I was walking down First Avenue in Midtown Manhattan one fall day about 15 years ago. The city was still a little bit dangerous then (the Guiliani reforms had not reached their full effect) and a homeless guy I was passing turned to me in full confrontational attitude and declared, “I fucked Tony Curtis in the ass!” Imagine John Lovitz saying it in his liar voice, and you’ll get the flavor of the encounter.
Now, lots of people brag about famous people they’ve slept with (I’ve heard Montgomery Clift stories that were more believable) but I never forgot this anecdote, and not because I think the guy was telling the truth. More impressive was the fact Tony Curtis’ gay icon status was so well understood that even a homeless guy in Turtle Bay was culturally savvy about it.
I don’t say this to belittle the actor’s more awesome achievements. He worked with Billy Wilder and Stanley Kubrick and tried hard to be taken seriously when he didn’t have to be. He seemed determined to constantly reinvent himself, even coyly flirting with the perception that he might be gay because it was more fun than spewing hate about it (the fact that he had an overactive interest in females ought to disprove it, though). I ask you to compare his attitude with Tom Cruise’s. I don’t think Cruise is gay either, but he’s always reacted to the charge with haughtiness and disdain and absolutely no sense of humor, which makes calling him gay ever so much fun for a lot of people.
Curtis’ career blossomed in the era of the Hays Code, when people were not permitted to kiss for more than a few seconds at a time on screen, nor were they allowed to share beds or ever even refer to homosexuality. Contrary to popular belief, people were still having sex during this period, including gay people. Our desires and drives did not disappear. Instead they turned into codes. Symbols. Fetish objects. When Stanley Kowalski raped Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, we saw not the rape but a spewing fire hydrant. When Peter Lorre played a gay character in the Maltese Falcon, he constantly put his cane handle in his mouth to show you what he’d rather be doing. There are countless examples, and I invite my readers to go find some late period Alfred Hitchcock films and not find lots of dick jokes (there are almost as many as in Shakespeare). I secretly wonder to this day if there is a fire hydrant appreciation society bouncing around in some chamber of the BDSM demimonde.
Curtis died on Wednesday, of course, and it’s sad for many reasons, not the least of which is that he was an icon, gay or otherwise.
But another screen legend died last week as well–Arthur Penn, the director of the “The Left Handed Gun,” “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Night Moves” and “Little Big Man.” And though he’s not as well known in households, he’s a key figure in the Hollywood New Wave of the 1970s, an age that for good or ill ushered out age of chiseled stars like Curtis and ushered in the age of everyman types like Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino, introduced cinema verite techniques and realism into our cinema.
Penn was a genius for many reasons that better paid people at The New York Times have chronicled in the past week or so–mainly that he introduced French New Wave ideas into Hollywood. But what I most remember about him is the stories he told in the book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. Penn was also a master of iconography, and to him, Bonnie and Clyde, the film that ushered in the New Hollywood, was more than a glorification of simple hoods, but a masterpiece of image making. Imagine how iconic Bonnie’s beret and cigar became. Penn said that he wanted Clyde Burrow’s death in a hail of gunfire to remind people of the Kennedy assassination. He also dared shoot scenes of shocking violence, including a blast to the face. While that might seem tame by today’s standards (consider this year’s Machete, where the hero uses somebody’s small intestines to rappel down the side of a building) it was quite shocking in 1968, and in my mind, meant to remind you that you were watching a movie. The medium was the message, Penn said, quoting Marshall McLuhan.
It was also genius because you have to realize that the moral codes were part of the film vocabulary, and with the new permissiveness, that vocabulary had to be reinvented. Penn, finally unleashed from the Old Hollywood handcuffs, had to create new ways of using the medium to tell stories now that there was a new frankness. Within a few years it would be OK to show sex and drug use and orgasms and homosexual acts and even deep throating (if you went to the right theaters).You didn’t have to use a fire hydrant or show a guy sucking off his cigar or hold a cat to refer to your vajayjay. When you do that today, it’s usually an homage to more repressive days (as when Philip Seymour Hoffman sucks on his pen in Boogie Nights.)
And though it’s definitely better to live in a world of free expression (free of prudery), at the same time, film used to be very powerful because of these codes, because film is a medium more perfect for fetishes than nylon. All the really great filmmakers take advantage of it–Bunuel, Scorsese, Altman, Hitchcock all love focusing on objects and investing them with intense emotional energy, sexual or otherwise.
When I made my own first good film in film school, “S&M Queen For A Day,” I only intended to make a few jokes about perversion, but I noticed that just for storytelling purposes, it was effective to show my wife zipping up her big leather boot very slowly, not once but twice. I knew vaguely that this was good storytelling and kind of a joke, but I had no idea how much it would resonate with people in the “community,” who wrote to me to express their great appreciation and fondness and to say hello as a fellow traveler (I am not, by the way into the S&M life.)
I realized then that film and storytelling isn’t about giving us what we want. It’s about withholding it for as long as possible. Tony Curtis understood this as an icon and Arthur Penn understood this as an icon maker. Desire is something better prolonged, withheld, embraced for its own sake. Getting what you want never seems to be as much fun as wanting it. I’d like to think that somewhere, Tom Cruise will suddenly figure this out.
Most critics will say that Penn ushered Curtis out, that Curtis was from a bourgeois liberal time in Hollywood, and Penn had true radical ideas and helped foment the deluge. I think maybe they were just artists working different sides of the same street. They both peddled in image-making, and sometimes failed to sell their stuff. Arthur Penn reimagined the American Indian as a colonized race with its own contradictions and sins in Little Big Man and reframe the death of the Indian culture as the death of the American spirituality. Tony Curtis tried to hack up his own image by playing the Boston Strangler. Both efforts failed to win much acclaim, fairly or unfairly (I think Little Big Man is a perfect movie, actually). And yet both guys were trying to take images and values and people you were comfortable with and shake them up a little, using the tricks of their trade. In an age where we are so inundated with stimulation, it’s almost quaint now to remember that Bonnie Parker’s beret used to mean something.