In 1960, the British housewife’s favourite pin-up, Dirk Bogarde, made a decision that would all but destroy his existing career. The actor now best remembered for his roles in tense studies of society’s hidden underbelly had before then been famous as the heart-throb star of unchallenging comedies and romances, the staple, sugar-coated fare so essential to propping up the uneasy peace of 1950s normalcy. But then he signed up to play the part of Melville Farr, a gay barrister who decides to expose a gang who are blackmailing him with evidence of an illegal homosexual attachment, at the cost of his career, reputation and marriage.
When it came out in 1961, Victim, directed by Basil Dearden, provoked responses of disgust from the press, public and even members of its own production crew. It was the first film in which the quintessential cinematic line “I love you” found itself being addressed to one man by another, and in which therefore the emotional lives of gay men were represented as being in sync with heterosexual “normality” – rather than, as was usual, as emanating from a seedy, topsy-turvy world bearing no discernible relation to the feelings and lives of “the rest of us.” In this respect, the course of Bogarde’s career wasn’t the only thing altered irrevocably by the film – although Bogarde, who never publicly came out as gay, always maintained there was nothing autobiographical in his performance – for Victim is credited in part for paving the way for the Sexual Offences Act of 1967, ending the blanket proscription of sex between men that had existed in British legislation since 1885.
It’s a rare thing this. While lovers of the cinematic arts are used to seeing the world and its web of dreams, fears and desires reflected on the flickering screen, when it comes to politics, and above all sexual politics, the medium has for many proved a disappointment. Indeed, while Hollywood actors have become accustomed of late to wearing their political liberalism on their sleeves, the average movie release still draws on visions of gender and social relations that were probably already unfashionable at the dawn of the iron age. However much you shuffle the pack, the man with the gun and the girl with the pretty hair-do always seem to come back to the top.
It took 40 years after Victim before a gay sex scene was shown in mainstream cinema with anything approaching the candour with which heterosexual sex is now routinely displayed. Brokeback Mountain, and its now legendary tale of chaps in chaps, not only won three Oscars but brought tears to eyes that would hitherto have been averted as if in response to some mortal threat.
Brokeback Mountain and Victim are both given a starring role in a new book about the history of gay cinema. Following a rather gushy preface by Simon Callow, author Steven Paul Davies displays a well-judged queer eye for numerous ostensibly straight films, showing on a movie-by-movie basis how gay and lesbian sensibilities find themselves reflected throughout the history of modern society’s love affair with celluloid. While evidently targeted at a gay readership – no prizes for guessing the colour of the cover – Out at the Movies presents us with a rare case of something genuinely progressive having been aided and abetted by commercial cinema.
I was, for many years, one of those who looked away. It wasn’t that I wanted to, or that there was any genuine homophobia in my attitudes. Yet I simply found I just couldn’t quite cope with the sight of Rupert Everett canoodling with Michael Jenn in Another Country, or Daniel Day Lewis getting it on with Gordon Warnecke in My Beautiful Laundrette. Now, though, with the progress of cinema’s slow journey out of the closet and the gentle readjustment of my sensibilities – and perhaps those of millions of others, too – I can, with pleasure.
So as a man with a straight eye for a queer film, may I say thanks a bunch. It is rare that one can speak of cinema as being genuinely “improving”, but in the case of gay films I can certainly say watching them has improved me.
• Out at the Movies: A History of Gay Cinema by Steven Paul Davies is published by Kamera Books this month