm Elliot and even Liberace (among others), and then pressure from GLAAD and Hollywood Supports. No doubt the industry was also spurred on by the success of gsy themed non-Hollywood products like Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game, Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet and Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine.

Dil on the right, played by transgender actress Jaye Davidson in the 1992 breakthrough film The Crying Game

I have high hopes for the gay content in Philadelphia. Is this despite the fact that Demmne directed the exquisitely ghoulish The Silence of the Lambs? No, it’s because he did. Sure, that film was blasted by queer activists for perpetuating a slanderous stereotype of gay men or trans women as cross-dressing psycho-killers. While rejecting claims that Silence was homophobic, Demme agreed that there is a severe dearth of positive gay images in cinema. Philadelphia was one thing he could do about it. But Silence, as I read it, is one of the gayest films ever, although its queer content is almost always subtextual. And unlike Philadelphia, it is a film we have been able to view already. [Philadelphia was released without press previews.]

Spoiler alerts ahead, in case you’ve not seen The Silence of the Lambs. There is indeed an “out” serial killer in the film, but it’s not Buffalo Bill, who only wants to “skin his humps” of their female integument for the purpose of sadly literal transvestism. It is Hannibal Lecter, the malicious but witty cannibal gourmet, who reads as gay. And in Jodie Foster’s portrayal of FBI agent Clarice Starling, there’s also a very plausibly lesbian cop.

And these are unmistakably the two characters the audience cheers for. We applaud Jodie, both as a fine actress– whether or not she herself is a lesbian, as persistent rumors have it– as a woman who has faced victimization in her real life, and as the character she plays. That is a feminist cop sans red riding hood unafraid to enter the woods. That is where we find her jogging in the title sequence. Starling confronts constant sexual come-ons from men with quiet sarcasm, a tired smile, or the Gable-esque line, “That doesn’t interest me, doctor.” She is the most totally butch person in the entire film. For example, she pulls out her car jack to open a jammed garage door while a husky driver who “hates physical labor” just sits and watches. And then again, her only friend shown in the film is an African-American woman.

By far the more interesting of the two serial killers she stands up to is Anthony Hopkins’ strangely attractive flesh-eating psychiatrist. Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter is the smartest guy in the film and its most cultured character. He has copies of “Bon Appetit” and “Poetry’ on a coffee table in his more-than-maximum security yet interior decorated cell, and blasts Bach on his tape player while noshing on a cop’s face. By the end we are encouraging the effete gourmet and delighting in each of his bon mots, just as teenage viewers root for that direly punitive punster Freddy Krueger in the rather less elegant but still effective Nightmare on Elm Street movies.

Freddy and friends relaxing on the set, where he is keeping his fingers to himself

Interesting to note that what the shackled therapist Hannibal wants from Clarice in exchange for help in tracking Buffalo Bill is personal information. “What is your worst memory from childhood?” he asks her, as the mind-fuck begins. Her agonized answers reveal the death of her father, which left her an orphan at age 10, and then her terrifying memories of watching a “very decent man” her cousin married go on to slaughter innocent lambs on his ranch.

Only after she accesses these memories will Lecter offer a clue about the identity of the serial killer-at-large. “Look for severe childhood disturbances associated with violence. Our Billy wasn’t born a criminal, Clarice, he was made one through years of systematic abuse. Billy hates his own identity, you see, and he thinks that makes him transsexual. But his pathology is a thousand times more severe, and more terrifying.”

Hannibal is indirectly describing his own pathology, yet only after Starling has revealed the personal terrors that led into police work—establishing an essential kinship between the two. Earlier his slime-ball jailor Dr. Chilton described Lecter in simplistic terms: “He is a monster, a pure psychopath. So rare to catch one alive. From a research point of view Lecter is our most prized asset.” Contrarily, Lecter needs Starling to recognize that inner torment and the extremes it can lead one to are simply matters of degree. We are all potential monsters, also possibly heroes.

Hidden queer people are among Hollywood’s most prized assets. Gay men, lesbians and transfolks are symbolic of every viewer’s dark side. Hannibal Lecter provides all of us with an alter ego who can indulge in revenge fantasies we dare not consider. We feel huge satisfaction when he kills a psychopath masturbating in his adjoining cell (who “came” onto Clarice as she passed his cell) by somehow talking him into swallowing his own tongue—and then chowing down on it, perhaps with his favorite favas! And then he dispatches–with gusto–his psychiatric nemesis, who came on to Clarice in the more usual manner.

It is also easy to imagine Clarice Starling as a lesbian fantasy figure, like the buffed-Sigourney Weaver in Aliens or Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2. Buffalo Bill’s function, on the other hand, is less clear. Demme has claimed that Buffalo Bill I s not gay or trans, but this is contradicted in the film. He had a male lover and never has sex with the women who are his fashion victims. He prances naked before a mirror, with his wee-wee tucked well away from sight, and his Miss Priss speech pattern drops to a deep growl when he is angered. Buffalo Bill is a sissy who can’t stand themself. 

This cliché has little to do with gay reality and everything to do with the misogyny sometimes just under the surface in heterosexual men, and also the insecure male’s terror of the mad mincing queen he’s afraid he might somehow become if he admits to any secret and forbidden desires. And it has been an exceedingly effective trope in the service of terror. Perhaps the “positive” characterizations in Philadelphia will be Demme’s attempt at redemption. But will it have anything like the same power as Silence Of the Lambs?

The horror of ambiguity

If nothing else, Philadelphia is brilliantly cast. Tom Hanks is the epitome of “All American” boy. He comes to the film direct from rescuing the genre of straight romance in Sleepless in Seattle. In l988 he became a 30-year-old child in Big and last year he was the manager of Madonna’s baseball team in A League of Their Own. Hanks even did cross-dressing “cute” in an early ‘80s TV drama “Bosom Buddies”—it was to sneak into a women’s hotel. He’s clean-cut, unobjectionable and sympathetic as any mainstream actor can be, now playing a gay man wracked with AIDS who loses his job yet refuses to be a victim. To Hank’s credit, he shocked the prudish David Letterman recently by jokingly claiming that “95 percent of the world’s women and about 22 percent of the world’s men” want to sleep with Antonio Banderas, his screen lover in the film. Right?

Denzel Washington, here playing a heroic lawyer who takes on the Establishment, has been taking “good” roles since 1984’s A Soldier’s Story, and continuing through his portrayal of Malcolm X last year. But the closest Washington has come to a gay scene was the final shot of his Oscar-winning performance as an angry Civil War recruit in Glory, when his body rolls onto the body of his white commandant Matthew Broderick. It is an undeniably tender moment. Of course both men are already dead.

Recently, Washington has been in ink twice on the subject of Black men in gay-identified roles. He was quoted in “Premiere” as advising actor Will Smith of Six Degrees of Separation, “”Don’t be kissing no man.” And in the January 1994 GQ he suggested that it might be less appropriate for a Black actor than a White one to play the gay role in Philadelphia. Hello? Are there no Black gay men out there in your world?

Marlon Riggs and Essex Hemphill in Riggs’ 1989 masterwork Tongues Untied

I have mixed feelings about Denzel’s advice. Like males of every other ethnic group most Black men have non-hetero experiences, or at least fantasies. But he is totally correct in suggesting that there are still so few good parts for Blacks that many African American viewers identify the actor with the role. In any case, I’m glad to see him in Philadelphia. Symbolically, it’s like getting Malcolm X to speak out loud on gay rights and on AIDS. We also know, after all, that Malcolm had a history of homosexual behavior as a boy and of male prostitution as a young man (see Bruce Perry’s 1992 biography). 

Philadelphia may finally show the heroism of a gay man with AIDS confronting the inevitability of his own death, and a Black man confronting his own gay fears in order to fight injustice. We will also soon get the chance to see independent docs that tell true stories of homosexual heroism. Coming Out Under Fire, Arthur Dong’s new documentary, based on Allan Berube’s book about gay men and lesbians in the military during and after World War II, will be the Closing Night film at this year’s Asian American Film Festival on March 10 at the Castro. And the film version of Vito Russo’s The Celluloid Closet will be out as soon as its Academy Award-winning producers and narrator Lily Tomlin raise enough money. 

Vito Russo 1946-1990, activist, Gay Liberation Front to ACT-UP! and founder of GLAAD

Russo, who died of AIDS, devoted his life’s work to exposing Hollywood’s dastardly treatment of lesbians and gays. With Demme’s fable of the City of Brotherly Love, Tinseltown finally joins his battle. I don’t expect a movie geared to “gay tastes” (another revealing turn of phrase) , but instead a real effort to make discussion of homosexuality and AIDS palatable to multiplex America—and offer something a bit less bland than the eponymous cream cheese.


I used to write arts and culture articles and features for S.F. Weekly back before it was bought by the corporate conglomerate that swallowed The Village Voice and then swept across the country defanging most of our “alternative” papers. This would later be the model for the country’s loss of almost all local journalism. Before that, it was a great news weekly, and my editors Andrew O’Hehir for features like this one, and Ann Powers for music and arts pieces, were the best editors I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with. After S.F. Weekly was bought out, O’Hehir quit and joined Laura Miller to start, one of the first and best online magazines until Miller left it. Ann Powers became the music critic at NPR. 

I made some grammatical rewrites and a few cuts during the current sheltering-in-place, but found I was pretty happy about the way this piece read when originally published back in 1994.

Mark Freeman February 2021

bonus photo 1953: Dr. Seuss reads to the cast of imprisoned, piano-playing boys on the set he designed for 5,000 Fingers of Dr.T. A mind-blowing set and a one-of-a-kind film..