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Saturday
May192012

THE HISTORY OF LGBT CINEMA IN AUSTRALIA (PART 1)

Australia's 'Pink Cinema' culture and the representation of gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender Australians on our cinema screens is as expansive as the history of our mainstream film heritage. SCREEN-SPACE presents the first of our two-part examination of the role that our national cinema has played in reflecting and defining the LGBT community.

(Pictured, Lou Glover's Black Sheep, 1999)

PART 1:

A furtive glance back over the first 100 years of Australian cinema indicates that our filmmakers are not averse to the onscreen representation of homosexuality in our culture. What does emerge, however, is that in reflecting the profile of gay and lesbian Australia, our films have perpetuated our society’s misunderstanding of or, worse still, its prejudices towards the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) culture.

But that has not always been the case; in fact, it has only been in the last 20 years that Australian gay cinema has found a receptive sector in mainstream cinema culture. Prior to that period, homosexuality was peripheral to the main narrative, mostly existing as either comical relief or thinly-veiled caricature. Legendary film pioneer Ken G Hall introduced us to ‘Entwistle’, a mincing owner of a ladies fashion boutique in Dad and Dave Come to Town (1938, pictured). As played by South African actor Alec Kellaway, the character’s showy femininity ensured cheap laughs at the expense of homosexual flamboyance (though, in fairness to the production, the character did ultimately play a wise and supportive role in the Rudd family story). So popular was ‘Entwistle’ with audiences, he returned in Dad Rudd MP (1940) and set the tone for the onscreen depiction of gay men for nearly 40 years.

A far more thematically-ambiguous device from this very early period of Australian film culture is that of cross-dressing. Dusty outback melodramas would often feature tough-as-nails women, the ‘jilleroos’of legend, suitably attired to fight the elements in the same garb as the men. This led to often-knowing encounters, however shrouded in masculine bravado, in such films as husband-and-wife team Louise Lovely and Wilton Welch’s Jewelled Nights (1925; their marriage would end when Welch revealed his bisexuality), Lawson Harris’ Sunshine Sally (1922), Hall’s The Squatter's Daughter (1933) and Lovers and Luggers (1937, pictured; referred to by its detractors at the time as ‘Lovers and Buggers’) and Ralph Smart’s Bitter Springs (1950). Male-to-female cross-dressing, generally employed for farcical means, surfaced in AC Tindale’s The Laugh on Dad (1918), Franklyn Barrett’s The Breaking of the Drought (1920) and PJ Ramster’s Should a Girl Propose (1926).

Particularly important to the representation of gay longings onscreen from the era is Clarence Badger’s Rangle River (1936, pictured). RAF pilot Reggie Mannister (Robert Coote) has several moments in the country-set soap opera where he very obviously seeks the affection of co-lead Victor Jory, playing the handsome Dick Drake. A restored screening of the film at the 2004 Mardi Gras Film Festival drew resounding applause from an audience able to identify with the film’s depiction of misunderstood, silent passion.

The tide of social change that swept through conservative Western cultures in the late 1960’s led to a landmark film in the depiction of authentic same-sex relationships – Frank Brittain’s The Set (1970, below). In its portrayal of a cross-section of love stories in the bohemian inner-city enclaves, The Set features lesbian romances and gay awakenings with an earnestness that was admirable for the period. The film features an appearance by renowned drag queen ‘Candy’ (American Ken Johnson) and was one of the first high-profile Australian films to explore the alternative gay lifestyle with some modicum of truth and minimum of exploitation.

Also crucial to the emergence of a gay cinema culture at the start of the 1970’s was the Ubu Film Collective (later The Sydney Film-Makers Co-op). Having riled the Censorship Board with its gay-themed parody The Sound of Mucus (1965), Ubu became the first stop for fearless, experimental filmmakers and produced same-sex themed films from Gillian Armstrong (Satdee Night, 1973), Jan Chapman (Showtime, 1977), Jeni Thornley (Maidens, 1978) and Peter Wells (Foolish Things, 1981). One of the legacies of the Ubu era was the formation of the Gay Film Fund, which supported homosexual projects and filmmakers between 1976 and 1980.

Stemming from the country’s strong factual film-making tradition, documentaries reflected a willingness to embrace topics that were once taboo, thereby helping to shape a landscape of tolerance. Key amongst them were Barbara Creed’s Homosexuality: A Need for Discussion (1975), Digby Duncans’ Witches, Faggots, Poofters and Dykes (1979) and Fiona Cunningham Reid’s Feed Them to the Cannibals (1992).

Traits that ‘out’ otherwise-closeted homosexual characters onscreen have afforded gay Australian audiences some cinematic acknowledgement of their lifestyle, but invoke a conundrum. There is satisfaction to be found in connecting with the below-the-surface subtleties of such characterisations but gay audiences must then reconcile themselves with the secretive nature in which they are presented. Ted Kotcheff’s Wake in Fright (1971, pictured) slyly explored simmering homosexuality in a desolate outback region via the both the lead character, English teacher John Grant (played by openly-gay actor Gary Bond) and the leering, mentally-unstable ‘Doc’ Tydon (Donald Pleasance) – educated, understated men, unable to assimilate with the brashness of the Aussie male (embodied by a strapping, mostly-pissed Jack Thompson) and  whom the working-class Australia of the early 1970’s would have labelled ‘pommy poofters’.

In PART 2: LGBT influence upon the Australian film renaissance of the 1970s; The mainstream embraces gay culture; Strong new voices....

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