I’ve riffed on this general point before but 2014 marks the 50th anniversary of the release of Peter Glenville‘s Becket — the most covert “gay” movie ever released to mainstream America in the 20th Century. It was an Oscar-worthy, big-budget historical drama costarring two of the biggest and most respected box-office draws of the day, and both of them Shakespeare-capable — Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole…and nobody in 1964 seemed to even notice, much less write about, the subtext. It flew right by.
Thomas Becket (Burton) and King Henry II (O’Toole) were, of course, portrayed as straight, whoring, wine-guzzling hounds (during the first act, at least, as far as Becket was concerned) but apart from the lack of sexual contact Becket exuded all kinds of gay currents, so much so that many of its dramatic elements and situations re-appeared 41 years later in Brokeback Mountain, the Gone With The Wind of mainstream gay movies.
In the 12th Century men could and did profess “love” for each other without anyone thinking it was romantic or sexual, but if you put that aside and pretend that the “love” spoken of between Becket and Henry II is more than platonic, it all falls into place. Both are in love with each other, but one of them (Burtons’s Becket) loves a bit less. Their sexual drives are hetero to the core and many children are sired on Henry’s part, but nothing approaches their feelings for each other. Becket and his king are constantly pried apart by social-political concerns and things never quite mesh, but the man who loves a bit more (O’Toole’s Henry) can never quit his feelings. He doesn’t know how, and he hurts badly.
And yet it’s a film in which the lead actors share a bed in the first act with one of them suggestively blowing out candles before retiring, and with one of them confiding to the other a few pages earlier that “I can’t bear to think of you in pain.” They argue fiercely during a third-act scene about rejected feelings between them, and during the same act Henry’s disapproving mother accuses him of having “an obsession” for Becket that is “unhealthy and unnatural.”
And then Becket is killed by a group of violent men who despise what he stands for, and finally this longish movie (lasting over two hours) ends with the survivor, Henry, lamenting his dear friend’s passing and talking quietly to his ghost.
With slight variations, the addition of sexuality and of course contemporary western dressings, Brokeback Mountain told more or less the same story.
Both films were distributed by a major studio, and come January of ’65 and ’06 both were honored with a slew of high-prestige Oscar nominations — Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and so on. Everybody admired or at least respected both, and the reviews were almost 100% ecstatic. And both lost to conservative-minded films that appealed to Academy softies (My Fair Lady, Crash), and which have seen their reputations diminish in the years since.
I’ve recited and re-recited this story a dozen times over the last few years, but it still sticks in my craw.
At this exact time nine years ago Brokeback Mountain was building a head of Oscar steam like no other Best Picture contender. Or so it seemed to me and mine. It had premiered in Telluride, Venice and Toronto in September 2005 but wouldn’t open commercially until early December, but everyone knew. It was one of the saddest love stories ever made, one that might have been even more moving for being about closeted gay guys. Everybody knew the truth of what it was saying, which was more or less “if you’ve got something really good going with someone, don’t blow it…don’t hide your feelings, don’t be afraid. Man up.”
It was a love fest, a blossoming. Critical praise, critics awards, big box-office, etc. Around which the whole country, in a sense, seemed to be holding hands and coming together. And then it all started to go wrong. Discussions I had during that period (late ’05 and early ’06) suggested that older Academy geezers were not emotionally comfortable with gay sheepherders, and that they had written it off early on. The late Tony Curtis became the poster boy for this sentiment, famously declaring that “Howard Hughes and John Wayne” wouldn’t like it.” And then Jack Nicholson opened the envelope…thud. I’ll never get over that. Never.