Boyd McDonald’s Eye for Innuendo

William E Jones. The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide. Volume 22, Issue 6. Nov/Dec 2015.

In Cruising the Movies: A Sexual Guide to “Oldies” on TV (1985), Boyd McDonald scrutinizes the anatomy of Ronald and Nancy Reagan with maniacal glee. The President is not only flabby and “sloppy assed,” but also has tits and wears more makeup than Lucille Ball. In an essay on John Loves Mary (1949), Boyd writes mainly about Reagan’s curiously feminine legs, and speculates that this display of flesh-he appears in the movie without pants not once but twice-is proof of the existence of heterosexuality in Hollywood. A homosexual would not have allowed such a casting error to occur. Reagan’s lack of masculine attributes caused him to lash out at men whom he (or his speechwriters) perceived to be less than full men, the homosexuals. The First Lady, a hard and remorseless political creature, exuded a skeletal and artificial femininity; she stayed thin by living on grapes and regularly flew a manicurist in from California to apply five coats of polish to her fingernails. In response to Kenneth Anger’s claim that he had obtained a photograph of Mrs. Reagan’s “twat” (taken back when she was Nancy Davis), Boyd asks to hear from any reader who has a picture of her “butt-hole.”

These sorts of barbs, once common, are no longer much heard among cinema spectators, now that “oldies,” which had formerly served as cheap programming for revival houses and independent television stations, have been elevated to serious archive screenings and expensive cable channels, where the odor of sanctity clings to them. Going to the movies is not the collective ritual it once was, and Internet blogs, written by lone spectators, are hardly an adequate replacement for spontaneous audience participation. Recent attempts to rehabilitate Reagan’s image-”he wasn’t as bad as the Bushes,” et cetera-cry out for renewed expressions of irreverence and further reminders that there was a time when, as Boyd told an interviewer, “It was shocking to have people like Nixon and Reagan in minor offices, let alone President.”

At the end of Cruising the Movies, Boyd admits that the book “is not strictly about movies; it frequently uses them as an excuse for political, social, sexual, psychological, biographical, and autobiographical comments.” Funnier than Robin Wood’s Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan (1986), more immediate in its style than Mark Feeny’s Nixon at the Movies (2004), and haunting the scene as a kind of tactless plebeian predecessor of both books, Cruising the Movies was (and continues to be) a rare thing: a book of popular film criticism that is both unabashedly sexual and unapologetically political.

Boyd McDonald died on September 18, 1993. His obituary was a model of discretion: “Born July 11, 1925 in Lake Preston, South Dakota. He served in the US Army in World War II, attended and graduated Harvard University. Upon graduation he worked for Time magazine and IBM Corp. He pursued freelance writing up until the time of his death.” After twenty years of what Boyd described as hack work, writing and editing copy for large corporations and nearly drinking himself to death, he dried out, went on welfare, and moved into a single room occupancy (SRO) hotel on New York’s pre-gentrified Upper West Side. There he watched old movies at all hours of the day and night on a small black and white television set.

Like many of his fellow SRO residents, Boyd pursued something vaguely disreputable on the streets of New York, and from the late-1960s onward his “freelance writing” consisted chiefly of editing a series of chapbooks called Straight to Hell (STH), compendia of “true homosexual experiences” collected from readers’ contributions of their own personal stories. The direct yet suggestive title Straight to Hell was followed by various subtitles over the years: Archives of the American Academy of Homosexual Research (in homage to Alfred Kinsey, whose work Boyd saw himself as continuing), The Manhattan Review of Unnatural Acts (an acknowledgment of The New York Review of Books, where Boyd placed an advertisement soliciting contributions to Straight to Hell), U.S. Chronicle of Crimes Against Nature, and many other parodic combinations of important-sounding words. Straight to Hell offered its readers the truth about sex between men, rigorously edited for style but never diluted or censored. In equal measure masturbation fodder and fine literature, this modest publication acquired a wide and appreciative following, including Gore Vidal (who called it “one of the best radical papers in the country”), William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Christopher Isherwood, and Tennessee Williams.

The original Straight to Hell chapbooks were compiled in paperbacks with admirably blunt titles: Meat, Flesh, Sex, Cum, Smut, Juice, Wads, Cream, Filth, Skin, Raunch, Lewd, and Scum. Boyd’s one book that did not belong to this series, Cruising the Movies, collected the columns he wrote for the gay literary magazine Christopher Street between 1983 and 1985. While it did not appeal to readers’ prurient interests as directly as did the STH anthologies-and consequently sold a fraction of the copies they did-Cruising the Movies gives a sense of more rarefied (and only a little less clandestine) obsessions animating urban gay life, specifically the cinephilia in which Boyd’s generation indulged.

Straight to Hell’s insistent focus on “true homosexual experiences” recalls the passage in Juan Goytisolo’s autobiography Forbidden Territory (1985) describing the first time he met Jean Genet:

Suddenly he turns to me and asks point-blank:

“What about you? Are you a queer?”

In my confusion, I reply that I have had homosexual experiences-something that until then I had never revealed in public… I suppose I blushed when I answered-makes no impression on him at all.

“Experiences! Everybody has had experiences! You talk like an Anglo-Saxon pederast! I meant dreams, desires, fantasies.”

For almost anyone born and raised in the 20th century, the phrase “dreams, desires, fantasies” conjures an association with the movies-plus that locus of fantasy par excellence, the movie star.

The phenomenon of the star arose spontaneously “from below” among popular audiences during the second decade of the 20th century. Up until that time, producers, unaware of the commercial potential of actors as personalities and afraid that they would demand too much money, had used performers without credit. As Kenneth Anger describes it in Hollywood Babylon (1965):

When crowds all over the country seemed to be flocking to see favorite performers known only as “Little Mary,” “The Biograph Boy,” or “The Vitagraph Girl,” the disdained actors, until then thought of as little more than hired help, suddenly acquired ticket-selling importance. The already-famous faces took on names and rapidly-rising salaries: the Star System-a decidedly mixed blessing-was born.

There was more to the star than economics; there was a religious aspect to the phenomenon as well. Anger calls the early movie palaces “Wonder Sanctuaries where millions worshipped,” and he sees the development of movie cults, aided by the studios’ pagan religion.” The choice of the word “pagan” is not an idle one. The movie gods (always plural) appealed to their devotees in ways that harked back to the Greek gods, who were worshiped in ecstatic rituals, who possessed human passions like anger, lust, and jealousy, and who acted on these passions capriciously. …

In 1930, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America adopted the Motion Picture Production Code, which was enforced from 1934 until 1968, when it was abandoned in favor of the MPAA ratings system currently in use. These rules were the guidelines by which the film industry policed itself, and thereby circumvented formal US government censorship. … The Production Code declared vast areas of human experience, including bumboys and toilets, off limits to American movies. The proscriptions most pertinent to Boyd’s later work included the following:

  • The sanctity of the institution of marriage and the home shall be upheld.
  • Pictures shall not infer that low forms of sex relationship are the accepted or common thing. …
  • Sex perversion or any inference to it is forbidden….
  • Miscegenation (sex relationships between the white and black races) is forbidden….
  • Certain places are so closely and thoroughly associated with sexual life or with sexual sin that their use must be carefully limited.

Regarding the penultimate item on the list, Boyd reminds us in Scum (1993) that “black and white men were sexually integrated long before this nation integrated them in schools and jobs.” The phrase “certain places” in the last item was generally understood to mean brothels and the offices of abortion doctors. The Code may have had other locales in mind as well, places mentioned in the pages of Straight to Hell, e.g., public toilets, parks, locker rooms, and even the palaces of the Catholic Church’s hierarchy. All were possible venues for the queen’s work.

The Production Code was decisive in shaping the consciousness of millions of movie fans, and Boyd McDonald was no exception. These “Don’ts and Be Carefuls” were promulgated in an attempt to control public discourse from the year Boyd entered elementary school (1930) until the year he left the workplace (1968). Later, the Production Code and the assumptions behind it defined the targets of Boyd’s satirical writing, whether the subject was a film or not. Especially important to him were two related effects of the restrictions on popular cinema: first, the homosexual was obliged to construct a life for himself without the aid of self-affirming images; and second, the benighted majority was lulled into a complacency untroubled by any thoughts about the homosexual. Men had sex with each other constantly without anyone but the interested parcalled) and the occasional “do-gooder”- paying attention. When homosexuals went to the movies, they had little expectation of seeing anyone resembling themselves, so in the absence of actors going after cock, their fantasies revolved around actresses who could go after men (if not their cocks) as enthusiastically as the Production Code would allow.

In the context of a review of Pauline Kael’s 5001 Nights at the Movies (1982) called “A Hearty Heterosexual Looks at the Picture Biz” in the STH volume Cum (1983), Boyd explicitly presents his point of view as a writer about film. He also expresses his preference for actresses and reveals something about his viewing habits:

In fact Kael is the only real man, in the classical sense, among the huge mob of picture reviewers (or as they prefer, film critics) in New York. She is typically heterosexual in her frequent, and suspect, use of the adjective “bitchy” to depict women, and shows no awareness that it is boys and men who are the real bitches in our culture; the entire cast of The Women, who after all restrict their fighting to people they know, do not add up to anything as “bitchy” as a single sexually-distressed boy or man who calls a perfect stranger “fag.”

Motion pictures are for people who like to watch women; the men in pictures, as Bette Davis and Kael herself have said, are not men. There’s better stuff on the streets, any street; the streets are my cinema, the male whores my Brandos of the boulevard, the only time I see on the streets men like those who appear in pictures-Warren Beatty, Ronnie Reagan, Robert Taylor, Ryan O’Neal, Robert Redford and so on-is when by coincidence I pass, just as it is letting out, a dancing school. I haven’t gone to the movies since 1969 (The Damned); that picture, according to Kael, has “gorgeous naked boys in black lace panties,” an observation that, if it had appeared in any other magazine, could be reprinted … as its “Neatest Trick of the Week.” But I watch oldies on TV.

Thus does Boyd McDonald encapsulate the inspiration for his own book, Cruising the Movies. The people appearing in films interested Boyd more than the people working behind the camera. He belonged to an old-fashioned generation of film fans who populated the audiences of revival houses and special screenings around New York. …

By contrast, in Cruising the Movies Boyd McDonald turns his obsessive gaze on actors, or as he calls them, “eating stuff.” He holds that talent is not only irrelevant but a distraction from the main point of movies, which is the exhibition of beautiful and exceptional people simply being rather than acting. A star is above all a person millions of spectators want to rim, suck, and fuck.

Boyd cites the example of Guy Madison. He was discovered by Henry Willson, a closeted homosexual legendary for his eye for male beauty and despicable politics. A native of Pumpkin Corner, California, Madison made his first appearance on screen in the patriotic snoozer, Since You Went Away (1944), while on leave from the Navy. Wearing his own uniform with a cascade of blond curls spilling over his forehead, speaking in a languorous, untrained voice, he seems to have been imported from another, more lascivious movie. Madison in his screen debut sounds a bit like Jack Smith, though he does not ask embarrassing questions about men getting unwashable lipstick on their cocks, as Smith asked Frances Francine on the soundtrack of Flaming Creatures (1963) two decades later. Madison’s character has a sexless three-way, going on a date with a girl and her boyfriend (Robert Walker, in an Army uniform).

Before the sort of action described in Straight to Hell can transpire, the sailor catches his bus and exits the scene. Madison creates an indelible impression during a few minutes in the middle of a three-hour movie. The popular reaction, in the form of thousands of fan letters, was immediate. Studio executives signed up Madison once he was discharged, but they insisted he take acting lessons, voice lessons, and dancing lessons to become a “real” actor. He never learned much; he merely got older and tired.

Boyd’s taste in actresses displayed a range of interests: he appreciated women of impressive physical bearing (Jane Russell, Hope Emerson), glamorous antagonists (Gail Patrick, Lynn Bari), and tough leading ladies (Barbara Stanwyck, Gloria Grahame). The only thing he could not abide was a display of mere talent. (Katherine Hepburn was a favorite object of scorn.) He had special affection for any actress who maintained a sense of humor about the absurd situations in which she found herself. All of the women Boyd admired were adept at delivering a wisecrack, and this ability, learned from countless hours of movie viewing, found its way into his writing and conversation. He did not want to be Barbara Stanwyck, but he aspired to the contemptuous way she treated men, who were, after all, only sex objects. …

Film fans generally develop a solitary devotion, for while a group of people comes together at an appointed time to see a screening, the experience of watching a movie in the darkness of a theater isolates them. Each spectator-understood in this case to be a male homosexual, like John Kobal, Richard Lamparski, or Boyd McDonald-sees his own movie, has his own list (perhaps not even acknowledged to himself ) of fetishes for which he looks. He lies in wait until he is ravished by the sight of that actor, that gesture, that bit of exposed flesh or suggestive fold of cloth. Many of the objects of fascination are really mistakes which a costumer or set dresser, editor or censor, forgot to correct, but which become unintended gifts to the fetishist. In discussions after a movie is over, the fetishist argues for what he loves above all with his fellow film fans, but only a sympathetic few will ever understand.

After his withdrawal from public movie-going in 1969, Boyd cultivated a circle of friends with whom he could enjoy movies without leaving home. He writes about the experience in Cruising the Movies’ essay on Stallion Road (1947). The film features a shot of a double rear view: the screen is filled by Ronald Reagan’s “sloppy ass” on top of a horse’s ass. Boyd, without a VCR to record and review this moment, can hardly believe what he sees:

“My God Almighty!” I cried over the ‘phone to a friend when I saw Reagan stick his big butt in the camera, and my friend, watching the picture on his own receiver 60 blocks to the south of me, released a simultaneous cry of astonishment. Stallion Road, like most pictures, is not complete in itself and requires audience participation-additional dialogue supplied by the viewers. This is best done at home; it would annoy patrons in the theater. Stallion Road is so bleak that my friend and I, connected by telephone as we watched it, supplied not only additional dialogue (all of it unprintable) but also imaginary conversations among the cast and crew between camera set-ups. …

It seemed probable to us that Zachary Scott would discuss with Alexis [Smith] their co-star: “That’s some butt Ronnie’s got on him, isn’t it? I’ve seen better on a fucking elephant. Shit, he’s not a piece of meat, he’s only Spam.”

Boyd’s main companion in this activity was his editor, Tom Steele, who describes their camaraderie:

Back in the 1980s and ’90s, I had to work in my office until the wee hours of each morning in order to prepare our publications, New York Native and Christopher Street. (I was the only editor at the time.) Practically the only person I knew who was still wide awake was Boyd, and many nights I would go to his single-room-furnished to visit. Boyd was a recovered alcoholic, but he kept a bottle of vodka on hand for me to unwind with. … Even if I didn’t go to Boyd’s apartment, I would usually call him at two in the morning or so, and we would chat for an hour or more. Often, we watched the same latenight movie on our TVs while talking on the phone, and he usually wrote about those movies for Christopher Street. Cruising the Movies was the eventual result.

At times the book reads like the transcript of an evening with a circle of gay men sitting around watching movies and providing their own acerbic commentary. Boyd McDonald’s Cruising the Movies serves as a tribute to this most ephemeral cultural activity.

According to journalist and activist Arthur Bell, publicity stills of Tom Cruise compelled Boyd to break his moratorium on going to movie theaters. Boyd emerged from his single room to see All the Right Moves (1983), which he called a “heterosexual training film,” a remark no writer reviewing films for a general audience could make. Most critics were so “plot crazed,” as Boyd put it, that they could not acknowledge the obvious, even when it was highlighted by telling details. For example, the teen sex scenes, strenuous calisthenics, and locker room dramas of All the Right Moves play out in a fictional town with the evocatively phallic name of Ampipe.

After taking a break from contemporary movies for a whole decade in the 1970s, Boyd must have been disoriented by an American popular cinema that had become ever more infantile and jingoistic since Ronald Reagan was elected president. In All the Right Moves, Boyd saw a representation of the white working people who got piped, and who would be conned a year later into re-electing Ronnie the loveable shyster, formerly an omnipresent corporate spokesman, who was nothing if not their class enemy. Boyd did not often write about the movies of the Reagan ’80s; no doubt they were too transparently cynical and manipulative to interest him very much. He preferred the highly coded and chaste films of his youth.

Watching “oldies” on television in the middle of the night, Boyd McDonald, déclassé Ivy Leaguer and film fan, would write about the details that not only caught his attention but moved him to howl and applaud. He exposed the subtexts that made Hollywood films immensely popular yet could not be named. Cruising the Movies is his account of the return of the repressed. The book encourages us to enjoy the products of mass culture against the grain, which is to say politically, in ways that are at once anarchic, knowing, and intensely pleasurable.