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. 

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 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.

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.

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