One of the reasons the second season of Sense8 continues to be so enjoyable is that it’s not only intriguing, enticing and wonderful to look at but it’s also giving us so much to think about. In the clip I extracted below, film star Lito Rodriguez (Miguel Ángel Silvestre) has been outed when pictures of him having sex with his boyfriend are photographed with a telephoto lens and leaked over the internet (raising all kinds of questions about the rights to privacy in the current digital, inter-webbed era). Soon his agent drops him and instead of getting leading roles in big-budget action movies, he now gets offered small roles (9 pages) of drug dealers, drug addicts, or other unhappy people on the edges of criminality who basically fulfil a plot point and kill themselves whilst giving the real star of the movie a chance to shine. It’s not unlike the situation of gays and lesbians in Hollywood cinema that Vito Russo so eloquently described and analysed in The Celluloid Closet almost half a century ago.
We have to assume that these filmmakers — so well versed in the art, economics and politics of Hollywood filmmaking — know what they’re talking about. And yet, we are on the one hand invested in wanting stars to be out, and indeed to out them – think of the pressures on Jodie Foster from the 80s until she came out recently and on people like Tom Cruise and John Travolta and so many others right up to the present; On the other hand, we also like to point to those who are out and whose careers don’t as of yet seem to be affected by it. Think of Cynthia Nixon on Broadway, or the success with which Neil Patrick Harris played heterosexual Barney Stinson in How I Met Your Mother, or how we applaud when Colton Haynes and Charlie Carver, both from Teen Woolf ,come out. We also like to indicate how the film careers of people like Ian McKellen’s didn’t suffer at all: as he likes to point out, he didn’t really have much of one before he did.
But it might be good to compare like with like. There might be differences in the parameters a TV star is allowed to operate within, ones that might be greatly expanded in the theatre, and ones much more severely limited for film stars. The fact is we still don’t have a film star, one who is currently commanding the best film roles, having film built around him/her, one who puts people on seats and is the focus of marketing, who is currently out.
We do know that Rupert Everett blames the decline of his starring career in films on choosing to be out. In 2009, Everett told The Observer: “I would not advise any actor necessarily, if he was really thinking of his career, to come out. The fact is that you could not be, and still cannot be, a 25-year-old homosexual trying to make it in the British film business or the American film business or even the Italian film business.” This caused the expected backlash with people arguing that he had a perfectly good career. However, no one knows his career better than Everett does himself, and whilst he continues to be a celebrity in various fields and arguably has become a West End star, he’s not had a career as a film star since he came out, with even his comeback in cinema, supporting Julia Roberts in My Best Friend’s Wedding, taking place on a different, lower, plateau.
We also know that when an actor’s outed there is a period in which it’s not acceptable and then one in which it doesn’t matter. In my experience for a good decade after Rock Hudson’s death I couldn’t show one of his sex comedies without hearing snickers from the class, and a generation later, it didn’t matter at all, but maybe that was because the audience had forgotten that dimension of his later star persona. They seemed to have forgotten that Rock Hudson was gay and had died of AIDS. Most of them didn’t have a clue as to who he was period.
Adrian Garvey pointed out to me the instance of Luke Evans, who has been out since since a 2002 interview with The Advocate, is clearly a name and in one of the biggest hits of the year, Beauty and the Beast (Bill Condon, 2017). On the surface, being out hasn’t harmed his career at all. On the other hand, Dracula Untold (Gary Shore, 2014) is the last title role I remember him in. The article in Time, hyperlinked above, notes how when he moved to Hollywood, his management team tried to drag him back in the closet in order to push his career, an impossibility in the age of the internet. I see that he’s also been in High Rise (starring Tom Hiddleston) and The Girl on the Train (Justin Theroux played the male lead) and good in both parts, albeit secondary. He’s very charismatic, talented and clearly a name with a following. Yet compare his career to those of Eddie Redmayne or Benedict Cumberbatch. Isn’t it telling that Evans’ only title role in the movies recently has been as Dracula? If you’re gay you get blood-sucker, if you’re heterosexual like Redmayne and Cumberbatch you can play anyone, including a whole range of gay men. I don’t see films built around Evans the way the are around Redmayne, Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy, Michael Fessbender and other British stars in or out of Hollywood. It’s almost an impossibility to speak with certainty on this as it’s a game of woulda-coulda-shoulda and might-have-beens, but I find the comparisons informative.
I don’t mean to only imply that these actors suffer form a degree of homophobia. Of course they do, and Sense8 renders it very evident. But Sense 8, in a scene immediately following the clip I posted above, also demonstrates how it’s more complex than that. When Nomi (Jamie Clayton) and Amanita (Freema Agyeman) go with Bug (Michael X. Sommers) to see Our Father Who Art in Heaven at the Castro Cinema in Episode 5, the film takes pleasure in showing us how a trashy crude action film like that nonetheless involves great pleasures and complex processes of identification and desire. I suspect that the element of desire is not the greatest of problems: we’ve seen how adolescent girls continue to scream at their teen idols no matter what their sexual orientation (from Ricky Martin to George Michael) and I’m sure Bug had no desire for Lito to begin with. But the kind of identification — the way he says ‘No More Lies’ alongside the character Lito is playing onscreen; an idealised wishing one could do and say and move and look like who’s on the screen — I suspect that’s an area where sexual orientation does matter, particularly to men, and especially to young men already burdened with all kinds of anxieties about sex and sexuality.
What the little scene in Sense8 reminded me of is to extrapolate a further question, one which the speculation on Evans above also begs, which is that before we can answer whether a film star can remain a film star after they come out, we need to ask what is a film star today, something which we know to be different from what it was in the classic period, and even right up to the early nineties (think of how Sense8 uses the figure of Jean-Claude Van Damme) but which I’m not sure we’d necessarily have a shared understanding of, or response to, today.
So two things then, A) I think film stardom now is different than it was when Richard Dyer wrote his groundbreaking Stars and thus the methods he offers with which to analyse the phenomenon might no longer apply — or maybe only apply partially — to stars today and B) that questions of desire and identification, always considerations when talking about stars might affect stardom in ways that are not due solely to ‘homophobia’, which might be more ‘I don’t want to be, am not, like him/her’, rather than merely ‘Ugh’
Thanks to Adrien Garvey, David Sugarman, Celia Nicholls and Andy Medhurst for their input on this.
A woman looks at a man’s penis and faints. That would be a glib way of describing what is undoubtedly my moment of the year in long-form television. But it’s so much more than that. It seems to contravene and subvert all that we’ve been told could be shown in popular audio-visual media. It is a man who is the subject of the three looks Laura Mulvey describes in her famous ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ essay. The parts of his body are not fetishized – the penis does not function as a phallus but as a penis and as a reminder of sexual desire and sexual pleasure for the woman looking — the male’s sexuality is not displaced but put at the forefront, the male can be the subject as well as the bearer of the look; though, as he does here, he might faint as it happens.
That moment in the fifth episode of Sense8, ‘Art is Like Religion’, seems to me to be both revolutionary and typical in a way that indicates a paradigm shift: after all the space-time continuum did not unravel, no coronaries were reported, it caused no more of a stir online than the usual lustful longings expressed in social media in relation to whatever semi-clothed pin-ups happen to be the flavour of the month . Male nudity on TV has become so commonplace that a headline of an article in Vulture by Maria Elena Fernandez tries to answer the question: ‘Why Full-Frontal Male Nudity was all over TV in 2015’.
As you can see in the clip above, the woman, Kala Dandeker (Tina Desae), is beautiful and fully clothed (and in India); the man, Wolfgang Godanow (Max Riemelt), is naked, powerful, handsome (and in Berlin). They are, along with others, psychically connected. More than that, there’s clearly a sexual frisson between them. What interests me here though is that the whole scene is inflected with melodrama. She is about to get married to man who’s rich but whom she doesn’t love. Her parents have been very happy in their marriage, which was arranged, and see this as a love match. Traditionally, when a minister asks the congregation whether there is any lawful impediment to the wedding taking place; the accent has been on the law (i.e that one of them is previously married or contracted, that they are not who they say etc.), a lack of love has not in itself been seen as an impediment; sentiment has been secondary.
But here, as in all moments of high melodrama, what’s at stake is desire and the social structures that prohibit its fulfilment. As she takes the final of seven circles with her husband-to-be that will finalise the Hindu wedding, the sight of Wolfgang’s penis, disturbing as it is for her, is troubling not only because even in its fragile state it hints at a rollicking good time in bed but because it’s a reminder of her lack. But her lack here is presented not as a penis or as a phallus but as a life without love. And I think it’s that combination of melodrama – the wedding is stopped, she falls, the whole of her community rises up at the ceremony in shock and bewilderment at what’s happening—and a sly camp timing – the rhythm with which her eyes gaze down and the timing of the sudden cut to her fainting – that undercut whatever might have shocked: it’s moving, and funny; and making it so means that it’s not about cock, or mere fucking, or even the phallus as symbol of patriarchal power – it renders it about love and it’s lack; of a connection so strong that he also faints at the thought.
But let’s look at that again with a bit more context as to what precedes it. You can see that the scene as I’ve selected it above begins with Kala Dandeker (Tina Desae) entering the wedding ceremony with that nice husband-to-be of hers that she doesn’t love. The scene keeps intercutting between her face and the body of Wolfgang Godanow (Max Riemelt) and seems to cut first onto his body and then making sure that he doesn’t remain just a body by recurrently following that with shots of his face. She’s pictured surrounded by structures, strictures, traditions, all that community represents; all the powers society has to forbid, repress, deny, and damp-down individual desire. He’s alone, naked, swimming, possibly thinking of her.
Wedding vows express a yearning for how things should be. I often find them very moving. Certainly the Hindu ‘Seven Steps’ that Kala here exchanges with her husband-to-be are very much so: ‘ I take the first of seven steps that we may cherish each other..’ but then the camera cuts to Wolfgang instead of her husband. She continues ‘and promise that we will grow old together in mental and spiritual strength’ and again the camera cuts to Wofgang. She’s clearly vowing to the wrong person. Yet what the words express are important not just to Kala but to what the show is trying to express.
That Sense8 is trying to express a more complex, more inclusive, and more nuanced view of love is made clear as Kala walks the sixth of her seven steps with her husband-to-be. As her husband to be vows :’ I take the six of seven steps with you my wife-to-be, a promise of everlasting companionship…’ the camera cuts to a happy and loving gay couple sharing that companionship with a woman; on the line of ‘we shall share love, share the same tastes’ the camera cuts to a young man and a young woman, happy to be with each other; on the line ‘share the same food’ we get to see a middle-aged woman in Africa cooking for for her grown-up son and each sharing the joy in the other and in the food; on the line of ‘sign a vow, sign a statement’ the camera cuts to Korea and we see a woman giving up her liberty and the dog she loves out of duty to her father; on the line of ‘let us make a vow and share our strength’, the camera cuts to a transgender woman and her lesbian girlfriend entering their apartment which has just been ransacked; on the line, ‘we shall be of one mind’ we cut to Wofgang again; and again the camera first shows us his body then his face. The physical a part of the personal, the body AND the mind. This is the prelude to Kala fainting at the sight of Wolfgang’s cock.
The penis, the desire for it, what it might signify to someone in terms of carnal pleasure or indeed as part of love, is put in the context of a much deeper and wider understanding of what love is; one that encompasses food and pets; mothers and fathers; heterosexual, homosexual, trans; duty and feeling; the stomach and the heart as well as sexual organs; and indeed a much wider one, because all of these characters we are shown are connected, in ways that that the Series will continue to reveal.
Sense 8 is an extraordinary series, doing things I had not yet seen before — things that still feel transgressive in cinema — and with feeling and humour. It’s melodrama, it’s a little bit camp, it’s very sexy. But there’s a depth of ideas being dramatised here that is worth watching and thinking about. It’s an extraordinary sequence in an extraordinary series.