The gay romance in The Omen (1976) begins in the first scene, when paparazzo Keith Jennings (David Warner) waxes indignant at the excess with which Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck), celebrates the birthday of his five-year old son, Damien. But then he discovers a more serious problem: some of his photographs show ominous shadows pointing at people associated with Damien, and soon they end up dead!
Keith approaches Thorn with his findings, and for some reason the Ambassador believes him, and instantly drops his professional duties to accompany Keith on a jaunt across Europe. They interview nuns, raid an old Etruscan graveyard, and sleuth out clues to discover the evil force behind the deaths: little Damien is the Antichrist!
Meanwhile their relationship becomes increasingly intimate, at least on Keith's part. He quickly drops the “Ambassador” for “Robert,” but Robert does not once call Keith by his first name. Keith frequently gazes doe-eyed at the handsome but troubled Robert, but Robert does not gaze back. Even in 1976, I could read the signs of unrequited love.
In the novel, Keith is a slimy, despicable cad, but David Warner plays him as quirky and likeable, as a somewhat naïve champion of the underdog. More interestingly, the novel spares us no detail about Keith’s rabid and perverse heterosexuality, but in the film, he displays not a hint of heterosexual desire; indeed, a middle-aged photographer who wears a colorful gabardine long after Carnaby Street has become passé, never glances at a woman, and casts doe-eyes at his male companion, could hardly be anything but gay.
Keith and Thorn share a hotel room – it is odd that the wealthy ambassador couldn’t afford separate rooms. After a heavy day of sleuthing, Keith returns to find Thorn lying on his bed, facing away; he has just been notified that his wife committed suicide. “Robert,” Keith says, tentatively. The camera tightens on Thorn’s face, obscuring the rest of the room as he struggles with his grief. I was certain that Keith had drawn him close and was hugging him tenderly.
In the novel, the conflict lies between Thorn’s “perfect” heteronormative world and gay outsiders attempting to destroy it. In the film, the conflict instead lies between a decayed, effete heterosexual practice and the awe-inspiring potential of same-sex desire. The Antichrist bodes the end of men loving men – “man against man until man shall be no more" – and that very love saves the day. The Satanic act that finally convinces Thorn to rid the world of the Antichrist (by killing Damien) is not his wife’s suicide, but the decapitation and symbolic castration of his male friend Keith.
The discoherence between film and novel is especially interesting when one considers that David Seltzer, who wrote both, associated same-sex love with the Unpardonable Sin itself. In the novel, we hear that Father Tomassi, a missionary in southern Africa, “broke the primitive laws of God and Man” by having an affair with a Kikuyu youth. Realizing that God, who is evidently heterosexual, now hates him, he has no recourse but to join a satanic coven and help orchestrate the birth of the Antichrist.
Though Seltzer proved himself the antithesis of a gay ally, the rest of the cast and crew were somewhat more gay friendly. David Warner has played a variety of quirky outsider characters, recently specializing in villains with sophisticated accents (see him in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles). Gregory Peck, whose Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) was supposed to be about homophobia before studio execs closeted it into antisemitism, was a long-time champion of gay rights, and in 1997, at the age of seventy-one, he became a presenter at the G.L.A.A.D. Media Awards.