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"I Changed My Socially
Constructed Sexual Identity!"

Jenni Olson on The Queer Movie Poster Book

"The butler did it ... to everyone!"

It's possible to trace a kind of history of a subculture by looking at the way it's been represented commercially — not necessarily by itself, since subcultures by definition have a hard time putting out their own versions of who they are, but by mainstream society, which is always trying to figure out how to make outsiders merchandisable without showing too much interest or approval. Queerdom surely qualifies for such a study, historically being a major force in society without being quite visible. One intriguing version of "the way we were" (or weren't) can be seen in the kinds of films and advertising art associated with homosexuality. The Queer Movie Poster Book is a fascinating work in this regard, a lavishly (and lovingly) illustrated tour of how queers have been represented by the commercial art used to sell them back to the mainstream and, to a lesser extent, to themselves. The tour begins in the silent era, with a heavily mascara'd Wallace Beery smirking at the viewer from a poster for Sweedie's Hero (1915), and proceeds through the decades with most emphasis on the period from the 60s on, when homo imagery started to abandon the downcast eyes, back shots, silhouettes, and other signifiers of the closet in favor of less apologetic modern queers. Author Jenni Olson, founder of and well-known curator in this area, gives a witty and informed background to this gay gallery, which shows decisively how the mysterious shadow figures and grim or comic caricatures of early representations (as weirdly endearing as they were) became flesh-and-blood faggots and dykes once the latter began to appropriate these images for themselves. The Queer Movie Poster Book features some exceptionally rare material, from a Madchen in Uniform poster to the hand-scrawled flyers for early gay male porn. Olson 's our queer pop culture archeologist. Here's our chat.

*     *     *

If you could only tell me one thing about your book, what would it be?

The book is a wonderful introduction to the world of gay cinema the illustrations and blurbs are so compellingly addictive that a very quick read turns into a wildly entertaining crash-course in queer film history.

I know this is a personal interest of yours. How and when did you begin collecting and analyzing movie poster art, and how did this book come about?

Over the years I've done a lot of research on the marketing of lesbian, gay, bi, and transgender (LGBT) movies not just in movie posters, but also in print advertisements and coming attractions trailers. I've been collecting queer films and memorabilia since the mid-80s. When my first compilation of vintage gay movie trailers, Homo Promo played at the Amsterdam Gay & Lesbian Film Festival in 1991. I met the late documentarian Stuart Marshall, who suggested I pitch a gay movie poster book to the Gay Men's Press in London. They weren't interested, and neither were Serpent's Tail when I pitched them on it in 1997 as a follow-up to my Ultimate Guide to Lesbian & Gay Film and Video. When Chronicle Books approached me to do a gay movie poster book in the Spring of 2002 I was thrilled to say yes.

About half the material in the book was from my personal collection (which I subsequently donated to San Francisco's GLBT Historical Society). I'm particularly excited that the Historical Society is presenting an exhibition of a bunch of the original posters in Fall 2004 at the San Francisco Main Library to coincide with the release of the book. Also, Strand Releasing is bringing out Homo Promo on DVD at the same time. It's a terrific companion piece to the book in terms of the broader history of LGBT movie marketing. Homo Promo includes coming attractions for virtually every LGBT film produced from the early 50s through the 1970s.

Where do you find this material? I'm particularly curious about some of the more ephemeral stuff for example, the early gay male porn posters, which must have been very difficult to locate.

Most of my collection I acquired from other collectors who sold or gave me materials over the years. After I agreed to do the book I spent about a year snapping up posters from eBay and borrowing additional stuff (Backlot Books in Hollywood and Frameline in San Francisco offered up a treasure trove of rare materials). I also got a lot of support from people in the industry everyone was completely cooperative and enthusiastic.

I think the gay porn material is especially fascinating. There's a company called Bijou in Chicago. They've been around forever as a distributor and producer of gay adult film. They loaned me a bunch of original advertising materials. Also, the GLBT Historical Society had a lot in their collection. The early gay porn world was quaint compared to the industry today we see a lot of hand-drawn advertisements and cheesy taglines. Gay porn served a very different function in that era; for many gay men these were the only images they could see of gay men being together and in that sense early gay porn really helped shape gay identity and propel the gay rights movement.

In his foreword, Bruce Vilanch mentions Suddenly Last Summer, which he describes as being all about "cannibalism and homosexuality and lobotomies." The poster's use of a sexy Liz Taylor in a wet bathing suit, of course, looks strange as a promotional image. Was this kind of deception a common one in the selling of queer films?

That one is particularly striking, but, yes, it has been very common over the years to use euphemisms and downright misleading marketing campaigns to promote queer movies. Some of the most interesting examples are actually fairly recent. Both Torch Song Trilogy ("It's not just about some people, it's about everyone.") and Longtime Companion ("a motion picture for everyone.") had taglines that played down the gay content of the films in an attempt to "cross over" to a wider straight audience.

How have queer male and queer female (and for that matter, tranny and bi) posters compared in terms of approach, subtlety, etc. Are dykes treated differently from gay males, for example?

There is definitely a tendency for contemporary gay men's movie posters to go for the sexy angle. I even devote a special section of the book to posters of guys with their shirts off. Lesbian movie posters tend to be more romantic, though they are definitely quite sexy as well. The most predominant image these days is two girls being interrupted mid-makeout session. I for one would like to see more gay boys kissing on movie posters. Historically, the bi posters generally go for a slightly shocking tone and the depiction of three entangled people. Sunday, Bloody Sunday shows an abstract jumble of arms, while Something for Everyone titillates with the tagline, "The butler did it . . . to everyone!" Transgender movie posters start out looking like National Enquirer headlines but have made significant progress. The poster for Hedwig and the Angry Inch offers a great example of a straightforward powerful image of a transgender protagonist.

It's fascinating to see the difference between the very terse, tantalizing poster messages 1968's The Fox ("Between Ellen and Jill came Paul.") and the much more blatant, chatty ones like Something for Everyone two years later that introduces the characters and has a paragraph-long description of the film. Any thoughts on this?

Interesting observation. I guess my main comment would be that Twentieth Century Fox (The Fox) had a smarter marketing department!

The Queer Movie Poster Book shows the French poster for Fassbinder's Querelle, which famously reproduces the phallic imagery of the film, and you describe the American version as much less sexual and less indicative of the film. Have you observed this as a common difference between European and American posters?

Yes, it does seem that non-American posters are often sexier or more daring. Another particularly sexy example is the poster for Prick Up Your Ears. The U.S. poster is unbelievably boring — a realist illustration of stars Gary Oldman and Alfred Molina sitting next to Vanessa Redgrave (who plays a fairly small part in the film). They were obviously trying to play down the gay content and cross over to straight audiences. The British version (which I was thrilled to include in the book) has a brilliant (and also quite phallic) graphic design which also conveys the gayness of the film.

Some critics have commented on classic queer character types like the "sad young man" or the "predatory dyke" that have permeated popular culture in books and movies — did you find these types recurring in the poster art?

I would say these types appear less frequently in the poster art than in the actual films. Oftentimes these archetypes appeared as supporting characters in movies that were not primarily gay-themed. Movie posters generally have to be very focused and very efficient in their imagery as they try to convince an audience to go see a particular film by highlighting the plot points that the marketing department thinks will sell the most tickets.

What has been your most unusual or unexpected find in this realm?

The book includes lots of popular titles you'd expect to see but also a lot of stunning rarities. I'm most proud of unearthing the original poster for the 1931 German film Maedchen in Uniform. This is widely considered to be the first lesbian film ever made. The German poster was quite daring for its time it features the schoolgirl, Manuela, embracing her teacher, Fraulein von Bernbourg. The U.S. promotion used a simple illustration of the schoolgirl with this great pullquote from Walter Winchell: "It's the best picture I ever saw!"

What kind of messages do these posters send to both queers and straights, and how have those messages changed from decade to decade?

The messages have changed over the decades as society has changed. I think that cinema both shapes and reflects societal attitudes, and this is especially visible in the marketing of queer cinema; the posters are really very revealing as cultural artifacts. In the posters of the 60s we see a lot of coded references alongside a clear sense of shame and self-loathing. In the 70s the topic is daring but clearly more socially acceptable and even cutting-edge in a positive sense. The 80s saw the advent of more serious treatment of gay characters with a corresponding sense of respect in most posters. And in the 90s we see much bolder images that are clearly directed at queer audiences. There are also, quite simply, a lot more queer movies being released with each passing year.

Do you have any personal favorites among the posters, and if so, why?

I have always loved the poster for Isaac Julien's Looking for Langston (so much so that we used it as part of the cover of the book). It's a very simple, erotic shot of two naked black men embracing on a bed. My other favorite in the book is the incredibly tacky pressbook for the 1965 dykesploitation movie Chained Girls. It goes into extensive detail about the "Unnatural love of women for women!"

August 2004 | Issue 45
Copyright © 2004 by Gary Morris

ACCESS: Check Amazon for info on purchasing The Queer Movie Poster Book (Chronicle Books, $19.95).

ALSO: More interviews

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