Hollywood’s Long History of Straightwashing Bio Pics

Almost as soon as it was announced that J. Edgar Hoover would be getting a new biopic, speculation has been
rife over how his relationship with Clyde Tolson would be portrayed.

Although there’s no definitive proof either way, it’s widely assumed that Hoover, long-term
director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and Tolson, his assistant
director, were lovers. Director Clint Eastwood sparked concern that Hoover’s story would be
“straightwashed” when he told The Wall
Street Journal
that the script “didn’t quite go down [the] road” of
addressing rumors of Hoover’s being closeted and a cross-dresser. (Eastwood later confirmed with The Hollywood Reporter that he included a scene showing Hoover wearing his mother’s dress.)

Meanwhile, out J. Edgar screenwriter Dustin Lance Black assured AfterElton that Hoover and Tolson would not be “de-gayed,” saying “To think that
somehow you’re going to make a movie about somebody like J. Edgar and you’re
not going to learn what’s in his heart, that’s just not going to happen in a
script that I write.” 

Unfortunately, Hollywood has a long history of “straightening”
depictions of historical figures.

From the earliest days of filmmaking, homosexuality was rarely presented
on-screen directly. With the adoption of the Motion Picture Production Code in
the U.S.
in 1930 it was forbidden to portray “sex perversion” in the movies (film
industries in other countries were subjected to similar restrictions).
Coincidentally or not, very few biopics about people known to be gay or
bisexual were made, and those few that were made, like the 1946 Cole
Porter
biopic Night and Day, were scrubbed clean of any suggestion of
homosexuality.

With the relaxation of the Code beginning in the 1950s and its eventual abolishment
in 1968, filmmakers were freed to present a wider array of subject matter, but
gay content remained rare. The biblical figures of David, Jonathan and Ruth, who have been interpreted as gay, made no mention
of it over the course of several films in the 1950s and 1960s. The FDR biopic Sunrise
at Campobello
(1960)
included Eleanor Roosevelt as a character but left out her rumored liaisons with women. Lawrence of Arabia (1962) eliminated the homosexuality of its hero, T.E.
Lawrence
, but used the
sexuality of the sadistic Turkish bey (chieftan) as a means of illustrating the
character’s evil. Clyde Barrow of 1967′s Bonnie and
Clyde
was portrayed as impotent
where the real Barrow was bisexual. There was something of a breakthrough in
1968, the same year that saw the demise of the Production Code, with The Lion in Winter preserving the purported homosexuality of Richard
the Lionheart
, the past
sexual relationship between Richard and Philip II of France and mention by Henry II of England that his sexual conquests included
“young boys” from the source play.

In the intervening decades, filmmakers have gained the freedom to make biopics
that honestly and accurately portray the sexuality of their subjects. While
many have chosen to do so, there were some who have not. While we wait to see
exactly how gay J. Edgar is, let’s
take a look at some other biopics with gay subjects to see some of those
choices.

Milk

Probably the highest profile gay biopic ever and the one most people think of when considering
the genre, Milk tells the story of
the life, political career and assassination of San Francisco Supervisor Harvey
Milk
. With a screenplay by J. Edgar‘s Dustin Lance Black and
directed by the out Gus Van Sant, Milk premiered in October
2008, its storyline about the campaign against the anti-gay Briggs Initiative
strongly paralleling the battle in California against the anti-gay Proposition
8. It is a stirring, almost operatic film, appropriate because of Milk’s
lifetime love of opera. Milk was at
the top of many critics’ “Best of” lists for the year and was nominated for
eight Academy awards, winning for Best Original Screenplay and Best Actor for Sean
Penn
‘s portrayal of Milk.

Attempts began in 1991 to bring Milk’s story to the screen. Oliver
Stone wrote a script called The Mayor of Castro Street and Van Sant was attached to direct, with if you
can believe it Robin Williams set to play Milk. The script languished in “development hell” for over
a decade and a half, with everyone from Richard Gere to Al Pacino to James Woods under consideration for the lead role. Out director
Bryan Singer
eventually signed on to direct but the 2007 writers’ strike coupled with Van
Sant’s forward motion on Milk finally
stuck a permanent pin in the project.

Capote and Infamous

Two biopics of notorious gay author Truman
Capote
were released within a
year of each other. Each covered the same period in Capote’s life, the years he
spent working on his masterpiece, In Cold
Blood
. First was Capote, released
in 2005.
Philip Seymour Hoffman
won an Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of the author
and the film was nominated for four additional Oscars. Despite being six inches
taller and overall much larger physically than Capote was, Hoffman expertly
projects both Capote’s physical smallness and his overpowering personality.

Coming in
2006, Infamous was inevitably
compared to Capote and
Toby
Jones
as Truman to Hoffman.
Most gave the advantage to Capote and
Hoffman although Infamous and Jones
had their defenders. Many questioned whether two biopics covering the exact
same period of the author’s life was necessary, but the two films took very
different approaches. Infamous spent
much more time examining Capote’s life in high society. He was fascinated by
society and valued his connections with society women, whom he called his
“swans.” Infamous also expanded on
something that Capote only hints at,
the likelihood that Truman was in love with one of the murderers he was writing
about,
Perry Smith
.

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