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.

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On the trail of Keith Jarrett's melodies

Lose focus for a second and you can quickly drop the thread of Jarrett's complex improvisational techniques.

“So, this is a piano,” said Keith Jarrett, sitting down at the one that had been placed centre stage for him in the Royal Festival Hall on 20 November. Blowing on his hands to warm them, he acted as if he had never encountered such an instrument before, raising a chuckle from the hundreds of fans who had turned out to see the man in the flesh. For 40 years, Jarrett has been giving concerts like this – alone with the piano, playing his improvised music to a room full of rapt devotees. Notoriously grumpy – and now as well known for his tirades against cameras and coughing audience members as for his early days playing with Miles Davis – he has an almost eerie focus onstage, relieving the tension only very occasionally with his barbed observations about the excellence of the instrument, or the shuffling in the auditorium.

Jarrett gave us a series of short pieces, each rendering separate and distinctive musical ideas. He began with an intricately woven flash of notes in both hands, criss-crossing the melodies that were by turns dark and haunting, or light and dancing. At particularly complex moments, when his arms were crossed over and the notes were flowing from his fingers faster than anyone could imagine them into existence, he leaned his ear down towards the keys, as if physical closeness could help his ideas more swiftly become sound.

A couple of folk-inflected ballads followed; heart-achingly sweet melodies picked out above rumbling, sour arpeggios. Like Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist best known for his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Jarrett can’t help adding vocalisations as he plays, which are all the more evident in his quieter compositions. He rose and fell from his stool; we heard his guiding hum along with the melody, as well as the odd strangled shout, yelp and grunt. He might insist on absolute silence from the audience but his own noises seem completely uninhibited as the music spins around him.

Although notorious for his curmudgeonly attitude to his fans, Jarrett was mostly restrained in this outing, allowing himself just one short, sweary outburst about killing a “f***ing camera”. At the age of 70 and with the power to sell out his concerts in just a few hours, you do wonder how much of the persona is genuine and how much of it is just giving the audience what it expects. A case in point came near the end, when he yielded to clamouring and gave a surprisingly simple and straightforward rendition of “Danny Boy”, an encore that long-time fans know well.

Given that this recital was under the auspices of the London Jazz Festival, there was surprisingly little in Jarrett’s programme that could easily be identified as jazz. One piece, full of brisk rhythms and chunky chords, gradually revealed itself to be based on a modified 12-bar blues structure and another had haunting overtones surely pulled from the classic American songs of the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, this musical ghosting becomes a major preoccupation when you see Jarrett live. It is too easy to distract yourself in trying to follow the auditory trail he has laid for you – was that a bit of Debussy, or Bach, or Glass just then? – and lose the thread of what he plays next. The improvisational technique might have more in common with jazz but now, 40 years on from his bestselling live recording The Köln Concert, it’s difficult to characterise Jarrett’s output as anything other than contemporary classical music.

If it needs a classification, that is. At one point, I became convinced that a particular piece was a Jarrett riff on Beethoven’s Bagatelle No 25 in A Minor – or Für Elise, as it is more commonly known. I was sure it was all there: the extended opening trill, the rising arpeggios in the left hand, the melody cascading from treble to bass and back again. Except, by the time I surfaced from my musing, there was no trace of Beethoven to be heard. A clashing, almost violent melody was dangling over a long drone in the bass. If you try too hard to pin down Jarrett’s music, it moves on without you.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State