We all know how historic 1969 was -- Nixon's inauguration, Vietnam, Stonewall, Judy Garland, Charles Manson, Woodstock, the Moon landing. The last year of the 1960s also broke ground when it came to film, with a movie about a coded gay friendship between a hustler and a grifter (Midnight Cowboy) winning the Best Picture Oscar the following year. Movies about the sexual revolution won big at the box office (Cactus Flower, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice) and initiated discussions about marriage, monogamy, and gender roles.
When it came to paradigm-shifting films of 1969, The Gay Deceivers does not qualify. While this screwball comedy, released nationwide exactly a half-century ago, featured numerous (seemingly happy) queer characters, it was a commercial and critical dud that mostly vanished from the cultural memory.
But watching the movie now -- available on YouTube, see below -- is a relatively fascinating experience. Centered on two bonehead straight guys (played by Kevin Coughlin and Larry Casey) who pretend to be gay to avoid the draft, The Gay Deceivers was a precursor to shows like Bosom Buddies and Three's Company and movies like Mrs. Doubtfire and I Now Prounounce You Chuck and Larry.
While the jokes are broad and stupid, the puns obvious (a character brings a fruit basket to the titular deceivers), the women either clueless, lecherous, or deceitful (but always sexy and usually half-naked), and the antigay slurs ubiquitous, the movie has several fun flashes of gay culture that mainstream America was not at all used to.
When the deceivers rent an L.A. apartment lorded over by a swishy landlord named Malcolm (Michael Greer), it's adorned with homoerotic art that is still de rigueur in Palm Springs and Provincetown. Gay men in the film call each other "she" without a bat of the eye, drag is held up as an art form, and two men even dance together. Meanwhile, some characters express how lonely cruising can be (sound familiar?) and how difficult it is to keep a relationship alive. In one scene, a gay man commiserates to Casey's character of Elliot how straight people believe gays are animals and how unfair it is that they are routinely fired from their jobs. Of course, that potential is wasted when Elliot punches the man for coming on to him.
While the gay men are universally portrayed as sex-obsessed, most come off as likable (albeit silly). Greer, an openly gay comic at the time, reportedly worked with director Bruce Kessler to make the movie more sympathetic to the gay characters.
"While this movie tragically reflects its era's mainstream attitudes toward queer people, what makes The Gay Deceivers worth watching for a contemporary LGBTQ audience is the great Michael Greer as landlord Malcolm DeJohn," says Alonso Duralde, a film critic for TheWrap and co-host of the podcast Linoleum Knife. "He allegedly wrote all of his own dialogue, and the results back up that version, since he imbues the film with sass and dignity, taking a character that could have been merely a one-dimensional pansy stereotype and turning into something bold and outrageous. The rest of the movie is an object lesson of establishment homophobia in action, but Greer's performance allows a little rebellion and reality to elbow its way in. Fabulously."
The movie has also has a twist ending that takes a cue from Some Like It Hot. Without spoiling too much, the screenwriters and Kessler imply that not all gay people are swishy, snarky, and fashionable; anyone in your orbit could be queer. Though that message doesn't make up for The Gay Deceivers' many, many deficits, it was one very seldom expressed in 1969.
Watch The Gay Deceivers below.