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Are they or aren't they?

There was a time when bachelors in movies sent out muted homosexual signals. That time has returned.

May 25, 2003|Stephen Farber | Special to The Times

Once upon a time, men of a certain age who had never married were simply known as bachelors. Only a few impolite snoops pried into these aging gentlemen's sexual orientation. If you think that innocent era is long gone, think again. Bachelors are back in a surprising number of current movies featuring characters whose sexuality is, to say the least, ambiguous.

At a time when overt homosexuality has a diminished role on the big screen, it's turning up in coded, disguised form, almost as it did in the days chronicled in Vito Russo's book (and subsequent documentary) "The Celluloid Closet." Among the stars playing characters with homoerotic shadings this spring are Jack Nicholson in "Anger Management," Dustin Hoffman in "Confidence," Al Pacino in "People I Know" and Nick Nolte in "The Good Thief." Many people may miss the hidden sexual content, but it's there to titillate the cognoscenti.

Studios and producers are running scared these days, partly because of the conservative political climate, and partly because of a stubborn obsession with the bottom line. The fastidious treatment of homosexuality is just one indication of this skittish mood. Although some of these new closet-case pictures have their sly pleasures, it's dismaying that we've regressed to the kind of coy storytelling more reminiscent of the 1950s.

Homosexuality has a tortured, tortuous history in Hollywood, so the latest furtive trend is just another chapter in an ongoing saga of subterfuge. The old Production Code that straitjacketed American movies from 1934 to 1968 declared that "sex perversion or any inference of it is forbidden." Even in that pristine epoch, however, not all inferences were excised. Homoerotic hints kept sneaking into movies, particularly comedies. In the '30s, actors such as Franklin Pangborn and Edward Everett Horton played prissy sidekicks whose sexuality was pretty flaming. Laurel and Hardy came off as a bickering married couple. Bob Hope often played a dandified coward who wasn't exactly a masculine role model.

In Hollywood dramas, Hollywood presented fairly sensationalized treatments of homosexuality in "Advise and Consent," "The Children's Hour" and "The Sergeant." It wasn't until the boom of independent film in the '80s that we saw a more relaxed view of homosexuality in such movies as "Kiss of the Spider Woman," "Lianna" and "Parting Glances." Queer cinema blossomed over the next decade, and Hollywood gingerly followed suit in "The Birdcage," "Philadelphia" and "In & Out." These mainstream movies had a lot of failings enumerated by gay activists, but they had one virtue appreciated by the studios: They made money.

Soon, however, the novelty wore off, and audiences dwindled. Once-daring independent companies began to shy away from gay themes when they realized that even the most acclaimed, award-laden efforts such as "Gods and Monsters" had limited box-office potential. Last year's gay and lesbian film festival, Outfest, opened with a program of short films, an indication of how few high-quality gay features were being produced. The festival filled out the rest of its slots with documentaries, esoteric foreign films and other movies with minimal gay content like the recently released "Lawless Heart."

At the same time that feature films have retreated, television has been forging ahead with overtly gay material. "Will & Grace" remains one of the most popular shows on the tube, and cable series such as "Six Feet Under" and "Queer as Folk" have passionate followings. In fact, there's so much gay material on television that movie producers may feel audiences have become sated. They may also be stymied trying to come up with fresh stories to tell. Conflicts surrounding coming out, homophobia and AIDS have been dramatized repeatedly.

For all of these reasons, there's a vacuum in feature films at the moment. But we all know that nature abhors a vacuum, and it will be filled in one way or another. To be blunt, a lot of artists are gay, and even those who aren't may be curious or at least willing to consider the polymorphous possibilities.

That's one way to explain the unexpected homoerotic undercurrents of the hit comedy "Anger Management." Jack Nicholson has pretty much defined himself as the most macho of stars, and it must have seemed like a tantalizing change of pace for him to explore the fey side of the beret-sporting Dr. Buddy Rydell. He moves in with the repressed rageaholic Dave Buznik (Adam Sandler) to help him turn his life around. Is Buddy meant to be gay?

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