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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Why Richard T Kelly's The Knives is such a painful read

It is well known that Stendhal compared politics in a novel to a gunshot in the middle of a concert  this novel of modern British politcs is more like a mirror being shot at.

It is well known that Stendhal compared politics in a novel to a gunshot in the middle of a concert: a noise harsh but not dynamic, and with no resemblance to any instrument in the orchestra. What is often forgotten is that his enduring soundbite started life on the losing side of an argument. In The Red and the Black, Stendhal says that he is tempted to present a page of dots rather than subject the reader to an interlude of dreadful speechifying. His fictional publisher replies by asking him to square that with his earlier description of a novel as “a mirror going along a main road”. If your characters don’t talk politics, the publisher concludes – in a scene that does some damage in its own right to Stendhal’s realist aspirations – then your novel will fail to provide an honest reflection of Frenchmen in the year 1830.

Richard T Kelly’s new novel bets everything on this position. Kelly wants to show that a political novel – even one with characters who give political speeches and conduct discussions about policy – doesn’t need to be an ear-bashing polemic or a scuzzy piece of genre writing, but can succeed as a work of realism no less than the story of a provincial dentist’s mid-life crisis, or an extended family crumbling at Christmas.

Kelly is more a descendant of Trollope and Dickens than of Stendhal. His first novel, Crusaders (2008), a consciously neo-Victorian portrait of Newcastle in the 1990s, featured a Labour MP, Martin Pallister. The Knives is a sequel of sorts – a long, dense novel about a Conservative home secretary (Pallister is his shadow) which arrives at a moment when we are thinking about domestic politics, political process, Westminster bartering and backstabbing, and the role of the home secretary.

Kelly begins with a note explaining that The Knives is “a work of fiction . . . make-believe”, and it is true that any resemblance between David Blaylock and the real-life recent occupant of his post is scuppered in the prologue – a long gun battle in the Bosnian countryside with virtually no resemblance to Theresa May’s tenure at the Association for Payment Clearing Services. Yet the novel contains plenty of allusive nudging. Kelly’s member for Teesside may not be standing in for the member for Maidenhead, but a prime minister who is “primus inter pares” of a group of “university contemporaries and schoolmates” rings some bells. There are also borrowings from Robert Peel and Tony Blair, as well as a quotation from Trollope and a discussion of Coriolanus (“He wouldn’t last five minutes”).

As the novel begins, Blaylock is widely respected, has even been named Politician of the Year, but he is also surrounded by possible pitfalls: the presence in Britain of foreign nationals with charge sheets, the proliferation of radical Muslim clerics, the debate over ID cards, mounting questions over his record on unemployment, immigration, human rights. There is also an ex-wife whose work as a barrister converges on Home Office business. The Knives is a full-bodied account of Blaylock’s day-to-day business, in which the relationship between journalism and realism, research and description, is generally fruitful. Kelly’s mirror travels through meeting halls and community centres, down “the plum carpet of the long corridor to the cabinet anteroom”. The problem is that Kelly is too effective – too diligent – and the book is detailed to a fault, at times to the point of mania.

His habits in general tend towards overkill. As well as his note to the reader, he introduces the book with a trio of epigraphs (Joseph Conrad, Norman Mailer, Norman Lewis) and a not-inviting list of dramatis personae – 60 names over two and a half pages, in some cases with their ages and nicknames. Virtually all of these figures are then described fully in the novel proper. One character is compared to a thinker, a dancer, a Roman and a pallbearer in the space of a single paragraph.

Stendhal took his publisher’s advice but did not ignore his own instincts: having accepted that politics might have a place in a realist novel set in Paris in 1830, he is careful to give us an extract from Julien’s 26 pages of minutes. Kelly gives us the minutes. But it isn’t only world-building that detains him. Early in the book, out jogging, Blaylock passes “a young blonde” who is “wand-like from behind”: yet only by virtue of “a conjuror’s trick – a stunning trompe l’oeil – for from the front she was bulgingly pregnant, to the point of capsizing”. Almost every sentence carries a couple of excess words.

In Kelly’s universe, hubbubs emanate and autumn insinuates and people get irked by periodic postal admonishments. At one point, we read: “The likelihood that they worsened the purported grievances of said enemy was not a matter one could afford to countenance.” In a dinner scene, “brisket” is served by the “briskest” of waiters. There are tautological similes, dangling modifiers (“A vicar’s daughter, Geraldine’s manner was impeccable”), truisms (“The law was complex”), fiddly phrases (“such as it was”, “all things considered”), Latin tags and derivations, and every conceivable shade of adverb. When Kelly’s phrasing reaches for the mock-heroic, it often comes back to Earth with too great a thud: “Blaylock, tired of the joust, accepted the black ring-binder.” All this verbiage obscures the novel’s function of bringing the news – or rather, the truth behind the news – and the cumulative effect is grating, even painful, like a mirror being shot at.

Leo Robson is the New Statesman’s lead fiction critic

The Knives by Richard T Kelly is published by Faber & Faber (475pp, £12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge