A STORY often repeated in film history places Groucho Marx at the premiere of the 1949 Cecil B. DeMille epic Samson and Delilah. Posters of the massive, bare-chested Victor Mature served as the visual backdrop for anyone entering the theater that evening. After the movie’s debut, DeMille asked Groucho what he thought of the film. Groucho replied: “No picture can hold my interest where the leading man’s tits are bigger than the leading lady’s.”
The quotation is more than just a quip: it reveals something about the discomfort that the biblical epic engendered in the heterosexual male. Lured by the promise of Hedy Lamarr in the most diaphanous of costumes (a design of the great Edith Head), a straight man watching Samson and Delilah would be confronted with 128 minutes of an almost naked Victor Mature.
If, as Laura Mulvey proposed in her essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” the standard Hollywood “gaze” is heterosexual male, directed toward the gazed-upon female, then the genre of the biblical epic poses a peculiar—one might even say a queer—problem. In the biblical epic, the body of the male, stripped to a loincloth or clad in muscular but decidedly short-skirted armor, is as gazed upon as an object of desire. The prospect of an audience’s archetypal male gaze staring at the muscular bodies of Victor Mature, Charlton Heston, or Yul Brynner suffuses these films with homoeroticism—a decidedly gay male gaze. Furthermore, once the heterosexual, male-oriented machinery of the gaze is broken, it frees up the possibility of a female gaze as well—directed at the beefy male specimens on the screen, or at the delicious lesbian-femme fantasies of Hedy Lamarr, Anne Baxter, and Gina Lollobrigida.