From the editor and writers of Bright Lights Film Journal
Action! Interviews with Directors from Classical Hollywood to Contemporary Iran
(Anthem Art and Culture), by Gary Morris (Editor), Bert Cardullo (Introduction), Jonathan Rosenbaum (Foreword). London and New York: Anthem Press, 2009.
"I dare anyone to squeeze between two covers a more varied, useful and flat out entertaining sampling of the personalities that make the seventh art the liveliest."
David Hudson, IFC.com
Tony Randall, Doris Day, and Rock Hudson on the set of Pillow Talk, 1959
Between a Rock and a Soft Place
Queering/Queered Heterosexuality in "Career Girl" Films of the 1950s and '60s
"Perhaps Hollywood, in trying to engage in queer possibilities for its narratives and with its audiences, could only put up a resistance to the binaries in the dominant culture through humor "
Part 1  »  Part 2  »  Full Article
Lorrie Palmer
Between the mid-1950s and mid- to late 1960s, the social role of women underwent a significant shift, especially in terms of their place in the workforce and their position within the traditional American family, the former directly impacting the latter. In the post-war years, the ideological/cultural project of the United States was to reintegrate the men returned from the battlefield into their former position as chief breadwinner and to return the women who had provided labor for war production back into the home. However, the doors of all those kitchens and laundry rooms and nurseries and bedrooms had been opened and could not be closed. Likewise, the war veterans having experienced both foreign cultures and intense homosocial and, often, homosexual relationships could not simply be returned to a sharply delineated social sphere based on the pre-war model. In the post-war U.S., male and female roles were polarized along the line of sexual difference and biology. Gender roles were organized in such a way that masculinity was aligned with biological maleness and femininity with the female-sexed body.
In her 1980 article "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence," Adrienne Rich examines the socialization process that has worked to channel women, at home and in the workplace, toward heterosexuality. She looks to the "economic imperative to heterosexuality and marriage and to the sanctions imposed against single women" as a way of situating societal gendering within a larger economic framework. Further, Steven Cohan's examination of "sex and the single man" (267) notes that the "representation of bachelorhood in the fifties condensed the culture's deepest anxieties about the stability, coherence, and normality of heterosexual maleness, underscoring the homophobia that positioned 'masculinity' in strict oppositions to 'femininity' " (266). Taken together, these two approaches point to the institutional maintenance of heterosexuality as the norm by which both single women and men could be incorporated into an economic model of separate spheres of labor (such as the home and the office).
However, this model of separateness also implies an opposite: a space where there is no separateness. Heterosexuality is often defined by its perceived opposite, homosexuality, in much the same way that masculinity is situated against femininity. These polarizations, when collapsed, give way to a queer space. Alexander Doty addresses the concept of "queer" as an umbrella term that "might be used to describe the intersection or combination of more than one established 'non-straight' sexuality or gender position in a spectator, a text, or a personality" (The Oxford Guide to Film Studies 149). According to Barbara Creed, "Queer theory argues for plurality and multiplicity. It asks us to rethink the nature of sexual identity; to pay attention to the borders and margins" (163). In so doing, we can account both for texts and for spectators that operate outside the dominant readings/positions that straight culture assumes. The marginality Creed describes is a place for "queer" as both a noun and a verb. Doty establishes queer as "a consciously chosen 'site of resistance' and a 'location of radical openness and possibility'" (Making Things Perfectly Queer 3). Such resistance also plays out as Annette Schlichter, in "Contesting 'Straights': 'Lesbians,' 'Queer Heterosexuals' and the Critique of Heteronormativity," explores the ways in which "queerings of straightness provide a form of opposition against [. . .] the binary of homosexuality/heterosexuality, which is foundational of normative culture" (193). With all this in mind, I will now look at a series of films that marks the transition between two seemingly polarized eras, the repressed '50s and the swinging '60s to see if there is an overlap where separateness between male/female, heterosexuality/homosexuality, and masculine/feminine is indeed collapsed by queerness.
For the purposes of this study, I will be doing two things: looking for moments in which heterosexuality is queered in the following films and, also, queerly reading their representations of heteronormativity. Heterosexuality cannot always be defined as heteronormative as it may take "many, sometimes contradictory forms" (Sullivan 132) in ways that "denaturalize" (Sullivan 133) or queer it. This series of films represents a rupture in those gender roles I describe above in that they all foreground the Career Girl as their archetype. She is already in a queer space because she has vacated the dominant culture's notion of traditional femininity by leaving the domestic sphere in favor of the business world, a site occupied (pre-war) by men. These films (not to overwork a cliché) ride a tide between the post-war era and second-wave feminism that marks a social shift in labor and gender formations. The films under discussion here span roughly the decade from the mid-'50s to the mid-'60s and include Three Coins in the Fountain (1954), The Best of Everything (1959), Pillow Talk (1959), Lover Come Back (1961), and Valley of the Dolls (1967). I would suggest that these films also allow alternative readings of heteronormative masculinity, especially in terms of the "privilege" associated with the social/cultural place of heterosexuality (Sullivan 132). Men, as much as women, were shoe-horned into often ill-fitting identities of both gender and sexuality. As I read specific moments in these films, I will ask these questions: Are there any explicit or implicit queer suggestions within the text (dialogue, mise-en-scène, plot, etc.)? Are there any disruptions to straight heterosexuality that indicate its opposite, and is either possibility viewed negatively within the text? If so, what does it mean politically to make strange the depiction of heterosexuality, considering the dominant heterosexualizing project of this era? How are both the male and female characters set up for compulsive heterosexuality through the conflation of work as a conduit for romance and its "natural" outcome, family life? I will move chronologically through the films as I seek answers to these questions. In this way, an evolution (or perhaps its lack?) in the cinematic depiction of gender and sexual identity might present itself through either queer moments or a queer reading.
The first film, Three Coins in the Fountain (1954), was directed by Jean Negulesco and stars Dorothy McGuire, Jean Peters, and Maggie McNamara as its female leads and Clifton Webb, Louis Jourdan, and Rossano Brazzi as their male counterparts. The plot follows three American women working as secretaries in Rome. Three heterosexual couples are quickly set up as the narrative begins to split into their respective stories, with very little interaction between them. Maria (McNamara), a newly arrived secretary, immediately sets her sight on Jourdan's Prince Dino de Cessi, a wealthy bachelor who lives with his mother in an imposing palazzo overlooking the city. Anita (Peters) is about to return to the States when she accepts a casual invitation to a family gathering by an Italian co-worker (Brazzi) who has been secretly in love with her for two years. Frances (McGuire) has lived in Rome for 15 years as the constant companion/assistant to reclusive author John Frederick Shadwell (Webb).
In this film, two of the three central romantic pairings have queer elements. The Maria/Dino relationship can be read queerly in terms of the male character, played by Louis Jourdan, who, it must be said, is prettier than his love interest in this film. Their relationship is established from the start as one of performance (as are many within this series of films). Maria wages a campaign of theatrics in order to snag him. She fills a little black book with details on his favorite food, wine, art, and music gleaned from the service personnel at all of his usual haunts, then pretends to share them. His love for opera and his virtuosity as a piccolo player might be seen as markers of, if not homosexuality, then queerness. The other girls warn Maria of his reputation as a playboy, but his living arrangements and the centrality of his mother within those arrangements would seem to trouble that hyper-heterosexualized model of masculine performance. His attraction to Maria is centered on her (feigned) intellectual and culinary interests rather than on her appearance, which is decidedly boyish (a ponytail, unadorned skirt ensembles, a waifish figure). This suggests a cerebral, not erotic, relationship and could be read as a cover for his non-normative sexuality.
Webb and McGuire in Three Coins in the FountainA similar dynamic is even more pronounced in the relationship between the writer, Shadwell, and his assistant, Frances. Clifton Webb's real-life homosexuality seems to inform his characterization in this film through specific elements of performance and costuming. He is never seen in public without a sleek black walking stick (a prop that recurs in Tony Randall's character in Lover Come Back), white gloves, and a white carnation in his lapel. He has a rather affected British accent, despite being identified within the narrative as an American (and despite the actor himself being American). He is an older man, elegant and solitary, except for his friendship with Prince de Cessi and his close working relationship with Frances, upon whom he declares himself to be utterly dependent. The romantic coupling of Shadwell and Frances is established first as comfortably professional; then, when she announces her imminent return to America, as abruptly heterosexualized. He proposes to her using the words "companionship," "respect," "comfort," and tops it off by saying, "You're the only woman I know to whom I'd make such a rash offer." Webb's line reading here subtly emphasizes the word "woman," allowing queer spectators (even in 1954) to find a space for a non-straight heterosexuality. The two agree to marry, "based on friendship." In addition, this couple is set apart from the other two in the film by the fact that they never share an onscreen kiss.
Three Coins in the Fountain positions three career girls within a working environment in a few early scenes in the film and then abandons it to follow them through the various sites of their romantic entanglements. This would suggest that careers for women are merely launching pads for their real purpose: marriage. Adrienne Rich notes that women in the workplace "learn to behave in a complaisantly and ingratiatingly heterosexual manner because they discover this is their true qualification for employment" (624). However, the film offers a possible queering of that dominant cultural imperative by depicting three relationships that offer only instability and uncertain futures to their participants. Webb's character is diagnosed with an inoperable cancer, leaving Frances to an eventual widowhood. Maria's relationship with the wandering Prince would seem to be headed for infidelity, whether of the straight or non-straight variety. And Anita's romance with the humble translator Giorgio (Brazzi) is marred from the start by his noticeable poverty, a condition described as untenable in the girls' first scene in the office. Poor Italian men are considered a no-go among the typing pool. The other male love interests, the Prince and the writer, have distinctly non-normative masculinities. These aspects of the romantic couples in the film would seem to be disruptions to successful heterosexuality yet are treated as a happy ending, with all six characters cavorting in front of the Trevi Fountain, where wishes come true, according to the film's primary thesis (and theme song).
Baker, Lange, and Parker in The Best of EverythingThe next film, The Best of Everything (also directed by Negulesco) takes place in Manhattan. Three young women, Caroline Bender (Hope Lange), April Morrison (Diane Baker), and Gregg Adams (Suzy Parker), share an apartment and work as secretaries at Fabian Publishing. All the editors in the company are male, with the exception of Amanda Farrow (Joan Crawford), and that imbalance plays out across the disconnect that the film establishes between work and gender. Amanda is older, unmarried, and hard-edged. Caroline is framed from the beginning as a potential heir to the older woman, who is perceived within the diegesis as having chosen a professional life over marriage and children and, as a result, has forsaken her femininity. An editor, Mike Rice (Stephen Boyd), who befriends Caroline accuses her at one point of immersing herself in work because "being a woman is too painful" so she's not going to be one. The alignment of Farrow and Caroline may mark more than a hierarchy of professional status. For the queer reader, their ultimate roles as the only two female editors, a position of masculinity at Fabian (with editors' offices delineated around the perimeter of the set) and their single status at the end of the film suggest a lesbian space. The possibility of a butch-femme reading here is facilitated by the performances of Lange and Crawford: the former, demure; the latter, aggressive. Although Caroline is ostensibly paired with Mike, and though they do share one bout of drunken kissing, she does not end up in his arms as the credits roll. The one time he refers to their relationship, he calls her "friend," and, in the final shot, they merely walk arm-in-arm out of the frame.
Suggestions of queerness are also apparent in another of the film's couplings: Gregg and David. This relationship is situated around the theatrical stage. Gregg is an actress (who works part-time at Fabian's) and David (Louis Jourdan, again) is a director who, like his earlier character (Prince de Cessi), has a reputation as a womanizer. He begins his affair with Gregg with the words, "Act One, Scene One," indicating the performativity of the heterosexual dating ritual he is enacting with her as well as its impermanent nature. Gregg begins the film as an independent creature of pleasure. She says that, like a man, she wants only "to be free, have no ties, to have and to hold, and then let go." The latter part of this phrase is echoed verbatim by David later in the film as he ends their relationship, aligning them both, through dialogue, as similarly gendered. The rupture occurs not in their mutual maleness (cemented by their masculine names) but when Gregg abandons it in favor of behavior that is more in line with what society deems "feminine." She becomes jealous, possessive, irrational, emotional, and dependent. The director shoots her with a canted camera angle (the only time this device is employed in the film) as she obsessively waits outside his apartment and spies at him from his fire escape, indicating the unnatural turn her affections have taken. Since she falls to her death from that fire escape soon thereafter (when her high heel gets caught in the grating!), we can read their relationship as being successful only as long as it remained queer.
Lorrie Palmer was up late one night when The Best of Everything came on TV and she liked the grand drama of it all, and the nifty set design (which makes Mad Men now seem eerily familiar). She's approaching the dissertation phase of a Ph.D. in Film & Media at Indiana University, and her ruminations have appeared in Camera Obscura (#67), The Velvet Light Trap (also #67), and several anthologies that examine gender/genre, cyborgs, superheroes, and TV sci-fi.
November 2010 | Issue 70
Lorrie Palmer

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