‘Hollywood Pride’ author says there is still ‘a long way to go’ in regard to LGBTQ+ representation

by STEPHEN WHITTY
alonso duralde interview

ALONSO DURALDE

It used to be called “the love that dare not speak its name.”

It may be difficult for some straight people to imagine that silence today. The gay community is represented in politics, literature, music and drama. Movies with gay and trans themes regularly show up in theaters; some even get Oscars. (Recent winners such as “Poor Things,” “The Whale” and “Everything Everywhere All at Once” all featured queer themes or characters.)

But how far has Hollywood really come? And how much further does it have to go?

Alonso Duralde’s terrific new book “Hollywood Pride: A Celebration of LGBTQ+ Representation and Perseverance in Film” (TCM/Running Press, 336 pp., $40) has some answers. And while its author told me he finds onscreen signs of hope, “the real-life struggles continue. And, cinematically speaking, there is a long way to go in terms of telling the stories we need to tell, in exploring the histories we need to examine, from our perspectives.”

For this year’s Pride Month, here are some of his other thoughts, condensed from a recent conversation.

Q: Let’s talk about an era a lot of casual films buffs may not be aware of — the silent era and early ’30s, where you actually saw LGBTQ+ characters and relationships onscreen. Was there more acceptance back then?

A: Not really. The dawn of cinema coincides with the Oscar Wilde verdict (for “gross indecency”), so the movies operated under the shadow of systemic homophobia right from the start. You did see more gay characters during this period than later on, but in American movies they were still almost a joke. In Europe, you sometimes saw films that tried to portray gay life in a more compassionate way, like “Mädchen in Uniform.” But then the Nazis swept in and they clamped down on that, too. Although I think the Nazi concern with “Mädchen” was more its overall portrayal of disobedience to authority, rather than its lesbian schoolgirls.

The cover of Alonso Duralde’s “Hollywood Pride” book.

Q: That era ended with the start of Hollywood’s Production Code in 1934. Suddenly, everything was subtext, and when gay characters did emerge it was either as comic sissies or effete villains. How do you view these actors and those movies now? Are they just sort of gay minstrel shows, or do they have value?

A: Those portrayals are definitely still divisive, but I’ve always been of the mind that when the official stance is we don’t exist, I will support any way to sneak us onscreen. Even a character that we may look at today as a negative portrayal, at least it’s still a portrayal … I want to stop this erasure from history for LGBTQ+ characters and actors and people behind the scenes, and really acknowledge them. There’s this push among a lot of the Make American Great Again people to portray our community as this dark, nefarious thing out to destroy American life as we know it. Well, we contributed a great deal to American life as we know it. To American movies as we know them.

Q: What’s funny is that this straight ’50s fantasy many people have of the perfect America is based on movies starring people like Rock Hudson and Tab Hunter.

A: Exactly!

Q: Something that still disturbs some fans of classic movies is when you suggest their favorite stars weren’t 100 percent straight — I remember my own mother relying on euphemisms like “confirmed bachelor.” What are the ethics of outing? When is it important to talk about Claudette Colbert’s close relationships with other women and when is it just being a gossip?

A: I don’t think knowing more about people is ever a negative. You know, some people will think, “Where did all these gays come from all of a sudden?” Well, we’ve always been here. We just had to shut up because the law and the church and our jobs told us we had to. It’s good that we can talk about it now.

I have to give it up to TCM, because they pitched the idea of this book to me and I was, like, “Do you know what we’re getting into here, guys?” But they were great. We agreed early on what we were doing, and what we were going to look to as trusted sources: published interviews, or people who knew them. I don’t see any negative side to getting that information out there. And, as a fan, if you can no longer love Claudette Colbert movies because of that … well, that’s something for you to think about. And maybe bring up with your therapist.

Q: Still, coming out remains a difficult decision for many working actors. Does what Rupert Everett said years ago still hold? That you can’t build a career as a young actor once people know you’re gay?

A: I can’t discount his experience. He knows firsthand what coming out meant for him. And there is still absolutely this weird assumption in Hollywood that you can be openly gay and a character actor but you can’t be a romantic lead. I think times are changing, though. We’re constantly seeing evidence to the contrary. I mean, Neil Patrick Harris played a womanizer on “How I Met Your Mother” on TV for years and his being openly gay and married to a man in no way impeded that. I think audiences are way sharper than the business gives us credit for.

Q: Things began to change in the ’60s, but I don’t think the new stereotypes were any better — you had crossdressing psychos, and self-loathing lesbians killing themselves. In your book, you even title that section “Maybe Invisible Was Better.”

A. At the time, the Production Code had ended but while you could now portray queer characters and queer lives, the movies were still being mostly made by straight white men. So we were visible, but only as villains, or laughingstocks. The clichés have changed, but they’re still out there — like the sassy gay best friend in the romcom, who has nothing better to do than spend all his time cheering up the lonely straight girl. It’s changing, but like everything else in society, it changes slowly. Once you get more gay and trans filmmakers, I think you’ll see more of a difference — just like when more Black filmmakers got involved, we saw a difference in representation there. I’m very excited to see this new wave of trans filmmakers, for example, and movies like “The People’s Joker” and “I Saw the TV Glow.”

But so far the real steps forward have come in independent film. Studios are still concerned about, “Can we play this movie in Asia? Will the censors give us trouble?” Or they’re like Marvel, bragging afterwards about this one gay character they did manage to include, in some big group scene. “Oh, you didn’t notice him? You must have blinked.”

Q: Speaking of representation, how is the portrayal of trans characters changing? And who gets to play them? I love John Lithgow in “The World According to Garp,” but he’d probably never be cast in that role today.

A: And I think it’s a good thing we’re moving past that. As trans activists have said, far more eloquently than I, having a known cis actor playing a trans character sort of enforces the bad idea that sexual identity is just a masquerade, that it’s something you can put on or take off, like a costume. Besides, we have a lot of great trans performers now, many of whom aren’t getting cast as cis characters. So if you’re not going to cast them as cis characters, you better cast them as trans ones.

Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz in “the Mummy.”

Q: You explain why movies that aren’t specifically queer, in terms of their cast’s sexuality or their story’s subject matter, nonetheless become community touchstones — like “The Wizard of Oz,” or “All About Eve.” But what surprised me was the affection you say bisexuals have for the 1999 version of “The Mummy.”

A: That was a revelation to me, too! I went on social media and basically said, “Hey, bisexuals, what’s a bi cult film?” And overwhelmingly the response was “The Mummy.” I’m not bisexual so I didn’t suspect that, but it seems that for a lot of people, going to that movie and seeing Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz just hit them. Go figure! Ask a bisexual, maybe they can explain!

But that’s the thing about movies; there is the film that people make and the film that we see. And while filmmakers may have thought they were making one thing, once they hand it over to the audience, it’s ours.

Alonso Duralde will be a guest programmer on TCM on June 21, introducing “Sylvia Scarlett” and “Gay USA”; and on June 28, introducing “Caged” and “Happy Together.” Visit TCM.com.

For more on “Hollywood Pride: A Celebration of LGBTQ+ Representation and Perseverance in Film,” visit hachettebookgroup.com.

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