Lights, Cameras, Homos: Homosexuality and Hollywood

On Thursday, March 12th, at a well-attended conference, a day-long series of three panels on “Homosexuality and Hollywood” was held. The panels were chaired by the conference organizers, Robert Lang and Peter Bowen.

The conference had three different goals: 1) to document an important aspect of the presentation of lesbian and gay life in popular American culture from the 1920’s to the present, 2) to show the extent to which this was part of the history of male and female gender roles; and 3) from the perspective of film studies to illustrate the complimentary and discordant roles of the director, the producer, the scriptwriter, and the actor in delivering a film.

The first panel of the day was a presentation by Ed Sikov on male homosexuality in American screwball comedy starting with Chaplin and ending with Some Like it Hot. Sikov made the point that acting styles by character actors often brought in homosexuality after censorship had excluded it as a specific topic from scripts.

The second panel began with a meditation by Judith Mayne on the public images of Dorothy Arzner. the one major lesbian director in the age of the studio system. George Custen followed with a learned archival piece showing in detail the way in which the producer’s concern for marketability could censor and transform the lives of homosexual men in film biographies. Mandy Merck, with lively detail on the organization of the male pornographic film industry and some vivid clips, analyzed the presumptions in the recent well-received gay male film, More of a Man, where explicit male sexuality is the purpose of the film.

The final panel was loosely organized around Hitchcock’s films. Hilton Als read a long poem on The Birds, accompanied by film clips. Patty White raised the issue of the relative absence of lesbianism in film tradition and Tom Kalin used Rope to explore Hitchcock’s influence on later American films.