restricted access A Straight Director’s Queer Eye, 1951–1961
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mark harris A Straight Director’s Queer Eye 1951–1961 L et’s start with a contradiction.On one hand,an admission: Including the phrase “queer cinema” and “Elia Kazan” in the same sentence is a stretch. And on the other, an assertion: Any director who, in the space of a decade, put Marlon Brando, James Dean, Montgomery Clift, and Warren Beatty before his camera, two of them in roles that were among the most sexually iconic of their careers, may have contributed more to the (homo)eroticization of the American male movie star than even he realized. It’s tempting to label this underexplored thread within Kazan’s work the Cinema of Inadvertency. The director was, after all, heterosexual and by most accounts a man of robust carnal appetites—the index of Richard Schickel’s excellent 2005 biography includes separate entries for“philandering ” and“womanizing.”¹ He was also (with some notable exceptions) more interested in using film to explore the lives and characters of men than of women. In any number of his movies, from A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and Viva Zapata! (1952) to career-twilight works like The Arrangement (1969) and The Last Tycoon (1976), the protagonists are complex, charismatic men—some brutish, some closed off, some self-loathing, but always assumed to be worthy of deciphering, and treated in a way that quickens your appetite for a more intimate glimpse of them. To make you look at his men the way he wanted you to look at them, Kazan, on occasion, turned his camera into a woman. He sometimes used it as a kind of perspectival stand-in for a female protagonist, attuning it to her viewpoint, her appetite, even her passion. To gaze on Marlon Brando in full rut in A Streetcar Named Desire, or on Warren Beatty, the beau ideal of a full-lipped, sensitive high-school jock in Splendor in the Grass (1961), is to experience them not only through the eyes of Vivien Leigh and Natalie Wood, but through their frank lust. And in those Production Code days when homosexuality was an untouchable subject and gay moviegoers had 104 mark harris to seek solace in subtext,any movie that presented a man’s sexuality through the lens of desire for him (rather than desire from him) could invite gay moviegoers into a parallel ghost narrative in which they could identify with the desire, and even with the desirer. But suggesting that all this was nothing more than an accidental byproduct of Kazan’s taste for powerful and magnetic male characters undercredits the director, who, after all, worked closely on A Streetcar Named Desire and Splendor in the Grass with two gay writers, and who chose, time and again,to return to a portrayal of male sexual attractiveness as something so powerful—a perfume and a poison—that it could drive you mad, as, in a way, it does Blanche DuBois in Streetcar and Deanie Loomis in Splendor. Desire for men in these movies is a kind of sickness, a weakness or fever that,whatever else it may be,is certainly not what the prevailing psychoanalytic orthodoxy would then have called normative. Like homosexuality as Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando) tells his sister-in-law Blanche DuBois (Vivien Leigh) about the significance of the Napoleonic Code in a publicity still from A Streetcar Named Desire. Brando’s aggressive physicality both attracts and frightens the frail and fluttery Blanche. Photo courtesy of the Wesleyan Cinema Archives. A Straight Director’s Queer Eye 105 defined sixty years ago, it’s a deviation that needs to be cured. Even a much saner, more centered woman than Blanche or Deanie can succumb. In A Face in the Crowd (1957), the seen-it-all Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal, never anybody’s fool) falls so hard for the sweaty, sexy bastard Lonesome Rhodes (Andy Griffith), despite his belief that“a guitar beats a girl every time,” that her own temperature rises; she starts to glisten the day they meet.(In a concurrent plotline, Lonesome also seduces, professionally speaking, a man, an uncharismatic beta male played by Walter Matthau.) Only when it’s almost too late does Marcia manage to pull herself out of a death-spiral of attraction . Just as it does at the end of Splendor in the Grass, the fever of desire finally breaks; Marcia, all but shattered by her craving for Lonesome, comes to her senses. In the film’s final shot, Neal...


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