When he was a kid Richard Dyer spent a lot of time at the movies. But unlike his peers who readily identified with the hard-boiled superdicks played by Humphrey Bogart and William Powell, Dyer found it easier to relate to the villains and supporting characters like Clifton Webb’s prissy Waldo in Laura and Peter Lorre’s scented sissy in The Maltese Falcon. He figured they must be homosexuals–just like him. Unfortunately these pansy portrayals didn’t do a whole lot for his self-image, especially at a time when positive gay role models were virtually nonexistent and the public’s ideas about homosexuality were heavily influenced by Hollywood.
“Those images reinforced for me the negative feelings about myself that I’d picked up elsewhere in the culture,” says Dyer, who grew up in England and is now a noted film historian. “I know from work within gay society how widespread these images still are among gays and nongays alike.”
Affected by those stereotypes on the silver screen, Dyer went on to author several books dedicated to analyzing gay cinema and images in mainstream movies. His first book, 1977’s Gays and Film, was published four years before Vito Russo’s acclaimed The Celluloid Closet. Dyer developed a particular interest in film noir because he thought it was more blatant in its representation of gays and that it set the tone for later depictions of homosexuality in the movies. According to Dyer, the genre that evolved from the pulp prose of writers like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett often relied on gay and lesbian characters as necessary ingredients. In his essay “Homosexuality and Film Noir” Dyer examines classic movies from the 1940s, such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope and Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep, to show that gay and lesbian characters, when not actually villains, are frequently used to lead the hero astray or to stall romantic developments between the hero and the femme fatale. Dyer also points to another reason gay characters were prominent in the genre: they played up the images of sexual decadence and perversion prevalent in the form.
Despite the less-than-flattering portrayals of gays in film noir, Dyer finds these archaic stereotypes more colorful and appealing than their present-day counterparts on the big screen. “I feel like I’m much better off than the gay youth today,” he says. “All they have is some dreary Tom Hanks-like characters–no send-up at all. If I’d been cast in The Maltese Falcon I would much rather have played Peter Lorre’s art deco diva than Bogie’s one-dimensional sleuth any day.”
Dyer, who’s featured in the movie version of The Celluloid Closet opening later this month at the Music Box, will talk about gays and lesbians in film noir this Wednesday at the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington. The program, “Queer Noir,” begins with a reception at 6 and is followed by Dyer’s lecture and a screening of clips from such films as The Big Combo, Gilda, The Maltese Falcon, and A Walk on the Wild Side. The program is the first offering in a film series hosted by the Gerber/Hart Gay and Lesbian Library and Archives, which is celebrating its 15th anniversary. Admission is $10; call 883-3003.