In his chapter on Judy Garland in Heavenly Bodies, Richard Dyer talks of how he and a generation of homosexual men learned how to be gay by learning a particular way of appreciating Judy Garland. One might be born homosexual but one learns how to be gay. Discourses on film stars in a particular period were a way of learning how.
One could also gather this knowledge then from finding particular ways of appreciating a variety of stars. See for example the fan-boy tizz Christopher Isherwood gets into at the thought of meeting Lana Turner in his diaries or Tab Hunter’s account in his biography of being gobsmacked at the sight Marlene Dietrich when he met her by accident at Dot Records were they both recorded; or simply look at Rock Hudson’s duet with Mae West at the Oscars. Each leaves a trace of a process of learning how to be gay, each which involves an element of camp.
For later generations the learning of an identity involved the particular significance to gay men of what Cher or Liza or Diana represented (Warhol’s diaries are fascinating on this). For later generations still, Madonna, or later than that Britney. I’m to old to know who the current gay divas are and I’m not sure if in the West they’re even necessary. But they once were. And every country had them. Think of how Dirk Bogarde writes of Jessie Matthews, what María Felix meant to gay subcultures throughout Latin America, or the cult of Arletty in France. In Spain, during the late Franquist period, that figure is Sara Montiel.
In Bad Education, Almodovár dramatises this beautifully when, after they’ve acknowledged their attraction, the young boys Ignacío (Nacho Pérez) and Enrique (Raúl García Forneiro) go to the talismanic Cine Olympo to see Sara Montiel, in Esa Mujer/ That Woman (Mario Camus, 1969). She plays a former nun, who renounced the order but now wants to return. Who she asks, will remember her sins now? But it seems the mother superior does, and can’t forgive, ‘It is not God who rejects you but I…In the name of my order!
The boys share an appreciation of Sara: ‘Sara is so beautiful’; what they’re watching is a performance of femininity, one which involves transgression, being sexual, behaving against established norms, sinning against religion, being outcast and surviving. Below, in the middle of their first sex act, Almodóvar intimates, that the boys already know all of this, that Sara is teaching them. It will foreshadow and rhyme with what will happen to them subsequently.
Later in the seminary dorm, where the boys’ beds are filmed like coffins with crosses, indicating that the Church, which should be protecting these children, is in fact damaging them in many different ways that are each a kind of death, Ignacio tells Enrique, ‘what we did in the cinema wasn’t right’. ‘I liked it’. ‘So did I. But I think it was a sin and God will punish us’. ‘I don’t believe in God’ ‘What do you believe in?’ ‘I’m a hedonist’. ‘What’s that?’ ‘People who like to have fun’. But that fun will also lead them, like Sara, to being cast out, rejected, and unlike Sara, not all will survive.One’s hurt will become the other’s film.
Our first introduction to Sara happens in fact earlier in the film, extra-diegetically in Gael García Bernal’s title credit at the very beginning of the film (see above), and diegetically, in the first flashback, which is done narratively through Enrique Goded (Fele Martínez) reading the story, but which we will later learn is in fact a film within the film.
The first presentation of Gael/fictional Ignacio/Angel as Sara is already done prismatically, through several kinds of refractions that distance even as they compose a mosaic of a figure and a memory. It’s a spectacular unveiling of a drag version of a star persona. ‘She defines herself as a mixture of desert, hazard (which is also the fictional name of Enrique’s production company — El hazar, S.A.) – and cafeteria,’ says Paquita (Javier Camará), accentuating the camp, and then she presents, ‘the mystery, the fascination of the one and only Zahara’.
It’s also done through camp, and one can see several discursive characteristics of the term displayed in the clip above: aestheticism, detachment, irony, theatricality, frivolity, parody, effeminacy and sexual transgression, a sub-cultural form of communication here at play in different registers in a mainstream bar (see Fabio Cleto’s excellent introduction to a historiography of the term in his introduction to Queer Aesthetics and the Performing Subject: A Reader. It’s worth reminding ourselves of Sontag’s characterisation of the term as a ‘private code’ and a ‘badge of identity’, or as Richard Dyer and Jack Babuscio would see it later, as a subcultural form of communication not available to everyone in the same ways.
According to David Bergman in Cleto’s collection, there are a few points of agreement when it comes to accounts of what ‘camp’ is and how it functions: ‘First everyone agrees that camp is a style (whether of objects or of the way objects are perceived is debated) that favours ‘exaggeration’, artifice’ and ‘extremity’. Second, camp exists in tension with popular culture, commercial culture and consumer culture. Third, the person who can recognise camp, who sees things as campy, or who can camp is a person outside the cultural mainstream. Fourth, camp is affiliated with homosexual culture, or at least with a self-conscious eroticism that throws into question the naturalization of desire’.
The unveiling of Ignacio/Angel as Zahara through Jean_Paul Gaultier’s costuming of Gael García Bernal and Almódovar’s filming of it is quite extraordinary. We first hear the music to one of Sara Montiel’s biggest hits, ‘Quizas, quizas, quizas’, then the camera pans up a trail of see the back, glistening with sequins on a figure hugging dress, accentuating the bum. Then Zahara turns around and we see what is meant to connote her sex, here depicted as an irregular and out of place triangle of tightly-coiled material. Next to it is the red carnation Sara was so famous for. Zahara brings it up to her lips and as she does so we see the externalisation of faux breasts, hiding the breasts beneath, which we know to be falsies. Zahara then begins to sing one of the songs most associated with Sara Montiel, in that breathy, naughty ironic way, hiding and revealing, indicating transgression whilst hiding that which it promises to reveal, so characteristic of Sara herself (see clip below)
What I want to draw attention to is Almodóvar’s extraction of a key set of characteristics entirely associated with one star — Sara Montiel — in a re-enaction of those characteristics — so meaningful to so many, yet so little known by Zahara’s audience in the bar and to so little effect — that is not just a re-enaction of Sara by someone else but a performance through Sara’s star persona that creates and communicates something new but largely only to those in the know (and I say this not only via reference to the customers in the bar in the clip above but as someone who’s taught the film in England to students who know nothing of Sara Montiel).
I include the clip above to indicate some of the characteristic Sara-isms (from Varietés) and the process by which Ignacio/ Angel goes about learning them (see clip below)
I also want to indicate a difference in the way that the boys’ shared appreciation of Sara is part of the process of learning to be gay and the way Angel/Ignacio sets about learning about how to perform Sara. Both are inductions into a culture. And Angel/Ignacio will have to learn about how Sara is meaningful before being able to perform her in a way that is legible to an audience. But the difference is that the young boys see Sara as a way of making sense of their lives and being able to survive society’s judgment of who they are through what she represents; For Angel/ Ignacio, heterosexual but gay for pay, it’s a queerer experience: it’s something that can be learned, and he will learn it, he’ll be able to express it through what it means to others but not to himself, it’s so meaningful that he’s willing to kill for it, but only as a means of gaining success, not as a way of living through, working, through, surviving, identities that are marginalised and oppressed. There’s much more to be said about this, remember Angel/Ignacio’s line, ‘you don’t know what it’s like to grow up with a brother like Ignacio (feminine, transvestite in the process of becoming transsexual) in a small village’. And of course that must have been difficult. But imagine what it must have been like to be Ignacio himself. I suppose that’s the difference in the learning how to be Sara that’s most salient to me from that of the boys in the cinema to that process of learning/imitating/performing gendered identity that Angel/Ignacio/Zahara undergoes.