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Well, it's June again, and for many cable networks that means it's time to mark Pride Month with a halfhearted rerun of every notable post-1990 queer film they can get their hands on. But leave it to Turner Classic Movies to dig deeply into its vaults for "Screened Out: Gay Images in Film," a 44-film series running Mondays and Wednesdays all month long. Based on Richard Barrios's book Screened Out: Playing Gay in Hollywood from Edison to Stonewall, the series offers a varied look at gay characters in American film: from swishy supporting roles (mostly banished from the screen after the Hays Code went into effect) to butch prison matrons to seductive, unscrupulous, exotic inverts of any gender.
Throughout the month TCM will offer an eclectic mix, including well-known titles like The Children's Hour and The Boys in the Band, but even more interestingly, obscurities like Our Betters (a movie I've been dying to watch since seeing a 30-second clip of it in The Celluloid Closet) and Staircase--in which Stanley Donen directs Richard Burton and Rex Harrison as a bickering gay couple; not even their combined star power could make this film available on video for the last 25 years.
Author Mart Crowley (bottom row, center) with the cast of The Boys in the Band.
It was a labor of love for Barrios. "I wouldn't say it was difficult to come up with the list that I did," the author notes, "because there were some titles that I knew were absolutely necessary (The Sign of the Cross; Our Betters; Tea and Sympathy; Suddenly, Last Summer, to name a few), and others that I wanted to make sure were a part of the series, like Voodoo Island and Staircase. But the whole point of my book Screened Out, and a point I've tried to stress in our TCM series, is that these were not just isolated examples. There were dozens of films in the early 1930s, for example, that feature small but pungent scenes with gay characters, and I cite a number of later examples in the book as well. So really, there was a large storehouse to choose from."
And while TCM has opened that storehouse in Junes past to salute the likes of George Cukor and Dorothy Arzner, this marks the first time that the network has unabashedly slapped a "gay" label on a film series.
George Cukor (center) with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn.
"We have done programming related to gay pride, but this is the first time we've treated it as a major theme," says Charlie Tabesh, senior vice president of programming for TCM. "The breadth of our film library allows us to explore the careers of actors, directors, cinematographers, etc., and various themes and movements in film in greater depth than is offered anywhere else on television. We're very interested in all aspects of film history, and the evolution of how homosexuals have been portrayed by mainstream Hollywood is an important subject."
Based on TCM's programming--classic Hollywood with a smattering of cult, foreign, and underground cinema--logic would dictate that the network attracts not only a big gay audience but also a substantial audience of over-50s who might not cozy up to "Screened Out." "We expect some controversy," admits Tabesh. "It is important to note that only a few of the films we're showing as part of 'Screened Out' were controversial in their time. The overwhelming majority were mainstream Hollywood films whose depictions of homosexuality were more subversive and therefore less controversial." In other words, if a gay or lesbian character sneaked in under the censors' eyes, it's more Pillow Talk than Suddenly, Last Summer.
The ladies of Caged.
"Screened Out" offers an unprecedented breadth of queer cinema for American TV--having Victim show up on cable seems daring enough, but to have evenings devoted to films like The Fox,Caged, and Algie, the Miner, much less having an institution like TCM put classics like Gilda or The Big Combo into a queer context, is downright provocative. Barrios will appear alongside the network's reigning eminence grise, Robert Osborne, to let viewers know what they're in for, and TCM has shot interstitials with the likes of Alan Cumming, Armistead Maupin, and William J. Mann to talk about larger issues of queerdom and the cinema. (But no lesbian experts, TCM? Not having a B. Ruby Rich or an Angela Robinson talking about Ladies They Talk About is a glaring omission.)
Audrey Hebpurn and Shirley MacLaine in The Children's Hour.
Ultimately, while seeing films like these often shows us how far along we've come, they also remind us that there's work to be done in terms of queer representation in mainstream cinema. Notes Barrios, "It seems that television--and, in some ways, indie films--are still picking up a good deal of the slack that, in an earlier day, mainstream film would've done. Alas, the money aspect is still the bottom line, and films with gay/lesbian themes are still not viewed as being cash grabbers. It's true that we've come a long way since Suddenly, Last Summer or The Children's Hour...but it's clear that, as far as the big screen is concerned, there's still a far way to go."