Veteran Straight Directors Whose Work Has Improved Gay Visibilty (And Some Whose Hasn’t)

Thomas Edison may very well be considered the first straight male director to commit a gay image to celluloid when he showed two men waltzing in an experimental test film circa 1895. But by the 1920s, when feature films had gained widespread popularity, such innocent depictions of gay men were rare. Instead, filmgoers saw mostly negative, misleading and hurtful stereotypes ranging from the "swishy queen" to the "killer queer."

While things are much improved today — films with gay themes are box office hits and Oscar contenders — anti-gay clichés and attitudes still make it to the screen all too frequently. AfterElton.com offers a look at 10 past and present straight directors who have seen beyond their own points of view to become champions of the celluloid cause for gay visibility — as well as a few who have remained stuck in the unenlightened past.

(Please note, this article and this site only cover gay and bisexual male visibility. For commentary on lesbian issues please visit AfterEllen.com.)

James L. Brooks

James L. Brooks has proven himself as a gay ally as both a respected film director and a television producer. In 1997's As Good as It Gets, he cast Greg Kinnear as gay artist Simon Bishop, whose cantankerous neighbor (played by Jack Nicholson) steps in as a caretaker for his dog after Bishop is savagely beaten.

Kinnear's character's sexuality is treated as a nonissue, and he is shown to have the same human frailties as the straight characters in the film. It's also interesting to note that the character of Bishop was based in part on Brooks' long-time associate, Robert Moore, who succumbed to AIDS.

Brooks' gay-friendly work extends to television where he produced gay-friendly series including The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Taxi and The Simpsons.

Stephen Frears

Stephen Frears' gay-inclusiveness began with 1985's My Beautiful Laundrette, the tale of Londoners Omar (Gordon Warnecke) and Johnny (Daniel Day-Lewis), school chums who start a love affair and attempt to give a run-down laundrette a makeover in the process.

Frears continued his gay-themed streak with 1987's Prick Up Your Ears, starring Gary Oldman as real-life playwright Joe Orton and Alfred Molina as his lover, Kenneth Halliwell. Frears also directed the gay-friendly movie Mrs. Henderson Presents (which featured a gay supporting character), as well as gay favorites Dangerous Liaisons and The Queen.

Neil Jordan

 

Irish-born filmmaker Neil Jordan's The Crying Game was the most talked-about film of 1992 thanks to the surprise revelation of Jaye Davidson's well-concealed "secret." But throughout his career, Jordan has gone to great lengths to incorporate a wide variety of gay subject matter into his films.

In 1994 he brought Anne Rice's novel Interview With the Vampire to the screen after it languished in Hollywood purgatory for many years, in part due to its homoerotic nature. At one point, in order to skirt the homosexual leanings of its two main characters, there was talk of casting Cher in the role of Louis. Instead, Brad Pitt was cast in the part, and Jordan presented the vampire Lestat's (Tom Cruise) seduction of Louis into the world of the undead with an artful direction that did not shy away from the fact that the two male characters were the epitome of an old married couple. And although Louis' relationship with Armand (Antonio Banderas) was abbreviated for the film, it was clear that the two men were drawn to one another.

In 2005's Breakfast on Pluto, Jordan chronicled the adventures of Patrick "Kitten" Braden (Cillian Murphy), a small-town boy who leaves his stifling existence in Ireland for the bright lights, big city allure of London to reinvent himself as a renowned transvestite cabaret singer and IRA terrorist .

Ang Lee

Ang Lee often infuses his films with a gay sense and sensibility (much like the 1995 costume drama of the same name he directed). And then of course there are the two groundbreaking films in his canon that actually address gay characters and story lines head-on.

The Wedding Banquet (1993) is about a Taiwanese man who marries a woman in order to obtain his green card. But, there's a catch — well, two really: He's gay and is happily partnered. Add in two wedding-hungry parents, and the stage is set for what ultimately becomes a touching dramedy about love and familial acceptance that marked one of the first mainstream gay films not filled with angst and tragedy. In fact, at the movie's first showing in New York before a gay audience, Lee was said to be petrified that the crowd would be angry because the movie was so lighthearted.

Twelve years, later Lee struck Best Director Oscar gold for Brokeback Mountain, a powerful love story between two outwardly straight ranch hands. Lee's achievement was doubly notable as he (along with writers Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana) successfully translated E. Annie Proulx's short story into a moving epic that became a cultural sensation.

Anthony Minghella

Anthony Minghella jumped onto Hollywood's A-list when he directed 1996's The English Patient (for which he took home a Best Director Oscar), an acclaimed adaptation that featured a minor gay romantic subplot.

With 1999's The Talented Mr. Ripley, Minghella presented a thriller that was fraught with homoerotic imagery (Jude Law in a bathtub, anyone?) and an underlying sexual tension between Law and Matt Damon. Minghella could have presented Damon's Ripley as a throwback to the murderous queers of old Hollywood , but under his guidance, a tremendous air of pathos surrounds Ripley's character. Even when Ripley's acts include murder, Minghella's sympathetic handling of the character almost makes you hope that he'll get away with it.

Mike Nichols

Mike Nichols began his filmmaking career directing gay icon Elizabeth Taylor in out playwright Edward Albee's scathing drama Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Throughout his career, he has not lost that controversial edge and has included gay characters two more times, each portrayal offering windows into gay life while being tailored for a wide audience.

Nichols' 1996 remake of the 1978 French film La Cage aux Folles (renamed The Birdcage ) was met with mixed reviews in both the mainstream and gay press; it was, however, lauded by GLAAD for "going beyond the stereotypes to see the character's depth and humanity." The film notably starred a top-of-his-game Robin Williams and a then-closeted Nathan Lane as a gay couple who meet the conservative parents (Gene Hackman and Dianne Wiest) of their son's (Dan Futterman) intended bride (Calista Flockhart).

Nichols' gay-inclusive work also includes HBO's AIDS-related miniseries Angels in America by out playwright Tony Kushner, which deftly dealt with the issues surrounding being gay in America during the 1990s. Nichols not only snagged an Outstanding Director Emmy, but the drama won 10 Emmys overall and was also the most watched made-for-cable movie in 2003. Both the play and the miniseries were watershed moments in how American entertainment dealt with gay issues.

Ken Russell

Ken Russell broke the cinematic taboo of full-frontal male nudity in 1969's Women in Love, which included a scene where the two male leads wrestled naked. This heralded the arrival of a director who was not adverse to including sexuality, even that of a gay nature, in his films.

The 1970 film The Music Lovers, a biopic of Tchaikovsky, told of the composer's plight as a gay man living in a country that prohibited homosexuality. 1975's rock opera Tommy featured Elton John as "The Pinball Wizard" and Tina Turner as "The Acid Queen" — not one, but two gay icons in one movie. Salome's Last Dance (1988) detailed the exploits of famed gay author Oscar Wilde, who attends a surprise performance of his play Salome staged in a brothel.

Russell has also acted in films, and in 1990's espionage tale The Russia House (starring Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer), he played a gay British intelligence officer.

Paul Schrader

Paul Schrader's filmmaking resume is filled with sexually charged flicks. In some instances he has woven complex portraits surrounding the hidden nature of homosexuality, in effect telling audiences it is better to be true to yourself than to deny who you really are.

The Comfort of Strangers (1990) stars Christopher Walken as Robert, a closeted gay man who can only express his longings for the same sex through violence. With his wife, Caroline (Helen Mirren), he befriends a younger couple played by Natasha Richardson and Rupert Everett, pulling them into a web of deception in a series of not-so-coincidental meetings.

2002's Auto Focus depicted the slow descent of TV actor Bob Crane, late of Hogan's Heroes, into making home-made pornography. He is aided and abetted by John Carpenter (Willem Dafoe), who, while he sleeps with women, is clearly enamored of Crane in more than a platonic sense. While Carpenter is oversexed, so is Crane, and nothing special is made out of the same-sex attraction.

Schrader also directed 1980's American Gigolo, which had the honor of being the first motion picture to feature a major star (Richard Gere) doing full-frontal nudity, something noted by generations of gay fans.

Schrader's next film, The Walker, scheduled for release later this year, stars Woody Harrelson as a long-in-the-tooth male escort who happens to be a gay man.

Paul Verhoeven

Given Verhoeven's 1980 drama Spetters and 1992's Basic Instinct, his inclusion here might seem out-of-place and indeed, it was subject to much debate. After all, his Sharon Stone drama did raise the ire of gay rights groups offended by the portrayal of yet another bisexual killer. And Spetters has been seen as very homophobic by some, yet quite the opposite by others.

Spetters is a Dutch coming-of-age flick set against the backdrop of competitive motor cross racing. It is dark and violent and controversial because the film's most homophobic character turns out to be gay, something he admits only after being violently gang raped. Nor is that violence the only incident related to same-sex sexuality that occurs. The fact that the character does come to terms with being gay is a triumph for this complex portrayal, but for some viewers that wasn't enough to override the fact he accepted being gay after his rape.

Verhoeven's The 4th Man is a stylized homoerotic thriller about an alcoholic gay writer who becomes fixated on a handsome young man. It turns out that the young man is the boyfriend of a woman whose three husbands have died mysteriously. Plagued by dreams with heavy religious overtones, the writer wonders if he or the woman's boyfriend will meet the same fate as the other men (becoming the titular fourth man to be murdered) . The film boasts an unforgettable male-male kiss in a crypt, as well as an audacious scene in which the hero pulls the underwear off a flesh-and-blood Jesus (fully crucified) in a church.

Both Spetters and The 4th Man were made in Verhoeven's homeland of the Netherlands , but his sensibilities have surfaced in his Hollywood films as well. While his campy flick Showgirls has been cited as one of the worst movies ever made, it does feature gay supporting characters and has a devout gay following.

Verhoeven also included gay characters in his 1985 film Flesh + Blood and has said the gay characters in this film are the only characters who sincerely care about themselves and each other.

Billy Wilder

Billy Wilder left an indelible mark on the film landscape with a number of films that went on to become gay rites of passage. His portrait of delusional and all-but-forgotten comeback queen Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) in Sunset Boulevard resonates some 57 years later for any gay man over a certain age who feels invisible within his community.

Gay icon Marilyn Monroe was employed to best effect in two different Wilder romps, but it was her role alongside cross-dressing Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot that many consider to be her best work. Aside from being brilliantly funny, the film also boasts some surprisingly gay-friendly elements, including Lemmon's pursuit by a rich, older man who in the end isn't the least bit bothered that his lady is actually a man. The film's closing line, "Nobody's perfect," could very well have been the boldest pro-gay statement ever to have been spoken in an American film at the time.

The film also acts as a keen allegory about the dangers of presenting a certain side for public consumption while secretly pining for the love that dares not speak its name.

Five Who Just Don't Get It

Michael Bay

Michael Bay is best known for directing such testosterone-laden popcorn movies as Armageddon and Pearl Harbor, but a very strong anti-gay streak could also be listed among his filmmaking credits.

The Rock (with Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery) includes a plotline about Alcatraz being overtaken by terrorists. While it would have been nice if a film set in San Francisco featured one gay cop or good guy, gay filmgoers instead get Anthony Clark as a stereotypical hotel hairdresser who is treated as a tired punch line.

Bay's buddy movie sequel Bad Boys II really wanted us to know that Will Smith and Martin Lawrence weren't those kinds of buddies. While under the influence and doing the whole "I love you, man" thing, they immediately need to qualify that it's not in that way.

Additionally, a case of mistaken gay identity stems from Lawrence's character getting shot in the buttocks and a subsequent conversation (recorded by a store surveillance camera) in which Lawrence tells Smith, "it hurt going in." Cut to the shocked store owner reacting with disgust; it's surprising he didn't round up a group of torch-wielding villagers to drive them from the store.

Bay's sci-fi misfire The Island had yet another case of mistaken sexuality, when Ewan McGregor and Steve Buscemi are overheard deep in conversation in a bathroom, leading to the obvious conclusion that they were up to some sort of gaiety. Time will only tell if Bay continues the stereotyping trend in this summer's Transformers.

William Friedkin

William Friedkin may have started out with good gay intentions when he directed 1970's The Boys in the Band, a milestone in gay cinema. But 10 years later when Friedkin directed Cruising, any good will he had generated within the gay community vanished overnight.

In the film, Al Pacino plays a cop sent undercover into the seedy gay world in order to track down a gay serial killer, only to become a gay killer himself. To this day, Cruising holds the dubious honor of being one of the most negative portrayals of the gay community ever committed to celluloid. Ironically, Friedkin has been quoted as saying that both The Boys in the Band and Cruising were "not about homosexuality," a comment which help secured his place on this list.

Mel Gibson

Gibson has twice been taken to task for homophobic content in movies he has directed, starting with 1995's Braveheart, which falsely depicted Edward II of England (a homosexual man) as effeminate and weak. The film also included a scene where Edward's male lover is hurled to his death by Edward's father, an event that did not actually occur.

The Passion of the Christ's Herod Antipas is portrayed in a stereotypically homophobic fashion, slathered in eyeliner as he minces around surrounded by an entourage of scantily clad young men at whom he leers lecherously. To make matters worse, Satan is portrayed as an androgynously feminine man, again caked in makeup. While Herod is played for laughs as a fop, Satan is a homosexual menace, even featuring a snake slithering up phallically between his legs.

While he didn't direct Bird on a Wire, Gibson's homophobic performance as a gay hairdresser certainly adds to his reputation as someone willing to offend the gay community.

Alfred Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock made a name for himself as "the master of suspense," but on three separate occasions he used gay characters as villains or to create tension with homosexuals as "other."

In 1948, Hitchcock "tackled" the Leopold and Loeb murder case in the fictionalized Rope , a take on the real-life gay killers, that connected the young men's sexuality directly with their murderous intentions.

In 1951's Strangers on a Train, it is evident that Robert Walker is gay and just a tad smitten with tennis pro Farley Granger. Rather than ask Granger out on a date, he enlists his crush in a murder scheme. A year later Martin Landau and James Mason were also portrayed as gay, again to define them as "other" and threatening. It can be argued that Hitchcock was simply a creature of his time, but his portrayals of gay men were so offensive — and never balanced by anything more positive — that he merits mention here.

Steven Spielberg

 

Steven Spielberg is widely considered to be one of the greatest directors of our time, thanks to block-busting pop culture masterpieces such as Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan and, of course, the original blockbuster, 1975's Jaws.

Yet for all his achievements, Spielberg has fallen far short in representing gay people in his films. In fact, the closest he's come to featuring a gay story line in a movie was The Color Purple (1985), in which Celie (Whoopi Goldberg) is attracted to her husband's mistress, Shug — a relationship that was largely de-gayed from the way it was written in Alice Walker's novel.

The lack of a single clear gay story in his massive body of work speaks volumes about his commitment to gay visibility.

The New Generation

Gaining fair and balanced visibility in mainstream films is a gradual and arduous process, and a new generation of filmmakers has emerged that will look to its mentors for guidance in how they handle gay material.

While filmmakers such as horror auteur Eli Roth (Hostel), comedy breakout Judd Apatow (Knocked Up) and action helmer Zack Snyder (300) have raised eyebrows over their cavalier (or it is progressive?) handling of gay themes and characters, directors including Edgar Wright (Hot Fuzz), David Wain (Wet Hot American Summer, The Ten) and Jonathan Dayton (Little Miss Sunshine) have shown that straight young Hollywood has learned a thing or two about treating gay characters and themes with respect.