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 "
In Pillow Talk
(released in 1959, the same year as The Best of Everything
), there are many queer possibilities, notably explored by Steven Cohan, who has closely analyzed the film through its set design, characterizations, and the extra-diegetic star text of Rock Hudson.1
In this, and in the other Doris Day-Rock Hudson film included here, I will first focus on the dynamic between the conventionally masculine male lead and his more ambiguously gendered male sidekick, played by Tony Randall.
Kathrina Glitre discusses both Pillow Talk
and Lover Come Back
and remarks that both films "repeatedly place Hudson and Randall in queer positions" (159). Lover Come Back
(1961) features two men who might be read as an alternative, queer couple alongside the dominant coupling of Day-Hudson. Pete Ramsey (Randall) is both employer and friend to Jerry Webster (Hudson) and, in their first scene, enacts multiple queer moments with him. Pete enters the bedroom where Jerry is sleeping and pokes him in the backside with his shiny black walking stick, a prop that plays a prominent part in the scene. Jerry, annoyed, rolls over, grabs the stick in both hands and, in a show of manly strength, breaks it in two. Later, when Pete wields what's left of the stick toward him again, Jerry breaks that
piece in two as well. This repeated passing of the stick between them might allow them to be read textually as two gay men, especially as this takes place in a bedroom. With the extra-textual ambiguity of Tony Randall's offscreen sexuality alongside the (now) known gay identity of Rock Hudson, this scene takes on additional nuance; another aspect might be Hudson's closeted homosexuality and Hollywood's strict repression of it. Glitre makes note of the symbolism of the cane scene in terms of Pete's dialogue: "Do you realize what you just broke? My psychiatrist gave me that to build up my confidence." Thus, she writes, "'Normative' masculinity is again linked to phallic potency" (177). Later in the scene, Jerry bends forward while still in his pajamas and Pete, standing right behind him, also bends forward and then picks a bit of lint off his back. Then they have breakfast together.
A queer (or gay) reader of this film might focus on the trajectory of these two male characters and enjoy its suggestion of an underlying romantic/sexual component to their relationship. Pete invites Jerry up to his father's Canadian hunting cabin where they can do nothing but "relax." The following scene is of the two of them, sporting identical beards, in a canoe together while Pete bellows out the mating call of the moose, not to kill it but to photograph it, which somewhat negates the heteronormatively masculine concept of the "hunting lodge." The naturalized, outdoor setting, popular in the fifties as a way for "real men" to escape their urban, grey flannel-suited lives, is queered in Lover Come Back. Elsewhere in the film, there is a scene in which Jerry tries to clean Pete's face after it's been dyed by an enormous purple explosion outside a chemistry lab. Director Delbert Mann situates the camera behind Pete and shoots upward from a low angle as Jerry cradles one side of his head in his right hand and rubs at his cheek with the other. The angle emphasizes the dominant presence of Rock Hudson, the curving physicality of his hands, and the passive, receptive quality of Tony Randall's character. It's a moment that skirts real tenderness, and the length of the scene, over the course of two different camera set-ups, highlights its potential for deeper meanings, to both the characters and to the queerly-positioned spectator. After this face-cleaning, Jerry invites Pete to stay overnight, saying he "can even have the bed." According to Glitre, the "homosocial bonds between Randall's and Hudson's characters encourage a degree of queerness" and that, although the queer possibilities of these scenes are "not made explicit by the plot" (178), they do nevertheless provide an "interrogation of compulsory heterosexuality" (179).
They also offer the chance to see the relationship between Jerry and Carol Templeton (Day) in terms of queer heterosexuality, especially through the cross-dressing scene in which Jerry wears a cultural signifier of femininity: the mink coat. Glitre notes that "mink coats operate as complex signs, therefore, loaded not only with connotations of luxury, wealth and extravagance, but also symbolic associations with female sexuality. . ." (150). Two older, out-of-town businessmen have repeatedly encountered Jerry enjoying his dalliances with an endless procession of beautiful women and admired the "masculine virility" (Glitre 169) these moments implied. However, after Carol has dumped him naked in the country, he must make his way back to the city and enter his apartment building in a borrowed mink coat. When the two men see him, the camera uses a point-of-view shot from their perspective to watch him walk across the lobby, thus situating us with them as they perceive him as feminized. Traditional gaze theory would support this reading. The desired female object of the masculine subject's desiring gaze is queered in this scene. Glitre notes that the astonishment of the two businessmen "stems primarily from the visual undermining of Jerry's masculine identity in relation to both femininity and 'homosexuality'" (169). I would also suggest that the p.o.v. shot could be seen to denaturalize the traditional masculinity of the cinematic apparatus of looking. The object of the gaze is queered within the text and then queered again through the film's formal device.
Kathrina Glitre further negotiates the queer enactments within both Pillow Talk and Lover Come Back as she asserts that such moments of "masquerade [are] not only about disrupting masculine identity, but also about becoming an object of female desire" (151). So, when Rock Hudson, the premier "beefcake" (Glitre 151) sex-symbol of 1950s cinema, appears onscreen nude except for a swath of shiny mink and, in Pillow Talk, smoothly acts out behaviors coded as homosexual (interest in fabric swatches and recipes, an extended pinkie, closeness to his mother), the concept of a monolithic heterosexuality is problematized. The courtly, ambiguously gendered Texan, Rex Stetson, as the flip-side of the id-driven playboy Brad Allen (both played by Rock Hudson) forms with Allen not two separate personas but the multivalent nature of the character's sexual identity. The "plurality and multiplicity" (163) envisioned by Barbara Creed are at work in the Rex/Brad hybrid. Steven Cohan writes:
Rex does not register as queer simply because Brad drops several homophobic clues in Jan's path. Rather, Brad's masquerading as Rex evokes a sense of the ongoing gender performance that was expected of closeted gay men in the fifties, when a bachelor like Rex often had to pretend he was another guy: someone virile and outwardly heterosexual, someone just like Brad. (289)
So, with Jan (Doris Day) falling in love with the queerly positioned Rex/Brad character, the film queers dominant culture's notion of a stable, fixed heterosexuality. One scene that might illustrate this point is the one in which Jan's maid, Alma (Thelma Ritter), goes out with Brad (the most determinedly heterosexual version of the character) to a bar. He wants information about how he might win Jan back after she has dumped him for lying to her about who he was (or did he?). Here, a tiny little woman, 20 years his senior,2
out-performs the strapping, 6'4" stud at drinking
, a rite of manhood since time immemorial. The film further aligns these two characters through the Bloody Marys that are concocted for them as a cure for their respective hangovers. If Brad is subordinated by Jan's employee, what does that say about his economic position in relation to Jan? Is the "economic imperative to heterosexuality" (Rich 267) channeling Brad and Jan into an unambiguously "straight" marriage? If the career girl, like the playboy, was a source of cultural anxiety about gender roles in this era, then Jan Morrow — more than any other female character across this series of films — marks out her place within the contested (and gendered) territory of economic success. Steven Cohan states that "Jan's significance for the battle of the sexes is that she appropriates for femininity what the culture had accepted, in large part through the influence of Playboy
magazine, as a proper sexual identity for the bachelor" (281). The film depicts a woman appropriating masculinity and a man whose macho posture is tempered by an ambiguous sexuality — thus is a queer heterosexuality suggested. Within a conventionally heterosexual genre like the romantic comedy, Pillow Talk
offers a "site of resistance" (Doty 3) for the queer reader. "Romance is made ridiculous" (Glitre 163) in this film and, in doing so undercuts straight expectations of coherent gender roles.
In the 1967 film Valley of the Dolls, adapted from the best-selling novel by Jacqueline Susann, three women negotiate the working world and the hetero romances that the culture deems normative within it. Does this film depart from the models of sexuality that characterize the films of an earlier decade? Does it locate the margins of gender coherency and then queer (or allow to be queered) those positions? Anne (Barbara Parkins), Neely (Patty Duke), and Jennifer (Sharon Tate) converge on the world of Broadway as Anne gets a job at a talent agency and Neely and Jennifer are both rehearsing in the same musical show as older stage veteran Helen Lawson (Susan Hayward). Heterosexuality does not work out for any of these characters, and, although (as in Lover Come Back) the plot does not explicitly suggest non-straight identities for them, the Neely character provides an example of the film's possibilities for a queer space. In an early scene in a nightclub, the camera picks up Jennifer (Tate) entering with an older man. Her white gown exposes her tanned shoulders and bare back and catches the light as she walks across the room. All gazes converge on her. Neely sighs, "She's lovely. I'll bet 100 beads pop off every time she moves." The camera then lingers on Mel and Neely as they stare at Jennifer with identical expressions. The object of the gaze, in this case, makes strange the eroticizing gaze as female. That act of looking takes on additional layers of queerness when, later, Neely describes for Mel her longing for such an audience: "I feel like they were taking me in their arms and holding me. It's like when you put your hands on me, only it was double triple." Since the audience is composed of both male and female, this sets Neely up as receptive to queerness. Doty describes "queer reception" as being able to "stand outside the relatively clear-cut and essentializing categories of sexual identity under which most people function" (Something Queer Here 15), and this is clearly where Neely is positioned within the film text. During a montage depicting her rise to the top, we see a series of still shots of her in drag, costumed in a man's formal tuxedo not unlike the one worn by Marlene Dietrich in Morocco (1930). While she does not kiss another woman on the mouth as Dietrich does, neither does she kiss the two men who flank her in the shots, both identically attired.
Valley of the Dolls does depart from the implied suggestion of homosexuality that occurred in films of the previous decade, through the Tony Randall characters in particular, by deliberately naming a male within the film as gay. The references are uniformly derogatory, with none of the positive traits and interactions and "radical openness" (Doty 3) made possible in Pillow Talk and Lover Come Back. Neely's (now) husband, Mel, has grown bitter about the negative changes his wife's personality has undergone during her career success. He rails about the time she spends with costume designer Ted Casablanca (Alexander Davion), declaring that "only in Hollywood do women faint because some queer deigns to design their clothes." This gay character becomes a pivot point around which Neely rotates on a downward spiral of pills ("dolls"), booze, and generally bad behavior. After her husband leaves her, she marries Casablanca, an event that later prompts a catfight with Helen Lawson in the ladies' room of an elegant hotel in New York. The film seems to take pleasure in having its characters spit out the words "fag" and "faggot" with venomous exaggeration, especially from the mouth of former child star Patty Duke. Even with the long, slow death of the Production Code, screenwriters still had not found breathing room for the nuance of human sexuality that we can detect in the older films described above. While Tony Randall created "the potential for a queer love triangle" (Glitre 177) and all its attendant polymorphous possibilities around himself, Rock Hudson, and Doris Day, Ted Casablanca is merely a cipher at the center of spectacular excess: women fighting, wigs being torn off and thrown in toilets, hysterically gendered melodrama writ large. On the other hand, such excess might, in itself, signal something being repressed. Helen Lawson tries to maneuver around Neely in the washroom, saying, "I have a man waiting for me," to which Neely responds that this would be quite a change from all the "fags" that usually accompany her — again, biting out the word with percussive contempt. Lawson, clearly relishing her gotcha moment sneers, "At least I never married one." So, in the theatrical, over-the-top girlfight fight that ensues, what is being repressed? In whom? By whom?
Eric Savoy, in his essay on Doris Day and queer performativity, describes "the cinematic moment in which performative excesses undermine and destabilize the rigid, normative intentions of narrative trajectory" (167). In Dolls, the Neely character enacts queer possibilities in those textual moments I have mentioned here, but also offers the same gender incoherence that we see in all of these films. As such, "queer performativity within mainstream cinema is almost always far in excess of the heterosexualizing strategies of containment and remains in suspension, as ideologically fissuring and problematic" (Savoy 167). Oddly enough, in both The Best of Everything and Valley of the Dolls, the two female characters who most convey this queer positioning, Gregg and Neely, have pivotal scenes in and around garbage cans. Gregg digs through David's trash, even taking it home with her as she careens toward obsession, and Neely winds up alone in an alley, screeching at the sky, "I'm Neely O'Hara!" and framed in an extreme high-angle shot alongside garbage cans.
How can we situate these moments with those from the other three films (Three Coins in the Fountain, Pillow Talk, and Lover Come Back)? Might genre have anything to do with the films' capacity to successfully (and happily) rupture the coherent gender norms on which compulsory heterosexuality depends? Both Glitre and Savoy situate the sex comedy and the musical comedy western, respectively, as generic sites for queer possibilities. The only two films in this sample that allow the queerly positioned characters (and, by extension, readers) a happy ending are the comedies. No one ends up without a friend in the world. No one fails miserably. There are no fatal drug overdoses (Valley of the Dolls), no miscarriages by sports car (The Best of Everything), and no terminal illness (Three Coins in the Fountain). 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. The playboy and the career girl, then, far from merely reflecting society's anxieties about coherent gender roles, decisively contributed to them. And, rather than negotiate the spheres of work and home separately, they conflate them, thereby collapsing the gendered identities associated with them. Together with their ambiguously gendered partners, they form a queer triangle of possibilities. It is no accident that, in Pillow Talk, Brad, Jan, and Jonathan all converge at a place called The Hidden Door. And open it.
Cohan, Steven. Masked Men: Masculinity and the Movies in the Fifties. Indiana University Press: Bloomington, 1997.
Creed, Barbara. "Queer Theory and Its Discontents: Queer Desires, Queer Cinema." Australian Women: Contemporary Feminist Thought. Eds. Norma Grieve and Ailsa Burns. Oxford University Press: Melbourne, 1994.
Doty, Alexander. Making Things Perfectly Queer. University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis, 1993.
——— . "Queer Theory." The Oxford Guide to Film Studies. Eds. John Hill and Pamela Church Gibson. Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1998.
Glitre, Kathrina. Hollywood Romantic Comedy: State of the Union 1934-65. Manchester University Press: Manchester, 2006.
Rich, Adrienne. "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence." Signs 5.4 (Summer 1980): 631-60.
Savoy, Eric. "'That Ain't All She Ain't': Doris Day and Queer Performativity." Out Takes: Essays on Queer Theory and Film. Ed. Ellis Hanson. Duke University Press: Durham, 1999.
Schlichter, Annette. "Contesting 'Straights': 'Lesbians,' 'Queer Heterosexuals' and the Critique of Heteronormativity." Journal of Lesbian Studies 11:3/4 (2007), 189-201.
1. In Masked Men: Masculinity and the Movies in the Fifties, Cohan does close analysis of the gender and sexuality implications in Pillow Talk.
2. Rock Hudson was born in 1925 and Thelma Ritter in 1905.
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.
Copyright © 2014 by