Mar 4, 2013

Revisiting Brideshead Revisited

January 18th, 1982, a Monday night, the second week of classes in the spring semester of my senior year.  I'm lying on the bed in the attic room my brother and I once shared -- he's married and gone -- reading Ciro Alegria's El mundo es ancho y ajeno (Broad and Alien is the World) and watching tv on our small portable set. Nothing on network but two boring tv movies and MASH, so I turn it to PBS.

And I find Brideshead Revisited, an adaption of the Evelyn Waugh novel about 1920s Oxford undergrad Charles Ryder (Jeremy Irons) falling in love with the flamboyant, teddy bear-toting, alcoholic Sebastian Flyte (Anthony Andrews).

They run away to Venice together; they go slumming in Soho, along with Sebastian's sister Julia.  Then Ryder begins a romantic entanglement with Julia, and the outraged Sebastian dumps him and runs off to Morocco.  Later he hooks up with a sleazy German named Kurt, and later still he dies.  Ryder can't marry Julia because she's Catholic and he's an atheist, so they just live together.  Later he becomes Catholic.

I'm mesmerized.  Sure, no one Says the Word, but it's obvious to everyone around them, even Sebastian's mother, Lady Marchmain.  And in 1981, surrounded by the hetero-horniness of workplace sitcoms and the murderous drag queens of dramas, just seeing two men involved in a romance was a triumph.  And they walked arm in arm, cuddled, kissed, even went nude sunbathing.

Thirty years have passed.  I've studied a lot of LGBT history and literature, and watched a lot of gay movies, and I've found that you can't go home again. Today I strongly dislike Brideshead.  Sebastian is certainly gay, but a decadent wastrel who ends up dead.  Ryder may fall in love with him, but then he moves on to Julia.  Evelyn Waugh, who wrote the original novel, believed that gayness is a phase -- adolescents, newly potent but forbidden access to the opposite sex, naturally turn to each other.  Their brief period of quasi-romance ends when they move on to "mature" heterosexual love.

In 2008, the BBC aired a new version of Brideshead, with Matthew Goode (left) as Charles Ryder and Ben Wishaw (right) as Sebastian.  This time there's no subtext: Sebastian is gay.  But there's also no romance: Ryder is heterosexual but pretending to be interested in Sebastian to gain access to his vast wealth.

 It's more honest -- and there's a lot more nudity -- but nothing can match the joy of seeing overt same-sex romance on tv for the very first time.

See The Death of Peter Pan, about another doomed love in 1920s Oxford.

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