What makes a cult classic? A critically panned movie that garners a small but devoted following and rides that wave all the way to a revered place in film history. But why do we name it a “cult” classic? As far as I know (and I would), there are no meetings of the cult of Barbarella, unless you count every Duran Duran concert. (Little known fact: the band is named after Barbarella’s evil nemesis, Dr. Durand Durand.) My favorite “cult classics” could more accurately be named “camp classics”: meaning films that feature over the top satire and sport low production budgets with offbeat and often bizarre humor.
Though Ryan Murphy and RuPaul are keeping camp alive and kicking on television, theirs are bubble gum versions of camp’s greasepaint grassroots. Somewhere along the way from Stonewall to same sex marriage, gayness shed the stigma that made it so dangerous to put on a pair of size 12 high heels. With that, popular culture lost the kind of winking inside jokes and subversive humor that elevated camp classics to cult status. In 1999, Vermont became the first state to legalize civil unions between same sex couples. The decade leading up to that historic moment marks the last time moviemakers had to find creative ways to skirt around gayness. Which is why I nurse an embarrassing nostalgia for late ‘80s and early ‘90s comedies, the last of the low down and dirty camp films worthy of reaching cult status.
Of course, camp in the form of drag has been around a long time: in early comedies such as in Sylvia Scarlett and Some Like it Hot, and later in Victor/Victoria and Tootsie. At the same time, drag was often a villain’s trait as in Psycho, Dressed to Kill, and Silence of the Lambs. The New Queer Cinema emerged in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, led by a new generation of gay filmmakers like Derek Jarman, Greg Araki, Todd Haynes, Jennie Livingston, and Gus Van Sant. The New Queer Cinema was like the Prague Spring of the AIDS crisis: gay artists who had spent most of the ‘80s either dying or fighting the Reagan administration’s outright ignoring of the epidemic were finally free to create again. Indie hits like My Own Private Idaho, Poison, and Paris is Burning led the way for mainstream Hollywood to embrace out gay characters. Hollywood began making campy comedies featuring non-threatening gay characters who laughed at themselves first: Mrs. Doubtfire, The Birdcage, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, and its American remake To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar.
Wherever camp goes, queer follows. Queerness can pop up in the strangest places, but Disney’s track record is pretty good. Like in that shining example of an ‘80s camp classic, Disney’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. Ostensibly a children’s movie, it contained plenty of adult jokes and embraced subversive views on sexuality. The screenwriters were either oblivious or geniuses to have pulled this one over on Disney. Perhaps no one who made that film knows just how queer it is. The film stars once overlooked character actor Bob Hoskins as Eddie Valiant, a grizzled private eye hiding a heart of gold whose drinking has stalled his once thriving career. He lives in an alternate Hollywood that borders ‘Toontown, where ‘toons are actors with real lives offscreen. Eddie hates ‘toons (“‘toon killed his brother”), but is forced to work with Roger Rabbit. What begins as a simple case of a two-timing broad turns into a farcical whodunit with Roger as the patsy.
There’s nothing campier than genre parody, and ‘toon noir is a great combination. Noir is exploited for its melodramatic campiness; a haunting horn plays as Eddie pours over photos of his dead brother, tips a few and face plants onto his Murphy bed. His fast talking moll, Dolores, is a bartender who packs a revolver. Camp can be an invaluable way to lampoon society, do it playfully enough and the viewer won’t realize until the lesson has been learned. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? uses ‘toons as proxies for the downtrodden. ‘Toons, like queers and people of color, are disrespected and made to work for (actual) peanuts, but they get to stick around Hollywood because they make money, like freaks in a freak show.
The most exploited ‘toon is Jessica Rabbit, arguably the sexiest cartoon in history (“I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way”). She is a highly stylized, hyper-feminized, carefully constructed exaggeration of the ideal woman. In other words, a drag queen. On top of that, Jessica has chosen the goofy Roger Rabbit as her beloved husband. Eddie reminds us that nobody sees what she sees in him when, mouth agape as she and her curves slink onstage, he asks incredulously: “That’s the rabbit’s wife?” Like queer people, Jessica doesn’t conform to society’s expectations for her sexuality. She explains to Eddie that she loves Roger because he makes her laugh. Perhaps the queerest – and by extension, campiest – thing this film asks the viewer to imagine is Roger and Jessica engaging in their preferred form of foreplay: patty-cake. If that’s the fore, what must the play look like?
Detractors will say anything can be interpreted to achieve a desired outcome. Those are the Michael Eisners of the world, living out their boring lives without ever donning those queer-colored glasses that show one the infinite spectrum of love and color. Isn’t it more fun to join the ranks of the perverted and enlightened, winking knowingly at Roger Rabbit, the schlubby little bunny who’s schtupping the most buxom dame in all of ‘Toontown?