There when it counted—Billy Bob helped Ellen DeGeneres make history. He was a guest on Ellen’s epochal 1997 “coming out” episode.
About Time: Ellen proclaims her queerness.
Angelina Jolie as Lisa Rowe in Girl, Interrupted, with Winona Ryder.
Angelina Jolie and husband, Billy Bob Thornton. She says of her relationship with him, “If Billy was a woman, then I'd be a lesbian. If I was a man, we'd be a gay couple.”
The Movie Mom disapproves of the lesbian encounter in Muholland Drive (2001)
The term visibility and its corollary, invisibility, have been enduring ones for understanding the homosexual in society. They occur from the seminal socio-cultural discourse of the early-Cold War period that forms the backdrop for The Man Who Wasn’t There (to be discussed below) through recent critical surveys written from a proudly queer perspective. Such surveys include Larry Gross’ Up from Invisibility: Lesbians, Gay Men, and the Media in America and Suzanna Danuta Walters’ All the Rage: The Story of Gay Visibility in America—both published, coincidentally, within weeks of The Man Who Wasn’t There’s release in 2001. Yet one needs to treat the notion of visibility with skepticism for it risks implying ideological transparency. More specifically, it fails to acknowledge that the very idea of the homosexual (or gay, or queer, etc., each term used to articulate common political interests of particular people at particular times) is grounded in representation (D’Emilio; Foucault; Vidal; Weeks; et al.).
A more nuanced term, both textually and ideologically, is representability. Adapted from Patricia White’s study of lesbian representation under Hollywood’s classical studio system, the term representability suggests both the ability to represent something and the available means with which to do it, given the interdependent constraints of ideology, aesthetics and commerce. From the standpoint of gay male representability, therefore, one might wonder whether the (homosexual) man wasn’t (accessibly represented as) there, because pansies don’t (have much opportunity to) float (to the surface of mainstream recognition, let alone acceptance). This supposition remains dependent, of course, on the commercial viability of the particular choices in representation. In other words, can a film—even of the so-called independent, art-house variety —win over a gay and gay-friendly audience while evading widespread homophobic rejection? If so, what heterosexist assumptions will the filmmakers avoid challenging, and what issues will the viewer be able to avoid with little effort?
In examining gay representability in The Man Who Wasn’t There, we find that the lone explicitly queer character, Creighton Tolliver, is relegated to a supporting role without much time on screen. Yet Tolliver obtains textual “compensation” through excess in his characterization and also through narrative excess. He has a farcically vain manner and garish appearance, topped by a ridiculous wig that, not coincidentally, covers his “lack.” Also, his shady dealings propel the story on its tragic trajectory to blackmail, murder, and beyond.
The terms of Crane’s gay representability are the complete inverse. As the film’s protagonist and its literal storyteller, he not only appears in but supplies voice over commentary for every scene. However, his diegetic “presence” is conveyed precisely through lack: long silences, understated gestures, overdetermined asexuality, and passivity that verges on the paralytic. If perceived as something in need of deciphering, the mystery of Crane’s (homo)sexuality can enhance the nominal suspense of what his blackmail (for money) and eventual killing of his wife’s lover (in self-defense) will mean for him and the people in his life. But it is not essential for understanding the basic outline of the story.
The “payoff” of understanding the crimes and their outcomes is rendered explicitly. That of gleaning the protagonist’s deeper motivations is left to a viewer’s willingness to infer representation from action, inaction, sound and spectacle, connecting the dots to make a portrait that satisfies his or her need for a sufficiently legible representation. Such a spectatorial need, in turn, is influenced by the viewer’s level of sympathy for the leading man, the auteur filmmakers, the noir homage, or any combination thereof. As the focal point in the narrative’s unfolding, Ed Crane is as gay as one wants or needs him to be.
Seen in this light, we can find our own earlier attribution of Bordwellian implicitness to Crane’s repressed homosexuality problematic. Alexander Doty has challenged the viability of relegating queer meanings to the level of connotation and subtext. He suggests that overvaluing such “privileged readings” among cineastes or academics leads to underestimating the persistent obliviousness or resistance to such interpretations among the population at large. Still, in a society that stigmatizes far more erotic discourses than it indulges, one needs to acknowledge that some sexual representations are designed to be less determinate than others, allowing for plausible deniability to the easily offended.
Richard Maltby notes the tradition of “Hollywood’s contradictory refusal to enforce interpretive closure at the same time as it provides plot resolution” to multiply address different kinds of viewers (349). As an example, he points to the strategic use of dissolves at a critical juncture in the 1942 film Casablanca that suggest that Ingrid Bergman’s character only potentially sleeps with her former lover (Humphrey Bogart)— although by the narrative’s conclusion, more legibly and predictably, she and her husband (Paul Henreid) are reunited and reconciled. The text’s very indeterminacy, Maltby extrapolates, is inseparable from the ideology of the commercial aesthetic, and to the degree that a film has obvious meanings, they are the ones least likely to challenge the status quo.
However, as described by Tony Bennett, intertextual relations can suggest the frames of reference that shape meanings at a given historical moment, and in film interpretation, these remain the wild cards. Intertextual relations may represent broader shifts in the general ideological climate of reorganized aesthetic norms, or simply changes in a given celebrity’s public image. When Bergman retained a relatively innocent star persona, her character’s fidelity in Casablanca seemed plausible, but when the actress had an adulterous affair with Italian director Roberto Rossellini a few years after the film’s release, some fans felt that they, like her actual husband, had been betrayed.
Of course, much has changed in the six decades between the releases of Casablanca and The Man Who Wasn’t There. In the New Hollywood tradition of the artful genre pastiche (Neale; Bordwell 1985), self-conscious intertextual allusion is the name of the game. Now filmmaking constraints are more imposed by the filmmakers themselves than dictated by industrial norms. In Man, for example, shadowy sets and black-and-white photography, once necessitated by low budgets, are now daringly employed by “independent” auteurs in defiance of contemporary commercial aesthetics and even fiscal conservatism, as color film stock has become more readily and cheaply available.6
At the same time, even with Hollywood’s Classification and Ratings system supplanting the old Production Code, some subjects may still only be represented with relative explicitness to earn an industry rating no stronger than an R (Restricted to Adults) in exchange for wide distribution (theatrically as well as in the markets of television and video). Certainly, in Man, the Coen brothers take some representational latitude: occasional nude display, off-color remarks, and ethno-racial epithets. Yet even this makes the moments of coyness, such as the film’s “reticence” on sexual matters, seem like affectionate tributes to the classical period and the more explicit moments seem more courageous than they would otherwise seem in a contemporary film. At the same time, some of the same ideological pressures, at least regarding gay representability, continue to influence the film’s signifying practices.
No major scandal has yet befallen the cast members of The Man Who Wasn’t There. Of course, with the changes in ideological climate since the 1960s, the criteria for what constitutes a scandal have also changed. Nonetheless, some interesting “confabulation” (David Alan Black’s term for the body of media and interpersonal speculation generated by film texts) has attached itself to Man. Its star, Billy Bob Thornton, was “there” at an historic moment in queer representability. He makes an uncredited cameo as a grocer in the 1997 television episode of Ellen that features the title character coming to terms with her sexual orientation. In that same episode, Laura Dern, with whom Thornton was romantically linked at the time, plays the desirable lesbian who prompts Ellen’s revelation.
Since his relationship with Dern ended, Thornton was married until very recently to actress Angelina Jolie, who has publicly described herself as bisexual, an admission that now seems more quaint than scandalous. Her self-assessment does have intertextual significance, however, in regard to her own non-heterosexual film roles (Foxfire from 1996 and, more famously, the 1998 HBO film Gia)7 and, more pertinently for our purposes, to how her husband’s sexuality might be perceived. In a 2001 article that appeared on Entertainment Tonight Online just months before the release of Man, Jolie’s description of her marriage intimates a certain sexual flexibility for both her and her husband:
The reality is, I love people. If Billy was a woman, then I'd be a lesbian. If I was a man, we'd be a gay couple (“The World According to Jolie”).Thornton suggests his own sexual ambiguity in an advertisement screened theatrically in art-house cinemas in 2002 to promote the Independent Film Channel (IFC). Here he professes his love for walking poodles, then tells the camera/audience:
This mock defensiveness is complemented by his cryptic commentary on the Man’s DVD, in which he bemusedly tells the heard-but-not-seen Coen brothers about his on-screen tête-a-tête with Tolliver, “This is one of my first gay scenes.” The brothers break out laughing.
A large number of gay people working in Hollywood remain hesitant to come out as anything but heterosexual (Ehrenstein), an unremarkable fact when compared to most businesses in the United States (Mann). The statistic becomes noteworthy in light of Hollywood’s persistent role in promulgating sex and romance—almost always between a man and a woman— both to a national and an international audience, and paradoxical given the film industry’s traditionally high percentage of gay personnel (Mann; Brownfield). Coinciding with a new wave of queer activism by the 1990s, there were protests against “negative” lesbian portrayals in Basic Instinct (1992) and the outing of Jodie Foster in the course of some gay activists’ protests against the arguably gay-coded serial killer in The Silence of the Lambs (1991). Such incidents were high-profile expressions of a general hunger among gays and lesbians for more inclusive and less stigmatized representations of eroticism between individuals of the same sex.8
Since the uproar over these films, a mounting number of rumors about, outings of, and a few actual comings-out by those working in Hollywood have accompanied an unprecedented increase of regular main characters on television (notably on Will and Grace, Queer as Folk, and Six Feet Under) and a striking increase in gay supporting roles in fiction film (see Gross; Walters).9 This seemingly post-Ellen development, a product of ongoing and widespread mobilization of gay activists on a variety of issues, surfaces in the mass media as the new “visibility.” And into this category even a film as “discreet” in this regard as The Man Who Wasn’t There has been placed.
A prominent gay-identified publication, The Advocate, exemplifies the spirit of gay “visibility” in its headline:
Big Gay Twists: They’re b-a-a-ack—those wacky, wonderful supporting characters who turn out to be gay in the last reel. Thanks, Hollywood! We feel included!The article’s author, Dave White, alludes breathlessly to
the year of the Big Gay Lug, the manly, lumbering brute or squat, rotund male who—surprise!—got caught checking out the dudes instead of the chicks.White’s “brief, mostly butch list” includes such films as Saving Silverman and The Mexican. The latter featured James Gandolfini (Big Dave in The Man Who Wasn’t There) as “a hit man who gets clocked cruising another guy.” White also gives a nod to the sexually oriented diversity found in Man:
Character actor and Coen brothers staple Jon Polito [Creighton Tolliver] tries to seduce Billy Bob Thornton [Ed Crane] by grabbing his crotch with one hand and his own toupee with the other. Thornton [Crane] is not amused.Apparently, the advent of explicitly gay supporting characters is just recent enough that any deeper analysis of Thornton’s character, not to mention Tolliver’s, seems beside the point, at least to White. Two other reviewers that do bother to evaluate the film’s gay characterizations also inadvertently point to another difficulty with gay “visibility”: It tends to rely on “positive” or “negative” assessments, which several scholars (e.g., Stam and Spence; Gray; Jhally and Lewis) have shown to be fraught with ideological peril. One of the main problems with such value-laden judgments, namely, their relative nature, is foregrounded in the two following reviews: Filethirteen.com’s openly gay film critic, Lodger, credits The Man Who Wasn’t There for not depicting “gay minor characters” in “a sort of negative homophobic stereotype” but instead offering “a simple sideline moment that gives the film color and interest.” In contrast, SPLICEDWIRE’s Rob Blackwelder complains,
Is it really necessary [for Tolliver] to come on to Ed for us to understand the character is gay?
Even MovieMom.com, a culturally conservative web site that provides advice to parents seeking suitable entertainment for their children, falls into the gay “visibility” trap. While offering traditional cautions about representations of sex and violence in The Man Who Wasn’t There, the site also lauds the film in its “Tolerance/Diversity Issues” category for portraying a “non-stereotyped gay character.” Whether a sleazy salesman vain enough to fuss over his balding head and wear a fancy toupee should be considered non-stereotypical is, as Lodger’s and Blackwelder’s reviews remind us, debatable. But the erotophobic criteria employed by the Movie Mom (the “pen” name of Nell Minow) keeps her from considering the sexuality of the film’s other characters. She limits herself to the immediate concerns of what she constructs as a typical, if non-stereotypical, anxious parent, whose notion of political correctness can disarticulate homosexual identity, at least of the gay male variety, from the thought of sex itself.
In this light, a curious double standard emerges when we contrast the Movie Mom’s review of The Man Who Wasn’t There with the one she provides for Mulholland Drive. In the David Lynch film, the “explicit lesbian encounter” is relegated to the category of “Nudity/Sexual References,” while all that is included about Mulholland Drive in “Tolerance/Diversity Issues” is that “All lead characters are white,” a fact the reviewer had overlooked in the Coen brothers’ film. All in all, the Movie Mom finds the sexual references in The Man Who Wasn’t There so “safe” that her review actually compares the film favorably with those from the “halcyon days” of the Production Code. The Movie Mom conveniently disavows the Code’s “sex perversion” clause which forbade all references to homosexuality so that she can praise Man for its relative conformity (“with the exception of one jolting moment in a car”) to the Code’s encouragement of “morality tales for uncertain times” in which “evil could not triumph.”