Who's Afraid of Men Marrying On-screen?

Same-sex couples are a rare phenomenon in American cinema, but anyone who looks closely will notice how Hollywood planted the idea in the heart of the mainstream decades before the recent Supreme Court decision.

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In its earliest version, Edward Albee’s play “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” wasn’t supposed to present the story of George and Martha, a married couple – he a history professor, she the daughter of the president of the college where her husband teaches, who host a young married couple for a night of horror. It was supposed to be the story of two gay couples.

I don’t know how and why Albee decided to change his four characters from gay to straight, but the decision undoubtedly had a major influence on the outcome. It’s hard for me to imagine that a play about two gay couples would have merited the same recognition and success as the play that Albee wrote in the end, which was staged on Broadway in 1962 and garnered a wealth of awards, including the Tony and the Pulitzer.

Had the play been staged as Albee first planned, it would have been seen as more limited in scope, and its description of the sadomasochistic dimension of gay couple relationships would have aroused criticism. What is certain is that had the play been about two gay couples, there would have been no film version in 1966 that became one of the most highly regarded films of the decade, a candidate for 13 Oscars and winner of five, starring the greatest Hollywood couple at the time, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, as George and Martha.

Actors Heath Ledger, left, and Jake Gyllenhaal in a scene from 'Brokeback Mountain'. Photo by AP

I don’t know whether in his initial version Albee intended for the two gay couples to be married. I don’t know if over 50 years ago such a possibility would even have entered his mind. The transition from gay to straight turned Albee’s play into a work that with cruel cleverness describes the institution of marriage, as reflected in the encounter between the two very different couples in the play, and the relations between men and women within this institution.

If we examine the play carefully, we can identify traces of Albee’s initial intent. These are reflected firstly in the name, a clever play on words with the children’s song “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” The main sign of his original intent can be found in the plot line, whose unrealistic aspect Albee integrated so well into the plot, namely the fact that George and Martha are parents of an imaginary child; the fact that George “kills” him represents the epitome of his abuse of Martha. “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is a portrait of a different, alternative marriage, and is one of the only films ever produced by Hollywood that dared to offer such an alternative.

Will this situation change in the wake of the Supreme Court decision of June 26, which grants constitutional approval to same-sex marriage throughout the entire United States? Is the fact that the very same week saw the release of the film “Ted 2,” directed by Seth MacFarlane, only a coincidence? Although it is a very defective work, it basically deals with an alternative couple relationship (that of a teddy bear and a woman, who desire to marry and become parents).

Joe E. Brown, left, and Jack Lemmon in 'Some Like it Hot.' (1959). Photo by Courtesy

Gay couples have been presented in American films only rarely, but more often than lesbian couples, and as opposed to lesbians have often been a subject of comedy. The reason is apparently that men’s deviation from the “norm” makes for an easier source of comedy, and the comic element downplays the threatening aspect of men’s deviation from this so-called norm.

In 2010 Lisa Cholodenko staged the melodrama “The Kids Are All Right,” which described the crisis that takes place in the lives of two women who have been together for the past 20 years, when their son and daughter decide to find their sperm donor. Cholodenko’s film, which was a success, described the developing crisis with a delicacy that refrained from sensationalism.

But 42 years earlier, in 1968, there was a film that was just as cruel as “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” It was also based on a play (by Frank Marcus) called “The Killing of Sister George,” which described the unraveling of a long-term relationship between an aging television actress, whose career is nearing its end, and her much younger partner, a childish woman whom she calls “Childie.” Sadomasochistic rites of humiliation and betrayal characterized both the play and its cinematic version (which was directed by Robert Aldrich and was not successful).

A still from 'La Cage aux Folles.' (1978). Photo by Courtesy

Another play, this one describing a gay relationship and emphasizing its grotesque nature, was “Staircase,” by Charles Dyer, with the cinematic version directed by Stanley Donen in 1969. Rex Harrison and Richard Burton, two actors with a strong straight image, played the two main characters, both of them London barbers, who have lived together for many years. Burton’s character is feminine, and is abused by Harrison’s character, who is more masculine (almost the only thing they have in common is their strong tie to their domineering mothers). Donen’s film was basically a cruel comedy, dominated by stereotypical portrayals. Its ideology was mistaken, and its critical and financial failure was a foregone conclusion.

One of the most famous gay relationships originated in France, in the comedy hit “La Cage aux Folles,” directed by Edouard Molinaro in 1978, based on the play by Jean Poiret. The French film was turned into a successful Broadway musical, and in 1996 director Mike Nichols created a successful American cinema version called “The Birdcage.”

In all the versions of Poiret’s comedy there was a separation between the male and the female character, which created a reflection of an ostensible traditional couple relationship. The reason for the success of all the versions lay not only in the large number of good comic situations, but was also due to the fact that the play and its various versions were an attack against a conservative society, whose foundations were shaken by same-sex relationships.

A still from 'The Killing of Sister George.' (1968). Photo by Courtesy

The polar opposite of “La Cage aux Folles” and its American version is the best and most moving film to date about a couple relationship between men - Ang Lee’s 2005 film “Brokeback Mountain.” Although the film, whose story begins in 1963 and continues for years, introduced a melancholy and even tragic dimension to the same-sex love story it describes, it was full of emotion and compassion. Its final scene – in which the man who survived visits the parents of his dead lover, and also expresses his mourning alone in the room of the son – whose parents may or may not know about the relationship between him and their guest – is one of the most beautiful, generous and moving that I have seen in the cinema for many years.

A different kind of male couple relationship was also presented in films that did not deal directly with same-sex relationships. How else could we define the relationship between the comedy team Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, who were known as “Fat and Skinny,” whose masculine representation was entirely alternative (and in many of their films they were seen sleeping in the same bed). This dimension, even if less blatantly, is also found in the films of other male comedy teams, including Dean Martin of the attractive masculine identity and the childish Jerry Lewis, who worshiped his straight masculine partner and served him in every way possible.

I don’t recall that in any of the films I have mentioned so far there was any mention of a formal marriage. In 2007 there was a terrible comedy called “I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry,” directed by Dennis Dugan, which presented the story of two straight men who pretend to be a gay couple in order to be eligible for benefits granted by living together.

In light of this we once again have to admire the daring of Billy Wilder’s 1959 film “Some Like It Hot,” which is hard to understand considering the conservative period when the film was produced. This is the only American film I recall that mentions the possibility of marriage between men. The film tells the story of two Chicago musicians in the late 1920s, who in order to escape from the gangsters who are pursing them disguise themselves as women and join an all-female band.

An eccentric millionaire named Osgood Fielding III (played by the wonderful Joe E. Brown), falls in love with one of them, played by Jack Lemmon, and even proposes marriage. When his friend, played by Tony Curtis, asks him why a man would want to marry a man, Lemmon replies decisively: “Financial security!” The film's final scene, which is also related to the possibility of marriage between two men, is of course one of the most famous in the history of film, and the U.S. Supreme Court decision is another good opportunity to watch it.