How Homo Can Hollywood Be? Remaking Queer Authenticity from to Wong Foo to Brokeback Mountain

Article excerpt

"Hollywood is yesterday, forever catching up tomorrow with what's happening today. "

-Vito Russo (322-23).

THE RESOLUTELY POPULAR CINEMA OF HOLLYWOOD has long played a central part in the very subcultural, communitarian, minoritizing, Masonic impulse of urban gay milieux. Lest we forget, at least one geographical enclave of these subcultures was so dismayed when Judy Garland went to the big rehab in the sky that it started a riot. In this article, I outline what I argue is a point of collision between shifting approaches to popular cinema in gay subculture and, in particular, to queer relationships with "Hollywood"- a nomenclature used as a collective terminology for products that are perceived in the discourses I consider here to derive from a hegemonic, precisely nonsubcultural position. The mythology of Hollywood, I contend, is a faultline in the historical development of gay subculture and its cultural production- faultline being Alan Sinfield's term for a story or mythology that serves as a crisis point and, hence, a focus for culture's "awkward, unresolved issues [that] require most assiduous and continuous reworking; they hinge upon a fundamental, unresolved ideological complication that finds its way . . . into texts" (Cultural Politics 4).

Despite having played an extraordinarily central role in the lives of pre-liberation gay men, acting as what Brett Farmer has called "a veritable lingua franca" (27), by the 1980s, Hollywood was the subject of stinging attack and abandonment by its erstwhile paramour. Hollywood had shifted from occupying a central point in gay subculture to being considered its very antithesis. Most recently, responses to Brokeback Mountain in the gay community have continued a process by which queers seek to redefine their relationship with popular cinema, both as political organ of representation and as a site of cinematic pleasure. This article asks several questions of central importance to our understanding of gay subculture as it relates to film studies: Does Hollywood remain central to gay subculture? What political and pleasurable role can Hollywood be expected to fulfill for gay authences? And can there ever be a Hollywood movie that is "authentically gay"?

Remaking Authenticities

Drag and, more generally, cross-dressing were of course the focus of some excitement in the early 1990s. In the academy, drag became a central totem of Queer Theory, just as the broader political and cultural movement known as "Queer" used cross-dressing as a central strategy in its "in-your-face" activist deployments. In cinema, a broad range of films, from the mainstream to the margins, explored transvestism in all its forms: from overtly gay subcultural drag to feminist reincarnatory genderbending to straight male angora fetishes. What is perhaps most remarkable about drag's cinematic ubiquity at this point is the sheer variety of cultural, artistic, and industrial positionings attached to this range of cinematic products: from the independent, art-house, lyrical filmmaking to be found in Sally Potter's Orlando (1992) to the populist Disneyfied sentimentality of Mrs Doubtfire (1993) or the quirky farce of The Birdcage (1996).

The two films this article considers in detail were released onto international markets in 1994 and 1995: The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) opened first, to widespread critical acclaim, and To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar (1995) was released soon afterward. Because of similarity in subject matter- both, to varying extents, are "road movies," and both have drag queens as their protagonists- the latter film was, and continues to be, widely dismissed as simply "The American Priscilla" (see Woodruff; Floyd; Murray 77) or, worse, a "rip-off of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" (Floyd). Indeed, a very particular myth formed early on- that To Wong Foo was, specifically, a remake of Priscilla (e.g., Woodruff). Such an assumption is understandableauthences widely recognize the major studio practice of "optioning" cultish or foreign films that are seen to be of commercial potential. …