Woah — it’s been two years since I’ve touched this series?
I guess a world-wide pandemic and starting a family distracts you a bit. Who knew?
Speaking of starting a family, here’s a pet peeve of mine: when people ask if you’re “trying”.
I’ve been a co-host on a podcast with the lovely Dorothy Wilhelm for several years now — she’s on the S.O.B. network (which stands for “Spunky Old Broads”, given all the hosts are older women), and we talk about generational differences. She once asked me (luckily for the both of us) off-air if my wife and I were trying.
That’s just… such a weird question. And I said as much, when I responded with some colorfully explicit language about unprotected penetrative sex that even I don’t dare write here. Needless to say, the woman who always had something to say was suddenly stuck with a strong case of speechlessness.
I guess it’s too late to make a long story short, but I do hope that you think twice about whether you should so casually ask about someone’s sex life in the future.
That’s real life though — discussing and dissecting fictional sex lives is absolutely on the table, and is exactly what I’m about to do here.
For those who haven’t read the other four columns in this series, I started writing about Shakespeare and his love of bawdy humor after I went to my first Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, OR. I never liked Shakespeare until my wife told me the bard is credited for one of the first-ever published “yo mamma” jokes. Since then, I’ve laid bare (lol) “Much Ado About Nothing”, “Hamlet”, “Macbeth”, “As You Like It”, “King Lear”, and even Sonnet 151 and their plethora of innuendos and euphemisms.
But I haven’t been to the festival for two years, and since these plays are better watched than read (especially for finding those tidbits of titillating turns-of-phrases), I thought it would be best to switch focus to another dead white man who was not only a master of his craft, but loved his hidden jokes — especially if they were at the expense of the powers-that-be.
Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the late Alfred Joseph Hitchcock.
Like all things cultured in my life, it was my wife who really introduced me to his works (I tried watching “Psycho” in middle school during a horror movie binge, and fell asleep).
I think my favorite thing about Hitchcock is that he always pushed the envelope — which wasn’t an easy thing to do when your work is being constrained by the infamous Hays Code.
If you’re not familiar with this travesty of American history (1934 – 1968), the Hays Code, imposed by the Motion Picture Association, laid out what could and could not be shown in American films. In short, the code encouraged movie to be “moral” (good guys always win, bad guys always lose), promote “traditional values” (the code had strong Catholic undertones), and prohibited sexually explicit content (to the point that even married couples had to be shown sleeping in separate beds).
Some directors adhered to the edicts. Others, like Hitchcock, seemed to see the code as a challenge; many of his films clearly bite their thumb at the MPA and its attempt to censor.
For example, “Psycho” was the first American film to ever show a toilet, or hear it be flushed. That’s not necessarily the most outrageous thing Hitchcock ever did, but his choice to showcase the porcelain throne certainly ruffled feathers among code enforcers and the viewing public alike.
In “Notorious”, Hitchcock got around the code’s “three-second kissing rule” by having his actors break their kiss every three second, just to dive back in; the lusty scene lasted more than two minutes.
And in a “Rear Window” screening with Hays Code enforcers, he inserted a scene where a character appeared topless (she wasn’t). However, he never planned to release that version of the film — he only put that scene in the screening version to distract enforcers from other elements of the movie they might have objected to, were they not so discomboobulated.
But I think my favorite instance of Hitchcock sticking it to the man was in “Rope”.
It should come to no surprise that the Hays Code absolutely prohibited any LGBTQ characters, let alone any gay sexual content. Which is, of course, exactly what Hitchcock showcases, right in the first three minutes of the movie.
The film opens to a scene of a busy street, and the camera pans around to look at a window, curtains drawn. The pleasant music is interrupted by a man screaming, and we find ourselves suddenly inside an apartment, watching Phillip strangling a man while his “roommate” Brandon watches, rapt. (Don’t think too hard about how the man screams with a rope around this throat.)
The two men open a chest — a marriage chest, which is its own little joke — and dump the corpse inside; they pant heavily before Brandon straightens, clearly aglow with what he just got away with.
He turns on a light, but Phillip forcefully asks him to turn it off.
“We’ve got to see if there’s anything…,” Brandon starts.
“I know,” Phillip interrupts. “But… not just yet. Let’s stay this way for a minute.”
Brandon then takes out his cigarette case and lights up; “What a lovely evening,” he says shortly later. “Pity we couldn’t have done it with the curtains open in the bright sunlight. Well… we can’t have everything, can we?”
None of this is coincidence — Hitchcock managed to make a murder feel more like post-coitus pillow talk, though it was disguised enough that if code enforcers ever tried to finger him on it, Hitchcock had plenty deniability.
And just in case you still don’t believe this is the gayest-not-gay scene ever filmed, keep in mind a few other facts: the play “Rope” is based on explicitly portrays Brandon and Phillip in a relationship; the play itself was based on the true tale of Leopold and Loeb, a gay Jewish couple who were convicted of murder in the 1920s; that the actor playing Brandon was gay; and that the actor playing Phillip was bisexual and dating screenwriter Arthur Laurents.
It’s gay all the way down — which is probably why “Rope” doesn’t make fun of Brandon and Phillip’s relationship, or make it appear sordid; despite the fact that LGBTQ people were even considered to be national security threats around the time this movie was released, Hitchcock became an early standard-bearer for the alphabet mafia, and the way many of his movies portray the community hold up to this day.
But at the same time, this movie (and the relationships within) had to be delivered in code, because even (bloodless) murder was — and, in many ways, remains — more acceptable than portraying non-straightness.
So no, the joke here isn’t homosexuality, like how countless other movies before and after “Rope” make it out to be.
The joke, as per Hitchcock, is on the Hays Code and the people who use their power and authority to force the LGBTQ community back into the closet.
Sometimes, the force is implicit. Sometimes, it’s at the end of a gun.
But no matter the circumstances, we’ll always find a way to tell our stories.
As the old saying goes, we’re here. We’re queer. Get used to it.