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GAYS IN AUSTRALIAN CINEMA

In this post-Mardi Gras essay, PETER LOWNDES explores the treatment of gays in Australian cinema, from 1938 on, and finds that it’s not if, but how.

Gay visibility has never been an issue in the movies. Gays have always been visible. It’s how they have been visible which has remained offensive for almost a century. Vito Russo

Has Australia accepted the notion of gay equality and become more aware of the needs and rights of the gay community? If we can judge a nation on its film industry then the answer appears to be yes; gradually. The recent Australian film Head On (dir. Ana Kokkinos, 1998), with its implicit homosexual scenes, has been largely accepted by a mainstream audience as opposed to a target audience of a film festival. It is an indication that Australian audiences are ready for films providing depictions of gay lifestyles.

There appears to be a lighter approach to gay lifestyles. A view of a once topical issue which has become an accepted aspect of modern life due, in part, to mainstream success of films like The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (dir. Stephan Elliott, 1994) and festivals such as the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, which attract large audiences. This has assisted in providing a crossover of gay acceptance into mainstream society. The homosexuality issue appears less contentious than say twenty years ago when a film such as Head On would have enraged the majority with its bold motif.

The depiction of gay people is an issue of considerable ongoing contention. In the past, Australian film-makers were tentative in making gay films or even films that included gay characters. Stereotypes remained a prominent feature, (the most popular being the dinky-di ocker), as very few feature films dealt with minority groups that also included Aboriginal and handicapped people. So when gay characters appeared in film it was usually in some form of disguise that failed to fully recognise the characters’ sexual orientation. Given insufficient screen time to develop, these characters appeared ambiguous and almost unrecognisable. Indeed the recognition of gay characters in earlier Australian film was a somewhat tricky business, with faint signals broadcast to highlight the characters peculiar pedigree.

A look at the history of Australian cinema shows gay characters treated as ghosts..

The portrayal of gay people has become a prominent feature of Australian film recently with homosexual and lesbian characters given a treatment often them in earlier films. A look at the history of Australian cinema shows gay characters treated as ghosts; they existed but all too often remained invisible. To make a film about the gay lifestyle and remain accurate to the subject was a task normally left to overseas film-makers. Australia was preoccupied with other ‘coming of age’ pictures while in its infant period that often dealt with rural Australia or the Aussie ocker. On such occasions that gay characters did appear on screen it was usually with little screen time and a minimum of character assessment or development. Such was the case with the gay doctor in Wake In Fright (dir. Ted Kotcheff, 1971).

One of the first representations of a gay character in Australian film appears in Dad and Dave Come To Town (dir. Ken G. Hall, 1938). The film presented the character of Enwistle, who works in a woman’s fashion store and behaves more in the tradition of Are You Being Served than anything typically Australian.

Yet the character is a stereotypical perception held of homosexuals of the period in that he is able to associate more freely with women than men, an oddity that seemed to perpetuate from the half-myth that women and gay men get along fabulously. Of course the heterosexual male was depicted in film as valuing mateship and preferring the company of men rather than women, which seems an ironic choice given the sexual preference of the respective types in this confusing equation. Questions often abound even though the characters sexuality appears cut and dry. The notion of mateship in Australia films remains an odd paradox given the homophobic nature of the men who are portrayed as cherishing one another’s company. This mateship content is evident in films such as They’re a Weird Mob (dir. Michael Powell, 1960) and later in Gallipoli (dir. Peter Weir, 1981).

Gay audiences are desperate to find something. I think all minority audiences watch movies with hope: the hope that they will see what they want to see. That’s why nobody really sees the same movie. Arthur Laurents

The author of The Celluloid Closet, Arthur Laurents, devoted a complete book to the hidden meaning included in film, the subtle nuances that gays and lesbians can identify with. While images of Joan Crawford and Rock Hudson resonate in American films, Australian versions seem rare, though not totally extinct. There are numerous films dealing with obscure mateship and same-sex friendships such as The Odd Angry Shot (dir. Tom Jeffrey, 1979) and Proof (dir. Jocelyn Moorhouse, 1991), providing enough material for those imaginative types.

This lead to an expression of gayness in the representation of straight characters that is a form of sensitivity allowing gay people the opportunity to read into a script and decipher images and characters. This form of’ ‘decoding’ or reading beneath the surface arises from the lack of gay characters in earlier film and is a substitution that enables gay people to relate within a neglectful industry.

The key to gay films, whether they are made by heterosexuals or homosexuals, is that they do not view the existence of gay people as controversial. Vito Russo

One complaint often voiced is the manner in which gay people are depicted in film; that is, whether a gay character is used in the context of a story or as a separate entity that is presented to justify the behaviour and sexuality of gay people. The principle line of attack has been on the stereotyping of gay people in film, whereby the characters are seen to be one dimensional, displayed as separate to the rest of society, instead of portraying gay people as part of the population. Gay characters were categorised as either evil as in Mad Max 2 (dir. George Miller, 1981) or as lecherous, as in High Rolling (dir. Igor Auzin, 1977).

Australian cinema has tended to represent (whether inadvertently or not) the gay character as an outcast of society in an effort to showcase the unique lifestyle. In Priscilla, being gay was equated to outrageous behaviour and in Head On, being gay was associated with insatiable desire. There is also the important issue of unacceptance reflected in all these films. The reactions and emotions of the characters require that they be shown as human and not gay qualities, so as to avoid creating stereotypes of the sort that were common in earlier cinema. It still remains a difficult task to provide a balanced and honest approach to gay lifestyles in film. The Sum of Us (dir. Kevin Dowling/Geoff Burton, 1994) and Love and Other Catastrophes (dir. Emma-Kate Croghan, 1995) are two films that have achieved this.

If we are to believe the movies then being gay is to be forever unlucky in love.

Modern Australian cinema has attempted to include a balanced approach to the gay lifestyle with recent exposes providing another side to being gay; as a part of, and not apart from society. The result serves to crush the mainstream view of gay people, too often depicted as deviants or victims instead of as members of the community. The consequence of catering to mainstream and providing an easily accessible stereotype tends to portray a tragic lifestyle in which the nature of gay love is by definition the wrong person and the inevitable price seems a life of solitude and melancholy. If we are to believe the movies then being gay is to be forever unlucky in love.

With an open portrayal of gay life no longer taboo in Australian cinema, it remains to be seen which direction and to what extent gay characters are utilised, as a result of this recent crossover to acceptance in mainstream cinema.

 NOTES-Vito Russo, A State of Being, Film Comment, April 1986
Richard Dyer, Gays & Film, BFI Publishing, 1977
Scott Murray, Australian Cinema, Allen & Unwin Pty Ltd, 1994

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Head On


Priscilla


The Sum of Us


Gallipoli


Mad Max


Love and Other Catastrophes







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