Last week, BFI Flare kicked off on London’s Southbank. Now in its 30th year, Flare is London’s annual LGBTQ film festival. It’s a massively popular event that combines the best in queer film with talks, interviews, discos and booze. It’s basically great. Over the past weekend I’ve seen some amazing movies; highlights so far have been a work-in-progress screening of Rebel Dykes, a documentary about lesbian life in 80’s London, and By Hook or By Crook, the incredible queer buddy movie made by and starring Harry Dodge and Silas Howard. The festival continues all week; the bars will be rammed and people will move from screen to screen to see the best films from around the globe. In celebration of the festival, we’ve been writing about queer film in books. Last week, we wrote about the Queer Film Classics series from Arsenal Pulp Press, and this week we are very happy to feature an interview with Steven Paul Davies, author of Out at the Movies.
Out at the Movies is fantastic retrospective of gay cinema, from Pandora’s Box in 1929 to Carol in 2015. The book is divided into decades, and each decade is introduced with an overview of attitudes towards gayness and how these attitudes affected the films being made at the time. There are film listings, which include a comprehensive description of each film, and then there are pages dedicated to the filmmakers and actors prevalent during each decade. The book is packed full of interesting information and it’s really extensive; if you have a favourite gay movie, it’s probably included! It’s a great celebration of cinema with an foreword by Simon Callow, and it’s a joy to look at with film posters, stills and photographs on pretty much every page.
We spoke with Steven about what inspired him to write the book and about queer cinema in general…
Why did you decide to write Out at the Movies?
I have always loved movies, new and old, and as a gay man wanted to find out more about gay cinema. I was also interested in how gay interest movies have been shaped by politics through the decades, and that’s why I separated the book into gay cinema decade by decade. As society and legislation has changed so have the movies.
The book doesn’t focus strictly on gay films, but also on films that have become iconic within the gay community, especially the gay male community, such as The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Midnight Cowboy (1969).
What made you decide to include films that are not directly gay along with those that are?
I think that ‘gay cinema’ usually describes films that have homosexuality as the centre of the film’s conflict, although in my book I have also covered films that are loved and adored by gay audiences but without a typical ‘gay storyline’. The obvious example is The Wizard of Oz (1939). I think there’s a real shift and the ideal would be to reach the point where the sexuality is incidental, as in Simon Callow’s description of his character in Four Weddings, rather than a niche where it is the main event in a movie. We need gay and lesbian characters who are not simply defined by their sexual orientation.
In literature, queer representation really began in the 40s and 50s with pulp fiction, but no book could be seen to be ‘promoting homosexuality.’ Any LGBTQ character had to die, go insane or turn straight in order for the book to be published. Was this the same in cinema? Were there any positive representations of LGBTQ people in that era, or did we all have to meet a terrible end?
It was pretty much the same for gay cinema. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, gay characters were usually cast as the leading man’s effeminate buddy or as the sissy, with their orientation understood, but never discussed. Later, especially from the late 50s through to the 70s, gay characters always seemed to be portrayed as emotional wrecks, many of them suicidal. Throughout the decades, however, there were always a handful of films which broke new ground – Victim (1961), Making Love (1982) and And the Band Played On (1993) to name just a few. Real progress was also made with the rise of independent cinema in the 80s – films like Parting Glances (1986) and Poison (1991). Then, soon after these indie achievements, big Hollywood studios began embracing gay-themed movies with films such as Philadelphia (1993) and, of course, Brokeback Mountain (2005), a total triumph and monumental moment in gay film history.
One thing that is still a massive issue, and not just in cinema but in literature too, is the lack of representation of queer people of colour, trans characters, and women. A recent example of this is the whole controversy of the Stonewall movie last year. Do you think this will change?
I think it will all change in time, Brokeback Mountain (2005) was a big step. But we still don’t have A-list stars who are openly gay playing characters both straight and gay. We don’t have many queer people of colour or trans people. But with high profile trans people now stepping forward, of course it will change…eventually. In other fields we still, for example, don’t have an openly gay premiership footballer. But we all know there must be many gay men in these top football teams. It’s not a question of if these changes will occur, but when.
What are your absolute top three favourite gay movies?
Victim (1961) – a groundbreaking thriller, instrumental in paving the way for the legalisation of homosexuality in Britain.
Brokeback Mountain (2005) – a fine romance, perhaps a ‘bisexual film’ but it stormed Hollywood and the world in a way no other gay movie had done.
Priscilla (1994) – my favourite comedy – dark and very sad in places plus an amazing cast that includes an incredible performance by Terence Stamp.
Are there any films you wish you could have included in the book but didn’t?
I’m happy I’ve covered all the films I wanted to. My brain is a muddle having watched so many gay movies but yes I think we’ve covered most, if not in detail, in the introductory pieces.
Thanks so much Steven!