The three queer faces of John Turturro—As the clearly homosexual Bernie Bernbaum in Miller’s Crossing (1990)...

...as the arguably gay Jesus Quintana in The Big Lebowski (1998)...

...and as the somewhat “fruity” Barton Fink in Barton Fink (1991).

More than “brothers under the skin”? Man’s producers, writers, and directors, Joel and Ethan Cohen, from the cover of Ronald Bergan’s biography.

Bound, but commercially driven: Gina Gerhson poses with Jennifer Tilly.

“Swish” pan: Julianne Moore’s Cathy Whitaker opens the door...

...on her husband Frank (Dennis Quaid) in Far From Heaven (2002). The “outing” is actually rendered in a swish pan in the film.

Big Dave’s lighting Crane’s cigar echoes a similar homoerotic gesture...

...that of Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) toward Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) in Double Indemnity (1944).

Divining the “source”

In discussing the relation of their earlier film Blood Simple (1984) to classical film noir, Joel Coen observed that he and brother Ethan were trying

to emulate the source those movies came from [meaning noir’s literary canon] rather than the movies themselves (quoted in Martin 33).

The primary literary source for The Man Who Wasn’t There, as for the Coen brothers’ other pre-Man noirs— Blood Simple, Miller’s Crossing (1990), Barton Fink, Fargo (1996), The Big Lebowski—may have been the usual suspects: Cain, Hammett, and Chandler, with a touch of Elmore Leonard (Bergan 48). As for the queer connection, beyond the homoeroticism clinging by definition to the “man’s world” of film noir, overtly gay characters or references have appeared in most of the Coen brothers’ neo-noirs. Bernie Bernbaum, Mink, and Eddie Dane are clearly identified as gay in Miller’s Crossing. Jesus Quintana is arguably so in The Big Lebowski. And the eponymous Barton Fink is suspected of being “a little fruity.”

The films incorporate queer characterizations and references, as with those of the “pansy” Creighton Tolliver, that are generally invidious. Such political incorrectness is excused if not redeemed by the fact that the Coen brothers are equal opportunity offenders. Their defamations of character extend to class, gender, and ethno-racial and religious groups—including the brothers’ own, Jews. In their films, defamatory language functions to demean the subject rather than the object of the opprobrium, to expose rather than to exploit racism, anti-Semitism, and homophobia.   

The persistence of gay representation in the Coens’ work is partly attributable to genre, as already discussed. Another, neo-auteurist explanation derives from the brothers’ intense fraternal relationship. Ronald Bergan’s biography of the filmmakers begins, as if in homage to the brothers’ impishly macabre sensibility, with Joel’s slaying of Ethan, and then himself, as described by the brothers’ pseudonymous film editor and alter ego, Roderick Jaynes:

The motive for the killing is still unclear. Some say that Joel could not tolerate the duality of their existence.

Jaynes writes this, then appends a quote from Edgar Allan Poe’s doppelganger tale of murder and suicide, William Wilson, which allegedly was scrawled on a note found on Joel’s desk:

You have conquered and I yield. Yet, henceforth art thou also dead— dead to the World, to Heaven, and to Hope! In me didst thou exist— and, in my death, see by this image, which is thine own, how utterly thou hast murdered thyself (2).

Bergan justifies this curious—and, of course, fictitious—opening to his biographical subjects by stating,

I hoped to suggest that they were abnormally close (3).

Later, Bergan quotes George Clooney, co-star of O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), the Coen brothers’ film before The Man Who Wasn’t There, who indicates how this “abnormal closeness” might relate to queerness:

They are not brothers at all, and Ethan is really a woman. Don’t let the whiskers fool you (5).17

Bergan fails to pursue this queer strand, leaving it on the level of mischievous (fore)play. Neither do we intend, at this time, to put the Coen brothers, their work in general, or The Man Who Wasn’t There in particular “on the couch.” However, in light of Freud’s suggestion that jokes, and other strategies of “humorous displacement,” are the “highest of the defensive processes” and a preeminent path to the unconscious (233), a psychoanalytic approach appears to provide a fruitful basis for further investigation. For now, suffice to say that an uncanny connection between Crane’s “killing” of a part of himself and Joel and Ethan Coen’s being more than “brothers under the skin” can be drawn from the following lines from the brothers’ pet noir The Postman Always Rings Twice, which Bergan has chosen to close the first chapter of his biography:

There’s a guy in No. 7 that murdered his brother, and says he didn’t really do it, his subconscious did it. I asked him what that meant, and he says you got two selves, one that you know about and the other that you don’t know about, because it’s subconscious. It shook me up. Did I really do it and not know it? (3-4)


The Movie Mom, of all sources, may be on to something. The alternately mild and oblique homosexual aspects of The Man Who Wasn’t There on the whole appear quite retrograde, certainly in comparison to the more forthright revisionism of recent cable-TV offerings and another contemporary neo-noir, Bound (1996). Again, appearances can deceive. First, the perils of “positive” and “negative” evaluation are strikingly evident in regard to Bound. While Hirsch finds the Wachowski brothers’ tale of successful lesbian revenge killers “revolting” (209), Aaron applauds the film for “its sane and sexy stars and happy ending” (82).18 Second, in its focus on lesbian as opposed to gay male sexuality, Bound only reinforces the double standard in gay “visibility” already noted with regard to Mulholland Drive.

Admittedly, by depicting eroticism between women rather than between men, films such as Bound and Mulholland Drive can appeal to lesbians and bisexual women and to others who feel similar political allegiance. Yet at the same time, by providing attractive women as sanctioned points of interest, such films promise crossover appeal by accommodating the homophobia of some heterosexually identified men, who might feel threatened by the depiction of sexual passion among members of their own gender.19

Gay men in the few Hollywood films that depict them tend to remain, if not incidental, relatively chaste and often exterior to the subjectivity of the main protagonist. Even the fairly explicit male homosexuality represented in Todd Haynes’ homage to Douglas Sirk, Far from Heaven (2002), is symptomatic here. That film emphasizes the revelation of a man’s same-sex desires from the standpoint of his heterosexually oriented wife. Furthermore, such apparent Hollywood breakthroughs as Haynes’ neo-melodrama and the prestigious meta-literary adaptation The Hours (2002)—the latter dealing more with lesbians in relationships than with women in the heat of passion20have relied on generic patterns different from those of neo-noir in pursuit of their commercial objectives. Neo-noir, in contrast to these other genres, has kept sexual temptation a central and foregrounded narrative catalyst, particularly as it pertains to the hypersexualized legacy of the femme fatale. Yet even here the same-sex double standard is in operation. As Hirsch states,

As in straight pornography, where gay men are rigorously excluded and lesbianism is a fetishized, acceptable aphrodisiac, so in mainstream neo-noir lesbianism, either explicitly named as in Basic Instinct (1992) and Bound (1996), or not-so-subtextual, as in Black Widow (1987), is more admissible than [male] homosexuality (207).21

(Brian De Palma’s Femme Fatale, from 2002, further supports Hirsch’s point, given this neo-noir’s extended lesbian-tease opening.) As a result, the disparity in gay male and lesbian representation has tended to be exacerbated.

Selectively returning to the strictures of the Production Code, as the Movie Mom reminds us, The Man Who Wasn’t There is a neo-noir that, in its homage to classical noir, aesthetically limits representation of Crane’s homosexuality. By attempting to reconcile noir conventions with the sexual interests of its male protagonist, The Man Who Wasn’t There speaks only its generic name. And by complying with or relying on generic traditions, commercial pressures, art-house aesthetics, and queer readings to alternately disclose and disavow its deeper meanings, the film is guilty of suppressing its more subversive instincts. Even retrospective attributions of repressed homosexuality to Crane, if left with him, ultimately displace onto the protagonist much of the repression that characterizes the whole film.

The question only partly is one of art versus commerce, classical noir versus neo-noir, explicit meaning versus implicit meaning. For those concerned with the constitutive link between gay representability and gay life in the United States today, subtextual resonance notwithstanding, The Man Who Wasn’t There signifies a liberatory road looked down but not taken.

Continued: Notes

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