I’m no fan of William Wyler’s 220-minute 1959 version of Ben-Hur, but the lasting impression I have of that Oscar-sweeping title is that it pulled off the sneaky trick of being extremely gay. Truly, it’s almost impossible for an audience—certainly for a gay audience—to view the relationship between Stephen Boyd and Charlton Heston as anything but romantic. And Heston hadn’t the slightest idea.
Of his time polishing up Karl Tunberg’s script for Ben-Hur, America’s most famous intellectual, Gore Vidal, said that he introduced the queer angle to the film to amuse himself and Wyler from the bloated runtime and make the film somewhat more palatable than mere junk.
In the acclaimed documentary The Celluloid Closet, Vidal notes that in that era, people were “very good at projecting subtext without saying a word about what [they] were doing” and that “there are looks that [Boyd] gives [Heston] that are just so clear.” The inferred teenage sexual backstory that Wyler and Vidal had devised comes through as clear as day.
Through the decades before there was the LGBTQIA+ banner—at a time when homosexuality was more or less out of sight and out of mind for the majority of people—queer writers, directors, and actors in Hollywood were putting their own twist on material, slyly introducing queer ideas into mainstream movies as audiences and stuffy industry censors remained oblivious. A year after Ben-Hur, Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus featured an infamous sequence involving man’s preference for snails or oysters (just take a guess), while a full decade earlier, Alfred Hitchcock featured two subliminally gay men as the villainous leads of his thriller experiment Rope.
One of the more tender queer readings can be found in the 1955 masterpiece Rebel Without a Cause, starring James Dean and Sal Mineo. Signalling a shift away from subtext to blatant text, the bisexual (albeit not openly so until the 1970s) Mineo would later star in Who Killed Teddy Bear, a queer, taboo-busting cult title in which he flaunts his muscled-up body across the seedy streets of NYC in 1965.
Like the concept of gaydar, gay audiences could spot these overtones through the glance of an actor, a turn of phrase within the dialogue, or more stereotypical traits like a stylish man. Any gay man at the time, for instance, knew what Tennessee Williams meant when he wrote of one man mourning for another in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, or when he made Sebastian Venable a “poet” in Suddenly, Last Summer (adapted to the screen by Gore Vidal). These were ways for gay artists and audiences to speak to one another before they could do so more openly.
On one hand, it’s great that filmmakers, gay or otherwise, have a much more open landscape within which to work, telling stories about queer characters and ideas that are popular at film festivals and indie arthouses. On the other hand, Hollywood’s biggest movies have subsequently become a wasteland of queer content. Roland Emmerich, one of the only openly gay directors of big budget event movies, snuck a minor gay romance subplot into Independent Day: Resurgence, but other than that, the most significant gay images on screen this year have been those of the bromantic variety in films starring the likes of Zac Efron and/or Seth Rogen.
Kate McKinnon’s character in Ghostbusters is meant to be gay, but the only real proof of this is that director Paul Feig said as much on the publicity trail. McKinnon, an openly gay comedian, does wonders with the role, but studio interference suggests anything relating to her potential sexuality was erased. In the days of Ben-Hur she would be stomping around in a pantsuit, smoking cigarettes and reeling off one-liners that’d make Mae West applaud. Likewise, the characters played by Kristen Wiig, in her buttoned-up outfits (once the sign of the sexually repressed), and Melissa McCarthy's distinct asexuality would have proved a feast for queer audiences to infer from. Sadly, subtext is completely absent, and any efforts to paint characters this way are based on nothing but a desire to read something more complex into the film. It’s a shame, too, since playing with this would have at least given the big budget remake a big point of difference to the 1984 original, a movie in which a man actually receives a blowjob from a female ghost.
The closest we have come in recent years is Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The internet went into overdrive at a scene in which Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron bites his lip at the sight of John Boyega’s Finn, leading to a raft of theories about Poe’s sexuality and the relationship between the two characters. Improvised or not, it was a brief moment of genuine sexual ambiguity that echoed films like Ben-Hur, further spurred on by Isaac suggesting that there is a “very subtle romance” in the film. Compare that to Captain America, a film franchise that audiences keep desperately trying to read with a queer angle, yet which puts forward nothing to suggest any relationship between Steve Rogers and his BFF Bucky is more than platonic.
A more disappointing and more frequently recurring trend is retroactive outing. Another Star Wars actor, Mark Hamill, said that Luke Skywalker's sexuality “is meant to be interpreted by the viewer," adding that "if you think Luke is gay, of course he is.” Meanwhile, author JK Rowling became a sort of misguided gay hero by outing Dumbledore on the press circuit for her final Harry Potter book, despite not putting a single word about it across seven books. This does a particular disservice to queer voices, silencing them and putting the onus of representation of audiences.
It has been nearly 60 years since the most well-known version of Ben-Hur, and if the man behind bombastic fantasy action flicks such as Wanted and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter sounds like a peculiar choice to helm this retelling of this famous story (other versions include a 1925 silent and a 2010 TV mini-series) then you are entirely right. It’s clear the producers wanted something shiny, but also dumb as a stack of bricks. Oh how much better it could have been if Bekmanbetov had devised a way for Jewish Judah and his boy-pal Roman Messala to have had even an ounce of homoeroticism. Sadly, the closest we get is actor Jack Huston in leather pants and hoodie with a perfectly manicured beard looking like he’s getting ready for a night out on Oxford Street.
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