I considered myself a knowing college sophomore. In my world literature survey, out of a class of thirty students meeting once a week in the evening, I understood the homoerotic love on display in Mann’s Death In Venice. I remember my professor’s keener interest when I raised my hand that Monday night and suggested that Aschenbach’s interest in the beautiful Tadzio was more than aesthetic. I was sure I had impressed my classmates, though most of them were taking this particular class just to keep the required English credit to a more harmless weekly event. They couldn’t have cared less about who was infatuated with whom. Back then, I had many gay friends, and many of our crowd frequented the gay dance bar in Birmingham two or three nights a week. It was a heady time for a 19 year-old Birmingham in the mid-1970’s.
By the time I got to grad school, I was due for the humbling that only a research-based seminar in Medieval English can provide. Surviving that, I enrolled in an American novels class, and while researching a paper on Huckleberry Finn, I came across an essay by Leslie Fiedler. Critically naïve—I had at least heard of Cleanth Brooks—I wondered why anyone would write an essay entitled “Come Back to the Raft Again, Huck Honey,” and what it meant. So I read the essay and even understood its argument.
But what I mainly understood then was that literary critics who saw homoerotic implications in renowned novels had been making their arguments for decades. Neither I nor my thoughts was anything new. As I read more Fiedler, I saw that his argument about the white male’s erotic love for his dark-skinned brother spanned the entirety of American literature, and that it certainly applied to that sub-genre of American cinema: the “Buddy” film. Two male pals, most often in Westerns, leave civilization to explore the frontier and to make life safe for the easterners, those wishing to take over the lands of other peoples. The Buddy trope has too many iterations, from the clearly demarked Lone Ranger and Tonto to the very strange Bi-racial cowboy TV show of the 60’s, “The Outcasts,” to Brokeback Mountain. A man’s desire to abandon women, the civilizing influence, and go where he can be wild again, usually with a tempting darker brother, doesn’t have to be a sexual passion play. Often, the pair hates each other at the beginning. But, of course, not at the end.
I finally met Fiedler at a Faulkner conference, even had supper with him and a few others at that infamous crossroads store in Taylors. One of the others there, a Catholic nun, confided to me that Fiedler was gay. I don’t know why she kept whispering this to me. But it was funny, especially given how Fiedler, then a man in his late 70’s, was eyeing the other woman in our group. Not to mention constantly referring to his family back in Montana. If that means anything, and really, I don’t care or mind if it does.
What I do care about is how Fiedler’s ideas keep me interested and invested in recent works of American film. How I see the white male’s bonding and fascination with, if not love for, his darker buddy playing out as the eras and the culture change or evolve. From escaped Black convicts to swarthy Italian hustlers to bewigged Transgendered addicts, the darker “other” in these films helps us identify what many conventional, mainstream whites are afraid of or guilty about, or even long for.
But even if we can’t or choose not to love or make love with the darker forbidden figure, we can at least understand our longing, our fears and guilt, and as all the good psychologists say, face our fearful longing and head straight for it. Let’s consider what these films, The Defiant Ones, Midnight Cowboy, and Dallas Buyers Club—three contemporary, peripherally Cowboy films--represented for their audiences.
In The Defiant Ones, audiences recognized the civil rights era racial tensions. Disliking, mistrusting each other at first, the bi-racial pair must get along to survive; particularly, the men must trust each other and not get suspicious, especially when a white woman is concerned. In Midnight Cowboy, audiences were disturbed at the homosexuality displayed; particularly for non-NYC audiences, the various pimping and degenerative acts of Gay life would have confirmed all their fears about the bad city. But in Dallas Buyers Club, it’s mainly the characters, not the contemporary audience, that have the problem with Gay life. The cowboys must be ramrod straight, and if they are degenerate rodeo hustlers, well, it’s all in a man’s work. It’s amazing the entrenchment of heterosexuality and how its sexual acts can be whitewashed, if not justified. If audiences today aren’t completely beyond the fears and revulsion of gay sex, at least more are okay with it than ever before. Is our tolerance due to the darker characters making certain concessions or sacrifices allowing a rapprochement, an acceptance, a love? Even for outlaw characters that, initially, we aren’t supposed to like?
Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones (1958) isn’t really a cowboy movie. Set in an unnamed 1950’s era rural American South, the film evokes cowboy films of earlier eras and particularly cowboy TV shows like “Cheyenne” or “The Rifleman” in its use of lone rustic cabins, small almost frontier towns, and angry hanging mobs (ubiquitous bad guy actor Claude Rains doesn’t hurt). Escaped convicts Cullen (Sidney Poitier) and Joker/Johnny (Tony Curtis) are chained together [the acting choices are odd, not so much Poitier, for how many Black actors of note were there in ’58, but Curtis? Nothing remotely Southern about him]. We know that Cullen is in prison for assault and battery with intent to kill, and Joker for armed robbery. We see at the beginning that Cullen is gratingly annoying as he sings loudly and flatly his blues homage, “Long Gone,” (written by WC Handy) to home. Joker, like us, wants Cullen’s singing to end, and finally snaps, calling him “Nigger.” How, I wonder, was this scene appreciated in my hometown of Birmingham, where, at that time, any Black audience members would have still been relegated to the balcony, that is, if they were allowed into any of the city’s historic theaters at all?
So we don’t like either character, but when their conveyance truck wrecks, how do we feel about our first view of them running away together, chained? The low-to-medium angle shot of them shows both of their rears, finely molded into their prison blue jeans. For maybe three or four seconds we see this pair, these pairs, and maybe we don’t wonder, but then, maybe we do.
While they threaten to fight each other—“there will come a time”—soon they are cooking a bullfrog and then sharing an after-dinner smoke. Cullen, the native, comforts Joker about all the animal sounds—bears, gators, owls, hogs—attesting to his aboriginal roots. Joker, quieter now, listens to Cullen’s story, about how his crime was motivated by a white man encroaching on his land and property. “I didn’t know you were married,” Joker says to Cullen, with something in his eyes: sorrow, empathy, wonder, or maybe some sort of shame?
It’s a tender moment, and by now, just a third of the way into the film, we understand, sympathize, and even like these two. We want them to succeed. They are cooperating with each other, the only way they’ll survive. They find a tree, fall asleep, and later in the night, we cut to them as the rain starts and they awaken. Or rather Joker awakens first and notices that Cullen is asleep, cradled in his arms. Though clearly uncomfortable, he neither strikes nor yells at Cullen but merely wakes him and advises that they should be on their way.
Eventually, of course, a woman enters this couple’s lives. The triangle leaves Cullen out; she is white after all. While Cullen has been administering to Joker’s wounds with great care and skill, the woman takes over when they reach her cabin and manage to break their chains. Now she bathes Joker while Cullen sleeps, feeds him, sits up all night with him. Makes love to him. Joker keeps glancing at Cullen as he and the woman get closer. What is Joker feeling? Betrayal? Guilt? Deflected desire? And interestingly, though not surprisingly for 1958, when the woman lets her hair down and Joker reaches back to hold that hair, the scene dissolves to the next morning when Joker awakens in bed, alone, and looks first to Cullen who is still asleep on his chair.
Cullen and Joker never get physical in that way; when they do fight, it is highly physical though: body parts entwined as they roll down a hill, landing together—while they are still chained—which is when they are “discovered” together by the woman’s son. Caught in the act, or at least some act. Some longed for consummation.
Of course the woman wants Joker to run away with her to the big city—a place she longs for because to her, that’s where civilization lies. The civilization that has kept Joker poor, envious, and in jail. So while he initially agrees, he keeps looking back at and asking about Cullen. As the woman shows Joker her car—which he knows how to fix because in his other life he was a mechanic—Cullen finds them in the middle of their covert scheme, as only a jilted lover would. The guilty lover caught; the spurned lover bitter. Cullen agrees to leave, but it seems that he is more upset at the new pairing rather than being sent out on foot through the swamp.
When Joker discovers that the woman has tried to “get rid” of Cullen permanently, at first he stares at Cullen’s receding figure regretfully and longingly. But after a few minutes, he makes a quick and sure choice, leaving the woman, civilization, for his darker brother, the one he truly desires. And Cullen, the smart native, negotiates the swamp with ease, never in danger of quicksand. He can help Joker survive, and patiently, forgivingly, does so. In making this choice, Joker sacrifices freedom with a heterosexual lover for bondage, again, with Cullen. At the film’s end, after failing to jump a train, they wind up in each other’s arms. Only this time, Cullen is cradling Joker.
Of all the unsettling, vindicating civil rights era moments, the white man’s longing to love and be with the black man must be one of the strangest.
Ten years later, Midnight Cowboy unsettles us in a different way: can we love a Southern white male hustler, especially one who gets outhustled by a darker, Northern, Italian, son of a shoeshine man? Can we accept the decadence of that ultimate American mecca of civilization, New York, with the immoralities and perversions of Old Times Square?
Casting works better in Midnight Cowboy, with blond Jon Voight playing Joe Buck, the Southerner who journeys from cowboyland to Manhattan and right into the lair of near-homeless-hustler and New York native Enrico “Ratso” Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman). We know several things, sexually-speaking, about Joe Buck: he’s a Texas boy who had a steady girl who was raped, impregnated, and in her catatonic shock, named Joe as “the Only One,” though his gang of friends is responsible for the rape. We also know that Joe was abandoned by his mother, left with his grandmother, and then spent nights in bed with that grandmother and her cowboy-hat-wearing lover. We surely don’t hear “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys” playing on their bedside radio. All of this makes the fact that New Yorker Ratso Rizzo is a virgin refreshing.
Sexual escapades aside, the only real relationship in the rest of the film is the one between Joe and Ratso. It’s never sexual, and I wouldn’t argue that either desires the other, though certainly Ratso envies Joe’s abilities, even when Joe fails. And I’d never say that Enrico Ratso Rizzo with his slicked-back hair, his limp, and his whiny nasal affect could be any man’s homoerotic other. He even cautions Joe about wearing his cowboy getup—fringed jacket, kerchief, boots, and hat--“That’s fag stuff”--and steers Joe away from the effeminate hustler that Joe mistakes for a girl.
They clearly don’t like each other at first, but do we ever really like this pair, Joe with his gullible view of himself as a stud, and Ratso with his decided aroma? Certainly not in the beginning, but clearly they grow on us as they do on each other. But how? Why do we want them to escape New York safely and together and thrive in the Miami sun, especially after we’ve seen Joe ram a telephone down the mouth of a sadly confused travelling salesman? Why does Joe come back to Rizzo; why does he bring him food, tend to him when he’s sick, share with him the only funds he makes by hustling? Why does he take the clearly dying Rizzo with him to Miami, and put his arm around him tenderly, defensively, and protectively once everyone has learned of Rizzo’s death?
In other words, why does he love this darker man? But then, hasn’t Ratso been made by the evil city, by “civilization?” Doesn’t Joe see and pity the plight of his pal, his buddy—that the city is killing him with its cold, its rain, and its disease? Still, in this era, the pair couldn’t be gay, or the film would never have been as acceptable as it was—and it was initially rated X. They could be around gay men, but those men have to be seen as perverse, and Joe has to do what he does to survive. He endures gay sex, but after initial difficulty has a much better time with a cleaner, richer woman.
Are we in any doubt about whom Joe truly loves? Yet, how many audiences in 1968 left the theater with that notion? And according to the Hollywood code of that time, in the end, one of them must die, leaving the other lost and virtually homeless. Their lifestyle doesn’t pay, and in Hollywood, even in X-rated Hollywood, social ills cannot have affirming or hopeful consequences.
Ironically, while the film won the Best Picture Oscar, the principal actors, though nominated, lost to real cowboy, John Wayne/”Rooster Cogburn.”
The whiter characters all enter the domain of the darker; Joker into the rural oasis that Cullen negotiates for them; Joe Buck to Manhattan where Ratso is the native and leads Joe into temptation but also delvers him from certain “gay evils.” So, too, for Matthew McConaughy’s character, Ron, in Dallas Buyers Club. After an electric shock leads him into the hospital where he experiences the greater shock that he has the AIDS virus, Ron enters Rayon’s (Jared Leto) world after she, of course, first climbs into his hospital bed. Rayon makes him see that he has must go in to gay bars and their surrounding streets in order to sell his buyer’s club memberships. After his “friends” cast him off as an AIDS leper, it’s Rayon who becomes his friend, the one he can count on. Though he appears to lust after Jennifer Garner, it’s Rayon who has his heart as he both recognizes/introduces her to one of those old friends; embraces her when she gets him the dough from her father; and weeps when he she dies. In fact, when he rages at the docs afterward, Garner must remind him that Rayon was her friend too, that she knew Rayon from high school long before he ever did.
We know Rayon loves him, so why is it so hard to believe he loves her too? Because he professes his straightness? Sure. That he has hetero sex with an AIDS woman? That’s just sex. Rayon sacrifices for him—becoming a straight man in a dark suit and dark glasses again to humble herself before her banker father. It’s Rayon who first and always helps him, and Ron employs her, tries to get her to kick, and knows that he is surviving to a great extent because of her. She is his agent of change.
Based on a true story, Rayon is a composite and does succumb to the virus as Ron does later. Ron might not be gay, but having a gay affair is not unknown to him. But that act was shot as being repressed and covert. And while he has come a long way, actually “being” with Rayon would be too much, too open for him.
If racism was the evil in The Defiant Ones, and big city decadence/perversion is the evil in Midnight Cowboy, then in Dallas Buyers Club, the Corporate Medical World, the insurance companies, Big Pharmaceuticals and their lobbyists have and maintain the power. They are merciless gods. They interfere in research, in approving better AIDS treatments. They litigate against Ron and his attempts to use minerals and vitamins. They win. And so many die. Cowboys are impotent on this frontier. Ron and Rayon are the social evils and each suffers in his/her own way. We know that AIDS mainly infected those who practiced unsafe sex and used unsafe needles. We know that the moral police have had their say and that even in these more enlightened days, many still believe that Ron, Rayon, and others deserved their agony and their death.
Both McConaughy and Leto won Oscars. And if that isn’t a sign of our times, what else is?
I don’t know about you, but the world isn’t just black and white, gay and straight, moral and immoral. Not even everyone who works in the Corporate Medical World—so interested in greater profit margins—wears a black cowboy hat. And we know, don’t we, that there is really no harm if a light-skinned man is attracted to a darker one; if any man is attracted to, loves, another one. We also know that it’s taken us a very long time to say so, but in our literature and popular film, the images, if not the words, have always been there. If only we can hear what the characters are saying. If only we can see their faces.
Terry Barr is formerly a writer for Culture Mass, where he wrote on film, music, and memory. His essay collection, Don't Date Baptists and Other Warnings From My Alabama Mother, was recently published by Red Dirt Press. He has also published in Full Grown People, 3288 Review, and The Bitter Southerner. he lives in Greenville, SC, with his family.