Movies
2:23 pm
Wed March 27, 2013

Hollywood's History Of Putting Gay Rights On Trial

Originally published on Wed March 27, 2013 6:55 pm

With the Supreme Court hearing arguments this week on same-sex marriage, I'd like to point out a parallel evolution in what I see as a Hollywood mini-genre: films in which gay characters are either taken to court or seek redress in court for issues involving their sexuality.

Arguably the most famous question ever asked in a courtroom about a line of poetry — "What is the love that dare not speak its name?" — was originally put to playwright Oscar Wilde in 1894 by a British prosecutor. It was an attempt to trap Wilde into admitting to then-illegal homosexual conduct.

His impromptu answer, while eloquent, reinforced his guilt in the eyes of the court, an outcome that actor Peter Finch seems determined to avert in 1960's The Trials of Oscar Wilde, as he fairly rattles it off in a speech taken verbatim from the court transcripts. Briskly businesslike, forceful and assertive, Finch is not just addressing the court but also seeking to allay worries about unmasculine behavior in a buttoned-down, post-war era audience.

Three decades (and many Oscar Wilde films) later, actor Stephen Fry took a far different approach to that same speech in the film Wilde. Tremulous, soft-spoken and lingering almost sensually over phrases, he delivers his defense in the full expectation that 1990s audiences will empathize with Wilde. The words remain the same, their impact is altogether altered.

Hollywood's long-term obsession with another real-life case required different strategies from filmmakers. Teen thrill-killers Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb inspired both "the trial of the century" and multiple movies. But early ones had to be heavily fictionalized. Alfred Hitchcock made up a whole new murder case in Rope, which dealt with gay themes only as subtext and seized on the pair's interest in Nietzschean theory in 1948.

A decade later, the movie Compulsion allowed a defense attorney played by Orson Welles to hint a bit about "immature boys of diseased minds," but he mostly asserted that the trial's sensationalism stemmed from the wealth, rather than the sexual orientation, of his clients.

Three decades later, Swoon showed no such reserve, focusing on the killers' sexuality almost to the exclusion of all other motives.

Until recently, let's note, most real-life court cases have mirrored those two infamous trials in not turning out well for lesbian and gay defendants, a fact that necessarily colors film depictions of them. And if fiction offered a little more latitude, it still had an obligation to appear plausible, so social prejudices figured strongly in them.

In Lillian Hellman's midcentury drama The Children's Hour, for instance, schoolteachers Shirley MacLaine and Audrey Hepburn, falsely accused of being lovers, could find so little support that they never got their day in court to prove their innocence. But even if a court had heard their case fully, things likely wouldn't have gone well for them for reasons movie characters have spent decades beating around the bush about. That is, until attorney Denzel Washington laid them out clearly in the AIDS-trial drama Philadelphia.

"Let's talk about what this case is all about," he declaimed, while defending the AIDS-stricken lawyer played by Tom Hanks. "The general public's hatred, our loathing, our fear of homosexuals, and how that climate of hatred and fear translated into the firing of this particular homosexual, my client."

Washington is playing a deeply homophobic man whose opinions evolve on gay issues during the course of the film — evolve way past where many audience members were at that point. Philadelphia was released in 1993, four years before Ellen DeGeneres came out on TV, five years before the first episode of Will & Grace and 12 years before Brokeback Mountain. The judge's response, that justice is "blind to matters of race, creed, color, religion and sexual orientation," was almost startling to audiences in a time when homosexual activity was still outlawed in many states.

"With all due respect, your honor," replied Washington, "we don't live in this courtroom though, do we?"

Today, in a limited but evolving sense, we do — at least judging from this week's cases before the Supreme Court. And that means that the movie Philadelphia — the product of an industry that, for business reasons, worries, much as the court does, about getting out in front of public opinion — is starting to seem just as much a period piece as any film about Oscar Wilde.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

This week, with the gay marriage arguments at the Supreme Court, there's been a lot of talk about the evolution of public opinion on the matter and about the changing representations of gays on TV and in the movies. Well, our film critic, Bob Mondello has been observing a long parallel evolution that's occurred in what he calls a Hollywood mini genre, films in which gay characters go to court for issues involving sexual orientation.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: What is arguably the most famous question ever asked in a courtroom about a line of poetry...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: What is the love that dare not speak its name?

MONDELLO: ...was originally put by a British prosecutor to playwright Oscar Wilde in 1894. It was an attempt to trap Wilde into admitting to then-illegal homosexual conduct. His impromptu answer, while eloquent, reinforced his guilt in the eyes of the court. Here's actor Peter Finch delivering it as Wilde in a speech taken verbatim from the court transcripts in 1960's "The Trials Of Oscar Wilde."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE TRIALS OF OSCAR WILDE")

PETER FINCH: (as Oscar Wilde) The love that dare not speak its name in this century is such a great affection of an elder for a younger man as there was between David and Jonathan, such as Prater made the very basis of philosophy and such as you will find in the sonnets of Michelangelo and Shakespeare. It is a deep spiritual affection that is as perfect as it is pure.

MONDELLO: Note how Finch is rattling off this speech, briskly businesslike, for a buttoned-down, post-war era. Three decades and many Oscar Wilde films later, here's what actor Stephen Fry did with part of that same speech in the movie "Wilde."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "WILDE")

STEPHEN FRY: (as Oscar Wilde) It's the noblest form of affection. There's nothing unnatural about it, and it repeatedly exists between an elder and a younger man. And the elder has intellect and the younger man has all the joy, hope and glamour of life before him.

MONDELLO: Tremulous, lingering, almost sensually over phrases, this version is spoken in the full expectation that 1990s audiences will empathize with Wilde. Hollywood's long-term obsession with another real-life case required different strategies. Teen thrill-killers, Leopold and Loeb, inspired both the trial of the century and multiple movies. But early ones had to be heavily fictionalized.

Alfred Hitchcock made up a whole new case in "Rope," which subtexted gay themes in 1948. A decade later, the movie "Compulsion" allowed defense attorney Orson Welles to hint a bit.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "COMPULSION")

ORSON WELLES: (as Character) ...immature boys of diseased minds. It's plain as day.

MONDELLO: But he talked about the trial's sensationalism stemming from his client's wealth, not their sexual orientation. Three decades later, the film "Swoon" showed no such reserve, and focused almost entirely on the killers' sexuality.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SWOON")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Character) They experimented with mouth perversions. Nathan has many fantasies. Nicky would pretend to be drunk and they would undress him.

MONDELLO: For quite awhile, most real-life court cases did not turn out well for lesbian and gay defendants, which restricted what filmmakers could do. And if fiction offered them a little more latitude, it still had to appear plausible. In Lillian Hellman's midcentury drama "The Children's Hour," for instance, schoolteachers Shirley MacLaine and Audrey Hepburn were falsely accused of being lovers, but could find enough support to prove their innocence in court.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE CHILDREN'S HOUR")

SHIRLEY MACLAINE: (as Martha Dobie) Why did you refuse to come back here and testify for us?

AUDREY HEPBURN: (as Karen Wright) It wouldn't have done any good for us all to get mixed up in this unpleasant notoriety.

MONDELLO: But even had a court heard their case fully, things likely wouldn't have gone well for them for reasons movie characters spent decades beating around the bush about before attorney Denzel Washington laid them out clearly in the AIDS-trial drama "Philadelphia."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "PHILADELPHIA")

DENZEL WASHINGTON: (as Joe Miller) Let's talk about what this case is really all about. The general public's hatred, our loathing, our fear of homosexuals, and how that climate of hatred and fear translated into the firing of this particular homosexual, my client.

MONDELLO: Washington is playing a deeply homophobic man whose opinions evolve on gay issues during the course of the film, evolved way past where many audience members were at that point. "Philadelphia" was released in 1993, four years before Ellen DeGeneres came out on TV, five years before the first episode of "Will & Grace," 12 years before "Brokeback Mountain."

The judge's response in "Philadelphia" was almost startling to audiences in a time when homosexual activity was still outlawed in many states.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "PHILADELPHIA")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (as Character) In this courtroom, Mr. Miller, justice is blind to matters of race, creed, color, religion and sexual orientation.

WASHINGTON: (as Joe Miller) With all due respect, Your Honor, we don't live in this courtroom though, do we?

MONDELLO: Today, in a limited but evolving sense, we do, at least judging from this week's cases before the Supreme Court. And the movie "Philadelphia," the product of an industry that, for business reasons, worries, much as the court does, about getting out in front of public opinion is starting to seem just as much a period piece as any film about Oscar Wilde. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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