Gilbey on Film: The role of the Gay Best Friend

Great GBFs from Sal Mineo to Wallace Wells.

The role of gay characters in movies has always been to define everyone else on screen as heterosexual. Narrating the 1995 documentary The Celluloid Closet, Lily Tomlin observes that "The sissy made everyone feel more manly or more womanly by filling the space in between." The temptation to look back smugly on the historical slights against gay characters may be irresistible in 2010, but the role of "gay best friend" in the movies has undergone a crushingly slow rehabilitation, one prone to regular relapses.

There was a glut of GBF films in the 1990s, and if you watch those performances now, the actors mostly look defeated or chewed-up. The terrific Nathan Lane's best was still yet to come when he provided wisdom and wisecracks for Michelle Pfeiffer in Frankie & Johnny. Is it just me or can you see resignation in the eyes of Harvey Fierstein as he doubles as both plot function and lovable eccentric in Mrs Doubtfire? If there were a thought bubble above his head, it might well be filled with -- and I'm speculating here -- something along the lines of: "I put my soul through the wringer to write and star in the play and film versions of Torch Song Trilogy, and this is where I end up? Playing nursemaid to Robin Williams for Chrissakes?" As I say, words to that effect. Or maybe he was just thinking of his paycheque.

In that instance, Fierstein was cast as Robin Williams's gay brother, rather than his friend, but the rules of the GBF handbook are strictly adhered to, including the most important one -- the character in question must be unapologetic about his/her sexuality but there should be no explicit suggestion that he/she actually enjoys any meaningful physical relationships.

The general assumption should be that they have no external life, no existence when not providing succour for the main character. Or, if they do, then their sexuality must in some way be an issue, or a narrative motor, as in the case of The Object of My Affection, where Paul Rudd is (as usual) so good he almost makes you forget that the entire film is built around the Cosmo-style think-piece question of what might happen if a straight woman got it on with her GBF. That film looks like the Citizen Kane of GBF movies beside The Next Best Thing, which tried and failed to cash in on Rupert Everett's sterling work in My Best Friend's Wedding, where he was in full-on, rocket-fuelled, scene-after-scene-stealing GBF mode.

Rare is the GBF who pops up in a film for reasons other than to add a little spice, or to jazz up the mood. I can think of only a handful. There's Sal Mineo in Rebel Without a Cause, altering the film's whole dynamic. In Mike Figgis's 1988 thriller Internal Affairs, Andy Garcia plays an I.A investigator partnered with Laurie Metcalf, who just happens to be a lesbian; to the best of my recollection, the film makes no reference to her sexuality beyond a brief shot in which Garcia realises that they're both checking out the same woman. That's all you get. Brilliant. The teen genre has also been surprisingly resistant to some of the conventions of supposedly adult filmmaking. I can't quite believe that Duckie (Jon Cryer) in Pretty in Pink is straight. It's like he was written gay but someone chickened out. Much more to enlightened tastes is the treatment of Christian (Justin Walker) in the splendid Clueless, where the audience realises some time before Cher (Alicia Silverstone) that she is barking up the wrong tree in her pursuit of him. She wants to play footsie, he wants to watch Spartacus.

Scott Pilgrim Vs the World (which I'll be reviewing in next week's NS) features one of cinema's great GBFs. Not only is Wallace Wells (Kieran Culkin) more together and sane-headed than his straight counterparts, he is actually shown appreciating and sleeping with other men, without a joke necessarily being attached (though when they are attached, they're good 'uns). It's the inclusivity and sincerity which impresses, the feeling that this gay character doesn't stop being gay the moment the camera turns away. It looks even better compared to Kick-Ass, which treated the fact that the hero was assumed to be gay as a laugh riot, as though there could be nothing funnier than a case of mistaken sexuality.


Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

Screenshot of Black Mirror's Fifteen Million Merits.
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How likely are the plots of each Black Mirror episode to happen?

As the third series is on its way, how realistic is each instalment so far of the techno-dystopian drama? We rate the plausibility of every episode.

What if horses could vote? What if wars were fought using Snapchat? What if eggs were cyber?

Just some of the questions that presumably won’t be answered in the new series of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian anthology series Black Mirror, somewhere between The Twilight Zone with an app and The Thick Of It on acid.

A typical instalment takes an aspect of modern technology, politics, or life in general and pushes it a few steps into the future – but just how plausible has each episode been so far?

Series 1 (2011)

Episode 1: The National Anthem

Premise: A member of the Royal Family is kidnapped and will only be released unharmed if the Prime Minister agrees to have sexual intercourse with a pig on live television.

Instead of predicting the future, Black Mirror’s first episode unwittingly managed to foreshadow an allegation about the past: Charlie Brooker says at the time he was unaware of the story surrounding David Cameron and a pig-based activity that occurred at Oxford university. But there’s absolutely no evidence that the Cameron story is true, and real political kidnappings tend to have rather more prosaic goals. On the other hand, it’s hard to say that something akin to the events portrayed could NEVER happen.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Episode 2: Fifteen Million Merits

Premise: Sometime in the future, most of the population is forced to earn money by pedalling bikes to generate electricity, while constantly surrounded by unskippable adverts. The only hope of escape is winning an X-Factor-style game show.

In 2012, a Brazilian prison announced an innovative method of combating overcrowding. Prisoners were given the option to spend some of their time on electricity-producing bikes; for every 16 hours they spent on the bike, a day would be knocked off their sentence.

The first step to bicycle-dystopia? Probably not. The amount of electricity a human body can produce through pedalling (or any other way, for that matter) is pretty negligible, especially when you take account of the cost of the food you’d have to eat to have enough energy to pedal all day. Maybe the bike thing is a sort of metaphor. Who can say?

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Episode 3: The Entire History of You

Premise: Everyone has a device implanted in their heads that records everything that happens to them and allows them to replay those recordings at will.

Google Glasses with a built-in camera didn’t work out, because no one wanted to walk around looking like a creepy berk. But the less visibly creepy version is coming; Samsung patented “smart” contact lenses with a built-in camera earlier this year.

And there are already social networks and even specialised apps that are packaging up slices of our online past and yelling them at us regardless of whether we even want them: Four years ago you took this video of a duck! Remember when you became Facebook friends with that guy from your old work who got fired for stealing paper? Look at this photo of the very last time you experienced true happiness!

Plausibility rating: 5 out of 5

Series 2 (2013)

Episode 1: Be Right Back

Premise: A new service is created that enables an artificial “resurrection” of the dead via their social media posts and email. You can even connect it to a robot, which you can then kiss.

Last year, Eugenia Kuyda, an AI entrepreneur, was grieving for her best friend and hit upon the idea of feeding his old text messages into one of her company’s neural network-based chat bots, so that she and others could, in a way, continue to talk to him. Reaction to this was, unsurprisingly, mixed – this very episode was cited by those who were disturbed by the tribute. Even the robot bit might not be that far off, if that bloke who made the creepy Scarlett Johansson android has anything to say about it.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Episode 2: White Bear

Premise: A combination of mind-wiping technology and an elaborately staged series of fake events are used to punish criminals by repeatedly giving them an experience that will make them feel like their own victims did.

There is some evidence that it could be possible to selectively erase memories using a combination of drugs and other therapies, but would this ever be used as part of a bizarre criminal punishment? Well, this kind of “fit the crime” penalty is not totally unheard of – judges in America have been to known to force slum landlords to live in their own rental properties, for example. But, as presented here, it seems a bit elaborate and expensive to work at any kind of scale.

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Episode 3: The Waldo Moment

Premise: A cartoon bear stands as an MP.

This just couldn’t happen, without major and deeply unlikely changes to UK election law. Possibly the closest literal parallel in the UK was when Hartlepool FC’s mascot H'Angus the Monkey stood for, and was elected, mayor – although the bloke inside, Stuart Drummond, ran under his own name and immediately disassociated himself from the H’Angus brand to become a serious and fairly popular mayor.

There are no other parallels with grotesque politicians who may as well be cartoon characters getting close to high political office. None.

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Christmas special (2015)

Episode: White Christmas

Premise 1: Everyone has a device implanted in their eyes that gives them constant internet access. One application of this is to secretly get live dating/pick-up artistry advice.

As with “The Entire History of You”, there’s nothing particularly unfeasible about the underlying technology here. There’s already an app called Relationup that offers live chat with “relationship advisers” who can help you get through a date; another called Jyst claims to have solved the problem by allowing users to get romantic advice from a community of anonymous users. Or you could, you know, just smile and ask them about themselves.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Premise 2: Human personalities can be copied into electronic devices. These copies then have their spirits crushed and are forced to become the ultimate personalised version of Siri, running your life to your exact tastes.

The Blue Brain Project research group last year announced they’d modelled a small bit of rat brain as a stepping stone to a full simulation of the human brain, so, we’re getting there.

But even if it is theoretically possible, using an entire human personality to make sure your toast is always the right shade of brown seems like overkill. What about the risk of leaving your life in the hands of a severely traumatised version of yourself? What if that bathwater at “just the right” temperature turns out to be scalding hot because the digital you didn’t crack in quite the right way?

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Premise 3: There’s a real-life equivalent of a social media block: once blocked, you can’t see or hear the person who has blocked you. This can also be used as a criminal punishment and people classed as sex offenders are automatically blocked by everyone.

Again, the technology involved is not outrageous. But even if you have not worried about the direct effect of such a powerful form of social isolation on the mental health of criminals, letting them wander around freely in this state is likely to have fairly unfortunate consequences, sooner or later. It’s almost as if it’s just a powerful image to end a TV drama on, rather than a feasible policy suggestion.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Series 3 of Black Mirror is out on Friday 21 October on Netflix.