Bros on blast – why is it so hard to make a decent gay movie?
Gay Twitter has its knives out for Bros – a big-budget romantic comedy starring Billy Eichner.
Eichner – who also co-wrote the film – has been promoting the film hard. It’s difficult not to feel like we’re being guilted into supporting this movie, simply because it features gay characters. It’s a tactic we’re familiar with – “if this film isn’t a huge success then a major studio will never green-light another queer film ever again!”
That kind of hyperbole tends to backfire – gay men on the internet don’t like being told that we “have to” do anything. We’ll like it if we like it.
It is fair to say that it is a positive step forward that we get to see big-budget movies that are centred on the stories of gay men. Representation matters, but is it the right kind of representation?
In the early days of cinema, there was plenty of queer subtext in movies, but very few overtly LGBTQ characters. That has slowly changed, but the results are often frustrating.
There is something undeniably special about watching a movie that somehow reflects your experience or your aspirations – to see characters embarking on a journey that possibly mirrors some aspect of your own life, or to watch a love story that you can emotionally connect with.
But seeing gay men and gay stories presented on screen creates some challenges for both the filmmaker and the audience. Big budget films – such as Bros, which was made for USD$22m – need to appeal to as many people as possible.
While its pre-release marketing presented Bros as being risqué and shocking because it included sex scenes and discussed sexual themes, what might seem risqué to a ‘straight’ audience is an average Tuesday night for most gay men.
On a daily basis, we’re all navigating hook-up disasters, sex party dilemmas, and celebrating each other’s sexual escapades. You can’t tell us that something is a risqué gay sex comedy and then present something that doesn’t feel particularly authentic and doesn’t resonate in a dramatic or emotional way. What are we watching? Who are these people?
Is it an impossible task to create a film that is accessible to a ‘straight’ audience and also connects authentically with gay men?
Not all films about gay men are terrible. Coming-of-age films probably have a slightly easier time of it because it’s connecting with a specific milestone in our past – think Beautiful Thing (1996) or Were The World Mine (2008). The critical acclaim of Moonlight (2016) was universal – it presented uncompromising but sympathetic portrayals of damaged people trying to figure stuff out. Brokeback Mountain (2005) also had broad appeal – based on a really compelling short-story, this depicted an intense emotional connection in a time and place distinct from our own. But deciding to create a contemporary romantic comedy about the dating dilemmas of gay men is probably just setting yourself up for failure.
Does it matter if Bros isn’t a huge success? No, not at all. No one is going to feel sorry for Billy Eichner. Films about gay men will continue to get made and most of them will continue to be fairly terrible. Life goes on.
Perhaps we all need to challenge ourselves to be bolder in the projects we undertake. This isn’t a time for playing safe or doing things that won’t offend people. We need to be radical in our thinking and our actions. Playing by the rules will only take us so far – let’s unleash the full potential of queer power.
Get the popcorn, let’s fuck things up a bit.
Some gay films that are worth watching
120 BPM (2017)
A powerful film from Robin Campillo that immerses us in the struggle of ACT UP Paris in the early 1990s.
A Single Man (2009)
An assured directorial debut from Tom Ford, this is a beautifully stylish movie depicting the decline and redemption of a grieving English professor. Based on a novel by Christopher Isherwood, the story is set in the early 1960s.
Beau Travail (1999)
Beau Travail – which translates in English to Good Work – is a film from writer/director Claire Denis. Released in 1999, the French-language film is loosely based on Herbert Melville’s novella Billy Budd which was written in 1888. Denis sets the action in Djibouti, and the protagonists are soldiers in the French Foreign Legion.
Beautiful Thing (1996)
Written and directed by Jonathan Harvey, this is a sweet and touching story about growing up gay in London.
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Adapted from a short story by Annie Proulx, Ang Lee’s movie tells the story of an intense but tragic relationship between two American cowboys.
Hedwig and the angry inch (2001)
Adapted from the stage musical of the same name, John Cameron Mitchell’s story follows the trials and tribulations of a singer who survives a botched vaginoplasty, escapes East Germany, and tries to find love, fame, and fortune.
Law of Desire (1987)
Almodovar’s first explicitly gay movie, this is the story of an intense love triangle between three men — filled with obsession, jealousy, and dark secrets.
Longtime Companion (1989)
This was one of the first feature films to deal with the impact of HIV and AIDS, chronicling the early years of the AIDS epidemic through the stories of a group of friends in New York City in the early 1980s.
Harvey Milk is one of our queer heroes. This biopic by Gus Van Sant brings to life the courage and passion of Milk, and puts into context how his activism was shaped by the events of the Stonewall Riots of 1969.
Barry Jenkins won the Academy Award for Best Picture with this understated but compelling study of growing up in a tough suburb in Miami.
My Beautiful Laundrette (1985)
Stephen Frears took on a complex and clever screenplay by Hanif Kureishi to create a compelling commentary on issues of sexuality, race, culture, and the socio-political context of the UK in the early 1980s.
My Own Private Idaho (1991)
Gus Van Sant’s screenplay drew its inspiration from the Henry IV plays of Shakespeare. This was an important movie because it cast two prominent Hollywood actors – Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix – as gay hustlers.
Pink Narcissus (1971)
Pink Narcissus is wet-dream of an arthouse movie that brings to life the erotic fantasies of a gay hustler. Released in 1971, it was written and directed by James Bidgood, and stars Don Brooks, Bobby Kendall, and Charles Ludlum. Shot on 8mm film, over-exposed with bright lighting and intense colours, the movie was mostly filmed in a Manhattan loft.
Sauvage – the debut film from writer/director Camille Vidal-Naquet – gives us the story of Leo. Leo is a sex-worker, living and working on the streets of Strasbourg.
The Boys in the Band (1970)
Playwright Mart Crowley adapted his off-Broadway production for this movie directed by William Friedkin. Set in New York City in the late 1960s, the film was seen as groundbreaking because it was pretty much the first major movie that revolved around gay characters.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
This is the big-screen adaptation of Richard O’Brien’s riotous musical. It’s a joyous slice of queer excellence.
Torch Song Trilogy (1988)
Harvey Fierstein adapted his play, telling the story of gay relationships and family in New York City in the 1970s.
Were the World Mine (2008)
A romantic fantasy loosely structured around a school production of Midsummer Night’s Dream. As the story unfolds, fantasy and reality begin to blur. While this at first feels a little disjointed, as the film gains momentum it really starts to gel.