Friday, 6 November 2015

Lonely are the queer

This is a paper I presented a couple of years ago in St Andrews. I thought I post it here, more or less unedited (so the language is not all that it could be). Also, I mention important plot points for several films, Girl With Hyacinths, These Three, Tea and Sympathy and The Browning Version, just so you know.


Lonely Are the Brave is a beautiful film from 1961 about a man who was born in the wrong century. In the opening scene he is seen resting on the prairie with his horse, and then a jet plane flies over him, moving us quickly from what we thought was a scene from the century of the steam engine to a scene in the century of the jet engine. However, that is not what this talk is about, I just wanted to explain where the title came from. The talk is rather about the theme of loneliness and how it is connected to queerness.

The history of gay and lesbian characters in cinema has still to be written, or rather it is constantly being re-written. One thing though is that they are much more common than they are given credit for. They are there, more or less hiding. Much has been made about how These Three from 1936, the first film version of Lillian Hellman's play The Children's Hour removed the lesbian aspect from the play. Instead of love between one woman towards another, it became love between one woman and the boyfriend of another woman. But These Three smuggle these queer things into the film. The boyfriend is called Joe, so the woman who was lesbian in the original still get to say to the girlfriend to the boy she fancies “I love Joe/you”. When a truer version was made in 1963 now called The Children's Hour, by the same director William Wyler, it was more modernist and outspoken, but it had not the same emotional punch. Such hidden suggestions and innuendos are common within cinema, not least Westerns.

One thing that has always stood out for me when watching Hasse Ekman's Girl With Hyacinths is how lonely the main character is. This theme of loneliness runs through his films, in his last great film Stöten The Heist there is towards the end a shot of a young woman standing alone in a pool of darkness, surrounded by policemen, asked to give up her boyfriend. But nobody is as lonely as Dagmar Brink in Girl With Hyacinths. This loneliness is a mystery, and it is what intrigues the men in the film, as well as the audience I would suggest. Why is she so lonely? Because she is a lesbian in a time when that was not allowed or, when it was not allowed, was not talked about, or acknowledged.

Recently I watched Vincente Minnelli's fantastic Tea and Sympathy from 1956 and there again was a lonely person, well two actually, but one that is the point here, and that is the main character. I will show you the opening sequence to exemplify.

[In this scene we see the main character, Tom, walk around at a college reunion, where everybody are talking to each other and discussing the past and the future. But not Tom, he speaks with nobody.)

One of the key elements of Minnelli's mise en scène is the multidimensional staging, that there are several things going on at once. Sometimes two simultaneous scenes will take place at the same time in the same long shot. We can see that here.

The film is about a boy who when he was in high school was bullied and ridiculed for being "girlie". The woman in whose house he's staying, the wife of one of the teachers, takes him under her wings and tries to protect him. It doesn't go very well. He was, is, and remains lonely.

So I had both these films fresh in my mind when I watched a British film, the highpoint of director Anthony Asquith and playwright Terrence Rattigan's cooperation, The Browning Version from 1951. This is also a film about a lonely person, in this case a Latin teacher, played by Michael Redgrave in an astonishing performance. I did not think of it at once but at the end of the film I thought “but of course!”.

I would argue that the hidden assumption is that Redgrave's teacher is gay. That this is why he is lonely, that this is why he does not mind that his wife has had an affair.

All these examples are from the 1950s, which was coincidental, although since it is such a golden age of cinema, at least in the US and Japan, it is perhaps not that coincidental. But the thing that connects these three films is the explicit loneliness of the main character and his or her queerness, in different levels of explicitness. There is a lot more of queer subtexts in cinema before the 1960s than is acknowledged. And even when it is fairly obvious, like in Tea and Sympathy it is not seen. Geoff Brown wrote that “the combined forces of censorship and CinemaScope the tendencies threatened to disappear completely”  But he misses the point. It has been criticised for the fact that in the end the boy is “saved” and he gets married. But that is just mentioned in passing. We never see the alleged wife, he is still alone. In the first shot as well as in the last. There is nothing to “reassure” as, there are no heteronormative shots (such as of him with his wife, kissing, or some such).

But actually, the most interesting character in Tea and Sympathy is the sports teacher, the husband. He is clearly a closet gay man, and the most tragic character in the film. The boy is not in denial, but the husband is. In the end his wife leaves him and he now, too, is alone. So even if the boy would get married, what hope is there for that marriage? Marriage is just a blindfold, it will not cure anything, only hide it.

The love that dare not speak its name it was called, and the argument I'm making, an argument that needs to be backed up with plenty of more examples, is that in a time when it could not be pronounced, looking for the lonely characters might help us detect the ever present gay, or queer, characters. I would be interested in investigating this further. One obvious contender is Rebel Without a Cause (1955), to look at the real rebel, Sal Mineo's character, the boy who loves James Dean's character, and with whom he enters a weird relationship, in hiding building up a nuclear family which must end, like all family affairs in Nicholas Ray's world, in catastrophe.

In 1961, in Victim, Dirk Bogarde's character is confronted by his wife about a young man who has committed suicide. The wife wants to know why; is it because her husband and the young man were getting too close? Were they having an affair? He says that the man killed himself because he was blackmailed. She then asks why he was blackmailed; because he was a homosexual? Yes, because he was a homosexual. But who was the other man. Was it you? she asks. He finally succumbs. “I stopped seeing him because I wanted him, do you understand, I wanted him!” Now it was suddenly being explicit. In The Apartment made in 1960, C C Baxter (Lemmon's character) when he asks Fran (Shirley MacLaine's) out on a date she says that she already has an appointment. “With a girl?” he shyly asks. “No, with a man.” she says to which he replies “Well, some of the guys at the office had been talking...” “Well, you tell them every now and then. Just because a girl doesn't..”

Unfortunately this “coming out” led to decades of camp and burlesque, and seldom respect and ordinariness. But what happened to the loneliness? When the cat was out of the bag, the elephant in the room a conversation piece, did the loneliness of the queer character go away? It remains to be investigated.

I'd like to end this talk with my favourite scene from The Browning Version, which shows a rare moment of kindness towards the Latin teacher and its heartbreaking effect.


Such was the talk. In From Here to Eternity (Fred Zinnemann 1953) Montgomery Clift's character says “Nobody ever lies about being lonely.” That is definitely a film to include in this investigation. I will write more on the subject soon.


  1. Interesting and well written as far as I could see. Wouldn't it be possible to argue that the development into "camp and burlesque" is just another facet of the loneliness/alienation?

    1. Thanks! Yes, perhaps, although more alienation than loneliness I'd suggest.

  2. Do you think the development of the queer/trans serial killer (a la DRESSED TO KILL, CRUISING, SILENCE OF THE LAMBS) might be a manifestation of the loneliness/alienation as well? Or is PSYCHO to blame for this trope?

    1. When the queer character is seen as a threat I think there are other issues involved as well, but the alienation is definitely a part of it. But I don't think Psycho is to blame here.