Our Highlights From The BFI’s Gross Indecency Season
Ever had that queer feeling when watching a film – guy kisses girl, music reaches a crescendo and you know everything’s going to be alright? We see it in old Hollywood films. We see it in Spiderman. Girl runs into his arms and you’re (more or less) happy for them. The audience is usually ecstatic for them. But are there any gay folks in these films? Maybe. Maybe the flamboyant villain who has fab fashion taste. Maybe the girl’s best friend whose hand gestures and love of Beyoncé are a give away. But normally, that’s it.
Now however, queer identities take centre screen in the BFI’s season, Gross Indecency – a glimpse at the forward-looking, and even backlashed depictions, of LGBT life in British film before and after the 1967 Sexual Offences Act – the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality. Cinema is pretty queer at its roots. Charlie Chaplin would dress up in drag as seen in the The Woman (1915), and if silent films wanted to tickle some ribs, an effeminate acting man was a guaranteed crowd pleaser. But gay cinema can do a lot more than just flash a guy in a feather boa (though we’d never object). Marking 50 years since the gay rights landmark, the BFI are holding a number of screenings and events of the most flaring, daring, and poignant films, here are our top three…
The Naked Civil Servant
A biopic on the life of Quintin Crisp – dandy and daddy of self-invention in a London not quite ready for out-and-about homosexuals. The film looks at his early life as a model and rent boy cruising the streets of Soho. Starring John Hurt, who recreates Crisp’s insistence to parade his sass (“Never keep up with the Joneses. Drag them down to your level”), even when it ends with him beaten black and mauve by the early-century equivalent of lads on tour. Dubbed by some as an anarchist of style, he struts around the city with his nails painted, silk blouses and eye shadow thicker than Liz Taylor’s.
‘I wanted him!’ shouts Dirk Bogarde in this 1961 thriller, where closeted (and married!) lawyer Melville Farr is drawn into a network of blackmail when an admirer kills himself out of unrequited obsession. It’s suspenseful. It’s tense. Dirk Bogarde is broody, and dreamy as-f. Despite being a film from the good-ol’ days, where homosexuals are depicted as bitching in the corners of a seedy bar about how badly everyone else is dressed (we’ve come a long way), Victim was also the first British film to use the word ‘homosexual’, and its directness and openness about closeted life still seems pretty incredible today.
I Want What I Want
I Want What I Want (1972) is a sad story presenting a young trans woman’s journey. Anne Heywood plays the bullied and effeminate Roy, subjected to his parents’ dinner parties where married couples get together to swish wine about and pretend they’re the shit. But when one guest asks “I wonder why we do this? Separating the men from the girls after dinner”, it brings about the gender-bending course of the film as Roy begins to take on a new life as Wendy. John Dexter’s film is a seriously moving middle-finger to the social norms of the 70s – “God made man in his image. And he blew it”.
The BFI’s ‘Gross Indecency’ season is on until 31st August.