March 2011 marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Tennessee Williams, a blazing star in the galaxy of great gay contributors to the progress of human civilization as America’s greatest playwright.
His most poignant among his many enormous achievements was his second great play, “A Streetcar Named Desire,” first presented in 1947, a smash hit on Broadway and then as a compelling film in the early 1950s.
That film version of “A Streetcar Named Desire” could qualify as the greatest gay movie of all time, a claim that may confound many who think that gay matters involve only players that wear the word “gay” emblazoned on their chests.
Every creation by someone who is homosexual is by its very nature gay, including every great work of, in the modern era, Williams, Walt Whitman, Oscar Wilde, Christopher Isherwood, Cole Porter and the list goes on.
In her book, “How the Homosexuals Saved Civilization” (2004), Cathy Crimmins writes, “Looking back, I can see how America fought hard to ignore the gay undertow of our culture from the fifties well into the eighties. There were so many unanswered questions. Why was Paul Lynde the funniest guy on Hollywood Squares? We were Liberace’s clothes and jewels the most fabulous? Why were Johnny Mathis ballads the favorite make-out music for heterosexual couples in the sixties? Why were many of the greatest playwrights of the last half of the twentieth century – Tennessee Williams, Lanford Wilson, Terrence McNally, Edward Albee – all gay men writing for straight audiences? Why are Cole Porter’s love songs the cleverest and most poignant?”
She names many more creative and accomplished persons in her volume (limited to gay men), from James Beard to Peter Tchaikovsky, Elton John, Noel Coward, W. H. Auden, Tab Hunter, Truman Capote, Nathan Lane, Carson Kressley, David Sedaris, Malcolm Forbes, Harvey Fierstein, Jerome Robbins, Barney Frank, Augusten Burroughs, Craig Clairborne, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Montgomery Clift, Authur Laurents, Tony Kushner, Rufus Wainwright, Gore Vidal, Thornton Wilder, Jerry Herman, William Inge, John Waters, Freddie Mercury, George Michael, Boy George, Clay Aiken, the Village People, David Bowie, James Dean, Ray Davies, Andy Warhol, Pete Townsend, Little Richard, Dick Sargent, Rip Taylor, Charles Nelson Reilly, Rock Hudson, Cary Grant, James Dean, Dirk Bogarde, Anthony Perkins, John Gielgud, George Cukor, Raymond Burr, Richard Chamberlain, Rudolph Valentino, Charles Laughton, Tyrone Power, Sal Mineo, Todd Haynes, Ian McKellen, James Whale, Franco Zeffirelli, Michael York, Isaac Mizrahi, Liberace and more.
While Crimmins acknowledges a “gay sensibility” factor linking gayness and creativity, I differ on the core matter of causality. Are they creative because they’re gay, as she suggests, or are they gay because they were born with what I’ve described as an inherent “gay sensibility,” involving a different sensual perspective and a necessarily constructive non-conformity that are indispensable components of social progress?
“A Streetcar Named Desire” was not the clarion call of the new wave of social progress that led into the 1960s, but it was its awakening. Followed by more biting Williams plays, it set the stage for the civil rights, women’s rights and gay liberation struggles that followed over the subsequent 20 years.
The vulnerable Blanche in “Streetcar” embraces the archetypical gay sensibility. She describes herself as, “A cultivated woman, a woman of intelligence and breeding can enrich a man’s life – immeasurably! I have those things to offer, and this doesn’t take them away. Physical beauty is passing. A transitory possession. But beauty of the mind and richness of the spirit and tenderness of the heart – and I have all those things – aren’t taken away, but grow! Increase with the years! How strange that I should be called a destitute woman! When I have all the these treasures locked in my heart.”
She is confronted and dissembled by the boorish Stanley and his slavish wife, Blanche’s sister Stella, archetypes both in their respective roles and in their relationship of brutal white male-dominated society. The profound injustice portrayed so poignantly by Williams spoke directly to the oppression of women and gays, in particular, and sparked a consciousness in relevant circles, including and on college campuses, across the land.
It changed the terms of the gay invisibility of the previous 50 years, since Oscar Wilde was publicly ruined for his “love that dare not speak its name” by the brutish father of his erstwhile lover, Bosie.
Only some heavily-coded references by gays and their allies made their way to a wider social consciousness in the decades that followed, one example being the extraordinary rendering by artist Norman Rockwell on the cover of the April 8, 1933 Saturday Evening Post. It showed a farm boy standing in a field listening intently as a life-sized fairy in a green dress whispers in his ear, the artist’s stealth affirmation of a boy’s gay awakening.
That awakening, and “Streetcar’s,” were indispensable precursors to the late 1960′s eruption of the modern gay movement.
To be continued.