David Thomson’s “Sleeping With Strangers: How the Movies Shaped Desire,” is a big, dense, love letter to classic Hollywood films and their cross-currents of desire and longing: gay, lesbian, straight and everything in between. The book’s subtitle is promising: “Male Supremacy, Gay Resistance, and Real Women (at last) in the Movies.”
The problem is that “Sleeping With Strangers” is really two books glommed into one. The first, about queer desire, overflows with dish, dirt and juicy detail on the interplay of gay and straight, power and passion, who did whom and where, over many decades in Hollywood. The second one, about women, gets decidedly short shrift.
Thomson is the product of a cineaste culture of the ’60s and ’70s that celebrated and romanticized the already-lost world of mid-20th century Hollywood, and he pines for the era of the studio system, characterized by the absolute dominion of white men, even while railing against that power structure. Addressing the sexually explicit films of the 1960s and ’70s, he mourns: “Hollywood was over as a burning light in our imagination and a guide to our lives, and we have not found a wonder to replace its captivation.”
“Sleeping With Strangers” is great fun at times, especially when the book revels in the underground details that fueled so many Hollywood films. Traveling the breadth and depth of 20th century film (exhaustively and sometimes exhaustingly), Thomson examines a wide variety of queer subtexts, from Rudolph Valentino’s campy performance in the silent film “The Sheik” to the more overt gun-as-metaphor-for-sex-organ scene in 1948’s “Red River” (which appears in Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s superb 1995 documentary “The Celluloid Closet”). Director Howard Hawks was straight but may have been poking fun at star Montgomery Clift, who wasn’t, exactly. What film enthusiast wouldn’t want to read about Greta Garbo’s lesbian affairs, or why gay director George Cukor was fired as the original director of “Gone With the Wind”?
Thompson echoes earlier books on movies and desire, including Molly Haskell’s feminist classic “From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies” (originally published in 1973), and Vito Russo’s “Celluloid Closet” (1981), along with other histories, such as “An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood” (Neil Gabler, 1989). (Thomson thanks Haskell in the acknowledgements.)
Thomson also works through certain genre films and their psychosexual implications, from “Bride of Frankenstein” to the bromance tradition of the Hollywood Western, culminating in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” the 1969 Paul Newman/Robert Redford buddy movie that isn’t quite queer, but is decidedly homosocial. For some reason, he skips sci-fi altogether.
The trouble comes when Thomson’s book turns to women. (This is perhaps not surprising, given an opening quote from Norman Mailer, whose ego and swinish approach to women had few rivals, at least until recently.) Thomson admires a lot of actresses, but his focus remains on male stars and directors, even when he finally gets around to the #MeToo movement.
Written mostly before recent revelations of sexual abuse and violence against women in entertainment, the book was quickly revised, but not smoothly. Two-thirds of the book explores gay male desire and queer undercurrents in the movies. After that, it takes an abrupt turn to look at the highly sexualized nature of women in film and the sometimes rape-y culture of the movie business.
At times, Thomson sounds guilty about his complicity, a problem he claims for all of us: “Since it began,” he writes, “[t]he profession and the art systematized sexual exploitation in which women bartered their bodies and their intimacy for a chance to be seen on screen.” It’s too important an observation for a treatment this Frankenstein-esque, i.e. the feminist argument stitched on as an afterthought.
Though he investigates the truly awful story of Natalie Wood’s rape at the age of 16, the late addition of this subject makes Thomson seem a bit like those he criticizes, as if he himself cannot really be bothered to think about female agency, employment, abuse, gaze or any other aspect of women in film.
Thomson seeks to confess and transform. “By 2018, a lot of us were aware of, and ashamed over, the dominating male gaze in our movies,” he writes. “Not that the gaze is simply sexual or a power play turned into a marketing strategy. It is a codification of human desire that guided our narrative habits. It is a point of view that extends to race and poverty, courage and caution, and the story of America. Dealing with it will shape our destiny. Nothing is going to be harder. America the beautiful has to be feminized.”
In truth, he is ambivalent. An esteemed and much-loved British film critic residing here in San Francisco, and author of 27 other books on movies, film history and related subjects, which entailed interviews with countless writers, director and actors, Thomson defends the films of his longtime friend, director James Toback, and the work of producer Harvey Weinstein, while acknowledging their “brutality” and the very serious charges against them. He fears that Weinstein’s backlist may eventually disappear. Thomson mentions Kevin Spacey but otherwise does not address the abuse of young men in Hollywood, quite a glaring omission in a book about queer desire.
I really wanted to like this book; a lot of it is excellent. But it strikes me as less than the sum of its parts, and a disservice to the reader. I hope someone else is writing a feminist re-examination of film history that focuses on the exploitation of women and our lack of representation in the ranks of Hollywood writers, directors and composers … Molly Haskell to the rescue, perhaps?
“Sleeping With Strangers: How the Movies Shaped Desire”
By David Thomson
($28.95, 368 pages)
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