Gilbey on Film: non-human stars

The talking animals in cinema worth hearing.

Dr Dolittle could talk to the animals. This much we know. But what about those beasts in cinema who want to express complex thoughts and emotions, or converse with someone higher up the actors' food-chain than Rex Harrison (or, heaven forbid, Eddie Murphy)?

One such example can be found in Beginners, which I will be reviewing in this Thursday's issue of the NS. In this movie by Mike Mills, a Jack Russell terrier communicates telepathically with its owner (Ewan McGregor), and the non-human side of the exchange is made accessible to the audience via subtitles. It's worth noting that Mills is the partner of the artist and filmmaker Miranda July, whose own latest movie, The Future (which opens in the UK in November) is narrated by a cat called Paw Paw. Mills admitted to me recently that he likes animals more than humans, but perhaps that's simply what happens when you've been in the film industry too long.

You can hear Mills and his cast discussing the honour of working with Cosmo the dog here. And here is a brief run-down of other notable talking animals in cinema. Animation and children's films are excluded -- well, almost.

1.The rancid fox in Lars von Trier's Antichrist proves with its menacing delivery of just two words ("Chaos reigns!") that there are no small parts, only small actors.
2.Harvey the hell-hound in Spike Lee's Summer of Sam commands the "Son of Sam" serial killer to continue his bloodthirsty spree. The voice is provided by Lee regular John Turturro.
3. The pig-man hybrid in Lindsay Anderson's O Lucky Man! ranks among the most disturbing sights in all cinema (watch the whole clip, with the creature unveiled around 2:21). Trivia nerds will already know that he is played by Jeremy Bulloch, who later donned the costume of intergalactic bounty hunter Boba Fett in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.
4.A small variety of non-human speaking parts in Garth Jennings's film of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, but my pick would be the stoical whale played by Bill Bailey.
5.Like Cosmo in Beginners, the cat in Doug Liman's underrated portmanteau comedy Go converses telepathically with its human co-star -- in this case, a young supermarket clerk who has just taken Ecstasy.
6.Okay, so I said no children's films. But this list would look plain odd without Snowbell, the withering cat squeezed out of his family's affections in Stuart Little. Listen to the incomparable Nathan Lane stealing the show as Snowbell in the 2002 sequel.

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.

Ben Whishaw as Hamlet by Derry Moore, 2004 © Derry Moore
Show Hide image

The art of coming out: how the National Portrait Gallery depicts the big reveal

Portraits of gay celebrities, politicians and sports stars line the walls in a new exhibition called Speak Its Name!, marking 50 years of advances in gay rights.

I have a million questions for the doctor friend I’ve brought with me to the National Portrait Gallery. A million questions that, if I really think about it, boil down to: “Why were the Tudors so godforsakenly ugly?”

Inbreeding? Lead makeup? An all-peacock diet?

I don’t know why I assume she’ll know. She’s a neonatologist, not a historian. But I’m desperate for some of the science behind why these 500-year-old royals look, if these imposing paintings of them are anything to go by, like the sorts of creatures that – having spent millennia in pitch black caves – have evolved into off-white, scrotal blobs.

My friend talks about the importance of clean drinking water and the invention of hygiene. We move onto an extremely highbrow game I’ve invented, where – in rooms lined with paintings of bug-eyed, raw sausage-skinned men – we have to choose which one we’d bang. The fact we’re both gay women lends us a certain amount of objectivity, I think.


Alexander McQueen and Isabella Blow by David LaChapelle, 1996 © David LaChapelle Courtesy Fred Torres Collaborations

Our gayness, weirdly, is also the reason we’re at the gallery in the first place. We’re here to see the NPG’s Speak its Name! display; photographic portraits of a selection of out-and-proud celebrities, accompanied by inspirational quotes about coming out as gay or bi. The kind of thing irritating people share on Facebook as a substitute for having an opinion.

Managing to tear ourselves away from walls and walls of TILFs (Tudors I’d… you know the rest), we arrive at the recently more Angela Eagle-ish part of the gallery. Eagle, the second ever British MP to come out as lesbian, occupies a wall in the NPG, along with Will Young, Tom Daley, Jackie Kay, Ben Whishaw, Saffron Burrows and Alexander McQueen.

Speak its Name!, referring to what was described by Oscar Wilde’s lover Lord Alfred Douglas as “the love that dare not speak its name”, commemorates 50 years (in 2017) since the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales.

“Exhibition” is maybe a grandiose term for a little queer wall in an old building full, for the most part, of paintings of probably bigoted straight white guys who are turning like skeletal rotisserie chickens in their graves at the thought of their portraits inhabiting the same space as known homosexual diver Tom Daley.


Tom Daley By Bettina von Zwehl, 2010 © Bettina von Zwehl

When you’re gay, or LBTQ, you make little pilgrimages to “exhibitions” like this. You probably don’t expect anything mind-blowing or world-changing, but you appreciate the effort. Unless you’re one of those “fuck The Establishment and literally everything to do with it” queers. In which case, fair. Don’t come to this exhibition. You’ll hate it. But you probably know that already.

But I think I like having Tudors and known homosexuals in the same hallowed space. Of course, Angela Eagle et al aren’t the NPG’s first queer inhabitants. Being non-hetero, you see, isn’t a modern invention. From David Hockney to Radclyffe Hall, the NPG’s collection is not entirely devoid of Gay. But sometimes context is important. Albeit one rather tiny wall dedicated to the bravery of coming out is – I hate to say it – sort of heart-warming.


Angela Eagle by Victoria Carew Hunt, 1998 © Victoria Carew Hunt / National Portrait Gallery, London

Plus, look at Eagle up there on the “yay for gay” wall. All smiley like that whole “running for Labour leader and getting called a treacherous dyke by zealots” thing never happened.

I can’t say I feel particularly inspired. The quotes are mostly the usual “coming out was scary”-type fare, which people like me have read, lived and continue to live almost every day. This is all quite mundane to queers, but you can pretty much guarantee that some straight visitors to the NPG will be scandalised by Speak its Name! And I guess that’s the whole point.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.