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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.