Oct 6, 2012

Sitting Ducks

The animated series Sitting Ducks (2001-2004), based on Michael Bedard's book,  had a clean, uncluttered line usually seen in programs aimed at young children, and it aired on Nickelodeon in the early afternoon hours usually reserved for young children.  But it was one of the more subversive of the cartoons of the era, offering a strong social critique reminiscent of Animal Farm and Maus.

The Premise:  although alligators usually prey upon ducks, they need the winter clothing that the ducks manufacture from their feathers, so they have promised to stay away from Ducktown.  A few renegade alligators sneak into town to hunt the unwary, or try to lure ducks out of town where they’ll be fair game.  Alligator-duck antipathy runs high, and the truce could break down at any moment.

The protagonist in this uneasy world is Bill, a quiet, sensitive duck.  He has a trio of wacky friends,  but he is still lonely, until one night he is attacked by a renegade alligator named Aldo.  Bill manages to defend himself and break Aldo’s tooth, and his kindness afterwards -- offering to get the tooth fixed -- convinces Aldo of the ducks’ innate “humanity.”  The two become friends.

At first their friendship consists of playing bongo drums and a board game called Squaddle, but soon it develops into an intimacy rare in animation.  Bill casually rubs Aldo’s belly; Aldo puts his arm around him in the movies.

One of the scene in the opening montage shows an alligator and duck kissing – not Aldo and Bill, but still, it underscores a reading of the two as romantic partners. Some scripts suggest that they are living together:: they say goodnight to other friends at the end of the evening and are seen together at breakfast; Aldo rearranges the furniture.

Their relationship is overtly romantic.

In “Feather Island,” Bill is despondent because the town’s redneck police officer has threatened to jail him if he sees Aldo again, so his duck friend Bev tries to cheer him up with a treasure mapy.  The "treasure"  turns out to be Aldo: it was all a hoax, orchestrated by Bev to give the two some time together.  Police disapproval, the threat of jail, and Bev’s straight gal-pal concern emphatically code Aldo and Bill as a same-sex couple.

In “Close Encounters of the Green Kind,” has the duck Wattle dress as an alligator to date an alligator girl. Bill and Aldo firmly support the relationship, specifically comparing it to their own.  They encourage Wattle to “come out” as a duck to his girlfriend.  She is not bothered by the idea of interspecies romance, but the relationship ends when her father finds out and tries to eat Wattle.

In “Oh Brother, What Art Thou?,” Bill is jealous of Aldo’s alligator-only men’s club, so he puts on an alligator disguise and crashes.  He is so witty and charming that the alligators all love him, and vote to make him a member.  Overwhelmed by their acceptance, Bill decides to “come out.”  But then his new friends try to kill him.  Aldo rushes to the rescue, and is banished from the club forever for daring to bring in a duck.

But the most emphatic episode is “Duck Lover,” in which Aldo and Bill are accidentally outed as a couple.  Bill is ecstatic: “we don’t have to hide anymore!”

The ducks, liberal, well-educated, and generally sophisticated, “tolerate” the relationship, except for a few heterosexist (or alligator-ist) jokes and behind-the-back put-downs.  Among the working-class, conservative alligators, however, they face slurs, jokes, and angry taunts about their “unnatural” relationship.  Some of the alligators even scheme to “straighten Aldo out” by getting rid of “his favorite little friend.”

Michael Bedard has also released calendars, posters, and original paintings about the same-sex alligator-duck romance.

See also: I Go Pogo: The Gay Possum of Okefenokee Swamp

Oct 5, 2012

Things Were Rotten: Dick Gautier in the 1960s

Dick Gautier, a fixture of 1970s comedy, found himself in the spotlight recently, when the Game Show Network aired a 1972 episode of The Match Game.  Guest Gautier had to fill in the blank n the question "Doris just got married and found out her husband was a __."  He said "fag."

Back in 1972, it wasn't homophobia that caused a ruckus; it was revealing the existence of gay people.

But there's no evidence that Gautier was more homophobic than other heterosexuals in the 1970s; it was only three years after Stonewall, one year after the first gay character on tv, and "things were rotten."

Besides, he had a lot to offer to gay kids in the 1960s and 1970s.

1. He was handsome, with dreamy hair and a dazzling smile.  Not to mention hunky (seen here in the musical South Pacific).

2. He had a number of roles in television or movies that minimized heterosexual interest and emphasized buddy-bonding, such as the robot secret agent Hymie on Get Smart (1966-68).

Or as Hal Walters, best friend/confidant/object of rescue of reluctant superhero Stanley Beamish (Steven Strumphill) on Mr. Terrific, which lasted for only 17 episodes in the spring of 1967.

3. He starred in the Mel Brooks series When Things Were Rotten, which lasted for only 13 episodes in the fall of 1975.  A parodic treatment of the legend, it offered a Robin Hood who would prefer hanging out in Sherwood Forest with his merry men to wooing Maid Marian.

Dick Gautier had over 500 guest shots in sitcoms, dramas,  and game shows,  voiced dozens of cartoons, composed popular songs, acted on Broadway, drew caricatures and wrote a dozen books, including a murder mystery, No Laughing Matter.  He can probably be forgiven for having the same prejudices of many people in his generation.

Oct 4, 2012

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

I just saw Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966).  I knew that it was written by gay playwright Edward Albee, that it starred gay ally Elizabeth Taylor, and that some people said that her character, Martha, could be read as a drag queen living incognito with sullen college professor George (Richard Burton).

It actually works better with Martha and George both as bisexual, or rather sexual opportunists, willing to have sex with whomever will further their goals.

They invite a newly hired professor and his wife over, ostensibly "for drinks" at 2:00 am -- a little late even for the Swinging Sixties -- but with the real goal of seeing which one they can destroy first.  They'll do whatever it takes -- seduction, dredging up traumatic memories, revealing secrets.  Apparently they make a regular game of it.

The couple arrive -- tall, hunky Nick (George Segal), and his mousy wife Honey (Sandy Davis).

First Martha seduces Honey.

Honey needs to use the bathroom, so Martha escorts her upstairs.  She takes an extraordinarily long time, and returns with a dazed expression.  Other people use the downstairs bathroom, and are back in a few minutes.  What exactly was she doing up there?  "Oh...um, Martha gave me a tour of the house."  Where's Martha?  "Oh...um, she's changing clothes."

It doesn't take a lot of imagination to figure out what was going on up there.

Honey spends the rest of the evening drunk, barely aware of what's going on.

Meanwhile George starts on Nick.  He decides that the best tactic will be to convince Nick that he's gay, either through seduction or innuendo.  So he refers to Nick as handsome and muscular, puts his arm around him, puts his hand on Nick's knee, literally puts his hand on Nick's crotch.  Meanwhile he interrogates Nick about why they have no children -- could it be because he doesn't care for sex with women?  -- and why they married in the first place -- could it be because he needed a screen?

Later they go out into the back yard, and George tells a story about a beautiful, cherubic boy he knew 30 years ago, in the military -- obviously a confession of homoerotic desire meant to parallel George's real or pretend attraction to Nick.  After more implications that Nick has a "secret," they lie side by side, their faces so close that they are almost kissing, and confess that they don't care for their wives, they prefer the company of men.

But that's as far as it goes.  Nick goes back into the house, not quite convinced that he's gay.

The second half is tedious, overacted, and not nearly as much fun.  Seeing that George failed at his destruction attempt, Martha takes over -- seducing Nick in full view of his wife should do the trick!

Apparently this isn't in the rules.  Martha got to destroy Honey, so George should get Nick!  George is livid, and decides to change the game plan by destroying Martha.

They have a son, a beautiful boy, now a rowdy sixteen-year old.  Except he's fictional, make-believe, a folie-a-deux created out of their despair at not being able to have a child of their own (here Martha as drag queen makes sense).  So George "kills" the boy.  Martha is devastated.

Why didn't Nick and Honey just leave when things got weird?  Maybe on some level they were enjoying the game.  Maybe they wanted to be destroyed. They realize that they hate each other as they walk out into the daylight.

The game over, George and Martha go upstairs to bed.  

If it ended as Nick goes back into the house, it would be one of my favorite movies, a camp classic. As it is, you just get really tired of these people and their make-believe tragedies.

Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

British radio personality Arthur Dent is having a bad day. First he must lie down in the mud in his bathrobe to keep his house from being bulldozed, and then his friend Ford Prefect pops round to tell him that the Earth is going to be destroyed. Soon. In a few minutes.

 Still in a muddy bathrobe, he allows Ford to teleport them both to a passing Vogon cruiser and escape. The Vogons, who hate stowaways, torture them with bad poetry and then eject them into space. 

 But not to worry: in a staggering improbability, another spaceship happens to be zipping by at that precise moment, and they are rescued in the moment before they suffocate. 

 In another staggering improbability, their rescuers turn out to be Ford’s cousin, a two-headed hipster named Zaphod Beeblebrox, and Trillian, a ditzy blonde with a Ph.D. in astrophysics. In another staggering improbability, Arthur knows Trilian: he had been chatting her up at a party in Islington six months before when  she left with Zaphod. . . .

And so on. Douglas Adam’s anarchic Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy began as a 1977 radio series, then became a 1981 television series (which I saw during the 1980s British invasion that also included The Prisoner, The Tomorrow People, and Monty Python's Flying Circus) and a five-part novel series (1979-92),. It sent Ford and Arthur to a restaurant at the end of the universe, a prehistoric Earth settled by advertising executives, an Earth that is really a giant computer manned by rats, and many more wildly improbable worlds. 

In the radio/tv series and the first two books, the two are inseparable companions. Never in the course of their adventures do they suggest that they might find amenable planets and part company, nor do they ever exhibit a romantic interest in anyone else. 

 In later books, Arthur becomes increasingly insistent about heterosexual practice -- he even goes at it with a girlfriend while floating in midair -- and he grows to despise Ford, parting company with him as often as feasible. But Ford (on television the androgynous, purple-eyed Elf David Dixon, Ariel in BBC’s The Tempest) does not engage in heterosexual practice at all.  

And his attachment to Arthur (Simon Jones), his insistence that they remain together, never seems to diminish. Indeed, he seems to engineer hassles just so Arthur will have to depend upon his intergalactic expertise. And one must wonder how the whole chain of events began in the first place: 

Before the Vogons arrived, Ford spent fifteen years on Earth, researching an entry for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a sort of hip interplanetary encyclopedia (his entry consisted of two words: “Mostly harmless”) . No doubt he acquired many friends, associates, and lovers. One morning he discovered that the Earth would be destroyed. He then devoted valuable escape time to seeking out Arthur, explaining the situation as best he could, and bringing him along. Why did he choose Arthur? Why not a famous physicist, or another friend, or some girl from Chelmsford? 

 For that matter, why anyone at all? Why not transport himself directly onto the nearby Vogon cruiser, and escape? No explanation is ever given, but for the gay teenagers of the 1980s, a simple one came to mind: Ford is in love with him.

Oct 3, 2012

The First TV Tarzan

After doing three Tarzan movies, Mike Henry turned down the opportunity to become the first tv Tarzan, so NBC hired tall, lanky 28-year old Ron Ely (no relation to Rick Ely of The Young Rebels) to play the Lord of the Jungle, and 10-year old Manuel Padilla Jr. as his kid sidekick Jai, and scheduled them on Friday nights in the fall of 1966.  They faced stiff competition from the beefcake-heavy Wild Wild West and the overtly homoerotic Green Hornet and Time Tunnel,  but still they did well.

Comic book and novel tie-ins were ordered, and they were renewed for a second season.

This Tarzan was a crime fighter, battling mercenaries and jewel thieves, tracking down fugitives hiding out in the jungle, making sure that traveling missionaries, scientific expeditions, religious pilgrims, and even circuses got to their destination ok.  There was lots of beefcake, of course, but not a lot of bonding -- Jai was too young, and the jungle was otherwise occupied by male scoundrels and females in need of saving.

Gay kids continued to watch Wild Wild West.

At the end of the second season, Ron Ely, who had been injured dozens of times by the "tame" animals he worked with, called it quits.  The network chopped some of the episodes into movies, and that was the last of Tarzan on tv until 1991.

Ron Ely continued to act on television for many years, and in 1975 he portrayed another legendary hero, Doc Savage, on the big screen.  Later he launched a new career as a writer of hardboiled detective novels.

Manuel Padilla, Jr. continued to play soulful-eyed Hispanic or Indian kids through his teens, in The Flying Nun, Bonanza, Gunsmoke, and American Graffiti.  His last role was in Scarface (1983).  He died in 2009.

Billy Gray

Of the teenage boys who populated 1950s sitcoms -- Jeff (Paul Petersen) on The Donna Reed Show, Wally (Tony Dow) on Leave It to Beaver, and so on, Bud (Billy Gray) on Father Knows Best (1954-1960) was the most assiduously coded as gay.  He was shy, quiet, frequently called a "sissy", and full of secrets; he spent a lot of time hiding in the basement or even in "the closet."  He had no interest in sports, and his mother overprotected him (a 1950s signifier of gayness).  He had a series of best buddies, but not a girl -- he recorded a song with the line "I'd rather have a pal than a gal -- anytime."

His parents didn't try to jump-start his girl-craziness, but told him to play the game, to pretend to be heterosexual regardless of what he may feel.

In "Bud The Snob" (1955), the family learns that Bud never talks to girls at school.  This "problem" could have two explanations: he may like girls so much that he gets tongue-tied around them, or he may not like girls.  The family's solution is to force him.  Sister Betty tries to get him to talk to a girl on the telephone, but he runs for the closet. "You can't keep running away!" she yells.

In "The Matchmaker" (1955), Bud declares that he never intends to marry, arguing that he will be perfectly happy living with his buddies.  Dad scoffs: "You haven't got a chance!  If a man wanders around unmarried, every woman in the world takes it as a personal insult!"  That is, you don't need to experience heterosexual desire; you will marry a woman, regardless.

In "Bud the Wallflower" (1956), the 18-year old declares that he doesn't like girls, and plans a camping trip with his buddies to avoid a Sadie Hawkins dance.  But one by one his friends get dates and drop out.  When his best friend Kippy (Paul Wallace) accepts a date right in front of him, Bud is heartbroken.

But he can't hold out forever; he has to learn to play the game.  By the fourth season, Bud has become adept at ogling girls, pretending to have crushes, going out on dates.  By the time of "Bud the Romeo" (1959), he has become so effective at wooing girls that he must turn down dates, and they get even by going on an "anti-Bud" strike.  He has become heterosexually adept.  He has arrived.

Years later, Billy Gray revealed that he knew it was all a hoax, that Father Knows Best was misleading people into imprisoning themselves and lying to their children, but he could hardly state his concerns at the time: he was a teenager, and an outsider.  About a year after the show ended, he spent three months in jail for marijuana possession, and no one from the show came to visit except the prop man.  Today, after a long career in music and motorcycling, and many starring roles in movies (including The Explosive Generation), Billy Gray barely mentions Father Knows Best on his website.

See also: Beefcake Dads of 1950s Sitcoms

Oct 2, 2012

Matt Dillon

Androgyny was in during the  late 1970s and  early 1980s -- there was Peter Barton, Michael Gray, John Stamos -- but no one encapsulated raw androgynous erotic energy more than Matt Dillon.  Born in 1964, Matt got his start playing a surly high schooler in Over the Edge (1979).

Edgy roles followed.  He became famous, in a sleazy, controversial way, for Little Darlings (1980), in which he helps some underaged summer-camp girls lose their virginity.  But much more often, the main relationship in his movies was with a brother --  Jim Metzler in Tex (1982), Mickey Rourke in Rumble Fish (1983) -- or a buddy, as in the The Outsiders (1983) and The Flamingo Kid (1984).  Sometimes the buddy-bonding was even domestic.

Never a teen magazine fave rave, but a favorite of gay teens, Matt bulked up, filled out, and moved seamlessly from the world of serious films about troubled teenagers to serious films about troubled adults: a professional gambler, a heroin addict, an ordinary guy caught up in a murder plot, a neo-noir antihero.

And non-troubled adults.  In the comedy In and Out (1997), Matt plays a movie star who accidentally "outs" his old high school teacher (Kevin Kline) during an Oscar award speech -- except his teacher isn' really gay.  Except he is.

Matt remains a reliable presence in Hollywood, nonchalantly recognizing his gay fans, and regularly starring in movies that they enjoy seeing, well-written, well-acted, and with just as much buddy-bonding as boy-meets-girl fade-out kisses.
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