Howard Hawks and Gay Subtext: “That’s a Goddamn Silly Statement to Make”… but is it?
When I was in university, I took a film class with a professor who could find gay subtext in anything. I mean, it’s one thing to spot the less-than-subtle hints in The Wizard Of Oz, but I distinctly remember one class discussion around Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, in which my professor insisted that, since the all-male Olympic athletics team go about their training without somehow falling at the feet of Jane Russell, they must all be gay.
“Hold on,” I said, one of the few times I actually spoke out in class. “Isn’t that a bit of a stretch?” Because, I thought, not showing immediate interest in one specific woman, even if she is Jane Russell, does not a homosexual make. Now that I’ve seen a great deal more of Hawks’ work, I stand by that statement, and am merely shocked that that was the example my professor chose to address homosexual subtext in that film. I mean, really?
The thing is, Hawks’ men were usually some hypermasculine archetype, the manliest men to ever be men, with women (outside of his female-led screwball comedies) serving to reinforce their virility. So maybe it isn’t a huge stretch to read a group of mostly-naked men in a choreographed musical number all blatantly ignoring a beautiful woman singing and dancing her way around them as gay. But to do so is to sell Howard Hawks dramatically short. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes wasn’t about Dorothy (Jane Russell) being trapped on a transatlantic cruise with nothing but gay men. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was effectively a buddy comedy about Dorothy and Lorelai (Marilyn Monroe).
If there is a homoerotic reading of the film to be made, and Hawks himself would have most likely argued that there wasn’t, it is in that relationship. Throughout the film, Dorothy and Lorelei are fiercely loyal to one another, treating the men around them as an afterthought. Lorelei leaves her fiance, Gus Esmond, behind when his father stops him from sailing with her to France. Sure, her career means she had to go anyway, but throughout the journey, and her encounter with Sir Francis “Piggy” Beekman is not at all romantic, from her perspective anyway: she sees him as a means to wealth. She even chastises Dorothy for falling for Ernie Malone, the private detective hired to spy on Lorelei, because she believes her friend deserves a rich man. Not a man she loves, a man who can provide a certain lifestyle. In the end, Lorelei marries Gus and Dorothy marries Ernie in a double wedding – most likely funded by the wealthy Esmond family – in which the bond between the two female leads is at least as important, if not more important, than the actual romantic couplings.
Although Alexander Doty argued in favour of a bisexual interpretation for Dorothy and Lorelei in his book Flaming Classics: Queering the Film Canon (2000). If you don’t think there is quite enough evidence to argue for Dorothy and Lorelei’s bisexuality, then you’re still left with a distinctly feminist statement of woman-bonding: men are a tool for financial security; love is not long-term. That’s why, as Lorelei addresses in the film’s most famous musical number, “diamonds are a girl’s best friend.”
Although seemingly the complete thematic diametric of Gentlemen, Hawks’ 1959 western Rio Bravo places an emphasis on same-sex interactions over romantic interests, with the musical duet between Dude (Dean Martin) and Colorado Ryan (Ricky Nelson) often cited as clear examples of homosexual subtext. In truth, it’s much more likely that Hawks relented to studio pressure to have Nelson and Martin, two of the most well-known singers of the era, actually sing in his film. As I was trying, unsuccessfully and ineloquently at the time, to point out to my professor years ago, merely existing in a musical number doesn’t make a strong case either way for a character’s sexuality. But, then, neither does typical Hawksian masculinity. At the beginning of the film, right after Dude is established as a drunk and Sheriff John Chance (John Wayne) enters the saloon and an entirely wordless exchange occurs: Chance looks on Dude with pity; Dude reacts with anger, knocking Dude out with an axe.
It’s all very physical and manly and tough and, let’s face it, these two – a sheriff and his former, disgraced deputy – care for each other. It might be romantic. But it’s probably not. Certainly, it’s been seen that way before: film critic Robin Wood insisted that it might be, but later admitted that was wishful thinking. Instead, Hawks’ depiction of the relationship between Chance and Dude is one of deep affection and respect – the first time we see Chance, it’s from Dude’s perspective as he looks up at the sheriff, and it’s one of the rare point-of-view shots in the film – but it’s also entirely platonic. And that’s the beauty of Hawks – not his likely homophobia (in an interview with Joseph McBride and Gerald Peary about gay subtext in Red River (1948), Hawks replied, “that’s a goddamn silly statement to make It sounds like a homosexual speaking”) – but his careful attention to platonic same-sex relationships as something pure, deeper than sex, and ultimately more important than romance.
The platonic at the expense of the romantic is a common theme in Hawks’ films: Gentlemen’s Lorelei and Dorothy want marriage, of course, but never at the expense of each other; Chance rebuffs Feathers’s (Angie Dickinson’) advances at first, but ends up in her arms by the end, almost as an afterthought. She can hold her own with the men, and Angie Dickinson is truly outstanding in the role, but the film isn’t about her. And in Red River, Tess is barely more than a vehicle for the male protagonists to realize their affection for one another. Even when read as platonic, or as a father-and-son relationship, it is far more meaningful than either Dunson or Garth shares with Tess.
That said though, the homosexual subtext of Red River is barely sub-anything. Thomas Dunson (John Wayne) effectively adopts and raises Matt Garth (Mickey Kuhn as a child; Montgomery Clift as an adult) after Natives attack their wagon train and kill Dunson’s love interest. Years later, he runs a successful cattle ranch and promises to add Matt’s initial to the brand when he earns it – as equal partners, practically as a couple. Despite a falling out on the direction they should take in a cattle drive, the two confess their love (for each other) to the same woman at different times along the way. Dunson pursues Matt after they split up, and we learn late in the film that, some time in their history, Dunson gave Matt a bracelet that used to belong to his mother, and in fact that he’d also given to his girlfriend before she was killed. There’s “wishful thinking,” as in the case of Rio Bravo, there’s strong feminist undertones in a female-fronted film about the bond between women as in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and then there’s Red River, which appears to be something else entirely.
But it was Hollywood in the late 1940s, so naturally Matt marries Tess (Joanne Dru) and gets his name incorporated into Dunson’s cattle brand, which is really as close as they could have gotten.