Tag Archives: lesbianism in cinema

Coding Lesbianism in Young Man with a Horn (Michael Curtiz, USA, 1950)

I’ve often wondered why Lauren Bacall was a film star for so long. She’s often stiff, mannered, and really not very good. Of course she’s very beautiful. But, as we can see in later films like Written on the Wind (Sirk, 1956),  she didn’t photograph that well in colour. I suppose that her performances for Hawks in To Have and Have Not (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946) sparked a life-time’s interest from several generations of heterosexual men. And I know from personal experience that a certain generation of lesbians became devoted to her on the basis of her performance as Amy North in Young Man with A Horn (1950).

The film is loosely based on the story of Bix Beiderbecke with Harry James dubbing the trumpet. It’s narrated by Hoagy Carmichael as piano-player Willie Willoughby. Nobody does tortured artists like Kirk Douglas, who’s great here as Rick Martin. The film has a wonderful father/son relationship between Rick Martin and black trumpet player Art Hazzard (Juano Herandez). Doris Day sings. And there is great work from Michael Curtiz and cinematographer Ted McCord: there isn’t an image that isn’t worth looking at. The first half-hour of the film charting the background of Rick Martin, how he grew up and how he learned to be a trumpet player must count amongst Curtiz’s best post-war work.

Lauren Bacall only appears 47 minutes into the film but gets a star entrance and definitely makes an impression, the ‘duality’ in her nature rendered visible and contrasted to the ‘normality’ of Joe Jordan, the character played by Doris Day, already being edged out of the frame here and shortly to disappear from the rest of the picture until the end, once Amy/Bacall disappears from view .

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We know from the beginning that she’s not ‘normal’ because, as we can see in the clip below, she’s rich, highly educated, ‘always talks like a book and likes to analyse everything,’ and speaks of jazz and mass culture like she does here:’there’s something about jazz that releases inhibitions; it’s a cheap mass-produced narcotic’: probably exactly the thing Amy needs. By the terms of American cinema of the period (and now), she’s already a weirdo.

Bacall’s thoughts on Doris are a favourite moment in the film. Bacall’s lit so only half her face is showing: ‘Jo’s interesting isn’t she? So simple and uncomplicated. It must be wonderful to wake up in the morning and know just which door you’re going to go through’. Amy/Bacall is constantly contrasted with Jo/Doris: Amy’s not so simple, her identity is at least dual, and yet to be discovered by Ricky and maybe herself.

When Kirk/ Ricky starts to get involved with Bacall/Amy, Doris/ Jo comes to warn him, ‘She’s a strange girl, and you’ve never known anyone like her before…inside, way inside, she’s all mixed up’; ‘precisely what I told him myself but he wouldn’t take no for an answer’ says Bacall/Amy as she enters the picture. It’s too late they’re married (see below):

But it’s not just the contrast to Jo/Day, or all that the characters speak about her being ‘mixed up’ and ‘strange’. There’s her apartment, even, actually especially, after Kirk/Ricky marries Bacall/Amy.  We’re shown how female-centric the house is, and not just because her florid cockatoo is called Louise. Look at the number of statues that are female Grecian figures, the painting inside and outside her bathroom door that are naked women bathing, even her paintings are of women.

Rachel Mosely pointed out to me something I hadn’t noticed: If you click to a closer look on the image of Bacall playing the piano above, you’ll see that the ancient goddess who is the base of the lamp has an extended broken arm that looks more than a little like an extended phallus, as if to indicate that women provide the only sex and power she needs and Kirk can go blow his own trumpet.

Bacall/Amy doesn’t really like men. We can see it in the clip here below where they embrace. She doesn’t like the kiss, it’s the last time she’ll be honest with him. It ends with him saying ‘call you what?’. I think lesbian audiences knew the answer to that one.

‘How do you know about anything until you try it?’ she tells Kirk/Ricky, presumably about heterosexuality:

At the end, she finds a girlfriend, an artist. She loves her sketches and they’re going to go to Paris together. Kirk finally clocks it and calls her as ‘filth’, ‘dirty’ a ‘sick girl who needs help and better see her doctor’; you can also read the bit about him almost ‘forgetting about his trumpet’ but now ‘getting it back’ metaphorically:

 

When Bacall disappears from the picture, the film starts getting sanctimonious and goes downhill and for a phoney happy ending with Jo/Doris.

Movies of the time couldn’t represent lesbianism directly; and Young Man with a Horn certainly offers mixed messages that could be disavowed to the Hays Office. But it offered enough so that a generation of lesbians clocked and treasured it. The representation is laced with the typical homophobic language and perspective of the period but, as embodied by Bacall,  it also evoked beauty in looks, intelligence, and attitude.

José Arroyo

 

The Cobweb (Vincente Minnelli, USA, 1955)

the cobweb

 

One of those all-star multi-strand melodramas so typical of the 1950s (Not as a Stranger, The Best of Everything, This Earth is Mine). But this one directed by Vincente Minnelli, and perhaps only he could get away with structuring all of the drama around the hanging of drapes: Mrs. McIver (Gloria Grahame) wants some chic ones from Chicago; Miss Inch (Lillian Gish) wants some practical ones, at a discount; and Doctor McIver (Richard Widmark) and Miss Rinehart (Lauren Bacall) have a project to get the patients at the psychiatric institute (Jon Kerr, Susan Strasberg, Oscar Levant etc) to design their own. Charles Boyer is Dr. Devanal, the former head, now usually too soused to do much except letch around between institute and motel room , spicing up the intrigue and thickening the plot as the drapes go up and down.

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Gloria Grahame

The standout performances are Grahame’s, all seething sexual frustration as the girl who every guy but her husband is hot for, and Gish who does something much deeper and complex with her performance of Miss Inch, the administrator desperate to be needed and hiding it all an aggression born out of a lifetime’s neglect.

The worst performance, and its worth mentioning because she spoiled so many 50s movies, is Bacall’s. She’s a sour, haughty and humourless presence here as in so many movies of this period (Written on the Wind) and later (Murder on the Orient Express). Here she looks great, which hasn’t always been the case when photographed in colour. But even her glossy tawny looks can’t hide a performance that is all attitude without emotion and seems composed entirely of poses.

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Bacall *looks* spectacular

 

In interviews, Bacall’s talked about how in this movie Minnelli cared only for drapes and the only thing he contributed to her performance was to move her knee from one side to the other. What she doesn’t mention is that that’s probably the best anyone could have done for her (See her performance in How to Marry a Millionnaire — at least *here* she’s photographed beautifully and looks terrific). Minnelli knew about drapes and about moving the camera and arranging people within the cinemascope frame in ways that are still tremendously exciting to watch. What Bacall accuses Minnelli of is in fact what she herself is guilty of: great surface with nothing evident underneath.

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Sadness, doubt, regret, vulnerability, force of will: all mingle in Lillian Gish’s wonderful face, surely one of the most expressive in film history.

Readers interested in questions of the representation of gays and lesbians in cinema might find it interesting to know that the character played by Oscar Levant, Mr. Capp, was a homosexual fixated on his mother in William Gibson’s original novel. The Hays Office prevented the character from being so characterised in the film. Perhaps because of that, Minelli visually coded the character of Mrs. Delmuth as lesbian in what for the 1950s passed as the strongest and most clichéd terms possible: with the short hair, the men’s shirts and in jodhpurs, wearing riding boots, and later on in the film, at the woodwork shop, working at her lathe. The title of Mrs. a cover and alibi for the visual representation where dress nonetheless trumps address. I at first and tellingly thought the part of Mrs Delmuth was played by Mercedes MaCambridge, one of the most vibrant and exciting signifiers of lesbianism in 50s cinema, but I see that the role is actually played by Jarma Lewis. The confusion is, as I hope you can see below, understandable.

James Dean was originally cast as the troubled young artist but studio politics prevented the casting. John Kerr, who would subsequently be cast as the homosexual youth in Tea and Sympathy, is dull in spite of all the histrionics his character is given to perform, rather a feat.

If the film is a visual treat, the sounds are no less of an achievement: According to Laurence E. MacDonald in The Invisible Art of Film Music: A Comprehensive History, the score for The Cobweb is ‘basically atonal’ and is considered to be ‘the first Hollywood film score to contain a twelve-tone row. The main-title music features two elements that return throughout the score: agitated figures for strings and glissandos on the kettledrums. These elements account for much of the imapct of this score, which is understandably a difficult listening exercise for viewers’ (p. 157′)

José Arroyo

 

La Banquière (Francis Girod, France, 1980)

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A star vehicle for Romy Schneider, one of very greatest of European stars of the 1970’s. La Banquière tells the story of Emma Eckhart, a working-class woman, persecuted for her homosexuality, who becomes one of the great financial wizards of the twenties and thirties before an all-male establishment plots her demise and, failing to outwit her, resorts to murder. The film is a rise-and-fall narrative which combines elements from Baby Face (the uses of sex to facilitate the social and financial rise of an ambitious woman) and career-women films of the 1940s such as Mildred Pierce (the building of an empire almost single-handedly albeit greatly aided by a community of women) though it lacks the energy of the former and the artistry of the latter.

Romy, dressed to love women.
Romy, dressed to love women.

It’s not without its pleasures however: primarily a superb Romy Schneider in one of her most famous roles and greatest hits, Jean-Louis Trintignant as Horace Vannister, the aristocratic villain, and a very young Daniel Auteil as Duclaux, a rather perverse looking and (perhaps thus) amoral young villain-for-hire. The film also has a very interesting look, beginning with a 1970s idea of silent cinema: black and white, energetic tinkling on the piano, the narrative distinguished from the archival footage incorporated into it by showing the latter in the speeded up form typical of shots filmed at 18 frames per second but projected at 24; then, transitioning into a post-WWI world of muted colours and the restrained elegance big money can buy (the Charleston is relegated to speeded-up black-and-white representation) . The Art Deco furniture and bibelots on display are sublime and make one want to pause the film to stare at them (not a good thing really), the clothes are beautiful, and La Banquière is in everyway a sumptuous production. However, it is also one of those films that remind you that many beautiful things inside a shot do not a beautiful or expressive shot make; one sometimes questions if Girod does in fact know what he’s doing with a camera.

Romy in one of her most celebrated performances.
Romy, beginning to be undone by men

La Banquière should be of interest to anyone intrigued by Romy Schneider, the ‘woman’s film’, and/or representations of lesbianism in cinema.  I can’t think of another big-budget, star-vehicle in a period setting where the woman at the centre, the woman who acts and is acted upon, is introduced as a lusty beautiful girl in love with girls, persecuted for that preference and encouraged by her father to lead her own life. We’re shown most of this in the first few minutes of the film: After having been caught in bed by the police with another woman and being brought home in a paddy wagon, her father tells her, ‘don’t be ashamed. They want you to feel ashamed so they can step on you. You’re beautiful, you’re intelligent, the world will smile on you!’. It’s, at least historically, quite an astonishing start.

Auteuil condenses a whole amalgamation of negative stereotypes --  pursed-lipped, prissy, and deadly.
Auteuil condenses a whole amalgamation of negative stereotypes — pursed-lipped, prissy, and deadly.

In La Banquière, all the girls fall in love with Emma, facilitate her rise and/or cushion her fall, and, as Emma is played by Romy Schneider, who can blame them? As the film progresses, she marries for money and status, several times, and has a child, all the while maintaining her primary relationships with women, before we’re shown her desires becoming more labile and expansive. The film is interesting too in that her downfall begins when she falls in love with a man (Daniel Mesguich), younger, selfish, worthless. It’s the type of representation sure to arouse debate in some circles, difficult to categorise and very much worth seeing because of that.

José Arroyo