I embarked on this project after becoming aware that the circumstances in which a gay character was included in a film had changed. There was a time when gay characters only appeared in the specifically flagged gay films I watched as a teenager sneakily, late at night, and without my parents’ knowledge, on Channel Four. As Vito Russo shows in great detail, however, mainstream films have also always included characters conceivably if not overtly gay. ((Vito Russo, The Celluloid Closet: homosexuality in the movies (revised edition) (New York, 1987) )) More recently, though, the rules have changed. Openly gay characters have become commonplace. Anyone can play gay; there is no stigma attached to appearing in a gay-themed or gay-friendly movie any more. Cases in point are perhaps two thirds of the cast of the Friends, arguably some of the most popular stars in television, and certainly amongst the highest paid. Of these six actors, four have appeared in high profile gay-themed films as they embarked upon and developed their silver-screen careers. Lisa Kudrow appeared opposite superbitch Christina Ricci in the exquisite The Opposite of Sex (Don Roos, 1998); Matthew Perry managed both to play gay and still get the girl in Three to Tango (Damon Santostefano, 1999); Jennifer Aniston moved in with her gay best friend and putative co-parent in The Object of My Affection (Nicolas Hytner, 1998). Playing gay in The Thin Pink Line (Joe Dietl, 1998) might not have been a smart move for David Schwimmer, since the film was not a financial success and has never even graced British screens. But it was also not a smart move for high profile co-stars Jennifer Aniston, Ileanna Douglas, Mike Myers, and Jason Priestley. Only Courtney Cox (who has been concentrating on the Scream cycle of films) and Matt LeBlanc (whose main outing on the silver screen remains the execrable Lost in Space (Stephen Hopkins: 1998)) have not joined the trend.
Portrayals of homosexuality on screen are flourishing; and as the list above demonstrates, positive portrayals of openly gay characters are no longer the exclusive preserve of the margins. There is clearly still a vibrant culture of gay moviemaking across the world as numerous gay film festivals (inter alia of course the superb annual touring outing of the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival ((See www.llgff.org for further information)) ) and the arthouse cinema still welcomes a broader range of explicitly queer film than the chain cinema. Nonetheless a form of liberal climate prevails in the mainstream.
Of particular note, and of particular relevance to the mainstream is the key relationship between straight women and gay men which for a number of years has been explored in an ever-increasing number of formats. As we shall see and explore, this bond is a strong and enduring one. But a note, before we go any further, on terminology: this friendship between gay men and straight women is often derided with the woman branded a faghag; the term is in use in British English even though the term “fag” is used mostly to refer to cigarettes and seldom to homosexuals. As the co-authors of Straight Women, Gay men: absolutely fabulous friendships point out:
There are a few phrases in English that do a certain kind of double duty as insults. “White trash” is one, for example, serving as a backhanded racial slur at blacks while simultaneously insulting the economically disadvantaged folks to which it overtly refers; “Fag hags” is like that; it derides both the woman as a “hag” and her acquaintances as “fags.” ((Robert H. Hopcke & Laura Rafaty, Straight Women, Gay men: absolutely fabulous friendships (New York, 1999), p217))
The book, typeset in a gaudy, quirky, double-spaced Bodoni Book, sets out to celebrate “these unique and wonderful friendships of grace, laughter, and above all, style!” ((Hopcke & Rafaty, back cover)) and is not the sort of work I would normally allow to instruct my vocabulary. But the authors do have an important point to make. Apart from the insulting nature of the term—neither “fag” nor “hag” has been reclaimed to the extent for example “queer” has—the epithet refers to a different sort of relationship to the one this essay examines. In the words of one of Hopcke and Rafaty’s interviewees:
A fag hag is someone who lives vicariously through a gay existence. She goes to gay bars with gay guys and is involved in all their relationships and rituals. ((Hopcke & Rafaty, p223))
In other words, faghag relationships are relationships which are extreme and obsessive, and the women who pursue them do so for underhand reasons. Like “characters who happen to be gay,” (a concept I shall explore later) the portrayals of women in the films this essay concentrates on have “friendships with men who happen to be gay,” but do not channel their existence through them. That is not to say that the homosexuality of the men in question is not important to this discussion; it is vital. But the relationships are not the be all and end all in the women’s lives. They are shown to have independent, well-rounded existences which are enhanced by their friendships with gay men, not ruled by them.
That this special relationship between gay men and straight women is important is now seldom questioned. Instead, the relationship has blossomed in all forms of media. Both mainstream and arthouse cinema have given positive, and not so positive portrayals of this relationship from the aforementioned mainstream Hollywood works The Opposite of Sex and The Object of My Affection, to more arthouse pictures such as the two gay-authored British films Beautiful Thing (Hettie MacDonald, 1996) and Get Real (Simon Shore, 1998). And that’s without mentioning the star vehicles for Madonna and Julia Roberts respectively which will form the bulk of this essay, The Next Best Thing (Tom Schlesinger, 2000) and My Best Friend’s Wedding (P J Hogan, 1997).
If the silver screen is offering many positive portrayals, the small screen is also exploring this special relationship in its own way. Jonathon Harvey returned after his moving and widely-acclaimed Beautiful Thing to write the execrable Gimme Gimme Gimme, the story of a gay man (James Dreyfus ((Who after appearing in films such as Thin Ice (Fiona Cunningham-Reid, 1995) should have known better, but who has lately only been getting dire sitcoms such as this and The Thin Blue Line in which he plays stereotypical queens. This gay actor plays gay characters with considerably less aplomb than Rupert Everett.)) ) and his straight female house mate (Kathy Burke) neither of whom can find a boyfriend. The same set-up is explored with considerably more panache, wit and style in the American sitcom for NBC Will and Grace.
But despite the plethora of shows and movies which explore this relationship, there is a contrasting dearth of academic exploration of either the relationship itself or its portrayal in contemporary media. In my research for this dissertation, I have found few large-scale works specifically exploring the relationship, and only one examining its portrayal. Straight Women, Gay men: absolutely fabulous friendships, mentioned above, is the only contemporary book; and to find the two others it is necessary to go back twenty years to 1980: John William Malone’s Straight women/gay men: a special relationship (New York, 1980) and the collaborative work by Rebecca Nahas and Myra Turley, The New Couple: women and gay men (New York, 1979).
It is natural enough that the three books cited above have managed to create a sort of orthodoxy about the nature of the relationship between gay men and straight women. All three describe a fundamental bond between the pairs that encompasses shared values, tastes and humour. All three demonstrate a certain femininity in the gay men they interview. All three expose this bond by retelling the stories of interviewees re-named for the sake of their anonymity. Where they differ most significantly is where they discuss sex between gay men and straight women. Hopcke and Rafaty—the most recent exposal and espousal of the relationship—foreclose sexual relationships almost entirely:
[A]lthough gay men and their female friends may occasionally blur the lines a bit between platonic and otherwise, these friends understand that their romantic and sexual destinies lie along different paths, and acceptance of that fact ultimately enables their friendship to endure.
The two earlier works on the subject are not able to close off sexual relationships between gay men and their straight female friends in the same way. In the experience of the earlier books, the relationships are often forged from failed marriages before the man in question discovered or disclosed his homosexuality. Both these earlier books are far clearer that sexuality is not immutable but fluid: that gay men can take some time to find out that they are gay, or even that having found out, gay men are still able to relate to women heterosexually.
If the books have forgotten that gay men can stray outside their sexual identity, the movies and the TV series certainly have not. It if was noticeable that gay men suddenly became more prevalent in late 1990s films and plays, it was equally remarkable that they were not playing gay all the time. For every Object of my Affection where the gay guy resolutely resisted the charms of his female friend, there was an Opposite of Sex where he could not keep his hands off her; for every will-they-won’t-they Will and Grace (they won’t) there’s a Bob and Rose where they do.
In this climate where portrayals of homosexuality on screen have flourished, and where sexual and non-sexual relationships between gay men and straight women are key on and off screen, one name repeatedly pushes itself to the fore: Rupert Everett, the man once labelled “the film industry’s unofficial ambassador of gayness.” ((Ned Zeman, “Just Great Friends”, Vanity Fair, March 2000))
My Best Friend’s Wedding marks an end of homosociality
It seems almost universally given that the film My Best Friend’s Wedding made Rupert Everett’s career. Long before the film was even released, the Los Angeles Times reported at length and on the front page the extent to which Everett had glowed in the film. “How One Actor Changed a Movie Before It Even Came Out,” the headline read, “My Best Friend’s Wedding preview audiences fell for Rupert Everett, so the movie was re-shot to give him more screen time with [co-star] Julia Roberts.” ((Patrick Goldstein, “How one actor changed a movie before it even came out” Los Angeles Times Jun 23, 1997, p1)) Practically any subsequent mention of Everett anywhere in print cites Wedding as the point when Everett metamorphosed from homosexual English bad boy to Hollywood darling.
Everett’s career before 1997 had not really taken off in terms of Hollywood megastardom: although his first major screen appearance in 1984 in Another Country (Marek Kanievska) earned him a BAFTA nomination for Best Newcomer, he did not make anything for an American audience for some time after that. His famous prickliness has been blamed for what the American audience sees as a ten year long period of resting, from 1984 in Another Country when he first came to prominence stateside to 1994 when he returned as the Prince Regent in The Madness of King George (Nicholas Hytner). An anecdote so often repeated it is probably in the Everett press pack tells of how he responded to a little old lady’s criticism of a theatre performance of his by mailing her a pubic hair by return. He later excused his behaviour by explaining that the event took place on highly depressing “matinee day” when actors are obliged to turn in two performances, the first only for old people. Everett found it tiring, and was “in a bit of a mood”. ((Zeman))
Yet Everett’s ten year gap from the American screens was not spent in inactivity. He travelled for a spell, incidentally becoming fluent in French and Italian, and wrote two novels, Hello Darling, Are You Working? and The Hairdressers of St Tropez, “notable for their sexual candor and ferocious wit”. ((Zeman)) Considered as fictionalised autobiography, they even reveal that Everett spent some of his earlier years working as a prostitute. In those ten years, he did try to break into Hollywood, but discovered that in the 1980s the Brat Pack culture monopolised the industry, making it hard for a Brit to get noticed or to get parts. Returning to Paris, for ten years he made French and Italian language arthouse films that achieved little wider renown, but that are nonetheless well respected—certainly better respected than later work for Hollywood, such as B-Monkey (1998) where he broke the cardinal rule about not working with children or animals. Although they did not earn him the benefits of superstardom, they certainly kept him in employment.
But Wedding marked the true turning point. Supposedly a vehicle for Julia Roberts, Everett shined to such an extent that the ending was rewritten, radically changing the direction of the film and the message it disseminates. The plot in the film as distributed is organised around Jules (Roberts) and her two best male friends, George (Everett) and Michael (Dermot Mulroney). Michael is straight, George is gay; and when Jules finds out that Michael is planning on marrying someone else, Jules enlists George’s help to get Michael back. Michael and Jules were lovers at college who split amicably and promised to marry each other if by age 28 neither of them had found someone else to marry. The film is set in the eleventh hour before the key age, when Jules is still single, and Mike is about to marry irritatingly perfect Kimmy (Cameron Diaz). ((Not Diaz’s only foray into iconoclastic rom com: see Very Bad Things (Peter Berg, 1998), There’s Something about Mary (Farrelly brothers, 1998), Shrek (Andrew Adamson, 2001) )) Learning of the impending nuptials sends Jules off-kilter, and she becomes increasingly desperate in her attempts to drive a wedge between the happy couple. By the end of the film that saw general distribution, all her attempts have been exposed and forgiven; Mike and Kimmy marry and depart leaving Jules alone. George, who despite the reshooting still only has a relatively minor role in the narrative, appears for only the third time and reassures her that he will be there for her, even if her other best friend has married and left.
The script as originally written however would have had a crucially different ending. Jules was to have been able to split up Kimmy and Mike, and make it to the altar herself. Such is, after all, the more usual meat of star-vehicle romantic comedy: the heroine gets her man; they marry and live happily ever after. That the living happily-ever-after happens with the gay also-ran rather than the leading man, and without the usual trappings of traditional marriage takes us down new and interesting paths. For it to be common knowledge that the novel twist at the end is a result of a shining performance from an actor who was only originally intended to have the smallest of cameos is also arguably the most powerful and flattering criticism an actor could hope for.
Everett’s short appearances on screen are very clearly the key moments of the film: the beginning, a central light-relief section, and the ending. From these short moments, we can see that Everett is decked in the apparel of the supergay character. Supergays are a new and relatively untapped phenomenon on the silver screen, and are an evolutionary successor to the “happen to be gay” characters Andrea Weiss analyzed in 1986, who are identical to all around them but for the fact that they just happen to be gay. ((Andrea Weiss, “From the margins: New Images of Gays in the Cinema”, Cineaste 1986 15:1 pp4—8. Examples of characters who in Weiss’s schemata ‘happen to be gay’ are found in works such as The Color Purple (Steven Spielberg, 1985) and Kate and Allie (US sitcom, 1984-9.) )) Supergays too just happen to be gay, but they are not identical, but better than those around them. Although new to cinema, they are old hat in television, which has a greater history of direct action activism than cinema. Steven Capsuto charts how in television portrayals, gay and lesbian characters were often shown in exclusively negative terms, from the merely lonely, desperate characters to fully fledged homicidal psychopaths. Concerned gay citizens worked together to picket, sit in on, and ‘zap’ television programmes until a reversal of portrayals came about. (A typical ‘zap’ involved secreting members of a team in the audience of a participatory live TV show, and starting a co-ordinated loud protest at an inopportune moment.) A perhaps unexpected outcome of this activity was a complete swing in the opposite direction to a point where homosexuals were presented in every way as paragons of virtue, style and relationship bliss. ((Steven Capsuto, Alternate Channels: the uncensored story of gay and lesbian images in radio and television, 1930s to the present (New York, 2000) ))
Everett in My Best Friend’s Wedding is the filmic supergay. He is witty, charming and handsome, prepared to drop everything and come running whenever Jules needs him. We know he is gay because he tells us—repeatedly—he is, and also because the film gives us a couple of vignettes from George’s lifestyle to reinforce the point. Two highly comedic moments contrast the chaos of Jules falling apart around the happy couple in Boston, with George’s perfect New York gay lifestyle. She telephones him twice to ask for help: the first time, he is hosting a dinner party, and silence falls around his table as her voice emanates out of his answering machine explaining her insane predicament. As she speaks, the camera takes in George’s beautifully appointed apartment and table decorations and his equally well decorated guests. Her message finishes to silence around the table. George, ever the perfect host, smoothes over the awkwardness for his guests by asking airily “Anyone for coffee?”; and ever the perfect friend he acts on the message by flying out to Boston as soon as he can to buoy up Jules with eminently sensible suggestions which she chooses to ignore when he flies back out. When all of Jules’s plans lead to nothing and she falls utterly apart, she telephones again; this time George takes the call on his mobile since he is part of an audience for what sounds like an excruciatingly pretentious public reading in a small suburban bookshop. Again, Jules’s voice is audible to George’s friends who are increasingly intrigued as she unfolds the plot. By the time she finishes, the bookshop audience is focussed on George to the detriment of the reciting author. The point, however, regardless of Jules, is clear: supergay characters are culturally superior because they attend book readings, just as they throw perfect dinner parties.
Everett turns in a consistently powerful performance in his few short scenes, so much so that he is widely thought to have upstaged Roberts in her own star vehicle. Despite his extremely limited screen time, he easily creates the film’s most likeable persona. Quite apart from leading his enviably perfect lifestyle, he is a firm and loyal friend to Jules, and of all the characters is the most sensible and down-to-earth. By the end, the primary relationship is the one between Jules and George, the straight woman and the gay man. The film is still supporting the idea of marriage, since it has only minutes ago hitched its supporting characters to each other. Nonetheless, and mould-breakingly so for romantic comedy, the guy the leading lady ends up with is not someone she could ever marry. “Maybe there won’t be marriage,” George tells her with a twinkle in his eye as he sweeps her off her feet, “maybe there won’t be sex. But by God, there’ll be dancing!”
Baz Dreisinger sees in Everett’s portrayal of George evidence of “Hollywood serving up a very new image of the gay man” and with him, a new privileged relationship between gay men and straight women. ((Baz Dreisinger, “The queen in shining armor – Safe eroticism and the gay friend” in Journal Of Popular Film And Television 2000, 28(1), p7)) Her research shows how Hollywood portrayals of romance and writers of self-help literature are both aimed at the same audience, and are both drawing similar conclusions about love, sex and relationships. She cites a wealth of advice from the Women are from Venus, Men are from Mars ((John Gray, Women are from Venus, Men are from Mars, (New York: HarperCollins, 1993) )) stable that makes the rather obvious point that men and women have very different needs from sexual relationships. What women want and need, the self-help manuals tell us, is not necessarily sexual at all:
Though most self-help authors encourage women to enjoy sex (faking an orgasm is deemed a cardinal sin), they ultimately insist that female sexuality is more about the warm and fuzzy than the orgasm. Good rapport is seen as far more precious to women than good sex.
Dreisinger’s point is that both the self-help and movie industries are conspiring to suggest that what women need most in a relationship is nonsexual. If this is the case then it is easily conceivable that the best providers of what women need are actually gay men. Dreisinger terms this relationship ‘safe eroticism’ and traces it through three key films: My Best Friend’s Wedding, The Object of My Affection (Nicolas Hytner, 1998) and As Good as it Gets (James L Brooks, 1997). In each, as in My Best Friend’s Wedding, gay men prove the more stable and steadfast companion to straight women. In each of them, heterosexual men pale by comparison. Each promotes “the gay male/straight female bond to which no heterosexual union can compare.”
Who but the gay friend can provide a nineties woman with … friendship, tenderness, caring, understanding, passion, loyalty, and the ability to rise above petty exasperations… precisely because he is able to rise above trivial sexual lust? A fantasy about the knight in shining armor, the ideal man, seems to have been projected onto the figure of the gay confidante [sic], and implicit in this projection is a deep anxiety about heterosexual love. Better than romance, better than same sex friendship, and better than solitude is the safe eroticism offered by the ever-lovable gay man. ((Dreisinger, p11))
But the term ‘safe eroticism’ rather misses the point. The relationship between Jules and George is certainly safe, and it is shown to be a satisfying and fulfilling relationship. It even edges on the romantic. But it does not touch on eroticism. The whole point is that it is manifestly not a sexual relationship. It is equally true that it is not a sexual film—the raciest moment in the entire text is when one of the renegade bridesmaids gets her tongue stuck whilst mock-fellating an ice-statue of David, and has to be released through the auspices of a hairdryer. It is therefore a film about relationships between men and women, including about arguably the most important relationship—marriage—which entirely avoids any discussion of how men and women relate to each other sexually.
In this respect, it is hardly surprising that the only reason we know George is gay is from his impeccable taste and the fact that he keeps mentioning it. After all, we do not even have the other characters’ word for it that they are straight. We have to infer it from occasional kisses and the fact that they are planning to get married. An additional irony, excised from only the British version, is the sole mention of sexual relations, which occurs when Jules explains to Kimmy’s parents at the wedding rehearsal why her ‘fiancé’ George has flown in to visit her with no notice and no apparent rational reason: “He just came in for a few hours to uh, to uh, fuck me.” ((Quote, and details of censored British version from http://www.imdb.com)) Jules and George, like Rock Hudson and Doris Day and for the same reason, the film makes abundantly clear, do everything but fuck. ((The text explicitly mentions the Hudson/Day dynamic when an elderly female relative admires “how good [George and Jules] are together.” “We’re like Rock Hudson and Doris Day,” replies George with a knowing wink to the in-on-the-joke audience.))
The rewritten version is consistent in painting the Jules/George relationship as more fulfilling as anything the Jules/Mike relationship could offer, even without the sexual axis. Ostensibly unpartnered George is always there for her, whilst Mike has to spend more time with his wife-to-be. Throughout the plot, it is George who counsels and advises whenever she asks for help, not thinking of twice of flying across the country to be with her when she needs him. To hammer home the point still further, George “hates flying” but does so anyway because Jules needs him. It is George and Jules who share intimate moments, even up to the point of sharing a bed whilst they discuss Jules’s options for winning back Mike.
The order of the narrative reinforces the message still further: the George-Jules relationship is introduced before anything else; and George and Jules dance up to the end credits, long after Mike and Kimmy have disappeared into the night. And further stylistic features also point the primacy of George’s meaning for Jules. The film’s musical literacy is used to underscore the value of the various relationships. Mike and Kimmy don’t have an ‘our song’; Mike and Jules have ‘Some day, when I’m feeling blue’; whilst for Jules, George sings ‘I say a little prayer for you’. The lack of an ‘our song’ for Mike and Kimmy allows Jules magnanimously to give up ‘her (their) song’ with Mike along with her claim to him. But it is noteworthy that when Mike sings his song, his thin if accomplished voice remains solo, and the words disappear into the air. He and Jules have taken time to be alone together on a boat, and as he sings, the boat goes under a bridge into darkness. One of the film’s key moments occurs as he falls silent as the boat comes back into the sunlight, the bridge effectively marking the end of an era; the end of a chance of a marital relationship between Jules and himself. Similarly, when Jules is finally coming clean about the strength of her feelings to Michael, on the day he is supposed to marry someone else, the accompaniment is a ludicrous Chipmunkesque homage from the groom’s teenage brother/best man and his friends experimenting with helium. The contrast to the musical tags associated with George could not be more clear. When George sings his song, an entire restaurant sings with him, first a cappella and then fulsomely accompanied. Practically every member of the cast adds their voice to the chorus, including the entire raft of extras. It is this song, reprised at the end of the show, that Jules and George dance to.
Such a relationship so heavily sponsored is a radical departure from the norm even in such a typically nonsexual genre as the romantic comedy. The relationship specifically precludes the heteronormative, and shows the new replacement, the novel alliance of straight women and gay men as stronger. Such an alliance, seen in feminist terms, is a powerful rejection of both heterosexual norms and patriarchal loci of power.
To criticise this change in fortunes I shall draw heavily on a framework laid out by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in 1985 in the seminal work which is credited amongst the cannon of writing that launched the field of queer theory. In Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire, Sedgwick proposes a mechanism which she terms homosocial bonding, a mechanism still prevalent in contemporary society and yet visible throughout the canon of English literature. Largely understandable through a feminist frame of reference, the mechanism describes how social relationships between heterosexual men oppress women and homosexual men. ((Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993). Sedgwick’s introduction lays out the structures, which she then applies to relationships she identifies in English literature in the rest of the book. Stephen Maddison’s synopsis of Sedgwick’s hypotheses in Fags, hags and queer sisters pp72-6 has also been useful in organising my thoughts and is quoted in part later in this essay.))
Sedgwick’s framework suggests a “continuum of male ‘homosocial desire’”. The continuum is an axis of male relationships from (homo)social to (homo)sexual; or from “men promoting the interests of men” to “men loving men.” As Sedgwick points out, the word ‘homosocial’ is her own “neologism […] formed by analogy with ‘homosexual’ [… but] just as obviously meant to be distinguished from ‘homosexual’”. Positing the two extremes of the axis “men promoting the interests of men” and “men loving men” is in itself nothing new. It is however suggesting that there is an unbroken continuum between the two that gives us a useful tool for analysis. Sedgwick argues that society has always held that for men, strong, healthy ‘buddy’ relations are normal and to be encouraged. Indeed, society demands of men that they form such buddy relations in institutions such as the military and the sports field. Such friendships however have nothing in common, in society’s eyes, with unhealthy, queer sexual relations between men. Sedgwick suggests that what society considers the norm and the abject are far from entirely distinct, but are in fact opposite ends of a continuous scale.
That society does not consider this set of relationships to be a continuum, but makes a clear distinction between the two, is in Sedgwick’s argument, a policing mechanism for heterosexual men. There is a line between the two—an “invisible, carefully blurred, always-already-crossed line” ((Sedgwick, p89)) —which heterosexual men need constantly to avoid crossing. The threat of the label of homosexuality is at any point just around the corner.
For Sedgwick then, the concept of homophobia is not so much something that oppresses only homosexuals, as a defining structure that keeps society cohesive: “homophobia is a necessary consequence of such patriarchal institutions as heterosexual marriage.” ((Sedgwick, p3)) Similarly, homosexual men have a function within the framework that goes beyond our private relationships with each other: we are here as a constant reminder to heterosexual men of what they must not become. Similarly, a consequence of this is that women function in society largely to disprove homosexuality in men. They are living proof of heterosexual activity both as wives and daughters: men exchange women to acquire status with each other.
Beyond her introduction, Sedgwick moves on to showing heterosocial bonds at work in English literature, documenting a widespread exchange of women. She identifies what she calls erotic triangles comprising two (heterosexual) men and one woman. The two men can be rivals for the woman’s romantic affection, or can be father and husband to the woman. All three are bound together by symmetrical relationships through the homosocial matrix. The woman functions to keep the men both apart and together. Where the triangle is one of rival lovers a particularly simple symmetry emerges: both men have the same homosocial relationship with one another and the same desire relationship with the woman. Likewise the woman has the potential for the same desire relationship with each of the men.
The language of erotic triangles and homosocial bonds has long since entered the canon of film criticism. Cynthia J Fuchs, for example, gives a series of case studies of buddy relationships between in men in action movies. ((Cynthia J Fuchs, “The Buddy Politic”, in Steven Cohan and Ina Rae Hark (eds) Screening the male : exploring masculinities in Hollywood cinema (London: Routledge, 1993) )) Citing texts as diverse as the early Lethal Weapon movies and Clint Eastwood vehicle The Rookie, she shows how these strong buddy relationships between men make active use of homophobia and misogyny within the framework of the homosocial matrix to displace criticism of unmasculine behaviour. Fuchs also suggests that the strategic incorporation of racial others is used to “efface homosexuality.” ((Fuchs, p195)) Taking the framework further she also suggests that forms of violence and forms of sexuality are linked; and that in excessively violent films such as Lethal Weapon II (Richard Donner, 1989), the prevalence of the violence throughout the narrative displaces any sexual plot line to the margins. Only once the violence is complete, and all the baddies shot, can protagonists Riggs (Mel Gibson) and Murtaugh (Danny Glover) resume domestic and sexual life with their (female) partners whilst remaining firmest of (homosocial) friends. In a token gesture of homosocial exchange of a woman, however, Riggs becomes romantically entangled with one of Murtaugh’s daughters.
Much later, Stephen Maddison gives a unique reading of Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarentino, 1994) in which he expounds on the “hegemonic way in which [Pulp Fiction’s] obsessive return to the motif of male anal penetration has remained unidentified.” (Male anal penetration being of course the most visceral component of the abjection of homosexuality, and as such the clearest part of what it is on the far side of Sedgwick’s invisible, blurred line that must be avoided.) Maddison traces the anal motif (which is “not exactly represented half-heartedly”) through a family heirloom watch that survived the character Butch’s father’s imprisonment in a POW camp by being secreted in his father’s anus, and then entrusted to the secrecy of his father’s friend’s anus who tracks the son down to deliver the watch to him as a child.
Thus the anus of his father and that of his father’s closest friend proves to be the medium for a bonding Butch is able to enact with his father and grandfather through the totem of the watch. ((Stephen Maddison, Fags Hags and Queer Sisters, (London: Macmillan, 2000) p77))
The graphic explanation of the heritage of the watch describes a patrilineal homosocial bond; the watch, subsequently left behind by inept girlfriend Fabienne proves to be the instrument of plot which leads to Butch murdering the man sent to murder him whilst the latter is prone on the toilet with his trousers around his ankles (another anal indicator) which in turn puts Butch into the path of Marsellus, another character intent on murdering him. During Butch’s attempt at escape through a pawn shop, both Butch and Marsellus are kidnapped by a pair of gay men who proceed to rape Marsellus. Butch is able to escape before it is his turn to be raped, and returns to rescue the man who wants him dead in a “passionate, even romantic act”; Maddison describes the chain of events as a “circuit of homosocial bonding” bringing together Butch, his father and grandfather, Koon, his father’s friend, and Marsellus whom he rescues from the abjection of homosexual rape. ((Maddison p79)) By finally massacring the homosexuals responsible, Butch restores the homosocial order, and exorcises the demon of Marsellus’s abjection. Throughout the film, women are portrayed in incidental roles, and are not even allowed to interact:
their purpose is to provide the (hetero)sexual credentials of their men, and facilitate (as Fabienne does) the opportunity for the men to recover dangerous, usually life-threatening scenarios and thus display their masculine credentials for the edification of homosociality. ((Maddison p80))
But to return to Rupert Everett and My Best Friend’s Wedding, the crucial point is that unlike in most other movies using relationship themes (or indeed most other movies) a homosocial dynamic is manifestly not there. Had Everett’s character George remained on the side lines, as originally written, the character could have been ascribed to the margin as the abject that Mike does not become. The test audience, however, had other ideas. Because of Everett’s screen presence, the film has moved into new territory.
Maddison himself neologizes to name this new territory heterosociality, based on Sedgwick’s first principles. He takes further Sedgwick’s homosocial matrix. He reiterates a criticism of Sedgwick’s work that she completely overlooks female homosexuality ((See also Terry Castle, The Apparitional Lesbian (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994) ))—and indeed entirely reduces women’s potential for self-determination within the homosocial world. Within the terms of the homosocial matrix, women only achieve status and cultural power for themselves by acquiescing to the demands of their menfolk. Unless they consent to be exchanged as men’s proofs of heterosexuality, they earn no credentials as wives or mothers, and place themselves outside the dominant culture. The matrix leaves no space for women to relate to each other either socially or sexually, since their only apparent function is to provide status for men. Sedgwick herself explained that she considered the continuum between women loving women and women promoting the interests of women was far less broken or controversial than the corresponding continuum for men. But as many have pointed out since, Maddison included, this rather simplistic refusal to consider people outside her framework forecloses on them. Maddison points out that Sedgwick’s work was only ever possible—in terms of having a place to speak from—“in no small measure the result of lesbian political and academic intervention.” He continues
it does not seem too bold to suggest that there would need to be a corresponding hegemonic production of a radical discontinuity of between the appropriation of feminine-heterosexual acquiescence and lesbian-other. ((Maddison, p83))
Lesbians, and particularly gay people who propose a separatist agenda, forge an identity entirely outside the homosocial norm, and entirely overlooked by Sedgwick.
Maddison summarises the “deployment of homosocial relations” as follows:
The bonding of men of men requires the constitution of an inside group from which power can be mobilized. The security of that inside group depends on the manifestation of outsider-others. Within patriarchal homosociality, women are the principal outsiders, the oppression of whom is a necessary condition for the succession of property rights: women are the bearers of children and the opportunity for sexual pleasure, to be exchanged as symbols of potency and value as currency between men[. …] Homosexual men are conjured as the ever present insider-other through whom the exchange of women breaks down; their existence also blurs the boundaries between who exhibits phallic power and who bears it: they are demonized and represented as the inimical possibility of male anal phallic penetration. ((Maddison, p81 In a footnote following the quoted paragraph, Maddison goes on to expound on writings concerning male anal phallic penetration.))
The three groups of people included within the homosocial matrix are the heterosexual men who benefit from its perpetuation, and the women and gay men who do not. Yet both women and gay men gain cultural capital and benefits if they are prepared to collude with the matrix and work from the inside: women gain security, financial stability, family and kudos from other women for being or having been worthy of exchange; gay men whilst having the abjection of homosexuality still retain the phallic privilege of being men. Finally female homosexuals do not fit within the matrix at all.
Heterosocial bonds, then, are those enacted between any of the above groups of people but which do not further the status quo. Practically—but appropriately—heterosexual men are excluded since they are unlikely to form relationships which act against their patriarchal supremacy. Any relationships or bonds between gay men and straight women, straight women and gay women, or gay men and women which do not promote the interests of the newly marginalised straight men can be said to be heterosocial.
And it is precisely this sort of relationship which is given primary importance in My Best Friend’s Wedding. Since the rewrite ascribable to Rupert Everett, the triangle of the principal characters George—Jules—Mike does not include either the potential for the exchange of the female character or two men who are prepared to do so. The original version, where Jules was to have ended up with Mike, could easily have typified a homosocial exchange between the two men. But the ending as seen by cinemagoers culminates in a plot in which a woman and a gay man combine efforts to live happily ever after without needing any help from straight men.
Such a proposition suggests an interesting future for romantic comedy. A radical departure from the heteronormative—and one which came about because test audiences demanded it—allows for Hollywood and the wider entertainment industry to consider a novel direction. The success of My Best Friend’s Wedding paved the way for a whole raft of mainstream films and television shows aimed at markets not exclusively dominated by straight men.
The Next Best Thing takes heterosociality one step further
My Best Friend’s Wedding remains a relatively simple movie at heart and leaves us with a sense of closure. The Next Best Thing provides us no such luxury. It is a complex film covering a minefield of difficult relationships and at the same time milestones in gay life. Beginning as Wedding does with a central relationship between gay man Robert (Everett) and straight woman Abby (Madonna), the plot tests that friendship beyond breaking point, through a timescale that encompasses six years. Time is linear with periodic leaps forward: the film begins with the end another disastrous romantic relationship for yoga instructor Abby, and the death of one of garden designer Robert’s best friends. Left alone for Independence Day, the pair celebrates together in the fabulously chic and camp home of two of Robert’s clients; after they get very drunk on martinis, and trash the place, there is a fade to black during which we hear a firework explode. They wake up in each others arms, sleeping on an overturned couch under a huge fur coat. It is a shock for each of them, and their previously close relationship fragments.
For a number of weeks they do not speak; and the film shows them with other friends regretting the breakdown in communication. Then vegetarian Abby finds herself craving hamburgers, which a friend interprets as her body needing iron. Abby realises she has missed a number of periods, and eventually confirms herself as pregnant. Appraising Robert of the news, she tells him that since her biological clock is ticking and no other chances of motherhood are apparent, she has decided to keep the baby; he can be as involved as much or as little as wants. Robert consults with his mother (Lyn Redgrave), who is thrilled, his father (Josef Sommer), who cannot understand, and his gay friends, who are highly sceptical.
Eventually Robert decides he wants to play as full a part in his child’s life as possible, and negotiates with Abby to move into her house. They agree he can be a father without being a husband; and the second fade to black is punctuated by the sound of a newborn’s cries. The narrative then jumps forward to Sam (Malcolm Strumpf), the child’s fifth birthday party, and shows us scenes in the life of the now established family. Sam is a yoga prodigy, running a quick class for the other children at his party. As expected, Robert makes a great dad, and everyone seems to be living happily ever after. Unlike George in Wedding, he even manages to pursue his gay relationships, and has an attractive cardiologist boyfriend (Mark Valley). His mother is as supportive as ever and he has managed to bring his father round. Abby too seems to be keeping her life together, but is not dating and feels a little lonely. Robert encourages her to find a boyfriend of her own.
The halcyon days of the middle section of the film prove short lived when a highly unsuitable type blows into yoga classes one day. Ben (Benjamin Bratt), a high powered New York lawyer, is instantly portrayed as trouble when he confuses yoga with a more gruelling physical fitness regime. He is at first not convinced that he even wants to try something as ephemeral as yoga, but Sam persuades him to take part in a group session. By the end he is hooked, and asks Abby out on a date. Robert is at first pleased, but as things between Abby and Ben progress, it is clear that the relationship between Abby and Sam is breaking apart the pre-existing relationship between Abby and Robert. Family life begins to break down; Sam starts asking awkward questions about why Daddy doesn’t sleep in Mommy’s bed. Finally, the news that Abby and Ben plan to marry, and the revelation that Ben’s work in Los Angeles is about to end, and he will have to return to New York send Robert into a rage. He shouts, lays down rules—principal amongst which, Sam stays in LA—and upsets everyone. Later when he returns to the house, he discovers Abby and Ben have absconded taking Sam with them. Robert retains legal representation and sues for joint custody on the grounds that he is Sam’s father; but Abby calls round one night with the shocking news that in fact he is not biologically related to Sam. She had discovered three years previously that Sam’s blood group proves he cannot be related to Robert, and she must have conceived him with Kevin (Michael Vartan), the unsuitable lover she had just broken up with at the beginning of the film. Devastated, Robert continues through court, fighting a case he cannot win, with money his newly reconciled father provides. The court case is deeply unpleasant, with Abby’s lawyer making vile insinuations: “have you been to this club? Have you participated in drug taking? Has your son ever seen you perform oral sex on another man?” In the end, the judge appreciates that although Robert had been a good father and deserves ongoing contact with Sam, he has no claim in law that can be upheld. Sam’s biological father, whose involvement Robert solicits, muddies the water still further; but the film ends when Abby, finally realising that everything has gone so wrong, allows a little reconciliation, and lets Robert cook Sam dinner.
Although The Next Best Thing begins almost identically to My Best Friend’s Wedding, Everett is able to explore far more in his work with Madonna than he was with Julia Roberts. The similarities of the beginnings are striking: Everett is back in the role of supergay, friend and fixer. After credit titles that establish Abby and Robert at work in their respective careers, Abby returns home to find the awful Kevin moving out of her apartment. It is Robert she phones, and he offers sound relationship advice which she gaily disregards. For a while, the stage is set for yet another gentle rom com with a nominally gay protagonist. Yet this isn’t what we get. Where Wedding had George as a gay character overwhelmingly and exclusively surrounded by heterosexual society, Next Best Thing situates Robert within the strong framework of gay community.
Throughout, Next Best Thing provides us with a far more rounded portrayal of gay life. The next scene, for example, takes Robert, Abby and their gay friends to the funeral of a friend who has died (we can assume, although it is not said, with AIDS). His partner, David, is amongst Robert’s friends, but has been excluded from the planning of the funeral by the dead man’s family. David’s bitter commentary of the event underscores it for us; the portrayal is informed by gay sensibility and is a story the gay community has come to know well: partners have no rights to involvement in a lover’s post-mortem arrangements without the consent of the lover’s birth family. This is particularly true where people die intestate. It seems that David’s lover did die without making a will, because shortly after, David is homeless, moving into the apartment Robert vacates to take a room in Abby’s house. David tells us his lover would not have wanted a pseudo-gothic burial, but had wanted his ashes scattered to the four winds, whilst his friends drank tequila, and played Don McLean’s American Pie too loudly. As a mark of respect for his wishes, the gay contingent of the graveside coterie quietly starts singing the words to the dismay and disapproval of the traditionalist family. ((It is reputed that this scene led Everett to persuade Madonna to release a cover of American Pie. It is somewhat ironic that the subsequent track has far greater currency amongst the gay community—and beyond—than the film ever gained.))
Robert’s gay community is there for him when things go wrong. The two periods when he and Abby are not talking (after they sleep together, and after she kidnaps Sam) show him seeking comfort in his social relationships with other gay men. In a darkened room with rain lashing the patio door, David, taking a potpourri of pills (another unspoken reference to the spectre of AIDS) sympathises with Robert on his loss of his son. It is he who persuades Robert to secure legal advice, and bemoans the fact that Robert and Abby didn’t get married when they moved in together (which would have provided them with a clear cut, tested-a-million-times legal framework for custody decisions). David is at least consistent: when he takes over Robert’s tenancy when Robert moves in with Abby, he is not slow to voice his concerns at where this relationship will end.
David is not the only character to feel trouble brewing in the central relationship of the film. The man referred to only as Robert’s heart doctor, ((The poor joke of describing someone’s lover as his cardiologist could have been worse: in the appalling cliché ridden French film Le Derrière (France: Valérie Lemercier, 1999), the (gay, male) protagonist’s boyfriend is a proctologist.)) who is actually his lover as well as a bad pun, finds it very difficult to compete with Robert’s family, “wife” and child when it comes to finding time to be together. The fact that Robert puts his son before everything else in his life makes it a little difficult for other men to get close to him. In a post-coital discussion late at night, the cardiologist is summonsed back to the hospital to help in an emergency; but it is Robert who has more demands on his time than the surgeon; and the surgeon who has to break off the relationship because he cannot cope with playing second fiddle in Robert’s slightly unusual domestic orchestra. It is clear that this character is here only to demonstrate that Robert can still have gay relationships (often entirely missing in films about characters who are ostensibly gay but who never seem to have sex or boyfriends.) But it makes the opposite point: not that Robert is actually gay, rather than nominally so; but that even if he is allowed by the narrative to have relationships, his prior commitments practically prevent him from doing so.
If The Next Best Thing situates its gay character in a more rounded portrayal of a community, it does the same for its female protagonist. Wedding makes a point of leaving both Jules and George excluded from the crowd, with only each other for company: “By the way of incessant close-ups of Roberts, [Wedding] fetishizes her aloneness and independence.” ((Dreisinger, p7)) Typing the Jules character as alone served to mark the contrast between her and bride-to-be Kimmy, who was at the centre of the familial and social support networks that had been flown into town for her wedding. The Next Best Thing however gives Abby a raft of female friends and puts her in a position of responsibility over those who come to her house for yoga lessons. When her relationship with Robert breaks down after their night together she has no shortage of other confidantes to discuss it with; when she and Robert decide to attempt co-parenting, her female friends are delighted, but puzzled: “Robert Robert? Gay Robert?”
Perhaps the clearest themes throughout the film are its discussions of identity. Leaving aside (but only for the moment) the obvious questions of sexual identity which form the framework for the narrative, the film also highlights differences between, but more significantly blurs the boundaries between a number of personal identities. Take for example vegetarians and meat-eaters: when Abby craves iron because she is pregnant, she becomes the vegetarian-who-eats-hamburger. National identity: Robert is English and therefore European, clearly signposted by his accent and other indicators: his parents’ visit; when his parents meet their grandchild, the estranged grandfather bears a gift of a cricket bat, a powerfully alien signifier to an American audience, and a strange bedfellow alongside American actors and institutions such as the baby shower scene only moments earlier. Madonna’s curiously ambiguous mid-Atlantic accent places Abby at the halfway point situating Ben on the other end of the scale as the red-blooded wholly American male. It is, of course not so simple. Robert may be English but he lives and works in America (as of course does Everett). He may be marginalisable for his nationality and his sexuality, but the film gives him by contrast the most prominent role: after Sam’s abduction, and the split in the narrative with Abby on one side and Robert on the other, the film follows Robert. The European/American contrast is specifically brought up in Robert and Abby’s recriminatory exchange the morning after the fateful event. “Last night—we kissed,” says Abby; “We always kiss,” Robert retorts, “It’s European.” Here, “European” is a positive trait, signifying a liberal, body-positive approach where tactile greeting and physical contact are welcome; but it is not unheard of in less liberal parts of American society for “European” to take on the value of an insult. ((For example, The Observer, September 1st 2002 carries an article in which the “doves” on the left of the Republican Party urging President George Bush not to open hostilities with Iraq were denounced as “appeasers” and “European” by the pro-war “hawk” faction.))
If nationality is a key issue for the film, so also is identity within nations. A great contrast is portrayed between east coast corporate-culture New Yorker Ben, and the west coast LA-dwelling Californian quasi-new-agers Robert and Abby. Ben is something in acquisitions and mergers which is what migrates him across the country in the first place; Robert is a gardener and Abby teaches yoga. The contrast could hardly be more marked, and it is the instigator of the main conflict between the characters. When Ben and Abby decide to marry, Ben is obliged for professional reasons to return east. He cannot turn down promotion without leaving his company, and he has worked for the promotion for fifteen years; however he cannot accept the promotion without moving back to New York. Abby is prepared to follow, but Robert does not want to leave, and does not want Sam taken east. This begins the argument that triggers Sam’s abduction and the final part of the film.
Clearly, however, the most crucial identity issue The Next Best Thing explores is that of sexual identity; and specifically, the identity of Robert as a gay man who just once in a night of what would we could call straight abandon ends up getting intimate with his best female friend. Robert acts outside his own sexual identity. As far as we know from the film, Robert has not done this before. Indeed the morning after is portrayed as particularly fraught for the pair. This is new territory for both the characters and the history of movies; yet of itself, a person acting outside of his or her sexual identity is not that unusual. When this film was first released, it was reviewed by celebrity poof Graham Norton for BBC Radio 4’s flagship arts programme Front Row. Norton had a problem believing the film, but when presenter Mark Lawson asked whether it was the fact of a gay man sleeping with a woman that bothered him, Norton considered this not particularly unusual. ((Although I recall this interview reasonably well, I have not been able to discover when precisely it was broadcast.))
And indeed it is not that unusual for people to act outside their sexual identity. ((Although a straw poll amongst my gay friends suggests that it is becoming less so: by and large those of my gay male friends who are in thirties and forties are more likely to have had sexual relationships with women than those in their teens and twenties. A superficial conclusion to draw from this could suggest that this could be associated with a growing acceptance of homosexuality within society at large. In a society where homosexuality is permitted, there is no need for, eg a last ditch attempt at heterosexual dalliance to persuade oneself that one is definitely gay.)) All research into the subject has found that sexual behaviour rarely matches social mores. Although earlier research found no differently, perhaps the most notorious piece of work into the subject was Alfred Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. (( Alfred C Kinsey et al, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, (Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders 1953) )) This report made it abundantly clear that sexual contact between men, whilst still taboo, was greatly more common then ever before assumed. Kinsey proposed a scale, based on a history of sexual practice, for the ordinary American men he interviewed. This scale ran from 0 to 6, and categorised sexual partners. A man whose number is 0 has only ever had sexual experiences with members of the opposite sex; a 6 has only ever had them with members of his own sex. The numbers in between mark a sliding scale between the two opposing ends of the axis, with 3 being the number for those who, in practice, have been perfectly bisexual; who in other words have had as many male partners as female ones. The very existence of the scale gave the lie to the prevailing belief in 1950s America that sex between men was a marginal activity undertaken only by the socially excluded. It remained true that exclusively homosexual practice was the preserve of relatively few:
Kinsey found that 4% of white males are exclusively homosexual throughout their lives; 10% are more or less exclusively homosexual for at least three years between the ages of 16 and 55; 37% have had some overt homosexual experience to the point of orgasm between adolescence and old age; 25% have had more than incidental homosexual experience for at least three years. ((Findings quoted in a footnote in Rebecca Nahas and Myra Turley, The New Couple: Women and Gay men (New York: Seaview Books: New York, 1979) p 199))
Nonetheless huge sections of the population had had significantly more gay experience than the adolescent fumble ascribable to surplus teenage hormones.
Kinsey’s research shows that the sexual practice of many of his subjects (and therefore by extrapolation, many men) did not match their sexual identity. Men with every number on his scale of sexual practice still thought of themselves as and reported themselves to their wives and girlfriends as red-blooded heterosexuals. The Next Best Thing reports a similar story from a different angle: Robert does not believe himself to be heterosexual, and yet found himself sufficiently enamoured of feminine charms to have been able to have fathered a child. ((Although of course we know by the end of the film that the child transpires not to be his.)) Abby’s announcement of her pregnancy exposes the social dilemma of those who find themselves unable to find an easy label. After several days, Robert has managed to find himself a compromise between his pre-existing gay identity and the new, fraught psychosexual drama he finds himself facing. “I’ll be the baby’s father,” he says, making up the rules for the post-natal relationship he will have with Abby, “but I can’t be your husband.”
It is of course not surprising that it should be difficult for Robert to decide to enter into this parenting relationship with Abby. There is an awful lot more invested in a gay self identity than sleeping with and forming meaningful relationships with members of the same sex. And it takes rather more than a brief fling outside one’s habitual sexual preference for it to be worth the vast personal upheaval it takes to uproot all the investment in one identity to pursue another. Lisa Power, writing on the subject in Antigay ((Mark Simpson (ed) Antigay (London: Freedom Editions, 1996) )) decides that despite a significant relationship with a man, she does not want to stop being a lesbian. Despite her personal decision (and one would have thought that she herself would have been best placed to decide whether or not she should call herself a lesbian) many of her associates within the community of lesbian activism called for her metaphoric suspension. She highlights the irony of groups founded to promote one deviant (homo)sexuality, or at very least awareness and tolerance of it, being unable to cope with people whose sexuality is not one hundred percent the same as their members:
I am heartsick of the difficulties that most lesbian and gay communities, social groups, organizations and friendship networks have with sexuality. And of the lengths to which some people within those frameworks feel they have to go to conceal part of what should be a source of pleasure or at least amusement to them. Specifically, I mean the difficulties they have with polymorphous perversity, or open sexuality, or the ability to speak more than just your native tongue in sexual language. ((Lisa Power, “Forbidden Fruit” in Mark Simpson (ed) Antigay (London: Freedom Editions, 1996), p 56))
Powers points out that studies show that dalliances with polymorphous perversity ((A term from Freudian analysis of sexuality: Freud posits that sexuality is not the exclusive preserve of the post-pubescent. Infants are born with no sexual focus, but plenty of desire. The have the potential to experience sexual pleasure from every stimulus they receive. Only as life progresses do they move into phases where sexual pleasure has a distinct focus: the oral phase, where an infant tries to put everything in its mouth, the anal phase, where a child is being potty trained and gets a disproportionate amount of pleasure from defecating in ways approved of by parents, to the genital phase in adulthood where the greatest pleasures are from sexual activity.)) from within the gay community are no less rare than heterosexuals’ flings with homosexuality as according to Kinsey:
[A]n inordinate amount of sexual surveys keep coming up with interesting results in this area. Sigma Research, whose reputation for scrupulous accuracy in such matters is unrivalled, found that just under 12 per cent of one sample of gay men had had sex with a woman in the past year (Sex, Gay Men & Aids: Parameters of Sexual Behaviour, Falmer Press 1992) and 7 per cent of their survey sample at [London] Pride 1993 had done so (Gay Men’s Sex Survey at Pride 93: Sigma Research and GMFA, 1993).
Power cites very similar statistics relating to sexual activity of lesbians with men, then goes on to conclude
Within our own field, we are a minority of about the same order as homosexuals are within the wider population. And, as we so often say about those surveys, that’s only the ones who’ve got the nerve to tell the truth. ((Power, p60))
Power’s article enunciates two reasons why it should be important that these “open sexuality” relationships are not hidden behind closed doors but declared, articulated and celebrated. Firstly, of course, there are health consequences to all sexual activity. Sexual activity outside one’s habitual sexual identity is, Power suggests, more likely to occur when under the influence of alcohol, which is one of the key circumstances in which unsafe sex happens. This is certainly true in Abby and Robert’s situation: they got it on together after far too many martinis; and any liaison that could have ended in pregnancy is equally open to the transference of sexually transmitted infections. The refusal to address the issue of gay people having heterosexual sex leads, according to Power, to gross and dangerous omissions from safer sex propaganda. ((It also makes it easier for bad, manipulative women like the one played by Christina Ricci in The Opposite of Sex to take advantage. The plot leads already-pregnant Dedee (Ricci) to seduce Matt (Ivan Sergei), her half-brother’s boyfriend, and then later to allow him to believe he has fathered her child. When she tells him she is “late”, he shows his ignorance in the ways of women by asking her if she needs a lift anywhere. Later in the narrative, the more worldly wise teacher Lucia DeLury (Lisa Kudrow) explains that Dedee could only be “showing” (ie visibly pregnant) if she had conceived long before she ever moved in with her half-brother. Although Abby also deceives her gay lover about the parentage of her child, she does not do it in quite such a scheming, systematic way: she only discovers that Robert could not be Sam’s biological father in routine blood tests. Her only manipulation is not to let Robert know as soon as she discovers the truth.) ))
Secondly, Power argues, it is grossly hypocritical to demand the freedom to have socially deplored sexual relations whilst simultaneously creating a social climate where there are some sexual relations that are deplored. Above all else, however, Power wants the right for herself to have occasional relationships with men and still to be able to call herself a lesbian—for everyone, indeed to have relationships with unusual gender choices and still use the label of their choice:
I am sick of seeing people who really don’t like themselves because they have swallowed the lie that their personal complexities and idiosyncrasies make them Not A Real Lesbian/Gay Man, or at least a second class one. […] Although I have in fact slept with only one (gay) man in more than a decade, I have long had rumours relayed back to me that I am Not A Real Lesbian. ((Power, p57))
Despite the threat of being labelled Not A Real Gay Man as a result of the themes expressed in The Next Best Thing, it is a film in which Everett has a great deal of personal investment. The complexity of the issues faced and the no-holds-barred approach to difficult and heart-rending issues clearly signpost that the film is beyond the scope of romantic comedy, and has moved into the realm of social drama. In that, it is precisely the film that Everett wanted to make. Wedding was dramatically rewritten in post-production, but Everett had the luxury of rewriting The Next Best Thing long before the project began:
The film’s original script was written by (and remains officially credited to) Tom Ropelewski, but somehow the press began reporting that it had been written by Everett for Madonna. Ropelewski was understandably irritated. In fact, Everett, Madonna, and Everett’s writing partner, Mel Bordeaux, “personalized the script,” Madonna says. “The script fell into Rupert’s hands, and the Rupert brought it to me.” ((Zeman))
The rewrite was certainly far-reaching: out went a stereotypical “flubby” token queen with no sex life and a tendency to resolve conflict through foodfights; out went a stereotypical faghag swimming instructor. In came two fabulous stars who could hardly be expected to portray mundane people, so the leading characters were rewritten accordingly. In the words of the uncredited Mel Bordeaux,
The original script seemed to be a story about ordinary people. The gay guy was an interior decorator, and the woman was a swimming instructor. It was really funny, but he was more of a Nathan Lane character, and she was much more of a regular woman. Suddenly, when you cast Madonna and Rupert, who are more extraordinary types, you don’t believe Rupert would be a mincing queen who hadn’t had sex in six years. ((qtd in Margot Dougherty, “Ascending Everett”, Los Angeles Magazine, April 2000))
There is a great irony that Ropelewski’s script had been around for a long time before finally being made as The Next Best Thing. Indeed Everett auditioned for the part of the gay character before the success of Wedding, but was turned down. But as a direct result of that success, he was approached once more with the script.
“I had very much wanted to find something that started off in the same vein as My Best Friend’s Wedding but moved further along,” Everett says. “And this seemed like a good opportunity.” ((qtd in Dougherty))
The Next Best Thing, then, was conceived as a project specifically to take further the ideas of heterosociality discussed in My Best Friend’s Wedding. And, as in Wedding, Thing was dramatically changed as a result of including Rupert Everett on the project.
It is certainly not difficult to see Everett both as the model gay man and the model proponent of heterosocial relationships. He is, as a high profile interview in the Independent points out, “the only above-the-title film star in the history of Hollywood who has ever been man enough to admit [he’s gay].” ((Matthew Sweet, “Rupert Everett: this charming man”, Independent newspaper, 26 August 2002, as reprinted at http://news.independent.co.uk/people/profiles/story.jsp?story=327654)) For all his high-profile homosexuality however, he is consistent in refusing to see himself as a gay campaigner. Although he came out in 1985, he did not consider it to be much of an issue:
It wasn’t a major pronouncement or a big press issue. I didn’t discuss it publicly until I felt really completely gay, and that didn’t happen until I was 26, when I had my last girlfriend. At the point that it appeared publicly, in an interview, I was living in Paris with a guy. It didn’t seem to be much of an issue at all in France, although I know it made more of an impact at home. ((Interview with Bruce Vilanch in The Advocate: Jan 20, 1998))
Such candidness for so long is most unusual in the Hollywood inhabited by the superstars. Whilst there is no shortage of B and C list celebrity gays, there is no other actor of Everett’s status who is out. As David Ehrenstein puts it in Open Secret: Gay Hollywood 1928-2000
The media have no idea how to talk about him. “Mr. Everett, one of the few actors to say that he is gay,” begins Bernard Weinraub of The New York Times, on the actor’s sudden (at least as far as Hollywood was concerned) success, observing the editorial etiquette that demands gayness remain invisible unless it is announced formally in quasi-ceremonial fashion. Everett had no such ceremony, being “out” from the very beginning of his career—had any party chosen to inquire. The real story of My Best Friend’s Wedding was that a performer who had a [sic] least a decade’s worth of success in low-budget European film and theater behind him was making a splash in a commercial arena where few would have imagined he’d ever find a home. ((David Ehrenstein, Open Secret: Gay Hollywood 1928-2000, (New York: HarperCollins Perennial, 2000) ))
Ehrenstein’s hypothesis throughout is that the reputable media and gay stars conspire to keep homosexuality away from the front pages. A star therefore who sees his homosexuality as a non-issue is therefore automatically a story, even if he can’t see it himself. And it is certainly true that his homosexuality is the one thing that Everett does not want to talk about.
Rupert is quick to distance himself from the new ((Not, of course, that new—Ellen and Ann were news in 1997)) aggressively gay stance of such Hollywood stars as Anne Heche and Ellen Degeneres. “You know what I feel? I’m not a politician, I’m an actor,” he states. “I don’t see that whole situation as a political situation. I’m not interested in it as a political situation. I’m really interested in being an actor. From my point of view, being out is not about anything political. It’s just because I can’t be bothered to be in.” Point out that even so, he is somewhat of role model for a lot of people who are coming out, and he agrees. “Well, that’s good. But from my point of view, if I had to have a banner, and I had to write something on it, I’d be writing ‘actor’ first,” he stresses, “not gay.” ((Sweet))
It is hardly as if Everett is in anyway bashful: there are few things in this man’s life that he will not talk about. So much of his dirty laundry is already in the public domain: we even know from his semiautobiographical novel that he worked as a prostitute for a short while in Paris. Everett is not even above using his experience as a hustler to further his career as an actor:
I do admit that being a hustler is the worst thing for your head. But so is [sic] being an actor, emotionally. Once you’ve done that sense-memory thing in front of the camera, where you draw on what for most people is private in public, then that becomes the only way you can do emotion. It’s rather like hustlers who can only do sex for money. In fact, that’s why a lot of actors have bad marriages. ((From an interview with Brad Gooch, “Rupert Observed” in Out, Fall 1992, quoted in Ehrenstein p335))
In refusing to make homosexuality an issue, then, Everett is the actor equivalent of the characters who happen to be gay. It is no big deal, it just is. That stance is very much the heart of the series of films which feature relationships between gay men and straight women. Some see them as an attempt to integrate homosexuality into the norm
In the past, if a character was gay, that was a big deal. Eyebrows were raised. You had to explain it. The nice news now is that it can be presented as not a big deal at all. That’s lovely. It’s also nice that the characters no longer need to be ‘camp’ to be believable. ((Laurence Mark, producer of As Good as it Gets, and The Object of My Affection, quoted in Ehrenstein p296))
It is perhaps appropriate that it should be him that Hollywood chose to articulate the debate about relationships between gay men and straight women since Everett personally has been amongst the most famous of gay men to pursue relationships with women. ((Perhaps the second most famous gay man in the world to do is Pedro Almodóvar; Stephen Maddison devotes an entire chapter of his book to his relationships with women.)) The story of Everett’s personal life, as paraded in the tabloid newspapers since the 1980s, has always linked him with beautiful and successful women. Whilst Everett was living in Paris, in his words,
“I was going out with this really beautiful French actress, Beatrice Dalle,” [Everett] explains [in an interview reprinted on imdb.com], “and she was unhappy and so was I. Then she met a mechanic and I met this volleyball player, and that was that.” ((Interview reprinted at http://yoursay.imdb.com/NewsFeatures/reverett))
Perhaps more pertinently to this essay, the publicity surrounding both Next Best Thing and My Best Friend’s Wedding makes much of Everett’s personal friendships with his female co-stars
Which in turn has apparently led to a small spat between Julia and Madonna while both divas vie for his attention. Julia announced (perhaps only half-jokingly) that she was “angry” with the English star, accusing him of “dumping” her for Madonna. ((IMDB interview from http://yoursay.imdb.com/NewsFeatures/reverett))
Certainly there is a certain hegemonic repetition of an anecdote relaying Everett’s attempt at getting closer to Madonna. Suddenly every Everett interview in advance of his 2002 blockbuster outing of the Oscar Wilde play The Importance of Being Earnest (Oliver Parker, 2002) mentions Madonna’s retort to Everett’s attentions
We know that he snogged Madge Ritchie ((Ironic name given to Madonna from her recent marriage to Guy Ritchie, and an abbreviation of her name that she has always hated.)) in the back of a limo, and that she batted him off with the memorable remonstrance, “God, Rupert, stop stroking me like a fucking dog!” ((Sweet, inter alia))
But the force of her rebuttal here does not appear to undermine their continued friendship any more than Everett’s continued friendship with Madonna seriously impinges on his friendship with Roberts. After all, Everett and Roberts are still slated to make a film called Arthur and Martha together.
“We play two movie stars. We play the most famous stars in America. And I’m kind of the big, big action hero, and she’s Miss American Pie. And we’ve been married for 15 years. We’re ‘People’ magazine’s number one couple every year. We are Hilary and Bill’s best friend, we’re always at the White House. But we’re living a total lie.” ((IMDB interview))
Everett has clearly not yet played out the heterosocial theme in either his work for the silver screen, or his personal life.
And it is certainly true that this heterosocial promotion has done Everett’s career no harm whatsoever. He followed up the runaway success of My Best Friend’s Wedding with a ruthless determination to take every film he could. Having proven his mettle, he was offered a huge range of projects, taking high places in the credits as characters diverse as the evil baddie in Inspector Gadget (David Kellogg, 1999) to 1600s literary genius Kit Marlowe, as an uncredited cameo in Shakespeare in Love (John Madden, 1998) to a rather more recent literary figure of Lord Arthur Goring in Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband (Oliver Parker, 1999). If his programme after The Next Best Thing has taken him away from our screens for two years, he is now back working with Oliver Parker in The Importance of Being Earnest (2002) amid a storm of publicity and with the highest billing. Projects such as PS I Love You, in which he plays a gay spy, and Arthur and Martha (see earlier) may have been in production since 1997, but they are still being discussed five years later. There is no sign that Everett is losing favour with the public. Everett’s involvement with two movies directly led to them promulgating a heterosocial message. This heterosociality came at just the right time in popular culture to propel Everett to the heights of popularity.
Another Country (Marek Kanievska, 1984)
The Color Purple (Steven Spielberg, 1985)
Lethal Weapon 2 (Stephen Donner, 1989)
Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarentino, 1994)
The Madness of King George (Nicholas Hytner, 1994)
Thin Ice (Fiona Cunningham-Reid, 1995)
Beautiful Thing (Hettie MacDonald, 1996)
As Good as it Gets (James L Brooks, 1997)
My Best Friend’s Wedding (P J Hogan, 1997)
Get Real (Simon Shore, 1998)
Lost in Space (Stephen Hopkins: 1998)
The Object of My Affection (Nicolas Hytner, 1998)
The Opposite of Sex (Don Roos, 1998)
Shakespeare in Love (John Madden, 1998)
There’s Something about Mary (Farrelly brothers, 1998)
The Thin Pink Line (Joe Dietl, 1998)
Very Bad Things (Peter Berg, 1998)
Le Derrière (France: Valérie Lemercier, 1999)
An Ideal Husband (Oliver Parker, 1999)
Inspector Gadget (David Kellogg, 1999)
Three to Tango (Damon Santostefano, 1999)
The Next Best Thing (Tom Schlesinger, 2000)
Shrek (Andrew Adamson, 2001)
The Importance of Being Earnest (Oliver Parker, 2002)
Uncredited interview on IMDB http://yoursay.imdb.com/NewsFeatures/reverett
Steven Capsuto, Alternate Channels: the uncensored story of gay and lesbian images in radio and television, 1930s to the present (New York, 2000)
Richard Dyer, The Culture of Queers, (London: Routledge, 2002)
Terry Castle, The Apparitional Lesbian (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994)
Steven Cohan and Ina Rae Hark (eds) Screening the male : exploring masculinities in Hollywood cinema (London: Routledge, 1993)
Margot Dougherty, “Ascending Everett”, Los Angeles Magazine, April 2000
Baz Dreisinger, “The queen in shining armor – Safe eroticism and the gay friend” in Journal Of Popular Film And Television 2000, 28(1), p7
David Ehrenstein, Open Secret: Gay Hollywood 1928-2000, (New York: HarperCollins Perennial, 2000)
Cynthia J Fuchs, “The Buddy Politic”, in Steven Cohan and Ina Rae Hark (eds) Screening the male : exploring masculinities in Hollywood cinema (London: Routledge, 1993)
John Gray, Women are from Venus, Men are from Mars, (New York: HarperCollins, 1993)
Patrick Goldstein, “How one actor changed a movie before it even came out” Los Angeles Times Jun 23, 1997, p1
Brad Gooch, “Rupert Observed” in Out, Fall 1992
Randall Halle, “Happy Ends to Crises of Heterosexual Desire: towards a social psychology of recent German comedies” in Camera Obscura 44 Vol 15 No 2 pp1-39
Robert H. Hopcke & Laura Rafaty, Straight Women, Gay men: absolutely fabulous friendships (New York, 1999)
Alfred C Kinsey et al, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, (Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders 1953)
Gregg Kilday, “Mount Everett” in The Advocate, June 8 1999
Stephen Maddison, Fags Hags and Queer Sisters: gender dissent and heterosocial bonds in gay culture, (London: Macmillan, 2000)
Stephen Maddison, “All about women: Pedro Amodóvar and the heterosocial dynamic” in Textual Practice 14(2), 2000, pp265-284
John Malone, Straight Women, Gay Men: a special relationship (New York: Dial Press, 1980)
Rebecca Nahas and Myra Turley, The New Couple: Women and Gay men (New York: Seaview Books: New York, 1979)
Jean Noble, “Bound and Invested: lesbian desire and Hollywood ethnography” in Film Criticism, Volume XXII no 3, Spring 1998, pp1-21
Lisa Power, “Forbidden Fruit” in Mark Simpson (ed) Antigay (London: Freedom Editions, 1996)
Chris Straayer, Deviant Eyes, deviant bodies: sexual reorientations in film and video, (New York, 1996)
Matthew Sweet, “Rupert Everett: this charming man”, Independent newspaper, 26 August 2002
Vito Russo, The Celluloid Closet: homosexuality in the movies (revised edition) (New York, 1987)
Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993)
Mark Simpson (ed) Antigay (London: Freedom Editions, 1996)
Jan Stuart, “An Ideal Rupert” in The Advocate, June 22, 1999
Bruce Vilanch, Interview with Rupert Everett The Advocate: Jan 20, 1998
Andrea Weiss, “From the margins: New Images of Gays in the Cinema”, Cineaste 1986 15:1 pp4—8
Elizabeth Weitzman, “And baby makes three: interview with The Next Best Thing filmmaker John Schlesinger” in Interview Magazine, March 2000
Ned Zeman, “Just Great Friends”, Vanity Fair, March 2000
Think what you said about me is Ill informed. Go back and really study my career and when I came out. What you say is piffling.
Hey James, thanks for the comment. I think piffling is a good description of a comment made in a footnote on an essay about someone else made over ten years ago. Please don’t lose any sleep over it.