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…