Dec 7, 2012

Gary Conway: Art, Wine, and Bodybuilding


 In I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (1957), #5 on my list of the Top Horror Movies of the 1950s, Whit Bissell plays an obviously gay Dr. Frankenstein who reads of a high school track team dying in a plane crash, exclaims with homoerotic ardor, "All those fine athletic bodies gone to waste," and hustles out to the cemetery to collect the choicest parts.

The resulting creature is not the groaning, green-faced slug of the Universal picture, but a teenage hunk with the "hands of a wrestler" and the "legs of a football player."

Producer Herman Cohen denies that there was anything special about Gary Conway, hired to play the monster; they just went down to Muscle Beach and grabbed the nearest hunk.  But surely it is no coincidence that Gary was studying art at UCLA (a gay-coded major) and posing for the proto-gay magazine Physique Pictorial.

Gary was actually heterosexual (he married in 1958), or, according to the rumor mills, bisexual, but being an art student, a model in publications aimed at at gay men, and a bodybuilder marked him as "gay."


His Monster has a hideously disfigured face but a beautifully sculpted body, displayed as he lift weights, shirtless (Dr. Frankenstein insists that "our main concern is your physique!").  But when he discovers that he has been constructed out of the stray body parts of dead athletes, he begins to cry.  The doctor muses, "We have a very sensitive teenager on our hands.

 Sensitive, code for gay, was not part of the master plan, and comes as an unwelcome surprise.

To remedy the problem of his deformed face, the boy monster and the doctor go shopping for a new one.  They park at a lover's lane, an oddly incongruent same-sex couple amid the heterosexual teens necking to big-band music.  One wonders why they don't just grab a teen hunk from the locker room.  Evidently, they need someone who has engaged in heterosexual practice to give the monster a heterosexual face."  So they unglue a blond prettyboy from his girlfriend's lips and take him back to the lab to become a face donor.

But even after the operation, the boy monster is not a man: he can't stop staring at his image in the mirror and stroking his cheeks.  "Quite handsome!" Dr. Frankenstein agrees.  "Quite, quite handsome!"  Of course, he is not really looking at his own face; he is admiring the beauty of the blond they harvested, that is, expressing homoerotic desire.

He is still a monster, not because he is violent or disfigured, but because he has failed to express the heterosexual desire necessary to become a real boy.  The film ends quickly and ludicrously when Dr. Frankenstein decides to disassemble the boy, ship the parts to England, and reassemble them there.  The boy naturally disapproves, and feeds Dr. Frankenstein to the alligators that conveniently live in a pit beneath the house.  Then he is accidentally electrocuted,dying because he cannot live.  There is no place for a "sensitive" teenager who admires male beauty in the 1950s.

During the 1960s, Gary had guest spots on nearly every Swinging Bachelor Detective drama and starred in Burke's Law (1963-65), as the assistant (but apparently not the boyfriend) of debonair detective Burke (Gene Barry).

In the late 1960s, he appeared on one of my favorite sci-fi programs, Land of the Giants (1968-70), as Steve Burton, pilot of a spaceship that crash-lands on a planet where everybody is. . .well, a giant.  Steve never took his shirt off, but at least he didn't display any heterosexual interest, and he sometimes buddy-bonded with one of the male castaways, Mark (Don Matheson), who became a close friend in real life.





During the 1970s and 1980s, he continued to act, as well as write (three covertly homoerotic Man-Mountain movies, including American Ninja and Over the Top), but he was increasingly involved in his first passion, art.  He also studied architecture and became an accomplished violinist, performing at the Hollywood Bowl.  And, lest anyone forget that he still had a spectacular physique, he posed nude for Playgirl.

If that wasn't enough to keep the multitalented performer busy, he bought a ranch in California, converted it to a vineyard, and developed his own wines.  And he wrote and illustrated The Art of the Vineyard. 

Huck and Jim on the Raft

I don't remember a time when I didn't know Huckleberry Finn.  He was everywhere in my childhood: in a tv series starring Michael Shea, in movies starring Eddie Hodges, Mickey Rooney, Jeff EastElijah Wood, Anthony Michael Hall, and Brad Renfro, in the musical Big River (left).








One Saturday afternoon in the mid-1970s, I saw a weird prepubscent version that reminded me of  Journey to the Beginning of Time . Later I discovered that it was a Russian adaption called Hopelessly Lost (1972).









By the time I was 10 or 11, I began accumulating editions of the novel at garage sales and library book sales, mostly those with cover art emphasizing physicality, broad shoulders and muscular arms gleaming in the late afternoon sunlight. 

I already imagined Huck and Jim escaping from their bondage like Will fleeing the Tripods, and now -- in an eternal now -- rafting slowly, lazily down the Mississippi, free from the pressures of school and "after school sports" and "someday you'll find a girl." The raft became their good place, where Huck and Jim could gaze into each other's eyes, hug, kiss, alone with each other forever. 

But the novel wasn't really about that.  Huck doesn't have any romantic interest in Jim -- he thinks of the escaped slave as a child who needs protection.

He does spend a lot of time evaluating masculine beauty: "Tall, beautiful men with very broad shoulders and brown faces";"men just in their drawers and undershirts, and resting their hands on their thighs easy and comfortable...I never seen anything so lovely."

And he tries to find a lasting romance,  twice.

First he meets and buddy-bonds with Buck, a boy involved in a Hatfield-McCoy feud. They sleep together and smile at each other, and Huck is adopted into his family.  But then he is killed in a feud, and Huck cries and moves on.

Then Tom Sawyer, his old friend from Hannibal. Huck invites Tom to  "come here and feel me."  He does, and "he was that glad to see me again he didn't know what to do."




But when Huck discovers that Tom's Aunt Sally intends to adopt him, he rebels, and decides to "light out for the Territory." It is unclear why  he accepts adoption by Buck's family but not by Tom's. Maybe because he finds Tom immature and annoying.  Or maybe because Aunt Sally wants to "sivilize" him, like Daisy Duck civilizes Donald and Poil civilizes Spooky,  teaching him poetry and etiquette and how to open a checking account.  Love, even homoromantic love, domesticates a man, ends his story with "and they lived happily ever after," and Huck's story must continue.  Or not a story, an image, an eternal now to hang onto when we are overwhelmed by the problems and constraints of life.

We must not remember anything that came before or after, just Huck and Jim, muscular bodies glistening in the sunlight,  as they raft lazily down the river.

Dec 6, 2012

Drake without Josh

Drake Bell is best known for Drake and Josh (2004-2007), the Nickelodeon teencom about two stepbrothers (Drake, Josh Peck) whose devotion, intimacy, and sheer physicality provide a hard-to-miss gay subtext (I've never done this with my brother.)

But Drake had a long career as a child actor before Drake and Josh.  At the age of 9, he he had the starring role in Drifting School (1995), about a school zapped twenty years into the future. More starring roles followed: he played a boy wizard (not a Harry Potter clone) in Dragonworld: The Legend Continues (1999) and a baseball player in Perfect Game (2000). He had guest spots on Home Improvement, Men Behaving Badly, Seinfeld, The Drew Carey Show, Caroline in the City, and many other tv programs.


When he had a starring role The Amanda Show (1999-2001), a variety series on Nickelodeon, he was required to play all of the teen hunks in the comedy sketches.  But then he and Josh Peck developed a teenage straight man-buffoon routine channeling Abbott and Costello, and it stole the show, resulting in their own sitcom.








Drake and Josh propelled Drake into the ranks of the teen idols.  He has released several albums of teen-idol and adult pop songs, including Telegraph (2004) and It's Only Time (2006).  A few of the lyrics are gender-specific (like "Hollywood Girl" and "Telegraph"), but most drop pronouns, making them accessible to both male and female fans.  And some seem to be addressing men:


By the way, I'll no longer ignore you,
I wanted to show you again, I'm your friend,
Sometimes we just pretend.
And all I can say is you save me.






But Drake's film work since Drake and Josh has been disappointing.  Superhero Movie (2008) was entirely heterosexist.  College (2008), where he costarred with Ryan Pinkston, offered substantial buddy-bonding amid the fart jokes, and had the antithesis of a "fade-out kiss" ending; Kevin rejects The Girl to hang out with his male friends.  It was also amazingly homophobic for a movie released during this century.

He does better in his juvenile films, such as The Fish Tank (2009) the live action versions of Fairly Oddparents (Grow Up, Timmy Turner, 2011, and A Fairly Odd Christmas, 2012), and voiceover work (The Ultimate Spider-Man).







I can't say for sure if Drake is a gay ally or not.  But at least he doesn't reach Shia LaBeouf's level of homophobia. When he started a Twitter war with Justin Bieber's fans, he never used any homophobic slurs to describe them, or the pop star.

Dec 5, 2012

The Person Harry Potter Loves Most


Fans of J.M. Rowling's Harry Potter series (1997-2007) often comment on how easy it is to queer the teenage wizard-in-training (played by Daniel Radcliffe in the movie series).

Growing up in a closet, different from the others, with abilities that the adults try hard to pretend do not exist?  Believing that you are all alone in the world until you discover that there are many others, far away, in a good place?


Whether or not he gets a boyfriend, Harry’s experiences certainly mirror those of gay children who grow up in a society that insists there are no gay children.





But he gets a boyfriend.  Fans have noticed a strong current of romantic intensity in the relationship between Harry and his bumbling best friend, Ron Weasley (played by Rupert Grint in the movies).  In the 200,000-plus Harry Potter fan-written romances published on The Fanfiction Website, Ron is the most common object of Harry's affection (His nemesis Draco Malfoy is second, Hermione third, and Ginny, his girlfriend in the actual text, a distant fourth).





During the first few installments of the series, Harry and Ron behave -- and are treated -- precisely as a romantic couple, with Hermione acting as their gal pal.  In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2000), a wizarding contest requires Harry to rescue the “person he loves the most” from an underwater abduction, and the person the all-knowing wizards select for him is -- Ron.

But the moment Harry discovers that Ron is the person he loves most, Professor McGonagall summons him to her office and tells him, with an uncharacteristic urgency, that he must bring a date “of the opposite sex” to the upcoming Yule Ball. She is very firm about "opposite sex."  That is, you may love Ron, but you must not bring him to the Ball.  You must not make your relationship known.

In the world of Harry Potter, gay people exist, but they must find lady friends or gentlemen friends, bring an opposite-sex date to every Yule Ball, enter into a screen-marriage, never for an instant let the world know.  Harry may have escaped from his closet, but every gay wizard, every gay student, every gay child who reads the books is expected to stay in one forever.

The last scene in the last book of the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2007),  depicts all the major characters as adults.  Harry has married Ron’s sister Ginny, so they are now brothers-in-law.  Isn’t that what they really wanted all along?  Meanwhile, Ron has married their other friend, Hermione, and their effeminate antagonist Draco has married an unspecified woman.  All loose ends are tied, all connections are made, everyone has turned out to be straight, or at least pretend to be.   Rowling concludes: “All was well.”

After all of the books in the series were published, Rowling informed the world that Professor Dumbledore, elderly headmaster of Hogwarts, is – was – gay.   No such revelation appears in any of the books, though one could certainly queer his story.  But notice the carefully placed layers of invisibility. Dumbledore is an adult, not one of the children; presumably there are no gay children.. His gayness is revealed after he is dead, so no one has to face a living gay man. None of the other characters were apparently aware that he was gay.  He lived his very long life constantly passing, lying to chums about the girls he liked, finding lady friends, letting the gay students at Hogwarts, and the gay readers, believe that they were utterly alone in the world.

Lost in Space

See Lost in Space

Dec 4, 2012

Homophobic Feminism: The Left Hand of Darkness


During my sophomore year in college, my class in Science Fiction was assigned Ursula K. Leguin's The Left Hand of Darkness (1968).  I already knew Leguin from The Lathe of Heaven (1971), which has a gay vague protagonist, so I expected significant buddy-bonding.  Instead I found homophobia.

A human emissary is investigating the planet Winter, occupied by a hermaphrodite species.  They have no external sex organs until they’re in the process of having sex, at which point either male or female organs protrude.  The protrusions are random, so someone might be male tonight and female tomorrow, but they almost always mirror one’s partner: male organs protrude with female, female with male.  Leguin notes that on those rare occasions when the same sets of organs protrude, the partners halt the sexual congress and shrink back from each other in horror.  Even in 1980, I found such a statement odd.  If the alien thinks nothing whatever about sometimes being male and sometimes female, what would be the horror of male-male or female-female contact?  I found homophobia embedded in a book touted as an amazing feminist manifesto immensely puzzling.


Eventually during the semester I picked up a few other novels, all from the “Hainish” cycle.  Though her works bear some resemblance to those of Marion Zimmer Bradley, they almost entirely eliminate gay content.

In Rocannon’s World (1966), emissary Rocannon is the sole survivor of an enemy attack, and must cross the feudal planet Fomalhaut to get help. En route he gathers several companions, including Kyo, a member of a slight, slender, elvish race called the Fiann.  They ride together on a flying catlike creature, talk softly into the night, and touch each others’ shoulders (the touching of shoulders occurs a lot with authors too homophobic to describe a same-sex kiss).

During a tribal celebration, they develop an affection that sounds very much like romantic love: “Rocannon sat drunk and contented, riding the river of song, feeling himself now committed [to this world.]  Beside him now and then he sensed the presence of the little Fiann, smiling, alien, serene.”   Rocannon is never rescued, so there is no reason whatever for the two to part company, but they do: “between [them] a pattern had come to an end,” LeGuin tells us, “leaving quietness” (92).  She offers no more details, because she has none to offer: relationships between men are by definition transient.  Eventually Rocannon marries a woman.

In City of Illusions (1967), an emissary named Falk finds himself lost, naked and without memories, in the wilds of a barbaric Earth.  He marries a Terran woman, and LeGuin gives us ample passages of them kissing, cuddling, and deriving “infinite comfort” in each other’s arms.  Years later, Falk goes off in search of the rest of his expedition.  He reaches a city occupied by the evil, decadent Shing , an alien species that dresses in garish “transvestite” robes (a detail meant to make readers shudder with dread), and meets the only other survivor, Orry, who was just a child when they crashed.

LeGuin makes Orry only sixteen years old, frail, childish, passive, weak, addicted to garish colors and intoxicants: a gay stereotype.  He has grown up starving for human affection.  He gazes at Falk “yearning and feebly hoping, the look of one perishing of thirst in a dry salt desert who looks up at a mirage” (324).  Any self-respecting hero would at that point hug the boy, if not as an object of desire then as a kinsman, as a fellow prisoner and exile.  Instead, Falk touches him lightly on the shoulder.  And that’s all.

When Falk steals a space ship and heads for home, he takes Orry with him, but not because he cares about the boy, because it would be inconvenient to leave him behind.  Same-sex relations, even the avuncular relationship between older and younger members of the same lost expedition, can be dismissed with startling ease.

Astronauts and Cave Men: It's About Time

I don't remember much from the early 1960s, but suddenly in 1966 everything becomes clear -- playing with Tarzan toys, reading The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet, listening to The Monkees, and scrambling to watch "good tv": Run Buddy Run, Time Tunnel, Flipper -- and It's About Time (1966-67), a "trapped far from home" sitcom from Sherwood Schwartz, creator of the hugely successful Gilligan's Island.

It was about two astronauts who got zapped into prehistory, where people spoke in "ug-ug" broken English and fought dinosaurs.



Mac (Frank Aletter, right) was a sitcom pro, already the star of Bringing Up Buddy and The Cara Williams Show.  He would go on to play Professor Hayden on Danger Island, with Jan-Michael Vincent.
Hector (Jack Mullaney, left) was best known for his role in the beefcake-heavy musical South Pacific (1958), with Ken Clark as the voluminous Stewpot.  He never married and was reputedly gay.

Mac and Hector wore their astronaut costumes most of the time, but sometimes they wore animal skins that revealed tight, firm chests and shoulders.  The cave people also wore animal skins, and in spite of their fright wigs, many muscular bodies were visible in the background.


Here's another picture from South Pacific.  

There was significant bonding: the two astronauts bickered like a married couple, hugged, fell into each other's arms -- and in the twentieth century, appeared to live together.  They gazed with tongue-lolling horniness at the cave family's daughter, but such minor concessions to heterosexism could be ignored.



And there was a "dreamy boy" for the preteens to gaze at.  Pat Cardi, who had just finished work on Let's Kill Uncle, played the cave family's fourteen year old son, Breen.  He wore a fright wing, but his animal skin was almost as revealing as the tight pants on Flipper.  

Unfortunately, it aired on Sunday nights, opposite the last halves of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and Walt Disney, so most of the intended audience was already occupied.

After 18 episodes, low ratings prompted a complete reversal of the premise: the astronauts return to 1960s America, bringing a cave family with them. It didn't help.  So in spite of the ecstatic tv ads and a full run of tie-in toys, games, coloring books, lunch boxes, and the like, It's About Time sank seven episodes later, and was lost to history.  Except for Boomers who can still recite the theme song.

Dec 3, 2012

Clark and Luther: Men of Steel


In TV Guide, we read that Erica Durence of Smallville "can make any man a Man of Steel." If seeing her causes any man in existence to become steel-like, then no gay men exist to find surcease in Tom Welling.  Sorry, Clark.








The writers seem unaware that Tom Welling, a strong gay ally, has not been shy acknowledging his appeal to gay men. He is constantly displayed shirtless, in his underwear, or wearing only a towel, usually in the company of men, with no ladies in sight.
















Furthermore, though no gay characters appeared on Smallville (2001-2011), as is common in the heterosexist world of science fiction, Welling was very open to homoerotic subtexts.  Not with Jimmy Olsen (Aaron Ashmore), as in the comics, but with Pete Ross (Sam Jones III), with whom he sometimes appeared nude.






And then, most famously, with Lex Luther (Michael Rosenbaum).  The two rescue each other, gaze into each other's eyes, hug (while reclining on a bed).


But Lex is looking to Clark for a passionate, exclusive relationship, while Clark's affections are torn between Lex and his girlfriend, Lana Lang.  It is arguably the pain of rejection that sends Lex careening toward the Dark Side.




Boxers and Boyfriends: Joe Palooka

Speaking of boxing, the most famous fictional boxer of all time was probably Joe Palooka in the long-running comic strip (1930-1984).   Tall and immensely strong but gentle and not terribly bright, Joe Palooka was the creation of Ham Fisher, who observed lots of young Polish immigrant boys hanging around boxing arenas, hoping that their muscles would bring them fame and fortune.










In his heyday, Joe was appearing on the radio, in movies (starring Joe Kirkwood, left), in big-little books, and in comic books.

You could buy Joe Palooka toys, gum, lunch boxes, board games, and a cut-out mask on Wheaties cereal.  A mountain near Ham Fisher's home town of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania was named after him.  The town of Oolitic, Indiana erected a statue in his honor.

Joe was originally gay-vague, "allergic to girls," though cheese heiress Ann Howe acted as Daisy Mae to his Li'l Abner, constantly trying to snare him. To 1930s audiences, muscles and heterosexual intrigues simply didn't mix.  Instead Joe was a "man's man," enjoyed buddy-bonds with his sparring partner, massively-muscular Humphrey Pennyworth.

The two adopted a mute orphan named Little Max, who became popular enough to get his own series of toys and comic book title.




By World War II, changing mores required heroes to express hetero-horniness, so Joe married Ann.  And Humphrey became short and round, a comic relief character.

Boxing was no longer a sure-fire audience draw, so Joe moved beyond the boxing ring to fight gangsters, spies, Nazis, and mad scientists.  Eventually he was traveling around the world as an all-purpose trouble-shooter. Sometimes he rescued men.











The comic strip lingered in a dwindling number of small-town newspapers until 1984.  By that time, everyone had forgotten about Joe Palooka.

Except for the college boys scouring the bins at the Comics Cave for beefcake covers.

And the elderly gay men who remembered glimpsing homoromantic potential in their childhood, when they opened the comics page to read about L'il Abner, Flash Gordon, Prince Valiant, and Joe Palooka.