Which Queer Movies Get To Be “Universal”?


Director Luca Guadagnino on the set of Call Me by Your Name with Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer.

Peter Spears / Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Since its appearance at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Call Me by Your Name has been getting major attention and awards show buzz. Luca Guadagnino’s film about a 17-year-old boy’s summer romance with a 24-year-old male graduate student in a bucolic Italian village in the 1980s, based on André Aciman’s widely praised 2007 novel, has received almost universal rave reviews and quickly attained “landmark” cinema status.

Like two other relatively recent prestige films that emerged from the festival circuit to become cultural phenomena — 2005’s Brokeback Mountain and 2016’s MoonlightCall Me by Your Name is being framed by the press as not just a queer film but a universal story. According to a Rolling Stone review, which called it the “sexiest” film of the year, the emotions Call My by Your Name invokes “matter to all of us, regardless of sexual orientation, when we're gutted for the first time by that thing called love.”

Some critics have since claimed that the film owes its transcendence to a kind of sexual respectability by avoiding explicit queer sex, especially noticeable given the graphic sex scenes in Guadagnino’s previous work. A Twitter backlash also emerged in response to a movie poster featuring Timothée Chalamet's character Elio sitting next to a female friend he briefly dates in the film, which was seen as an attempt to market the film as a straight romance. Guadagnino himself suggested that the characters’ sexual identities are fluid and not easily pinned down. (“I don’t think Elio is necessarily going to become a gay man,” he said. “He hasn’t found his place yet.”) Many have celebrated this fluidity as a sign of bisexual acceptance.

But in some ways, the prevailing critical focus on the film’s approach to sexuality has obscured an equally (if not more) important question: the role that gender — or, more specifically, masculinity — plays in the film. There is now a thematic pattern emerging that connects many (although not all) of the “prestige” queer films that break out of indie circuits and reach the top tier of mainstream recognition: They tell stories about queerness through the lens of masculine emotion. They are each different in many ways, not least in their attention to class or race, but they are all narratives about the difficulty or impossibility of love between men who just happen to desire other men.

These movies make male intimacies central, including those between fathers and sons, while women characters largely recede into the background. And any hint of gay femininity or gender dissidence is generally erased, coded, or relegated to minor characters. This economy structures not just the movies’ plots, but also the way that the films’ straight actors earn major plaudits — and cachet — for “playing gay.”

These films’ depictions of masculine men expressing emotion pave the way for mainstream audiences to interpret a narrative that might otherwise be considered melodrama as serious tragedy — and a “gay” romance as a universal meditation on love. These movies might be framed as love stories, like Brokeback Mountain, or coming-of-age stories, like Moonlight, or both, like Call Me by Your Name. And some might face other serious obstacles to qualifying as universal in the eyes of the mainstream, as Moonlight certainly did in a cinematic landscape still dominated by white perspectives. But they all participate, to varying degrees, in a version of what might be called — drawing from debates about the devaluation of gay male femininity — “masc-centrism”: a perspective in which same-sex desire is largely separated from any kind of gender nonconformity, while centralizing conventional masculinity.

This is not necessarily an intentional or calculated strategy, and has nothing to do with the artistic merits of these films, which are all compelling and well-crafted. Rather, it is a question of how they are talked about and what they come to represent. It’s important to interrogate why these films in particular achieve a so-called universal appeal, and what kind of alternative visions or values might be left out of that celebration.

Jake Gyllenhaal (Jack) and Heath Ledger (Ennis) in Brokeback Mountain, 2005.

Focus Films / Courtesy Everett Collection

Brokeback Mountain, in 2005, was perhaps the first film to go from festival circuit darling — nabbing top prize at Venice Film Festival — to cultural blockbuster and Oscar winner by framing queerness within a tragic love story between two straight-passing men: the now-famous couple of rodeo cowboy Jack Twist (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) and ranch hand Ennis Del Mar (played by Heath Ledger).

The film, adapted from Annie Proulx’s short story of the same name, filters its drama of impossible love through the masculinist heroics of the Western. That combination was no small part of what drew attention to what was dubbed the “gay cowboy movie.” Jack and Ennis come together through the happenstance of their jobs — consummating silent attraction in a scene of sudden, explosive sexuality when Ennis fucks Jack — but ultimately their marriages, and Ennis’s financial difficulties, make it impossible for them to be together.

The most resonant lines and scenes in Brokeback traded on the supposed dissonance between stoic masculinity and deep emotion. The now-famous line delivered by Jack to Ennis, “I wish I knew how to quit you,” became a proto-meme because of the unique spectacle of this hypermasculine pair engaging in a kind of romantic melodrama that's often coded as inherently feminine. And as with many of these films, the final climactic moment, deferred till the end, features Ennis — the less expressive of the two — finally emoting. That scene of Ennis with tears streaming down his face, mourning Jack who has taught him to love, leaves audiences mourning the queer suffering caused by the closet of masculinity, in what becomes a recurring pattern for these films.

Heath Ledger (Ennis) and Jake Gyllenhaal (Jack) in Brokeback Mountain, 2005.

Focus Films / Courtesy Everett Collection

Both the film’s promotion and some of its reception emphasized its universality as a love story. “Love Is a Force of Nature,” read the promotional poster, with Ledger and Gyllenhaal in profile, visually hinting at the film’s masculine homoerotics and framing the characters’ intimacy in terms of masculine forcefulness. (Director Ang Lee, who won an Oscar for Best Director, even instructed the two actors to be a bit violent while shooting, to create “the most Western-heroic kiss.”) The Los Angeles Times described the film as “a deeply felt, emotional love story that deals with the uncharted, mysterious ways of the human heart just as so many mainstream films have before it. The two lovers here just happen to be men.” The calculated casualness of that formulation hints at the way that masculinity, so long the default perspective and focus of most cinematic narratives, is what enables the elevation of a movie about same-sex desire to mainstream “love story” appeal.

Much like with Call Me by Your Name, which has been presented as a love affair between Guadagnino and his straight actors, the Brokeback production itself was depicted as a love story in magazine articles. Ledger and Gyllenhaal were celebrated for their bravery in daring to play gay; Ledger told the press he had been harassed on the street for his role, and a cult emerged around him based on his gayness by proxy. Gyllenhaal recently framed the role as a boundary-expanding journey: “It was an intimate and really scary thing for me and Heath, in particular, to dive into,” he told Variety. “It was uncomfortable for both of us in some of the scenes.” He added in another interview that “it was an interesting journey to go on to learn about that world.”

The way our culture celebrates straight actors journeying into same-sex desire, expanding the bonds of masculine intimacy, obscures the complicated and gendered politics of casting. Because these male characters only depart from traditional narratives of desire in their own desire for other men (rather than embodying other potential aspects of queerness, like gender nonconformity) the production can cast straight-presenting, conventionally attractive actors with the widest possible appeal. The films’ straight actors are celebrated for their transgressive daring. Meanwhile, their pioneering contemporaries who are queer and out, especially those typecast in femme roles, have trouble getting cast in the first place.

Even gay male critics dismissed the role of Brokeback Mountain’s masc-centrism in its reception. In the New York Review of Books, Daniel Mendelsohn argued that the film was ultimately about the closet, and “tells a distinctively gay story that happens to be so well told that any feeling person can be moved by it.” Yet the emphasis on Brokeback’s aesthetic quality as an explanation — implying that other queer films don’t transcend simply because they’re not as well-made — overlooks the way the film also presented the closet as a kind of universal, emotional closet of stoic masculinity. And this was also one of the (many) reasons for the resonance of 2016’s universally acclaimed Moonlight.

Jharrel Jerome (Chiron) and Ashton Sanders (Kevin) in Moonlight, 2016.

David Bornfriend / Kobal / REX / Shutterstock

If Brokeback Mountain achieved mainstream appeal thanks to a “universal” tragic love story, Moonlight was framed as a transcendent coming-of-age story. The film’s promotional poster emphasizes that narrative — “The Story of a Lifetime,” “A Breathtaking Coming of Age Story” — and includes a picture meshing child, teen, and adult Chiron (played by Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes).

Unlike Brokeback, Moonlight was, to its credit, an intersectional story about race, class, and sexuality. It is also a thoughtful exploration of the way stoic masculinity gets constructed, arguably as a defense against a white, heteronormative world in which black men in particular have to deal with racial stereotypes that are also gendered. And the movie’s portraits of women — particularly Chiron’s mother (Naomie Harris), struggling with addiction — are more developed.

But it's also ultimately a tale of Chiron's estrangement from and quietly powerful attempt to reconnect with his feelings. Some of the most resonant scenes in Moonlight that explore vulnerability and intimacy occur between Chiron and his older male mentor, Juan (Mahershala Ali), who acts as a father figure, in a revalorization of black fatherhood and masculinity — for instance, the moment when Juan gently holds Chiron in the ocean to teach him to swim, and to trust.

Alex R. Hibbert (Chiron) and Mahershala Ali (Juan) in Moonlight, 2016.

Rex / Shutterstock

The coming-of-age story is also about the difficult intimacy between Chiron and his schoolmate Kevin, a charismatic, confident ladies’ man. A scene at the beach where they kiss and Kevin masturbates Chiron (men finding intimacy only in benign nature is a recurring theme throughout these films) is followed by Kevin’s peer-mandated beating of Chiron to prove his manliness. Audiences — by design — are left to fill in many blanks between the three acts of Little/Chiron/Black’s story. When we meet Chiron as a massively muscled adult, he has taken on a hypermasculine persona.

The queer black playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, who wrote the unproduced and unfinished play that director Barry Jenkins turned into the film script, has been candid about his own femme identity. But Chiron’s “difference” as a boy and teen in the movie is mostly represented as a kind of universal bookishness or shyness. That bookishness may mark Chiron as unmasculine to his peers, who bully him. But he doesn’t display any other visible markers of gay male femininity (such as the ballet shoes McCraney talked about wearing as a boy) and that allows continuity with the grown-up Chiron. One can contrast the coyness of those childhood scenes with the excitement generated by the ongoing storyline of a boy with a doll on the television show Queen Sugar.

Importantly, Trevante Rhodes, who plays adult Chiron, didn’t meet the playwright until after filming, and based his portrayal of masculinity on a closeted friend. While addressing questions about the difficulty of “playing gay,” he noted the way that performances of masculinity are what makes straight and gay men alike: “I was born loving women, but I could have just as easily been born loving men and … I would have been the same exact person, behaving the same exact way.”

Trevante Rhodes (Chiron) and Andre Holland (Kevin) in Moonlight, 2016.

David Bornfriend / Kobal / REX / Shutterstock

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