Believe me, I hate to complain about the new gay-themed movie A Single Man, but I can’t help it: I think I’m done with the sad-gay-man genre. I am more than ready for something else. I’m also tired of big gay-themed films that are period pieces. I want to see prominent film actors as gay characters in contemporary stories, and I wouldn’t mind the occasional happy ending. I would at the very least like to see gay characters alive at the end of their movies. Is this really too much to ask in 2010?
The extraordinary Brokeback Mountain will, for many years to come, be the last word in the sad-gay-man genre, and nothing about A Single Man comes close to its impact. Brokeback is not only a great “gay” movie, but it gave the community a classic Hollywood love story to call its own, one to stand alongside the likes of Casablanca or The Way We Were. In the years since Brokeback, the biggest gay movie has been Milk, which did offer a strong and inspiring gay protagonist, but one who is martyred, in a film set in the 70s. It is important to have our stories told, our history acknowledged, and our heroes celebrated, but movies like Milk simply aren’t enough anymore.
The recent gay films have contained some phenomenal performances, with Heath Ledger’s Ennis Del Mar and Sean Penn’s Harvey Milk two of the finest of the just-ended decade. Both can hold their place beside Peter Finch in the British Sunday, Bloody Sunday (1971), the first truly great performance in the sad-gay-man genre. Finch plays a successful doctor in the film, which still gets bonus points for being a contemporary drama about a gay life. One of the reasons so many gay men (including myself) love the little English film Beautiful Thing (1996), which I write about in my book Screen Savers, is that it turns the usual coming-out yarn into an exhilarating first-love story, leaving you on an emotional high, as well as a feeling of empowerment.
Set in 1962 Los Angeles and featuring a British main character played by Colin Firth, A Single Man is awfully reminiscent of Gods and Monsters (1998), in which Ian McKellen plays aging gay film director James Whale. A Single Man is set five years after Gods, but they end up in roughly the same place, with the older gay Brit finding himself in his home with a hot young male in nothing but a towel. McKellen and Firth are also both on the verge of suicide. In other words, I’ve seen A Single Man before, on many levels, another movie about a sad and gentle gay man suffering in silence. The 1964 Christopher Isherwood novel on which it is based was a groundbreaker in its matter-of-fact treatment of a gay life, but we’re not in 1964 anymore.
A Single Man is actually not helped by Firth’s fine performance. Firth has long been a master of minimalism and understatement, but this role plays too much to his strengths, actually depriving the performance of any surprises. If someone like Hugh Grant had played this character, a college professor, the film might have had more of a charge of the unexpected, rather than being merely another chance to admire Firth’s clenched emotions and impeccable repression. His casting is simply too ideal. And I don’t feel that director Tom Ford has added anything to the piece by injecting a ‘night, Mother device of Firth’s planned suicide, adding more melodrama than depth. I would much rather see the character continue to deal with his grief over the death of his longtime partner (Matthew Goode) than choose to opt out.
Am I too jaded to be wondering why Firth doesn’t have sex with the gorgeous, intelligent, and sensitive Spanish hustler that he has already given money to? If you are planning to kill yourself later that evening, why not go out with a literal bang? Would that have made us take less seriously Firth’s honorable angst? We know he still feels lust because of his earlier gaze on those shirtless athletes, so, again, why not? Equally confusing is the moment when Firth’s best friend (Julianne Moore) refers to his great love as a “substitution,” angering him only briefly. I’m sorry, but that comment—your best friend calling your 16-year gay relationship a substitution for a “normal” relationship—justifies grabbing one’s coat and slamming the door. Again, his manners trump logic.
A Single Man has touching moments and is made with obvious care, and Firth’s admirable performance will get him an Oscar nomination. But I imagined Firth’s entire performance before I saw the movie, and I was dead-on. What I am ready for is the movie in which Firth and Hugh Grant get married, or the one in which George Clooney and Brad Pitt adopt kids together, or the drama about Sean Penn and Johnny Depp getting involved in the battle for marriage equality, or the triangular romantic comedy starring Ryan Reynolds, Ryan Gosling, and Jake Gyllenhaal. Please let’s broaden the spectrum of what constitutes a gay-themed movie. Who will be man enough to take the next step?