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Gay in a 'Brüno' theater

July 10, 2009|Hank Stuever

Amid the screams of shock and laughter at a packed preview screening of "Bruno" Tuesday night in Washington, one could also detect slight sighs of relief.

There were many gay people in the audience, and nothing interests them quite like monitoring how they are treated in movies and TV. It seems gays have found, if not a friend in Bruno, at least a very tenuous ally in his over-the-top (and under-the-bottom) stereotype.

After watching Bruno, a character played by Sacha Baron Cohen ("Borat"), traipse across America and incite whatever homophobic responses and misadventures he can (especially in such places as Arkansas and Alabama), gays seem ready to accept that "Bruno," which opens today, will not hinder their hopes for pop-culture progress. Nor is it likely to inspire any. What "Bruno" inspires in gays is a lot of talking and typing and thinking. Here is some more.

"Bruno" gave me a new (and not new) thought about homophobia. The straight people seen in the movie, such as a heterosexual swingers group infiltrated by Bruno, have just as many issues about their orientation and desires as anyone else. Homophobia, schmomophobia. America has a giant case of sex phobia. The bedroom is a bigger hang-up than it's ever been, which is bizarre, after all the supposed revolution we've been through. Gays just happen to be on the unfortunate side of the bed.

We're all afraid of sex. Any kind of sex -- gay, straight, bi, May-December, Michael Jackson, whatever. Forty years of gay rights after the Stonewall riots in New York have not moved actual hot sex forward. In fact, the more political being gay gets, the more afraid everyone gets of sex. So much for liberation. Now we just cringe in movies, waiting to watch straight people laugh and scream and affirm their complete fear of carnality.

Nothing quite matches the feeling of being the gay person in a movie theater full of straight people when the gay jokes come around. It can put a guy right back on the recess playground, where the bullies are smart and funny and the sissy (also smart, also funny, but only to the girls) is just trying to get through the day unscathed. Not all gay men feel this as acutely, but plenty have sat blithely in otherwise enjoyable movies and watched as audiences howl with disgust when the gay sex joke presents itself.

In this regard "Bruno" is unlike anything the American multiplex has ever seen, with its raunchy acrobatic sex acts between the Bruno character and his fey Filipino lover. "Bruno" will make all the well-meaning homophobia seen in this decade's movies seem like blips on the gaydar, and that's saying something, as Adam Sandler, Will Ferrell and their interchangeable cohorts seem incapable of making a comedy without at least one I'm-not-gay-you-are joke.

Here's what happens when you are gay and stuck in your multiplex stadium seat. You laugh while measuring the laughs around you, like a human applause-o-meter. You watch everything with the extra awareness of how others are watching it too.

Some of us recall the audience squeals that met the kiss between Christopher Reeve and Michael Caine in "Deathtrap" in 1982. Or the horror that met the big reveal in "The Crying Game" in 1992. (Piercing screams: It's a man!) Those screams were almost matched when the effeminate art student crawled into bed with an unsuspecting Vince Vaughn in "Wedding Crashers" in 2005 and tried to seduce him.

There's a lot of ironic understanding going on here, if it is indeed going on here. And the understanding is this: We're all supposed to know that the filmmakers and movie stars whom we know and like are in fact not homophobic people, that they are totally comfortable around gay people, that this is all in good fun here, and this is why they still make fun of homosexuality as a flaw, reaching its zenith with Seth Rogen and Paul Rudd's classic "You know how I know you're gay?" exchange in the 2005 movie "The 40-Year-Old Virgin."

The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. (Or being mocked in movies.) Meanwhile, in Fort Worth, there is an investigation launched into a police raid of a gay bar two weeks ago, at which patrons claimed cops acted violently and the cops claim they were groped in sexually suggestive ways. It all sounds like a "Bruno" sketch sans Bruno, only with the sad fact of being real.

The credits roll, and you walk out of the theater, blinking, wondering what just happened, wondering at the very least how come all the straight actors and straight filmmakers have the market cornered on gay jokes. What is Bruno going to teach us, other than sex is basically a total gross-out? You return to the world that exists outside of movie theaters, still a second-class American in a number of measurable ways.

--

Stuever writes for the Washington Post.

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