Movies and television have a long history of casting effeminate gay men as the bad guys – the added layer of “otherness” is a popular way of making a villain all the more loathsome to a mainstream audience. While recent years have brought us several notable subversions of this idea with aggressively masculine gay villains (Strike Back‘s James Leatherby, Dexter‘s Ivan Sirko), the hissing, scheming gay baddie has always been the more popular stock-in-trade.
Whether explicitly gay or just “coded” that way to slip past the sensors, these guys represent some of cinema’s most notable acts of heteronormative villainy.
Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) — 300
Much has been made about the fact that a movie that could otherwise have doubled as an International Male swimwear catalog went out of its way to present evil King Xerxes as a prissy, jewelry-crazed predatory homosexual (despite the fact that the actual Xerxes is portrayed in classic art as being quite butch). At the time, Zak Snyder – who insisted his movie was neither homoerotic nor homophobic – told the press: “What’s more scary to a 20-year-old boy than a giant god-king who wants to have his way with you?” First, what the hell is a “20-year-old boy”? I think that might point to the root of the problem right there.
Phillip (Farley Granger) and Brandon (John Dall) — Rope
Based on real-life killers Leopold and Loeb, Brandon and Phillip are two superficial, society-climbing apparent lovers who have nothing better to do than to kill a schoolmate, stuff him in a trunk, and then serve his family dinner over his cooling body (didn’t the Queer Eye guys do an episode on that?). Allows for some incredibly loaded dialogue that managed to sneak the sexual nature of the relationship past the censors, but otherwise a curious portrait of gay men that links their sexuality to wanton murderousness. It’s also worth noting that director Alfred Hitchcock deliberately cast closeted gay actors as villains in several of his films – an apparent attempt to mine their dual nature for their performance?
Richard (Ryan Gosling) and Justin (Michael Pitt) — Murder by Numbers
This modern-day riff on both the famous Leopold and Leob murder case and Rope finds Ryan Gosling and Michael Pitt as teenage murderers who execute the perfect crime for kicks in between scenes of drinking absinthe and having hissy-fits at one another for making eyes at girls. As I said, Rope did it first, but Murder by Numbers did it trashiest.
Doctor Praetorius (Ernest Thesiger) — The Bride of Frankenstein
The seething, slimy villain of gay director James Whale‘s classic horror film was played by a closeted and married actor, and the titular Bride was herself married to a gay man (Charles Laughton). What a set that must have been! Praetorius is basically the end-all of gay-seeming supervillains, and the film’s attack on the institution of marriage is pretty hard to ignore. Whale set out to make a camp comedy follow-up to his classic horror film Frankenstein, and with the help of Praetorius, he succeeded in spades — were it not for the undercurrent of dark humor in the film, this character would have been much more difficult to tolerate. It’s notable that The Rocky Horror Picture Show – which aimed to reclaim many of the sci-fi and horror genres’ tropes for a transgressive audience – clearly used both Praetorius and Whale’s The Old Dark House as models for its mayhem.
Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) — The Maltese Falcon
Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) came up against some mystery and some sistery in this noir classic — Peter Lorre‘s mincing treasure hunter Joel Cairo, to be precise. While the character was straightened up quite a bit for the screen, this hissing queen is still undeniably meant to be a queer counterpart for the macho hero, whose disgust at Cairo’s obvious sexuality is quite apparent and quite intense. Much has been noted about the fact that Spade slaps Cairo instead of punching him, which codes the character as feminine, gay, and weak.
Waldo (Clifton Webb) — Laura
Manipulative and incredibly bitchy Waldo (who preys upon heroine Gene Tierney) was originally explicitly scripted as a homosexual, although ultimately his sexuality was buried and his actions blurred (to the point that many viewers interpret his actions as those of a spurned lover, not a controlling queen). Still, this arch villain represented a culmination of the noir era’s sissy baddies, which stood for everything perverted that decent society needed to destroy.