Michael Greer, Out and Proud in Hollywood
Hollywood has long had a complex history with homosexuality. The vast majority of gay representation in mainstream cinema is largely negative, either showcasing the homosexual character as a villain or showing them being punished or tortured for their sexuality. It's not always malicious, but it is a tiresome trend. We're more socially progressive now than we've ever been, and yet actors and directors are still plagued by the fear of ruining their careers by coming out of the closet. Actor Lee Pace made headlines at the New York Times for doing so recently. In the interview, Pace recounts how his agent not so subtlety dropped him after learning his sexual orientation. That it's 2018, a time where gay marriage is fast becoming legalized across the globe, and still the idea of coming out is considered a career ruiner is sad contradiction.
That's why it's so intriguing to recognize the acting contributions of Michael Greer. You may not have heard of him, but Greer managed to make a modest yet impressive dent in the oppressively straight world of late '60s and early '70s cinema. Greer went from comedy clubs to the silver screen while staying unabashedly out of the closet. He even embraced it head-on by taking on overtly gay roles. He brought a surprising amount of humanity and compassion to these parts, even when they fell into stereotypical tropes. Greer did his best to not only lift his characters out of the negative caricatures they might have been initially written as, but to showcase them as complex human beings.
Of course by taking these openly gay roles, especially as a man who refused to go through the motions of pretending to be straight in his personal life, he became effectively un-hirable for further mainstream roles. That, plus time, plus the less-flattering nature of his roles to begin with, seem to have allowed Greer to drift more towards obscurity than, say, celebrated pioneer. However, I think it's important to still recognize those who attempted to do some good, even if they had to work within the strict constraints of heteronormative society to do it. That any moderately empathetic movies about homosexuality even existed in the mainstream in the late '60s / early '70s is fascinating to begin with, even if they feel dated to the point of flirting with offensiveness at times. But as is with anything in history, you typically have to take two steps backwards to take one step forward. With that in mind, lets take a look into Greer's iconic roles in mainstream cinema:
The Gay Deceivers (1969)
I did a double take when I saw that this movie existed, let alone that it came out a month after the Stonewall riots happened. Lucky for us (and strangely enough), it's available for free on Amazon Prime right now. While I genuinely do not know how this managed to get made, I do know that it was surprisingly enjoyable to watch. The film follows Danny (Kevin Coughlin) and Elliot (Larry Casey), two straight young men who pretend to be a gay couple in order to avoid the draft. They play it fay enough to get the recruiting officer to stamp their files as 2 gay 2 serve 4 the army (that's the official military term), but afterwards he lets them know they'll be under observation for a period of time just incase they're lying. Danny freaks out and forces Elliot to move in with him to a charmingly gay part of town, in a particularly fabulous cottage with a hot pink bedroom. They then have to deal with not only their overly nice and fabulously gay landlord Malcolm (Michael Greer) but also their suspicious family members and girlfriends who keep stopping by unannounced.
I know, right? This movie exists. It is also most certainly rife with ridiculous stereotypes. All of the gay men here are campy and/or feminine, with Malcolm in particular as the gay-man equivalent of a girly-girl's-girl. He spends most of his time dancing on his tip-toes around the apartment, whether he's cooking a meal, talking about how much he loves gaudy interior decorating or playfully eyeing other men's bodies. Yet despite all of the film's indulgences in these dated stereotypes, it’s surprisingly never outright damning of its gay characters. Greer said he had to rewrite half of his dialogue in order to get the part to a place where he was comfortable with it, and perhaps that's why this movie felt so surprisingly okay. I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop, but it managed to coast by as relatively innocuous for its time. Greer plays Malcolm with a genuine sweetness that keeps the character grounded enough to make you realize just how horrible Danny's homophobic father and sister are in comparison.
In general, this movie felt pretty brazenly subversive in both it’s openly anti-military stance and how positively it portrays the gay community. Malcolm is shown in a committed and loving relationship, even if he's an emotionally shallow mess. While the neighbors are all perhaps a little too over the top, they're still shown as welcoming, open and respectful towards Danny and Elliot's perceived relationship. Ladies' man Elliot also comes across as solidly bisexual, spending all of his time joking about being gay and then 'mistakenly' seducing a man in drag at a party. The film also ends with an excellent note about how damning it was to be labeled as gay in the sixties – it was quite literally a permanent mark against you for life, ruining your chances for getting certain jobs and poisoning your family against you. Kudos to director Bruce Kessler who seems genuinely comfortable showcasing how the other side lives, and for affixing the camera's male gaze towards men for once; this movie has a surprising amount of glamor shots of muscles, torsos and bare behinds, all shown winkingly to the audience.
In an interview with Gay Scene from December 1974, Greer reflected on his role, saying: "I made [audiences] think it is possible to like a fairy simply for himself, rather than his sexual preference. They don't have to worry about it or fear it. I made it as harmless as it actually is. The only thing they're worried about are their children and it's been proven again and again that more heterosexuals do more damage to more children than homosexuals. It's a fucking hard row... I'm just trying to live my life and fight inflation like anyone else." Amen, dude. It's interesting to note however that this movie reportedly ruined Kevin Coughlin's career, which was sadly permanently ended by a hit and run accident a couple years afterwards.
Fortune and Men's Eyes (1971)
Where The Gay Deceivers was largely a ridiculous romp with some serious notes scattered throughout, Fortune and Men's Eyes is a serious look into a Canadian prison with some baffling punctuations of 'fun' throughout. The movie was based on a well-known and autobiographical play written by John Herbert, who was also tapped to write the screenplay. While the play was heralded as both subversive and important, I'm not entirely sure that was properly translated into the film.
The movie starts with Smitty (Wendell Burton) being thrown into jail for several months for reasons he won't initially divulge. His cellmates vary from the sassy and aggressive Queenie (Michael Greer), to the stoney bad-boy Rocky (Zooey Hall), to the innocent and bullied "Mona" (Danny Freedman). He quickly learns the pecking order, having been told explicitly that if you show any weakness you will be repeatedly gang raped, like Mona. After Smitty experiences a couple of close calls with other violent inmates as the guards actively look the other way, Rocky offers him protection as long as Smitty submits to him physically. In a moment of weakness, thinking he has no other choice, Smitty lets his guard down and Rocky rapes him in the showers.
Afterwards, Queenie encourages Smitty to retake the power and arranges for a distraction to go down while Smitty beats the shit out of Rocky. After this attack, Rocky gets thrown into solitary where he's beaten severely by the cops and then commits suicide. Queenie also ends up in solitary after a rather raunchy drag performance for the prison Christmas party. Smitty, drunk on his new found power, then tries to woo Mona, who pleads with him to remember who he really is. Smitty and Mona swap stories about how they were arrested, and both of them start to cry. Queenie walks in on the spectacle and starts to beat Smitty out of jealousy, causing Smitty to get hauled off into solitary.
Fortune and Men's Eyes leaves a lasting impression in its explicit depictions of prison brutality and the horrors of rape. The rape scenes here felt more disturbing than A Clockwork Orange, which also came out the same year, and yet this movie didn't garner the same X rating for some reason. The point in making these scenes so brutal is obviously to shove these truths in its audience's face – prison rape isn't a punchline, it's a terrifying reality – but unfortunately several factors about this movie seemed to undercut that message. For one, the soundtrack is bafflingly serene (think Cat Stevens does Muzak), then the prisoners just seemed to be having too much 'fun' in general. There's several scenes of everybody pulling pranks on the guards, sometimes while another guy is screaming as he's being gang raped in the background, all while that bouncy seventies Muzak keeps on chuggin'. It was a real whiplash of the senses between the rest of the film, which fluctuates from depressing to creepy machismo aggression. Same with the whole Christmas theme – this definitely needs to go on a list of 'extremely alternative Christmas movies.' All of these factors made the movie feel more like a bizarre exploitation film than any sort of serious social commentary, unfortunately.
Michael Greer is a stand out here as Queenie, a character who is about as sassy as Malcolm, but with a much harder edge. He walks the line between flamboyant drag queen and believable prison bully, obviously aware of the power he can wield through sex in the confines of prison. With scenes that vary from parading around the prison flirting with every inmate and guard, to performing a striptease in drag that ends with a full frontal shot, Greer never allows Queenie to slip into a caricature; every move he makes is strategic and the smoldering anger that flares up in him at the drop of a hat really helps to ground the character's more outrageous outbursts. Greer had practice for sure, he starred in Sal Mineo's production of the play before being cast in the film.
I was also particularly impressed with Danny Freedman's Mona. His brutally sad back story – having been gang raped in a park and then jailed after his rapists turn around and accuse him of being gay – is the type of gut-punch I expected more of in a film like this. Apparently that story was one of the biographical elements from the playwright, though I have a feeling it's navigated a bit better in the play than in the film.
Another MGM release, The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart ended up being a major flop but it still felt worth including if for nothing else than to show Greer's range. The movie got bashed on release by critics who said it was trying too hard to cash in on the time period and the popularity of the book without any true authenticity behind it. Having watched it I will say it's authentic only in that it's definitely as horny and boring as every pretentious dude in their freshman year of college.
College dropout Stanley Sweetheart (Don Johnson) fritters his life away making low budget nudie films, masturbating, disdaining his mother and chasing girls. He falls for the virginal Cathy (Dianne Hull), who he eventually manages to seduce through a series of grand gestures and toddler fits of frustration. Of course after he's boned her, she wants to do annoying things like have a conversation with him so naturally his eye wanders to other women.
The next woman who just so happens to come by is Cathy's roommate Fran (Holly Near), who Stanley casts in his next "art film." He gets her drunk enough that she makes a move on him (for once), but feels guilty the next morning because of her close proximity to Cathy. Stanley goes to his older friend Danny (Michael Greer) to ask for advice, but Danny just tells him to like, go with the flow man, free love, rah rah. After a night of pot smoking with both Danny and Cathy, Cathy ends up dumping Stanley in pursuit of the older and cooler Danny. Stanley goes from crying to violently flipping out on Cathy and slapping her in the face and then pushing her out of the door, so good move on the dumping, Cathy.
Stanley confronts Danny but he just shrugs, he says Cathy is just an experience to be had (as opposed to a person, y'know how it is, men) and takes Stanley to his drug den to listen to a little music and get high on like five different things. The film ends with Stanley in a ménage à trois with two female roommates, Danny blowing his brains out after I guess glimpsing too much truth via LSD, and something having been learned by everybody while the most ridiculous song on earth plays. Or maybe it was just Stanley growing a mustache, who can tell the difference between those two things.
I obviously did not love this movie, but Greer actually manages to rise above the blatant misogyny and really embody that open-minded counterculture hero who's just looking to live and love in the moment. He reminded me of Peter Fonda in The Trip, tall and lanky and just playing it cool, baby. I wished they had shown him to be as bisexual as his female friends were, though it could potentially be inferred by his casual attitude towards open relationships, not to mention some leering at Stanley. The film also showcases Greer's singing ability, including some original songs that, while they're not entirely stand out, aren't too damn bad either.
After having watched him in two stereotypically gay roles, it was interesting to see him playing somebody so boringly straight. But it was a great casting for Greer, giving him the chance to play the counterculture male ideal and undermining any audience biases on how "all" gay men look and speak. Greer wanted more diversity in his roles but found himself blocked by the powers that be in the industry, most likely because of his unapologetic honesty about his sexuality. Greer wrote an entire script for a movie about mass murderer Richard Speck that he hoped to star in, and I can't tell you how sad I am that he never got it made – between his solid performance in Stanley Sweetheart and the violent undercurrents exhibited in Queenie he absolutely would have been excellent as Speck.
Unfortunately, as it was, Greer managed to land a couple of b-movie roles, TV cameos and some voice acting in the end. He remained in the arts throughout his life, and died in 2002 of lung cancer. So there you have it, an interesting footnote of cinema history that probably should have been a bit bigger than a footnote but c'est la vie. I'll leave you with this quote from Greer, also from the same interview in Gay Scene: "If I have a philosophy about what I do, my life-style, my working style, I don't see that much difference in any of us. I really basically feel we're all people to begin with, that whatever we do, whether its our employment, or sexual interests, or our politics, or our religion, these are just environmental and basically we're just people... What I try to do is let is all hang out and just make it palatable. I try to show everybody whether its a rodeo audience, or anyone's audience, how really harmless it all is."