What did perversity look like?

This weekend it snowed and I decided to stay inside and cook and watch old movies on Netflix. It’s become difficult for me to watch anything made since the late 60’s or so; I’m going through a grumpy old lady phase. What strikes me is how incredibly perverted the films of the 50’s and early 60’s were, and I wondered what that must have looked like to viewers who may not have had a language for talking and thinking openly about queer sexualities.

Obviously the writers of the movies (and of the plays and books that became movies) of this era knew they were introducing characters who were in some sense queer. The actors seem to know precisely what they’re communicating. But for the popular viewer, how much did they know? How did they see these films? What did they think was happening in them? It’s so appealing. I don’t mean the censorship itself, but the sly, subtle representations of bubbling subconscious—who can resist?

One of the things I keep finding are scenes in which two cohabitating people argue about one of them creating too much clutter, not going out and working or seeing other people. There is an erotic communication behind each one. One partner is holed up in the house, drinking too much and making a mess, and demanding that the other partner must love him anyway. The other comes home to clean up the mess, marching around and demanding changes that will never happen. This is, I think, one way that repressed queer desire gets to say what it wants. It says, look at me and love me with all my filth. And it says, I can only love you with all the filth removed from view.

In the very charming 1961 film Goodbye Again, Ingrid Bergman plays a 40-year-old interior decorator in Paris whose boyfriend Yves Montand is constantly cancelling plans to chase after idiotic twentysomethings. So when the plainly insane 25-year-old Anthony Perkins appears and begins declaring his passionate (and clearly Oedipal) love for her, she puts up a heroic and hysterical effort to resist before being terrorized into giving it a go. As one might predict, he’s obsessive and perverse, and wants to make their affair as public as possible, in ways that expose her as just as queer as he is. One day she comes home to find him drunkenly napping and sulking, and threatens to break up with him, with bizarre results:


Here’s a very different version of the same scene, but doubled, in the disturbing 1963 film The Servant. James Fox plays a dissipated upper-class young man who hires an extremely traditional-seeming manservant, Dirk Bogarde, who subtly invades his private life and destroys his chances of marriage and success. Once he realizes he’s been duped, in a truly shocking scene, he finds he is too dependent on the servant to dispense with him. Instead, the two enter an intense contest of wills in which each man takes a turn accusing the other of being filthy as a way of asserting his dominance:


These scenes of filth and confrontation have more erotic content than a thousand frozen-mouthed Hays-Code kisses. By the time both of these films were made, sexual subjects—even queer ones—had already begun to be explored in mainstream cinema in fairly unambiguous ways. The plays Suddenly Last Summer and The Children’s Hour were made into films in 1959 and 1961, respectively, and both plots hinge entirely on gay sexual desire. There was a new explicitness available about queerness. But I think what I love especially about movies of the late 50’s and early 60’s is the persistence of queer content presented in Freudian semaphore.

What did average filmgoers see when they saw these movies? My mother was only a teenager when she saw The Servant, but she claims she developed a searingly painful erotic obsession with Dirk Bogarde, and, if one believes the hundreds of obsessive sexual fantasies typed into YouTube comments about Anthony Perkins in Goodbye Again, I think perhaps that film may have functioned similarly for others.

I don’t want to knock explicitness. I love explicitness. But there’s something about not saying what you mean that requires a sublimely creative—and perverted—imagination.

27 responses to “What did perversity look like?”

  1. KS says:

    Very cool! On my first time viewing the first clip I thought, yep, I get the queer part but not so much the erotic part, but then on a second and third pass I see what you mean. It is so fun to see characters struggle with aspects of their desire that make them uncomfortable. I now have to see both films in their entirety, as well as re-watch SLS and TCH. Hollywood depictions of desire are so often flabby and uninteresting, or formulaic and fictional. It seems that writers and actors were once more nuanced and honest than they are in the current day, though of course there are notable exceptions.

    Coincidentally, I had it in mind to try to write a post about the social construction of desire but hadn’t yet figured out exactly how to broach the topic without sounding pedantic. The inclusion of a few film clips seemed a good tack. Dang it, you beat me to it with your compelling-like a phoenix rising from the ashes- post. I hope others will agree and comment a lot.

  2. LJT says:

    well KS… u were first. yeah, AWB, the great white hope of TGW…

    now KS, put up or shut up… give us a post!

  3. A White Bear says:

    I think maybe the Anthony Perkins clip isn’t as clear unless one either has experience with severely Oedipal men or has seen the rest of the movie, in which he’s kind of terrifying, in a subtle and even likeable way. It’s a weird balance that the movie maintains, and I’m not even sure it is the fault of the director/script, which is generally setting up a dichotomy between the lover her own age (Montand), who is no flamethrowing lover, and cheats on her constantly, but is always going to care about her and never gets upset, and the young man (Perkins), who is extremely passionate, to the point of self-destruction. Perkins may have taken this role a bit further than it was intended to go. One would have to see the script to know for sure, but he’s just fucking crazy–feigning minor disabilities just to unnerve people when he suddenly uses his apparently withered arm, making very serious requests to bite parts of Ingrid Bergman, when she’s given it some thought and is prepared, smiling very broadly and calmly whenever his boss yells at him. I.e., it’s a very profoundly weird movie, and it gets in the way of the idea that this is a mere contest between jazz and Brahms.

  4. FPS says:

    Sometimes I can’t remember in which movies queerness is coded and in which I just didn’t understand it when I was a teenager because it was still too tender a topic. I tried re-watching Cat on a Hot Tin Roof recently to see what they do with the absolutely central point of Brick being queer, but (searing beauty of the two leads notwithstanding) it’s just a very bad adaptation with some jaw-droppingly fake southern accents and not very fun to watch.

  5. A White Bear says:

    The searing beauty gets me through that one, but yeah, it’s almost as if someone forgot to tell Paul Newman what the script is about. He comes off as just run-of-the-mill depressed and irritable, not itching with prurient secrets. It’s sort of the opposite of the Perkins problem. Even when one tries to cast him as run-of-the-mill depressed and irritable, he comes off as someone inside whom very odd things are happening. (Perfect in The Trial, if anyone’s missed that one!)

  6. FPS says:

    I really think there may never have been a more beautiful pair onscreen than Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman in that one. Wikipedia tells me they chopped all the gay out of the screenplay and Tennessee Williams was livid about it, so perhaps Paul Newman was merely acting what Brick was in this script: some guy who is inexplicably mopey about his old pal. His old kayaking buddy, let us say, in imitation of the old euphemism from the AOL commercial. (Somewhat interestingly, the film has one actor, the divine Judith Anderson, whose lesbianism was an open secret and one actor, Ms. Taylor, who I guess at that point may already have been a friend-to-the-gays, given that she was already close with Monty Clift. So I like to think there may have been some group eye-rolling over the Bowdlerization of the play.)

  7. A White Bear says:

    I never saw it, but apparently in the film Troy, Achilles is just inconsolable over the loss of his favorite cousin Patroclus. Ahem.

  8. KS says:

    FPS: A good documentary about closeted homosexuality in Hollywood films is THE CELLULOID CLOSET. It’s fun to watch films with different eyes when you learn that there were subtle but deliberate gay undertones written into the scripts and performed by the actors. The filmmakers often eluded censors because of the presumption of heteronormativity. One could easily watch, for example, Hitchcock’s ROPE and think, boys will be boys! But ROPE is a completely different film when you consider the fraught tension between the two main characters as a lovers’ quarrel rather than as fear stemming from the prospect of their being caught for committing murder.

    That being said, queerness is more than homosexuality. At least for me, the queerness of the relationship in GOODBYE AGAIN seems to stem in part from the age disparity of the couple and in part from the reversal of gender performances one would usually expect for the time period. She’s stiff, rational, and empowered, whereas he is emotional, a game-player, and dependent. I cannot wait to watch the entire creepy movie and see if this plays out throughout. I want to know if we will root for this couple or not. If not, I may have to check my personal baggage to find out why I find them toxic. I usually find queerness lies at the intersection of familiarity and peculiarity, as I would define them.

    FYI: Both GOODBYE AGAIN and THE SERVANT can be streamed instantly on Netflix, should anyone besides me be considering a matinee in h/ir own living room this afternoon.

  9. A White Bear says:

    Rope is fantastically perverse, specifically because it’s not explicit about homosexuality. “I have a terrible secret and I want you to know about it so badly that I will point and point and point at it without saying its name, and doing so turns me on more than you can imagine!”

    Yeah, KS, I’ll be interested to see whether you root for Bergman and Perkins or not. It’s totally unclear from the movie how we’re supposed to feel about them, which I find so refreshing in comparison to movies in which I know I’m definitely watching it wrong because I hate the main couple together.

  10. Rachel says:

    I just love what The Celluloid Closet does with Hitchcock’s Rebecca, which is some seriously creepy shit. Talk about queer desire! Susie Bright is just beside herself: “She opens the underwear drawer!” (@4:32)

    It can also be a shock to watch just how explicit pre-code films are. I once had insomnia and watched a very early Stanwyck/Gable film called Night Nurse (1931) that was perverse on so many levels.

  11. AWB says:

    It’s interesting to see Code-era movies remade after the Code lost its power, especially for foreign-made films. The 1937 version of Night Must Fall is just as creepy as you please, with the soft sadism of Robert Montgomery as Danny and Rosalind Russell as the hallucinating but primly repressed Olivia. I’ve only seen clips from the 1964 version with Albert Finney doing Danny up as a raving, leaping, wild-eyed monster, and I am *not* into it.

  12. FPS says:

    Rachel, there’s another pre-code film with Stanwyck, Baby Face, that’s pretty hilariously open about her character sleeping her way to the top. There will be a scene that ends with her making eyes at her boss, and a fade, and then a shot of the elevator going up to the next floor, where she’s been promoted to her next position in the next scene. I think Night Nurse is languishing somewhere on my Netflix queue from the year or so when I was obsessed with Barbara Stanwyck.

  13. LP says:

    On a different note (har), that 10-second orchestral interlude at 1:19 of The Servant is spectacular. Swooping arpeggios getting LOUDER, now quieter, now LOUDER AGAIN! SIGNIFYING TERROR! I love the scores in old films as much as anything.

  14. Tim says:

    I loved this post and the clips! I’ve never seen Goodbye Again, but it seems like a perfect rainy day movie. Perkins is always so compelling. The Servant is one of my all-time favorites. The shifts in their relationship are so well done. I was reminded of Polanski’s Bitter Moon watching that clip this time. If you haven’t seen it, AWB, I think you’d like it. So twisted! So good!

  15. AWB says:

    Ooh, I haven’t seen that one, Tim! Will do!

  16. Tim says:

    Bitter Moon is from the 80s and has Hugh Grant, but don’t let that put you off. You’ve likely seen Repulsion (also Polanski, from the 60s) and Contempt (Godard). Power/Sex all over both of them, too. By far my favorite Polanski, though, is The Tenant. Psycho-logical!

  17. LJT says:

    i’ve thought about this post through the day… and listening to supertramp’s breakfast in america takes me back to those aspirational suburban nights… and all the ambition, and passion, and coaching and repression. who needs movies when u have big families… fuck, … i don’t really even like movies… but I LOVE AWB”s TGW posts!

    Well done, once again!

  18. A White Bear says:

    Oh I forgot to mention that the very best (and perhaps most Freudian?) part of Goodbye Again is the cars. Holy crap, those cars! A Facel Vega for Montand and a Triumph TR2 for Perkins. Unbelievable.

  19. KS says:

    So I watched GOODBYE AGAIN last night and I would highly recommend this film. I wish I had watched it with someone with whom I could discuss it because there is so much to say. Cool juxtapositions abound! Two men, but neither good partner material. Two financially independent women, but both pathologically bound to bad men. There’s a fine line between love and obsession. The film cannot possibly have a satisfying end, can it…at least, not in the era in which it was made? Ingrid Berman’s character…so tragically explored. Fun material for feminist analysis and a great argument for lesbianism, for psychotherapy, for the power of cultural scripts…and also maybe against monogamy??? Anthony Perkins’ performance made this film. The year after Psycho, too. That guy could act.

    And Ingrid Bergman, 40 is not so old! Geez.

  20. A White Bear says:

    So glad you liked it! I think it hasn’t been seen much recently because apparently it wasn’t on DVD until just a year or two ago.

    One question I’d have, as someone who identifies a great deal with Bergman’s dilemma, is what if there is no line? In the kinds of icy relationships that are tolerably sane, one does long to be cared for, adored, attended to, and in the relationships in which one is cared for, adored, and attended to, one feels silly and bored in turns. I’ve had relationships quite like both in the movie, and, like Bergman, I wasn’t happy in either, even though I longed for the extremes of each. The worst and coldest moments, as in the clip above, come when you realize that the person who claims he lives and dies to see you really *does*, and doesn’t have anything else going on in his life, and is therefore boring and needy and babyish.

  21. KS says:

    Where is everyone today? This is sad. Two people are trying to bail out the sinking yacht. Well, to get to your question…

    Hmmmm, I suspect anyone in their 30s/40s has encountered both types at some point, and has perhaps made the decision that being “alone” (gasp) is better than being in a relationship with either of those two types. That was how I felt until my mid-30s, when the impossible happened and I met someone who complemented but in no way dominated, oppressed, smothered, or restricted me. Good fortune, I call it. The chances were slim, the odds not in my favor. But I had a lot of pets…and a dissertation to keep me warm.

    I have to say, personally, that the PAIN Bergman’s character felt at the constant lying and cheating of the Roger character seemed far worse (and I’m probably projecting) than the tedium and embarrassment she experienced in trying to hang with the younger, more whimsical-but-needy lapdog. While both suck, and could certainly be enough to put one off coupling up, I don’t see them as the same. Perhaps you do? One comes with bigger social consequences, one with greater personal angst. I suppose that’s yet another aspect of the film one could discuss in terms of juxtapositions. The way this woman was so determined to get married really bugged me. Why should she have to choose between these two boners, neither of whom was capable of making her happy. I may show this film in my class on the history of marriage at some point because it reeks of sentimentalism about the marriage “ideal” and its power to enforce soul-sucking conformity, especially on women in the mid-20th c.

    I wish more people were in this conversation. Maybe next time there should be a homework assignment to view the film(s) you are going to discuss that goes out a week or so before your post?

  22. A White Bear says:

    Did she really want to marry either of them? I don’t think so. Her maid was the one going on about marriage. I felt she was parroting Roger’s ideas about freedom without feeling free herself, but that’s a far cry from thinking marriage is going to solve anything.

    I guess the Perkins character didn’t come off as just embarrassing but actually terrifying and manipulative. I may be projecting, but I don’t think so. I’ve been on the receiving end of some of that behavior and found it, even in the movie, really scary. It’s why I brought up the scene in which she comes home to find him drunkenly napping; the guy who chases her passionately all over Europe at a moment’s notice (which, seriously, her sending that letter without remembering it–Jesus fuck I’ve been there) is of course the same guy who refuses to do anything between her leaving and returning, and wants her to acknowledge the pain of his love. Ugh!

    Indeed, maybe we should have assigned viewing some week!

  23. lane says:

    no homework for blogs… NO HOMEWORK!!!!

    ; – )

  24. KS says:

    Just throwing out ideas in desperation, Lane. :-D

  25. Tim says:

    I just watched “How to Murder Your Wife” (1965) this evening, and it occurred to me that it is in some ways the comic flip side of “The Servant.” The opening sequence gives a sense of the relationship between the gentleman’s gentleman (Terry-Thomas) and his gentleman (Jack Lemmon). “I am Mr. Ford’s man!” Unfortunately, this clip ends just before we see the butler cloak his presumably naked master with a bathrobe and usher him into his morning shower. Also included throughout the film are many shots of men getting rubdowns from burly masseurs in their all-male club and a couple of wonderful big gay hissy fits on Terry-Thomas’s part after Jack Lemmon gets married and interrupts their perfect relationship.

  26. A White Bear says:

    Fantastic! I’ll have to watch that one. The 60’s, man. What a time.