WRITER and filmmaker Jenni Olson’s Queer Movie Poster Book is a colorful and often witty look back at many of the images that have represented—or misrepresented—queer people over the past century. Beginning with the little-known 1915 silent drag comedy Sweedie’s Hero, Olson highlights the many graphical tricks used to designate movies as “queer,” including the use of sensational headlines featuring the word “strange,” backgrounds in varying shades of purple, torn images representing psychological torment, and optical illusion line drawings of women morphing into animals or faces.
Olson’s survey, which includes images of 150 movie posters, is balanced between films about gay men and films about lesbians, even though films about men have always outnumbered those about women, whether straight or gay. Beginning with the silent film era, the book is divided into chapters by decade, with each poster accompanied by a paragraph exploring its imagery and significance. In addition to an eyeful of images that range from exploitative to campy to romantic, we are treated to a gently humorous history of gay film that’s both informative and inspirational. After leafing through this glossy book, don’t be surprised if you’re ready to make a trip to your local video store to take a closer look at some forgotten gems.
Although Hollywood was heavily censored from 1930 to 1961 under the notorious Hays Production Code, some films about gays and lesbians did make it into American theaters, including the German film Mädchen in Uniform (1931). This film, about a romance between a schoolgirl and her female teacher, has the distinction of being the first explicitly lesbian film ever made for commercial distribution.
After the Production Code was lifted, more lesbians and gays appeared in films, but generally as perverts, psychopaths, or deviants who were to be pitied. A prime example of the latter was the Audrey Hepburn-Shirley MacLaine version of Lillian Hellman’s play The Children’s Hour (1961). In this movie, two schoolteachers are accused of being lesbians by one of their students, and MacLaine’s character, Martha, eventually ends up committing suicide. The marketing campaign for The Children’s Hour employed many of the same tricks used to advertise other films with lesbian characters in this time period, including ambiguous line drawings of nude women, lavender backgrounds, downcast or averted eyes, and the words “different” or “strange” prominently featured in the publicity posters.
Posters marketing films about gay men similarly relied on purple backgrounds and the word “strange,” but also often featured torn edges, representing the tortured psyche of the male homosexual. Many of these films avoided directly identifying the gay theme, relying instead on insinuation and sensationalism. For example, the poster for a 1961 drama called Victim, which was about the blackmailing of homosexuals in England, described the film as “A scorching drama of the most un-talked-about subject of our time!”
The 1960’s also saw the release of hundreds of soft-core “dykesploitation” films that appealed to straight men’s fantasies, such as Fanny Hill Meets Lady Chatterly in 1967. Many of these movies featured a “real” lesbian who had an affair with a temporarily straight (or bi-curious) woman, who typically went back to heterosexuality by the end of the movie. Some of the funniest images from The Queer Movie Poster Book are in this section, including the press kit for 1965’s dykesploitation flick Chained Girls, which contains extremely suspect yet hilarious statistics about lesbianism. Apparently, “33 percent of female single college graduates are lesbians,” and the film promises to feature “Shackled women in unashamed love making!”
Representations of GLBT people began to improve in the early 1970’s, particularly after a landmark meeting in the summer of 1973 between New York’s Gay Activist Alliance (GAA) and the Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers, during which the GAA issued a position paper entitled “General Principles for Motion Picture and Television Treatment of Homosexuality.” Although there were few lesbian films produced during the 1970’s, several relatively positive films about gay men were released, including A Very Natural Thing (1974). This film was the first theatrically-released American gay film written and directed by a gay filmmaker, and the poster featured a “pioneering image of two shirtless men embracing.”
Despite this progress, Hollywood still released films with highly negative portrayals of gay men, including the 1980 Al Pacino drama Cruising, a story about a straight cop going undercover in New York’s gay leather scene to catch a stereotypically psychopathic homosexual serial killer. But the 1980’s also saw the emergence of some more positive films, including a group of independent films in the mid-80’s that was dubbed the Gay New Wave, notably the Mexican comedy Donna Herlinda and Her Son (1986), the classic lesbian romance Desert Hearts (1985), and the groundbreaking My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), which featured Daniel Day-Lewis and Gordon Warnecke in an interracial gay romance.
Marketing for these films reflected a growing awareness of a gay audience, and increasingly featured same-sex couples in suggestive poses, although they also tended to include a minor straight character to avoid appearing to be too gay. Many film posters relied on a tagline such as “A motion picture for everyone” to underscore the fact that the film was not really a queer film.
By the mid-1990’s, mainstream production companies had recognized the value of lesbians and gay men as a niche audience. For example, the posters for Bound (1996) and High Art (1998) featured lesbian couples looking directly out at the viewer, suggesting that they had been interrupted in the middle of a make-out session. In comparison to the downcast eyes of The Children’s Hour, these images are incredibly out and proud.
In addition to tracing the development of queer movie posters over time, Olson highlights several interesting sub-categories of movie posters, including films about bisexuality, early gay porn, transgender issues, people of color, and an amusing section titled “Guys With Their Shirts Off.” The brief section on bisexual films does not tackle the many negative stereotypes about bisexual characters in film—in fact, it excludes Sharon Stone’s famous turn as the bisexual serial killer in Basic Instinct, a somewhat glaring omission. Olson does a better job when examining posters for films about people of color, which were not widely released until the 1990’s. These posters, which vary widely in style, include the box-office hit The Wedding Banquet (1993) as well as the lesser-known Watermelon Woman (1996), which was the first (and is still the only) African-American lesbian feature to be theatrically released in the U.S.
Many of the early films about transgenderism were extremely lurid and tabloidesque—the poster for The Christine Jorgensen Story asks, “Did the surgeon’s knife make me a woman or a freak?”—but films about transgendered people have also arguably made the most progress of all. Olson points out that two of the three Oscars awarded to actors playing queer roles were for transgendered portrayals: William Hurt in Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985) and Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry (1999). (The third Oscar was awarded to Tom Hanks in Philadelphia).
Olson also turns her eye to the marketing campaigns of early gay porn, which were often the first images that gay men saw of two men being intimate with each other. She argues that “the gay porn of the 60’s and 70’s served an important role in the shaping of gay identity and, ultimately, in the evolution of the gay rights movement.” Although many of these posters are amateurish in comparison to the ad campaigns for Hollywood films, they do show positive images of gay men in obviously intimate situations, something that later evolved into the beefcake-type marketing explored in the final section, “Guys With Their Shirts Off.”
The Queer Movie Poster Book is definitely a coffee-table book, suitable for flipping through at random or as a cocktail-party conversation piece, but it’s more than mere eye candy, providing a valuable visual history of gay and lesbian culture in the movies. The only drawback is that it doesn’t contain more posters. Olson often tantalizingly mentions that a film was marketed with several different posters, but she rarely shows multiple versions. Let’s hope there’s enough demand to warrant a sequel: “The Queer Movie Poster Book 2: Rare B Sides.”
Malinda Lo is a freelance writer living in San Francisco.