The Englishman in America: Masculinity in Love and Death on Long Island and Father of Frankenstein

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[1] On 27 March 1995 Nigel Hawthorne did not win a Best Actor Oscar for his role as George III in Nicolas Hynter's The Madness of King George (1994). In an interview with the American magazine The Advocate a week earlier, he had discussed his openness about his homosexuality and the fact that he was making history by being the first openly gay man to be nominated for this award. This interview catapulted him into the British media spotlight as the tabloids scandalized their readers about the implications of a gay man representing Britain at these prestigious awards. The newspapers did not "out" Hawthorne, but rather they reprimanded him for stepping too far out of the closet, implying that the acceptance of homosexuals as "purveyors of culture" was conditional upon them remaining discreet about their "unspeakableness" (Sinfield, Faultlines, 295). In his autobiography Straight Face, Hawthorne contrasts his horrendous treatment by the British media with the lack of American interest in the story, noting "in America, these issues don't carry the same weight they do in England" (289-91, 292). Such a story would have caused great commotion in America had Hawthorne been an American actor, especially as there are so few openly gay actors in Hollywood, "a town without gays, only heterosexuals falsely accused" (Ehrenstein, 326). Hollywood is also a place where the difference between an Englishman winning an Oscar and an openly gay one doing so is slight: both are novelties within the usually American-dominated awards (Levy, 95-106). This essay considers what the gay Englishman signifies in American culture by examining the representation of this figure in two contemporary novels, Gilbert Adair's Love and Death on Long Island (1990) and Christopher Bram's Father of Frankenstein (1995), and their critically acclaimed film adaptations, Love and Death on Long Island (1997) and Gods and Monsters (1998). These texts suggest that the gay Englishman is a complex, ambiguous figure who interrogates America's obsession with effeminacy and its identification of heterosexual masculinity with Americanness (Dyer, 141).

[2] From its inception American cinema has differentiated American masculinity, associated with "the rugged virtues" of the land, from the more refined, cultivated, "effete dandies of Europe" (Russo, 16). The sissies and camp homosexuals of the silver screen originate in the aristocratic, affluent, apolitical, and effeminate Englishmen of nineteenth-century literature and culture (Sedgwick, Between, 174-75, 217). The connection between English masculinity and male homosexuality is reinforced by a tradition of English actors playing homosexuals and by British films, including two of the most successful of the 1990s, Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) and The Full Monty (1997), which feature memorable gay Englishmen (Russo, 119-120, 126-35, 192-96; Clum, 86-89). The association has infiltrated other forms of popular culture; for example, in a 2003 episode of Will and Grace Lorraine Finster asks Will Truman, "You're a natty dresser. Are you English?" Will replies that he is gay and Lorraine retorts, "Well, it's the same thing". In the years that followed Hawthorne's nomination, the figure of the gay Englishman who lives in or visits America became a recurring cinematic motif in My Best Friend's Wedding (1997), Love is the Devil (1998) and Velvet Goldmine (1998). The opening scene of Wilde (1997), a film about the life of the Irish playwright Oscar Wilde, does not begin in Ireland as one might expect, but rather in Colorado's Matchless Silver mine in 1882. Here, Wilde, having just given a lecture on aesthetics, describes the miners as having "angel faces" and being charming to him if a "little brusque" with each other; he notes "they hanged two men in a theatre just before I gave a lecture. I felt like the sorbet after a side of beef". Wilde presents himself as the antithesis of an American masculinity associated with ruggedness, competitiveness, violence, and democracy. …