4Columns returns with a new issue on September 2. For now, summertime temperatures might be up, but where’s the homoerotic heat
in recent queer biopics?
Transferring real lives to the screen has often yielded patchy results; bloated, banal biopics abound. That’s especially the case when the subject is a queer luminary.
Too often these films reveal a skittishness regarding the depiction of same-sex desire. In her review of 2019’s Rocketman, which focuses primarily on Elton John’s superstardom in the 1970s, 4Columns film editor Melissa Anderson praised the movie for its “experimentation with structure” but was disappointed by its resistance to do more than only gesture toward the singer’s erotic life. A kiss between John, played by Taron Egerton, and his manager-lover “proceeds quickly to the two men in bed: a dimly lit, Snapchat-length sex scene that might more accurately be called a sex second,” Anderson writes. Rocketman, she concludes, “exhibits about as much homo carnal abandon as Pete and Chasten Buttigieg at a Panera during a campaign stop.”
Yet more graphic sex scenes do not necessarily guarantee a more successful rendering of an LGBTQ+ icon onscreen. Of the segments in Colette (2018) devoted to the romance between the eponymous French writer, played by Keira Knightley, and her lover Missy (Denise Gough), Andrea Long Chu notes, “Chemistry—that is missing. Since Knightley is going gay for pay here, one would at least expect the results to be, well, gayer. As it stands, she and Gough have all the mutual magnetism of two spoons placed ten inches apart.”
Some films, though, do get it right. Reviewing a 2019 revival of Jack Hazan’s 1974 “homoerotic docufiction” A Bigger Splash, about David Hockney and those in his orbit—including Peter Schlesinger, the artist’s boyfriend, with whom he was then in the painful process of breaking up—Ed Halter lauds the director for his emphasis on “conveying moods rather than biographical facts.” This tendency is exemplified by the “sequences staged for hallucinatory eroticism: a full-frontal Hockney showering inside his azure-tiled bathroom; Schlesinger cavorting naked with three other lithe young men in [a] SoCal pool.” And yet, for all of the movie’s triumphs, Halter also notes that “A Bigger Splash’s reworking of private sorrow into public image prefigures the Faustian bargain that gay culture has undergone, trading in an underground existence for cultural acceptance through the creation and dissemination of exemplary creative commodities, be they paintings or cinema.” Or, less commendably, the biopic.