Does Hollywood reflect social change or initiate it? A depiction of Alexander the Great's bisexuality seems to have left middle America unfumingby Mark Cousins / January 16, 2005 / Leave a comment
When Bertolt Brecht said that art is not a mirror to reflect reality but a hammer with which to shape it, he clearly hadn’t seen Top Gun. The whole point about Hollywood blockbusters is that the audience – primarily the people of non-coastal America, but nowadays everyone from Johannesburg to Moscow to Taipei – has its hopes and fears reflected back at it.
Tinseltown’s latest blockbuster, Oliver Stone’s Alexander, is already the subject of much mirror/hammer debate. Its depiction of an epic defeat of the Persians is being seen as a reflection of our Rumsfeldian times. From Tehran and the middle east, such scenes will look ominous indeed. There was, of course, barbarity in Alexander’s campaigns – as the remains of Persepolis in central Iran continue to show – as well as tactical brilliance. The balance Stone strikes between heroic and sadistic Alexander will reveal whether he is playing to coastal America or the middle states. Reports that Ptolemy (played by Anthony Hopkins) dismisses in a single sentence the charge that Alexander was a tyrant suggest the latter.
But it is not only the idea of conquering Iran that gives the film a dark injection of the zeitgeist. Alexander’s bisexuality also feels of the moment, perhaps in a more complex way. Despite an apparent shift away from gay rights in many US states, and the hilarious writ issued by a group of Greek lawyers against Warner Bros for portraying Alexander as gay, the film gives homoeroticism considerable airtime – more than any previous Hollywood epic.
This is not surprising. Popular culture in recent years has been unexpectedly progressive about sexual minorities. Television programmes like Will and Grace in the US and Britain’s Big Brother made gay and transgender themes mainstream, and we didn’t even hear the hammer clang. Hollywood has been more cautious, but In and Out and The Birdcage broke new ground by having a laugh with gay characters, none of whom were victims. By the end of the 1990s, many female film characters had a gay best friend.
Nevertheless, the case of Alexander reveals the liberal-conservative gridlock that still underlies the issue of homosexuality on film, and that makes it a key mirror/hammer theme for Hollywood. Home to bisexual stars like Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Rudolph Valentino, Danny Kaye, James Dean, Anthony Perkins, Laurence Olivier and many others, it could hardly ignore the subject. For many years it was borderline taboo, but nowadays bad-boy stars like Colin Farrell, who plays Alexander, see no shame in doing the odd gay film. As if to prove the point, Farrell has just done a sort of gay turn in A Home at the End of the World. Doing so showed his range and, oddly, his balls; and to Farrell’s nonchalance you can add the bullish liberalism of Oliver Stone. Never afraid of the hammer approach to art, as his hagiographic JFK showed, you’d expect Stone to show some boy on boy action, especially if he had final approval over the film, as the New York Times recently reported. This is where the gridlock comes in. Stone has, apparently, voluntarily trimmed the homoeroticism. Rolling Stone says that Alexander and his lover Hephaestion “exchange hot looks, but Stone – perhaps unwilling to kill the film’s box-office chances among homophobes – stops there.” Yet the screenplay, which Stone co-wrote, has Aristotle (Christopher Plummer) aver that sexual relationships between men will “build a city-state and lift us from our frog pond.” They certainly did Hollywood no harm.
Behind star and director, of course, there are the less measurable forces of studio and moneymen. Since the time of Bogart and Cagney, Warner Bros has been associated with gritty stories torn from the headlines, and so if depicting sexual minorities is becoming less taboo, it might be expected to be the first to hold a mirror up to these changes. Yet its owners have, by association, the most to lose by alienating conservative customers. Warner Bros is embedded in one of the entertainment world’s biggest conglomerates, Time Warner. You might expect Murdoch-owned Fox to be more cautious still, but its specialist division Fox Searchlight has just produced the forthcoming Kinsey, in which the main character’s bisexuality is dealt with more frankly even than Alexander’s.
For Hollywood-watchers, this question of whether films reflect or initiate social change is intriguing. Take the world of crime precognition in Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report, which was seen as being eerily connected to the principle of military pre-emption when the movie came out in 2002. It is on this level that Alexander’s connection to Iran and to bisexuality may be understood.
Then again, the whole point about movie stars is that we want to be them and be with them. Isn’t there something essentially “bi” about that? We are attracted to beautiful people in cinema but we also, if we identify with them, look at the world through their eyes. If Oliver Stone has made an effective film, we will not only experience the thrill of being Alexander, we will feel his sexual longing for his boyhood friend. I hope this is the case, but judging by the American reviews (the Village Voice called it “a festival of risible wiggery”), perhaps it won’t be.