Whenever I go to the theater to see a mainstream Hollywood comedy or cue one up on Netflix streaming — and even with some indie comedies — I have to prepare myself for the uncomfortable moment when the filmmakers suddenly turn against me. So often in, for example, any of the thousand Judd Apatow productions of the past several years, I’ll be laughing my ass off, or at least smiling hard, having invested myself in the characters and whatever fate awaits them, when suddenly one of them makes an unnecessary, malicious gay joke or a put-down centered on homosexuality.
It’s like there’s an unwritten rule in the current generation of Hollywood filmmaking that comedies must always find a way to reinforce straight men’s assumed fear of being perceived as gay, either by having them react with disgust at the very idea of touching another man in a way that could be interpreted as sexual (e.g., Seth Rogen’s exaggerated squeamishness at pulling up Paul Rudd’s underwear to hide his naked butt in The 40 Year Old Virgin), or by having them constantly try to assert superiority over other straight males by suggesting that those guys are gay (and thus inferior, by the logic of bro culture).
For one example out of so many it would take years and a PhD dissertation to catalog them all, there’s a conversation in Hot Tub Time Machine where the middle-aged character played by Rob Corddry demands to know whether Clark Duke’s teenage character is texting a male or a female. “For your information, I have had lots of girlfriends. Hot ones,” Duke says. Corddry replies, “No, you have had lots of boyfriends. Gay ones.” We, the audience, are supposed to laugh with Corddry for masterfully executing such a clever “burn.” If the kid’s ineptitude with girls is supposed to be funny, there are a lot of ways you can achieve that without implying, unimaginatively, that there is something ridicule-worthy about being gay.
Or consider The Hangover, in which Bradley Cooper’s character yells “Paging Doctor Faggot” outside the house of his dentist friend, played by Ed Helms. Substitute “Doctor Nigger” or “Doctor Kike” in that sentence: can you imagine any Hollywood studio allowing a main character to use one of those words in that context for laughs?
What the makers of these films seem not to realize is that sometimes, subverting your audience’s expectations can make a scene or a line funnier than following the same old homophobic formula and reinforcing everyone’s worst prejudices. The best example I’ve seen of this was not in a scripted film but in the documentary Restrepo, when a U.S. soldier stationed in Afghanistan says of one of his comrades, “He’s a beautiful man — I’d fuck him back in the States.” This is an apparently heterosexual man acknowledging, jokingly or half-jokingly, that he can be attracted to other men and consider having sex with them, and not thinking of that as emasculating.
Writers and directors of narrative films should make more of an effort to have their straight male characters deal with homosexuality without panicking about their manhood or being viciously homophobic. I know they can do it if they try, because nearly 30 years ago, director Martin Scorsese and everyone else involved in making After Hours already proved that it’s possible.
The progressive treatment of homosexuality in the film shows up in two distinct ways: first, the screenplay, direction and acting don’t make the gay characters into walking jokes; and second, the film’s protagonist, played by Griffin Dunne, interacts with several gay men without displaying any negative reactions to their sexuality.
We learn early on in After Hours that Dunne’s character, Paul Hackett, is interested in women: he meets Marcy, played by Rosanna Arquette, in a café, gets her phone number and calls her soon after, agreeing to head downtown to meet at her friend’s loft. This attempt to get some action spirals downward into a nightmare of bizarre adventures.
The first mention of someone being gay in the film is when Marcy refers to a friend of hers as a “faggot” and complains that he probably wants to whine about “his latest boyfriend.” Paul simply says, “Friends like that are hard to deal with sometimes,” meaning friends who complain about their problems. Note that he doesn’t say, “Ew, you have a gay friend,” or “Whoa — a dude who has boyfriends — that is the total opposite of me!” The use of “faggot” there tells us something about Rosanna Arquette’s character without seeming like it’s part of an agenda by the filmmakers to mock or marginalize gay people.
Further on in Paul’s odyssey, he’s confronted by two men who are clearly supposed to be a gay couple (one of them is wearing a pink tank top and the other has a well-groomed moustache). They’re suspicious of him because he’s a stranger and several apartments in their building have been burglarized. When they stop and interrogate him, Paul says, “Look guys, I’m not a burglar. So get your hands off me.” It’s their suspicion and persistence that angers him, not the fact that a gay man is touching him.
I spoke with one of these actors, Victor Bumbalo (the one with the moustache), about how he perceives the film and his role in it. A playwright and TV writer, he was invited to audition for the film following the Off-Broadway success of a play he wrote that dealt with gay themes. Bumbalo feared that appearing in After Hours could prove embarrassing if the movie ended up being homophobic in any way, but when he expressed this concern to a casting director, she said, “Do you think anything Martin Scorsese does would embarrass someone?” Considering the director’s output, which of course already included Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, he concluded that it was a chance worth taking, and he’s never regretted it.
Bumbalo said that Scorsese never gave anyone instructions to act a certain way, and that the director even told the actors, “Please don’t act,” encouraging them to be as real as possible.
When Paul returns to the bar, the only other customers are two leather-clad men sitting a few feet from him who look like extras from Cruising. After drinking shots of whiskey, they start kissing. Neither Paul nor the bartender, who we also know as straight, has any reaction to this happening right in front of them. A kiss between two men is rarely treated so nonchalantly in a movie. It’s an unusual thing to even see men kiss in a movie in 2012, and was way more uncommon in 1985. And we’re not talking a peck: this was hot and heavy, tongues-down-throats making out. One guy even pinches the other’s bared nipple.
Since After Hours is from the ‘80s, I don’t blame it for the fact that all the gay characters are relatively stereotypical, because they still manage not to be caricatures. They’re not any more over-the-top than the other supporting characters in the movie, such as Teri Garr’s lonely Monkees-loving waitress or Catherine O’Hara’s manic ice-cream-truck driver.
While running away from a mob pursuing him, afraid for his life, Paul he asks a man who is strolling on the sidewalk next to a park, “Can you take me home?” The guy’s response, “There’s certain things that I — I will not do,” makes it clear that he thinks Paul is picking him up. Paul does go home with him but ignores his nervous claims about having “never done this with a man before” and regales the guy with an agitated account of everything that’s happened to him during the night.
The scene is funny because of the disconnect between the other guy’s desire to have sex and Paul’s total lack of interest in it. But nowhere in the scene is the audience encouraged to think that sex between men is wrong or gross, or that the guy, who kicks Paul out when it becomes clear nothing’s going to happen, deserves to be mocked for who he is. Paul is not clueless — he is aware of what’s going on. It’s just that he is so wrapped up in the project of surviving through the night that it doesn’t matter to him.
After Hours isn’t the only movie that has managed to avoid the knee-jerk homophobia embraced so often by the comedy establishment. One that comes to mind is The Big Lebowski: when Walter calls the Nihilists “cowards” and “crybabies,” he manages to insult them without making it have anything to do with sexuality. Whereas in the hands of screenwriters more intent on pandering to their audience’s worst instincts, those words might have been replaced by “faggots” and “homos.” Another would be Outside Providence, in which George Wendt’s character comes out to his poker buddies and they treat him exactly the same as they did before. Then there’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, where we see the straight title character sharing a bed with his gay roommate.
But every time I see a movie like those that feels like progress, another one comes along that feels like a punch in the gut. It’s not that homosexuality and gay people shouldn’t ever be made fun of: it’s just how you do it. Knee-jerk gay-bashing is a lazy, uninspired, lowest-common-denominator way to go for laughs.
If the movies that do rely on homophobia balanced it out by including fully realized gay characters who have non-cliched personalities, it might not be quite as offensive. But when you do see a gay character, it’s too often one like the “artist” in Wedding Crashers, who is so strange and antisocial that he might as well be a different species from all the regular humans in the movie.
If After Hours, a comedy made in 1985 — when the AIDS epidemic was raging unabated, coming out was still a highly controversial event and most Americans wouldn’t have even imagined same-sex marriage, let alone supported it — could depict homosexuality in a respectful way, then more comedies made in 2012 and beyond should be able to pull it off too.
Jim Flood is a writer who lives in Brooklyn.