Monday, August 22, 2011

The (Unlikely) Candidate, and How He Grew

Did you hear the one about the gay Jewish Republican? He’s campaigning for his party’s nomination to face off against President Obama in 2012. Not that Fred Karger is naïve enough to think he’ll get the nod. A long-time political strategist who has worked on the presidential campaigns of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, he knows a few things about electability. Rather, his run for office is a quixotic gesture, aimed at showing other homosexuals that it’s okay to aim high.

For me the highlight of the recent Los Angeles Times piece on Karger is a brief reference to his boyhood. It seems he loved TV’s The Rifleman, not so much for the story of homesteader Lucas McCain as because the role was played by the buff and square-jawed Chuck Connors. Karger admits now, “I had a crush.” It was the first time he realized he was not like the other boys on the block.

This anecdote fascinates me because so many gay men to whom I’ve spoken have had a similar experience. There’s something about movie and television heroes that encourages young boys to uncover the truth about their sexuality. Take Marcus Mabry, now editor-at-large for the New York Times. Marcus acknowledged his sexual orientation at age nine when he went to see Star Wars and fell madly in love with Luke Skywalker. In hindsight, he recalls that “I had a crush on my best friend Billy Ireland in first grade. I was six years old then. Three years earlier than Star Wars. So I had that feeling. But Billy—I could erase that, because I didn’t know what it was, and I was a cute little kid . . . .It wasn’t possible to deny it after Star Wars. I never thought about that before, but it’s true.”

Anthropology lecturer Matthew Kennedy told me a similar tale. As a pre-teen, watching movies at the old Cascade Theater in Redding, California, he was introduced to his innermost urges by Planet of the Apes (the scene with Charlton Heston and his fellow astronauts skinny-dipping) and—curiously—by the lush Franco Zeffirelli version of Romeo and Juliet. The latter film, so irresistible to courting couples in 1968, of course chronicles a passion that’s strictly heterosexual. But what enthralled Kennedy was the alluring camera-pan down Leonard Whiting’s nude bottom the morning after the young couple’s secret wedding night.

William J. Mann, author of such controversial biographies as Kate: The Woman Who Was Hepburn, knew he was gay from an early age. His sense of his own difference from other family members gave him a love-hate relationship with Hollywood, where “the default position . . . is always you get married and live happily ever after.” That’s why he gravitated toward The Dirty Dozen and other male-bonding films, which seemed to prove that a world without women was possible: “Wow, I could be with my friends, and it could be good.’ At the same time, he found himself wanting to grow up to be Mary Tyler Moore. What he envied about Moore’s TV life was its sense of familial relationships, but with a difference: “The family was not the family that television had portrayed up until then, the mother and father, and the children and the neighbors. . . . It was a created family; it was a non-biological family.”

TV and movies offer fantasies that are larger than life. It’s not only gays who find in them the fulfillment of dreams they can barely admit even to themselves.


  1. Thought provoking post as always, Beverly!

    The revered and late HK filmmaker Chang Cheh (whom Roger Corman released one of his films, THE WATER MARGIN, here as 7 BLOWS OF THE DRAGON trimming it down from two hours to 79 minutes!) was constantly accused of being gay because of his depictions of males onscreen.

    For years women were the dominant force in HK cinema (even playing male roles!) and he sought to change all that when he unleashed the bloody vibrance of ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN in '67. For years he stated he portrayed homosexuals in some of his movies, but this was a different subject entirely when depicting male bonding ie male friendship. I must say, that I am a huge CC fan and from a small boy to now I never saw any overt gay connotations that pointed towards the directors alleged sexual orientation. It was a shame he spent his career denouncing such claims and yet his wife remained by his side through it all. If anything, judging by his memoirs, I'd say he was a chauvinist.

    John Woo was one of Cheh's acolyte's and Woo's style is almost verbatim of what Cheh was doing back in the day. I often wonder, though, if the critics that claim to see such things are actually hiding their own sexual preference by seeing things that weren't intended in the first place. Critics also said/say the same thing for Italian westerns (Sergio Leone's movies included) and Sword and Sandal epics.

  2. I'm fascinated by the speculation in your final paragraph. This might be worth running by some gay friends who are film historians. Thanks!

    It's probably irrelevant, but in classical Japanese Kabuki theatre, female parts -- some of them extremely feminine -- have always been played by males. From what I'm told, some of these "onnagata" actors are completely masculine off stage, but others are not. It's a truly complex and interesting subject, I believe.)

  3. I have heard it and read it so much I chalked it up to either intellectual pretentiousness or that these reviewers and critics were only masking their own closeted identities. I've never once thought the barely dressed musclebound characters of Roman gladiator and fantasy films were anything more than heroes akin to the likes of Superman. They didn't wear jeans and T shirts back then, of course.

    Also, critics have made these Freudian accusations towards Chang Cheh's movies with all the gory impalements stating it's a phallic symbol and a "clue" to his alleged homosexuality. I seriously doubt that was the intention considering the director was, among other things, greatly influenced by Peking Opera and the "art" of impaling was a frequent device featured in those stage plays--the dying hero, mortally stabbed, his intestines rolling out, continues to fight valiantly till his last dying breath.

    Speaking of the Kabuki theater connection, I've seen in a number of the HK films that sometimes males are playing female roles in scenes featuring traveling opera houses. Funnily enough, these males are depicted as homosexuals every time. Chinese cinema is rife with stereotypes, at least the old school pictures are.

    I agree, Beverly, it is a fascinating (and also can be a frustrating) subject!

  4. This is a fascinating post - this is one of those blogs where you never know what you'll find - and that's a total compliment!