The big rumor out of Hollywood is that this weekend’s box office champion, the (mostly) live-action version of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, contains a gay character. Le Fou, the fawning sidekick of the vainglorious Gaston, is said to reveal (via Josh Gad’s performance) a not-exactly-manly crush on this obnoxious local hunk. From the clips I’ve seen, there’s nothing especially distinctive in what Gad does on screen, outside of the usual Disney hijinks. Still, his momentary wink in a musical number was apparently enough to set off gaydar across the globe. I’m told the Russian government considered an outright ban, but settled for imposing an age limit on those who could see the film without adult supervision. There’s a theatre in small-town Alabama that has declined to show Beauty and the Beast altogether. And the Film Censorship Board of Malaysia demanded, but didn’t get, Disney’s promise to cut the offending moment. When the company founded by Walt Disney to showcase Mickey Mouse and a bunch of animated fairy tales is suddenly accused of violating common social norms, we’re in a whole new world. (Oh wait – that was a song from Aladdin.)
Not that Hollywood, throughout its history, has completed avoided gay characters. But for decades, partly because of MPAA restrictions, homosexuality showed up only furtively on screen, often via comic-relief characters like the fluttery tailor who measures James Cagney in Public Enemy. By the Sixties, changing times allowed for the rise of the “dark, dirty secret” film, in which a twisted psyche—like that of Brando’s tormented military man in Reflections of a Golden Eye—is ultimately explained in terms of repressed homosexual urges. In the 1967 camp classic, Valley of the Dolls, a limp-wristed fashion designer character named Ted Casablanca appears to be gay, though the script seems unable to decide whether this is indeed so. In any case, his ambiguous status prompts an unforgettable line from tough-gal Neely (played by Patty Duke in full Judy Garland burn-out mode): “He’s not a fag, and I’m just the dame to prove it.” No wonder a gay man of my acquaintance calls Valley of the Dolls “my favorite bad movie of all time.”
Gay men have long tended to be enthusiastic moviegoers. In his pioneering work, The Celluloid Closet, Vito Russo explains that “the movies were where one learned to pass for straight, where one learned the boundaries of what America would accept as normal.” But a whole new era seemed to dawn in 2005 when Brokeback Mountain presented two attractive leading men—rugged cowboy types—who fell deeply and hopelessly in love. Admittedly, not everyone was comfortable with this subject matter. It may not have been accidental that the two lead actors, Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, were both unequivocally hetero. And, though favored to win the Best Picture Oscar, Brokeback Mountain lost out on this honor to the far less artful Crash.
In any case, though I applaud any trend toward widening social possibilities on film, I can’t get very excited about a Disney sidekick who may seem to evince stereotypically gay mannerisms. The issue’s looming large for me, because I’ve just seen the Broadway Tony Award winner for best musical of 2015, Fun Home. Here’s a creative adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic memoir, about a daughter who accepts her own lesbianism while at the same time coming to realize that her father is a deeply closeted gay man. It’s a heartbreaking story, although it is presented in a way that is not short of humor. And it knows how to push its gay characters well beyond stereotype.