This thought was incurred by the Before Stonewall programme of films at Lincoln Centre and by Guy Madden’s excellent programme of films at Harvard, as well as the suspicion that retrospectives of ‘gay’ films almost always dwell on instances of representation rather than ‘sensibility’ or ‘structures of feeling’ or other elements that are harder to classify but just as clearly communicated, and historically perhaps even more important, as they were a subcultural form of communication but clearly understood through mainstream media, something akin to the minstrelry Henry Louis Gates Jr. describes in Blues, Ideology, and African American Literature, A Vernacular Theory, when he describes blacks donning black-face in minstrel shows and performing to a mixed audience in a way so inflected that the black audience were aware but the white audience possibly not.
I saw Foul Play when I was 14 and it’s the first film I saw which I knew was somehow gay without it having any gay characters to speak of. Today there are many things one can point to: the film’s empathy with outsiders and misfits of all kinds (though some might find the scene above on the verge of being offensive; the film makes amends later); the feminist overtones which then over-hung the incipient gay liberation movement — a girlfriend gives Goldie Hawn’s Gloria a whole array of tool with which to defend herself against male aggression; the San Francisco setting; the way the Dudley Moore character travels through the saunas and discos in search of a quick shag in ways much more characteristic of gay men of the period than heterosexual ones; the type of cinephilia, with its adoring send-ups of thriller/horror tropes; the opera sub-plot and it’s comic use of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado; the plot to kill the pope; the camp humour with which it’s all told; the tracing of this sensibility to its director, one of the first to be openly gay, who had written Harold and Maude before and would later go on to direct such camp classics as 9 to Five and Best Little Whorehouse in Texas before dying of AIDS in 1988: one easily notes the patterns of the films and of the career. Back then, the only thing I could point to was how in the last shot, the extras looked like the pornstars that then adorned the covers of Blueboy or Mandate magazines, and were later to adorn the covers of Falcon videos. As you can see from the clip above — where Goldie Hawn plays a librarian who is being chased for a microfilm she doesn’t know she has by a killer nicknamed The Dwarf — it’s all very gay, in every sense of the word. And one knew it, even then, even at 14 but without quite knowing why.