Published: April 1, 2010 By

[1] On 27 March 1995 Nigel Hawthorne did not win a Best Actor Oscar for his role as George III in Nicolas Hynter’s The Madness of King George (1994).  In an interview with the American magazine The Advocate a week earlier, he had discussed his openness about his homosexuality and the fact that he was making history by being the first openly gay man to be nominated for this award.  This interview catapulted him into the British media spotlight as the tabloids scandalized their readers about the implications of a gay man representing Britain at these prestigious awards.  The newspapers did not “out” Hawthorne, but rather they reprimanded him for stepping too far out of the closet, implying that the acceptance of homosexuals as “purveyors of culture” was conditional upon them remaining discreet about their “unspeakableness” (Sinfield, Faultlines, 295).  In his autobiography Straight Face, Hawthorne contrasts his horrendous treatment by the British media with the lack of American interest in the story, noting “in America, these issues don’t carry the same weight they do in England” (289-91, 292).  Such a story would have caused great commotion in America had Hawthorne been an American actor, especially as there are so few openly gay actors in Hollywood, “a town without gays, only heterosexuals falsely accused” (Ehrenstein, 326).  Hollywood is also a place where the difference between an Englishman winning an Oscar and an openly gay one doing so is slight: both are novelties within the usually American-dominated awards (Levy, 95-106).  This essay considers what the gay Englishman signifies in American culture by examining the representation of this figure in two contemporary novels, Gilbert Adair’s Love and Death on Long Island(1990) and Christopher Bram’s Father of Frankenstein (1995), and their critically acclaimed film adaptations, Love and Death on Long Island (1997) and Gods and Monsters (1998).  These texts suggest that the gay Englishman is a complex, ambiguous figure who interrogates America’s obsession with effeminacy and its identification of heterosexual masculinity with Americanness (Dyer, 141).

[2] From its inception American cinema has differentiated American masculinity, associated with “the rugged virtues” of the land, from the more refined, cultivated, “effete dandies of Europe” (Russo, 16).  The sissies and camp homosexuals of the silver screen originate in the aristocratic, affluent, apolitical, and effeminate Englishmen of nineteenth-century literature and culture (Sedgwick, Between, 174-75, 217).  The connection between English masculinity and male homosexuality is reinforced by a tradition of English actors playing homosexuals and by British films, including two of the most successful of the 1990s, Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) and The Full Monty (1997), which feature memorable gay Englishmen (Russo, 119-120, 126-35, 192-96; Clum, 86-89).  The association has infiltrated other forms of popular culture; for example, in a 2003 episode of Will and Grace Lorraine Finster asks Will Truman, “You’re a natty dresser. Are you English?” Will replies that he is gay and Lorraine retorts, “Well, it’s the same thing”.  In the years that followed Hawthorne’s nomination, the figure of the gay Englishman who lives in or visits America became a recurring cinematic motif in My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997), Love is the Devil (1998) and Velvet Goldmine(1998).  The opening scene of Wilde (1997), a film about the life of the Irish playwright Oscar Wilde, does not begin in Ireland as one might expect, but rather in Colorado’s Matchless Silver mine in 1882.  Here, Wilde, having just given a lecture on aesthetics, describes the miners as having “angel faces” and being charming to him if a “little brusque” with each other; he notes “they hanged two men in a theatre just before I gave a lecture. I felt like the sorbet after a side of beef”.  Wilde presents himself as the antithesis of an American masculinity associated with ruggedness, competitiveness, violence, and democracy.  Although Wilde’s Irishness was a factor in the success of his American lecture tour, his gentility, politeness, cultivation, refinement, sensitivity, artistry, and taste would have been associated by many listeners not with Irishness but rather with upper-class English masculinity, an identity Wilde self-consciously and strategically performed (Kiberd, 36; Blanchard, 12-30).  Others in Wilde’s audience would have regarded his effeminate mannerism as indicating his sexual perversity (Blanchard, 27-28); however, for many men in the audience his feminine characteristics reinforced rather than threatened their gender identity (Kimmel, Manhood, 99).  After Wilde’s trial of 1895, his name and stylized behavior shaped twentieth-century discourses about male homosexual identity (Sinfield, Wilde, vi-vii; Bristow, 11).  Cinema’s gay Englishman in America is a descendant of Wilde’s–witty, charming, sarcastic, wise, and often tragic; his American appeal is a result, as Wilde’s was a century earlier, of a national stereotype eclipsing a problematic sexual one and the way this confirms American manhood as paradigmatic (Sinfield, Faultlines, 276).  Hawthorne plays one such gay Englishman in Nicolas Hynter’sThe Object of My Affection (1998).  His character Rodney Fraser is a wise, cultivated, and charming Wildean theatre critic, who is hopelessly in love with the young American actor he is mentoring.  The film ends with Fraser being lovingly included as part of an extended heterogeneous family, along with Jewish and African-American characters, and American gay and straight couples.  Fraser is not a character from Stephen McCauley’s 1987 novel upon which the film is based, and his inclusion in the film could be interpreted as a direct rebuttal to Hawthorne’s British detractors.  Even more provocatively, both Love and Death on Long Island and Father of Frankenstein / Gods and Monsters focus on a friendship between a gay Englishman and a much younger, straight American man, offering an alternative example of male homosociality that acknowledges homoeroticism rather than neutralizing or stigmatizing it.

The Beautiful American Boy

[3] In Love and Death on Long Island, Giles De’ath becomes obsessed with a popular American actor, Ronnie Bostock, whose film he mistakenly sees having gone into the wrong cinema screen; De’ath travels to Long Island to stalk the star, before orchestrating a meeting with him.  In Gods and Monsters / Father of Frankenstein, James Whale, the retired English director of Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein(1935), initiates a friendship with his attractive gardener, Clayton Boone.  As in The Object of My Affection, these Englishmen become the elderly, wise, and enamored counselors of handsome American men (Keller, 50-67).  These twentieth-century fin-de-siècle novels and films reiterate the preoccupations and themes of the canonical and foundational texts of modern gay identity: Oscar Wilde’sThe Picture of Dorian Gray(1891), Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice(1912), and Herman Melville’s Billy Budd (1924).  They combine the unrequited desire of Wilde’s and Melville’s Englishmen for much younger, exceptionally good-looking men with the relationship between desire and national difference that Mann conceptualizes in his novella.  Interestingly, Luchino Visconti’s 1971 film adaptation ofDeath in Venice re-connected homoerotic longing with English masculinity by having the English actor Dirk Bogart play Mann’s Gustav von Aschenbach.  The texts under discussion also evoke a transatlantic literary discourse in which American innocence, youth, and beauty are contrasted with European duplicity, corruption, decadence, and death, evident in novels by Henry James, Mark Twain, Edith Wharton, and Vladimir Nabokov (Bradbury, 456-75). More specifically, the opposition between English and American masculinity in the contemporary texts is strengthened by differentials such as age, class, education, and sexuality (Sinfield, On Sexuality and Power).  A closer examination of both texts suggests that the dissimilarities between these men are in fact blurred.  On one level, these Englishmen conform to the stereotype of effeminacy, homosexuality, and cultivation; however, they display a form of mastery and control usually associated with masculinity, whereas like Billy Budd and Dorian Gray the “epistemological simplicity and vulnerability” of the American men is “attested by [their] beefcake frontality” (Sedgwick, Epistemology, 116).  The central attention given to their physiques renders them the passive and feminized objects of homoerotic desire rather than affording them the privileged, traditionally male position of “active” subjects (Bozzola, 228).

[4] Giles De’ath, a comic version of Death in Venice’s von Aschenbach, is an erudite author who rails against mediocrity, especially the “easy, whorish and irresistible charms” of cinema (Adair, 16); yet his first-person narrative describes the implications of his discovery of a vision of male beauty in an American lowbrow teenage comedy.  Like Wilde’s Basil Hallward, De’ath begins by viewing the boy aesthetically, then as an artistic muse (who inspires him to begin work on a new novel called Adagio about a deaf mute), and finally as an object of intellectual and erotic fascination.  Bostock’s blued-eyed, blond-haired cuteness represents a “morphological type”; he is the late twentieth-century American adolescent, “well nourished and so vacuously secure in [his] own natural and social prerogatives” (Adair, 28).  Bostock’s beauty is “untranscended by mystery, tragedy or spirituality,” making it different from the beauty of Tadzio, Billy, and Dorian.  Unlike these precursors, Bostock is the accessible, mechanically reproducible object, the image of the boy-next-door, made available in teenage magazines, posters, and videos.  De’ath is ‘virtually’ stalking Bostock through these products, each one validating his right to a more intimate, corporeal encounter (Nicol, 72-73).  De’ath relates his consumption of these products to the infatuation of teenage girls with male stars; this feminizes male homosexual desire and confirms the commonplace association of homosexuality with consumerism and immaturity (Sinfield, Cultural, 54-55).  De’ath comments that his “Bostockiana,” his collection of material associated with his idol, would be the envy of an adolescent girl (Adair, 72); he describes his mind “wander[ing] as aimlessly as a schoolgirl’s” (Adair, 42); and on meeting Bostock’s fiancée, Audrey, he invents an eleven-year-old goddaughter very like himself, who obsessively collects Bostock merchandise and is broken-hearted by the news of her idol’s engagement (Adair, 121-23).

[5] Despite conforming to such stereotypes, De’ath regards himself as the cerebral male and Bostock as the non-intellectual, feminized object.  For De’ath, Bostock’s part as a “swot” in one film is him acting against type (Adair, 81), complicating De’ath’s conception of their difference and his role as “professional analyst of mass culture,” who must trawl through the “preposterous bulk” of consumer goods as part of his study (Adair, 70).  This process also involves De’ath repetitiously watching, scrutinizing, and quantifying Bostock’s body.  Using his newly acquired video recorder, he re-watches one scene in which Bostock is “sidling dreamily along the beach … performing hand-stands, shimmying with his slender, almost invisible hips” (Adair, 52).  As Bostock is only a minor character in the film, his body shifts in and out of focus, and the camera’s brief glimpses tease De’ath, intensifying his attention.  De’ath’s furtive looking at Bostock becomes equivalent to Mann’s von Aschenbach watching Tadzio on the Lido beach.  In addition, De’ath emphasizes Bostock’s boyish or feminine appearance; for example, he connects the immaturity of the emotional lives of Bostock’s fans with “the immaturity of his physique” (Adair, 43).  In De’ath’s favorite photograph, Bostock is a “lovely, flowerlike nonentity” who looks as if he is wearing lipstick (Adair, 43, 93); his androgyny means that in films he is typecast as one of “nature’s victims,” “whose blood is meant for shedding, his body for gentle rape” (Adair, 84).  De’ath watches as Bostock’s characters undergo spectacles of suffering and humiliation because they have deviated from American ideals of masculinity (Sedgwick,Epistemology, 114-21; Greven, 44).  De’ath is particularly struck by one scene from Hotpants College II in which the jock Cory hoists Bostock “bodily out of his seat” and with “the wanton energy of a born bruiser, [throws] him across the floor of the café”; Cory then squirts ketchup all over Bostock (Adair, 30).  This scene reminds De’ath of Henry Wallis’s painting of the suicide of the Romantic poet Lord Chatterton; however, any similarly between Chesterton and Bostock is superseded by De’ath’s identification of victimhood with his status as an intellectual and artistic outsider.  Watching this display of social punishment summons up De’ath’s own experiences as the “prime target” of school bullies because of “[his] timidity, fragility of build and quite unintentional priggishness of manner” (Adair, 73).  This connects English public school with American high school, establishing the transnational problem of the bullying of weaker males and that the perpetrators of such acts of violence validate their masculine power.  However, any level of identification with Bostock is undercut by De’ath’s penchant for objectifying and sexualizing him.  In one photograph, Bostock reminds De’ath of an English public schoolboy, and De’ath imagines him being compelled “by his fellows to receive a caning on his bared buttocks” (Adair, 63).  This association between public school, English masculinity, and deviancy is accomplished by the homoerotic appropriation and Anglicization of an image of American manhood.

[6] Father of Frankenstein begins with the British film director James Whale searching among the beautiful American bodies included in the magazine Physique Pictorial for “a figure who will move him to art”; then from his window he sees his gardener, Clay Boone (Bram, 13).  Unlike Bostock, Boone has “a handsomely thuggish quality,” a “stony, sullen masculinity that Americans found dangerous in juvenile delinquents but becoming in their soldiery” (Bram, 14-15).  To a large extent, Whale fails to see beyond his conceptualization of Boone as an embodiment of stereotypes of heterosexual American manhood.  Evoking the opening chapters of The Picture of Dorian Gray, Whale tells Boone, “You must excuse me for staring, Mr Boone. But you have the most marvelous head,” adding “To an artistic eye, you understand” (Bram, 71).  Boone, a “hick who cuts lawns” who doesn’t know “squat about art” (Bram, 69), is flattered at first by this attention, but later regards Whale’s comments as “funny coming from a man, even one who’s an artist” (Bram, 74).  Boone’s discomfort at being objectified by another man rests on his early suspicions about Whale’s sexuality: his fear that Whale sees him as Boone might a beautiful woman.  To allay Boone’s fears about posing for a painting, Whale calls his apprehensions “schoolgirl shyness” and asserts their shared masculinity: “I’m not your aunt Tilly” (Bram, 99).  Like De’ath, Whale imposes notions of vulnerability, weakness, and femininity upon American masculinity.  The most powerful example of this strategy is when Whale places a gasmask from World War One on Boone, the latter having decided to pose nude for Whale in order to reinvigorate his friend’s artistic powers.  This creates the surreal image of a powerful male body made defenseless and passive by the technologies of war; it is also at this moment of vulnerability that Whale sexually assaults Boone (Bram, 241-42).

[7] Whale wants the instrument of his death to be Boone; his death will put an end to the indignity and confusion caused by his physical and neurological deterioration after a stroke.  As Mark Bronski puts it, Whale decides “to ‘direct’ his last production–the creation of Clayton Boone as a new ‘monster’ who will turn on his creator and, ironically, set him free from both the past and the future” (12).  Whale’s feminization and eroticization of Boone provide the latter with an opportunity to reassert his heterosexual masculinity and unleash the violence inherent in its homophobic conceptualization.  Boone is a type: the cowboy, the delinquent, the soldier, for whom killing “is an American rite of passage. One’s not a real man until one’s killed another man” (Bram, 173).  Whale’s sexual assault on him will afford Boone the story he believes he needs to validate his masculinity:

The world beats it into your skull that you must be a man, a real man, then denies you the opportunity to do anything about it except get drunk or fuck. Clay knows he’ll never be famous. He doubts he’ll ever be a success, whatever that might mean. But he wants to have something like a war story. (Bram, 128)

Since Boone did not have the opportunity to serve his country as a marine, what better story can he have than defending his honor and masculinity against the horror of being the feminized, passive object in a homosexual encounter?

Outing the Englishman

[8] In both films and novels, the feminization of the heterosexual American is accompanied by the outing of the Englishman.  Yet this process is complex in both texts; while De’ath’s infatuation with Bostock is homoerotic, it does not concretize or constitute him as a homosexual.  In the other text, the focus is not on Whale being outed but rather on Boone’s efforts to come to terms with his friend’s sexuality; during this process the narrow stereotypes of sexuality and nationality which Boone has internalized are broken down.  These films and novels emphasize the fraught and complex nature of national and sexual identity: both are performative in the sense that they are constructed by actions that are “never quite carried out according to expectation” but which must be repeated to fabricate a coherent and intelligible essence (Butler, 231).  Love and Death on Long Island begins with De’ath’s conviction that he has “to get out” to feel “lighter [and] gayer” so as to escape from a stereotypically English, regimented and ordered life (Adair, 1, 33).  The novel could be read as De’ath’s journey towards modernity and homosexuality (Bruzzi, 131).  For example, De’ath learns that modern cinema facilitates and normalizes voyeurism: its viewers can watch “without being watched, see without being seen”; and videos provide a means whereby De’ath, in the privacy of his study, can scrutinize Bostock’s body with lawless and brazen eyes (Adair, 51).  Liberated through his embracing of modern technology and the access it affords him to a popular, celebrity-driven culture, De’ath is provided with a means of stepping out of the closet.  But he, who constantly needs to differentiate himself from others, rejects the identities of modern consumer and male homosexual, and any associations between the two (Sinfield, Wilde, 190); this affirms his nationality’s privilege of judging others while remaining unjudged.  Rather than being just another fan of Bostock, De’ath’s pursuit of the precision and rigor of academic enquiry makes him the only person capable of “tracing beneath the conventional surface a timeless and universal ideal” and of truly understanding the significance of this American boy (Adair, 51).  De’ath’s intellectual power and sensitivity allow him to rise above distinctions between lowbrow and highbrow art and find in populist “twaddle” the origins of a new aesthetics of beauty (Adair, 61).  Even if, at various points, De’ath can transcend any imposition of national or sexual stereotypes upon his behavior, there is a sense in which for him this has existential costs.  De’ath asks himself:

can it be that I am still the person I was, a respectable middle-aged widower possessed of a culture and erudition far in advance of the generality, and yet find myself appearing to share the sexual tastes and fantasies of an American tennybopper? (Adair, 74)

Having moved beyond his own conception of himself as the cultured, intellectual Englishman, De’ath also deviates from ideas about English restraint and control, the stiff-upper lip, and the “Puritanical vigilance on emotions” (Berberich, 40).

[9] De’ath regards any identity confusion as a new phase in his development as a writer; however, in his dreams he sees Bostock’s face as one he “had recognised but could not name” (Adair, 43) and describes his longing to “run [his] fingers through” the boy’s hair (Adair, 82).  Despite these and other indications, De’ath defiantly regards himself as “boringly heterosexual” (Adair, 44):

[he] knew nothing more shaming and tedious in the literature of [his] contemporaries and near-contemporaries than the maudlin neo-Hellenist cult of the ephebe, with middle-aged men like Wilde and Gide tastefully salivating over sleeping youths and making mawkish comparisons with asphodels and eglantines (Adair, 43).

He suggests that he bypassed the homosexual phase in the development and education of  Englishmen of his class, “the heated fumblings and scufflings [at public school] … the tiptoeing to and fro from one bed to another, the obscene little cabaret held evening after evening in the communal lavatory” (Adair, 44).  For De’ath, his real transgression is his immersion in popular culture.  At first, he delights in his ability to conceal his activity behind “the serene, thin-textured minutiae of [his] existence” as a middle-aged widower (Adair, 76).  However, eroticism slips into his language as he describes himself as having “a lover’s cunning and guile” or experiencing “juvenile thrills of subterfuge” (Adair, 58).  Later there is a clear sense that he is ashamed of his duplicity, yet it is not evident whether this is because of his lowbrow pursuits or his homoerotic infatuation with Bostock.  When De’ath places Bostock’s head on images of naked male torsos from gay pornographic magazines, Vulcan and Jupiter and Toy Boy, and masturbates, he feels utterly ridiculous (Adair, 94-97).  On one level, De’ath has transcended one stereotype of Englishness associated with emotion restraint and intellectuality to embrace another connected with consumption and homosexuality. Yet in neither the novel nor the film is it certain that De’ath imagines a sexual relationship with Bostock.  If anything De’ath would like to become the boy’s mentor, instructor, and cultural advisor.  The central aspect of De’ath’s personality is not his homosexuality nor his Englishness but rather his arrogant belief in his own superiority over others.

[10] In Father of Frankenstein, from Boone’s perspective, foreignness and homosexuality are associated; there are more homosexuals in Europe than there are in America since homosexuality is un-American activity (Bram, 181).  The central problem for him about Whale is Boone’s inability to tell male homosexuality and English masculinity apart:

[Whale] had to be a fairy, only with Englishmen you can’t be sure where English leaves off and fairy begins. It’s not like Clay is afraid of fairies. He doesn’t think he’s ever met one. He knows homosexuals only by their reputation, the same way he knows Communists and flying saucers (Bram, 63-64).

The similarity between Englishness and male homosexuality creates a confused space in which Boone and Whale’s friendship can occur.  Whale continually complicates Boone’s stereotypes of nationality and sexuality: Whale has a firm manly handshake, smokes a cigar with masculinity and confidence as if it were a “little cannon” angled in his hand, and was an officer in World War One (Bram, 74, 175). Despite Whale’s housekeeper calling Whale a “Bugger” or referring to “the deed no man can name without shame” (Bram, 168), Boone only accepts Whale’s homosexuality when it is confirmed by the man himself.  At first, Boone is troubled by the implications that this would have for their friendship; he reflects that “sitting for Whale [to paint him] no longer feels like a harmless hoot, a flattering honor. Having a homo touch you, even with just his eyes, should be humiliating” (Bram, 174).  Although Boone feels that this revelation “poisons all the pleasure he took in knowing the man” (Bram 180), eventually his feelings of amity toward Whale outweigh these fears: “So what if the guy’s a homo, as long as he keeps his hands to himself?” (Bram, 176).  Even then, Whale’s description of his homoerotic friendship with his military comrade, Leonard Barnett, confounds Boone’s association of ideal masculinity with military service and his conflation of effeminacy with homosexuality (Keller, 60-61).  Boone’s interest in finding characteristics in his friend that deviate from the homosexual stereotype means that the gay man is presented as an intricate figure who conforms just as much to Boone’s ideas about normative masculinity.  Boone’s conception of Whale keeps changing: “Clay finds himself trying to get a grip on what Whale means to him now”; “Clay’s unease has shifted from [issues related to] sex to the confusion of knowing such a man as Whale even exists, someone who evokes such a mix of fear, admiration, envy, and pity”; “[Whale] screws up everything Clay’s been taught to feel about the world” (Bram, 188-89).  The outing of these Englishmen calls into question essentialist models of identity and explores, as New Queer cinema does, “the overlapping borders of various sexualities (as well as those of gender, race/ethnicity, class and nationality)” (Benshoff & Griffin, 11-12).  De’ath’s fixation with Bostock does not stabilize his sexual identity, nor does Whale’s assertion of his sexual identity necessitate his display of expected characteristics or attributes.


[11] These novels and films suggest that America is a place that allows the Englishman the opportunity to perform his national identity, but that this performance is exaggerated, opportunistic, advantageous, and provisional.  De’ath finds artistic inspiration and renewal in his absorption in American culture and its beautiful boy; he begins to write a new novel, transforms his “fogeyish unworldliness,” accepts the complexity of his sexuality, and gains a new “blithe and reckless irresponsibility” (Adair, 79).  Yet for De’ath, America is simply the place of proximity to Bostock and where there is a more abundant supply of products associated with him.  Here, De’ath can play up his Englishness; for example, when he deliberately bumps into Audrey, Bostock’s girlfriend, at a local supermarket, he writes, “I could not have been more profuse in apologies, more unmistakably British equally in manner and accent” (Adair, 120).  His English intellectuality charms Audrey, especially when it is used to praise Bostock’s as yet “underexploited” acting talent (Adair, 122).  Reflecting on the incredulity of his performance and the dazed effect it has on his American interlocutor, De’ath writes:

It would have struck a wholly rational intelligence that there might be something suspect and not altogether plausible in an English writer in his late middle age holding such strong and well-informed options about a young, virtually unknown American actor (Adair, 122-23).

De’ath can mask his obsession with Bostock behind his persona of the erudite English connoisseur: his “scene by scene and shot by shot analysis of Bostock’s film career” is transformed from infatuation into a display of academic and intellectual “authority and expertise”.  When De’ath meets Bostock this level of flattery and advice is intensified, but it is ultimately an intoxicating trap for Bostock’s ego:

Thus I reminded him that I was a writer, that, even if he had not heard of me, I was, in England, in Europe, a famous writer, esteemed, respected, paid attention to. And I vowed, I vowed that I would henceforth devote myself to his career, that I would write the kind of role and the kind of film which his gifts merited, that I was ready to subordinate everything else in my life to that end (Adair, 134-5).

De’ath offers to use his writerly powers to further the boy’s career only if Bostock renounces his “temporary attachments”: America and Audrey.  In the film version De’ath tells Bostock, “In Europe, we have a much stronger tradition of work with, what you call, a message” and “your future lies in Europe”. This suggests that De’ath’s consumption of popular culture has been expedient and his trip to America a strategy; these can be discarded once he has appropriated Bostock for Europe and for himself.  For De’ath, America is not so much a land of opportunity but a land of opportunism whose resources are there to be appropriated, and De’ath is never more American than in this act of appropriation: he is like the nineteenth-century American visitors to Europe depicted by Henry James who are materialists and “consummate collector[s]” of European treasures, including its people, for their native land (Bradbury, 198).

[12] America not only provides Whale with the chance to “play up his Englishness,” it allows him to transform himself into this nation’s antithesis: the upper-class English gentleman (Bram, 13). On hearing of Whale’s working-class background, Boone reflects that he “hadn’t even bothered to think that there must be poor people in England. Every Englishman you see in the movies is a lord or a butler” (Bram, 102).  In America, Whale can hide his humble origins and present himself as the Oxbridge educated aesthete; he tells his expatriate friends, Elsa Lanchester and Charles Laughton:

‘I am finished with being humble. Knowing one’s place? I knew it all too well in London. I could never forget I was an intruder. Here, I can be anyone I choose. If I wish I’d gone to Oxford, abracadabra, I’m an Oxford graduate. If I hate being in my forties, presto change-o, I lop off a few years’ (Bram, 90).

His adoption of the role of the upper-class gentleman occurs despite, or perhaps because of, Whale’s contempt for English social hierarchy; at a party in honor of Princess Margaret he “feel[s] like an interloper, an impostor” within the context of class system he has rejected (Bram, 202).  It is not homosexuality which is Whale’s “little secret” (Bram, 31) but rather his class; and what most troubles him about his illness is the fact that his mind keeps digging up this past. He remembers how his feigned upper-class accent, his love of art and culture, and his aspirations to better himself made his working-class family and friends regard him as a sissy (Sinfield, Wilde, 137). Contrasting himself with Edmund Kay, a gay American student, Whale reflects that “He could never afford to be so thoughtless and carefree. If only he had been born an American” (Bram, 31).  Although his adoption of upper-class characteristics in America might connote his homosexuality, it might equally symbolize cultivation and taste; moreover, his reinvention, self-fashioning, and social mobility make him an example of the American ideal of the self-made man.  Whale associates his determination to die rather than continue to suffer ill health with his Americanness: he says “A self-made man deserves a self-made death” (Bram, 82), such a death is right for an Englishman who has gone native (Bram, 92). For both Englishmen, America is not merely a place of sexual liberation and personal renewal but a location where national identity and character are temporary and overstated performances, not essential or fixed.  In America each Englishman becomes more stereotypically English and yet displays strategies of appropriation and reinvention that are quintessentially American.

Mutual Relations

[13] The specific terms of these transatlantic friendships mirror wider realities, whereby Europe requires the backing of a globally dominant, financially powerful America, which, in turn, looks to Europe for cultural and national validation (Bradbury, 409-17).  Following patterns in transatlantic literature, De’ath and Whale are Europeans attracted to American innocence and naivety, and Bostock and Boone yearn for and, particularly in the case of Bostock, seek to emulate the tradition, cultivation, and longevity associated with European culture.  In each text, the Englishman is elderly and associated with illness and death, and brought to a new, more complex understanding of life, albeit briefly in the case of Whale, through his encounter with a straight, healthy figure of American beauty, youth, and virility.  In his last letter to Bostock, De’ath notes the “very different course” the young man’s life might have taken if he had accepted De’ath’s offer, predicting that this lost opportunity would finally destroy the youth (Adair, 138).

[14] Like Bostock, Boone is attracted to the status and cultivation of an Englishman: for him, Whale is a “gentleman artist,” a wealthy movie director, “the man who made Frankenstein,” but also a substitute father figure (Bram, 54, 176). Whale becomes a means for Boone of connecting not just with Europe but with an older generation: Boone tells his friends, “You learn stuff listening to old-timers” (Bram, 106). In addition, Boone realizes at the party in honor of Princess Margaret that he and Whale are not so different: “This world isn’t his anymore. He is like me here, Clay thinks, more like me than I ever imagined. Clay is overcome by feelings of pity, curiosity, and protectiveness” (Bram, 172).  This sense of mutual alienation cements their friendship.  Following his namesake Daniel Boone, the loner and frontier hero, Boone is the typical inviolate man of American literature, who sees himself as “Thoreau with a lawn mower” (Bram, 162) and favors freedom over personal attachment, whether heterosexual or homosocial; he says, “I like my life. I’m a free man. I want to keep it that way” (Bram, 124; see Greven, 2-3).  The encounter with Whale makes Boone realize how much he has longed for somebody “he can talk with, or listen to anyway”: he imagines “they are something like friends” (Bram, 162-63).  Despite his initial homophobia, Boone enjoys the attentions of a man of Whale’s fame and importance, regardless of possible erotic connotations.

[15] The film versions of both novels place greater emphasis on the mutually beneficial nature of the relationships between these men.  In contrast to the novel which concentrates on De’ath’s infatuation with Bostock, the film version explores their friendship in greater detail.  For example, De’ath spends more time with Bostock and Audrey and even goes on a day trip alone with Bostock to the Hamptons; he helps Bostock rehearse his lines and gives him concrete advice about his career.  The film underlines the power of De’ath’s influence by having Bostock read some lines from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass at the funeral scene in Hotpants College III.  This was suggested to him by De’ath and can be interpreted as a tribute to De’ath’s mentorship, as well as a display of Bostock’s aspirations to become a serious actor.  His use of Whitman also signals the importance of this poet, and nineteenth-century American literature more generally, in shaping modern gay consciousness on both sides of the Atlantic; this draws attention to the fact that transatlantic influence goes both ways (Price, 135-36).

[16] Unlike the novel, Gods and Monsters ends with Boone rejecting his solitary life in favor of domesticity and marriage.  We see Boone tell his son that he knew the creator of Frankenstein and in the film’s final shot Boone, having taken out the garbage, pretends to walk like Frankenstein’s monster.  This suggests that the function of gay men in recent films is not just to change women’s attitude towards domesticity and romantic love, as Amy Aronson and Michael Kimmel suggest (47), but to have a beneficial effect on heterosexual men as well.  De’ath offers Bostock cultural mentorship, and Whale goes even further by guiding Boone toward social integration and sexual and emotional intimacy.  In this respect, these films can be connected with positive images of relations between straight characters, usually women, and gay ones in films such as My Best Friend’s Wedding andThe Object of my Affection.  While the differences between the English and the American men in each novel and film are maintained, the idea of them being “antithetical masculinities” (Keller, 50) is made problematic. In fact, these texts present friendship as something that transcends nationality and sexuality, creating a space of mutuality.  The texts even suggest that to some extent levels of homoeroticism within male-male relationships can have redemptive effects (Bronski, 13).

Beautiful boys who don’t kill

[17] In these transatlantic encounters the beautiful American boys, unlike their European precursors Dorian, Billy, and Tadzio, do not end up causing the deaths of the Englishmen who love them. Death in the title Love and Death on Long Island refers simply to the author’s surname, and Whale’s eventual death is a result not of a homophobic attack but of suicide; in neither text is there the violent homophobia and murder evident in films such as American Beauty (1999) and The Talented Mr Ripley (1999).  Instead, the amorous advances of the Englishmen are met with embarrassment in Love and Death on Long Island and, despite initial violence, with sympathy in Father of Frankenstein / Gods and Monsters. De’ath, echoing Wilde’s defense at his trial, eloquently proposes that he and Bostock have a type of romantic friendship that is quite common in Europe:

between a younger man and his elder, this elder being a writer, oftentimes a poet, by whom the youth would accept to be moulded, shaped, educated, inspired on to heights of spiritual and intellectual endeavour he could not, could never, attain by himself (Adair, 135).

De’ath explains that such a relationship was enjoyed by David and Jonathan, was celebrated by Plato, Michelangelo, and Shakespeare, and could have a sexual component as the one between Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud did.  Bostock politely rejects him, offering De’ath the “brisk, neutral handshake of someone on the point of taking his leave” (Adair, 136).  Even when De’ath clings to his wrist and whispers “the inevitable, irreplaceable words, hackneyed and sacred: I love you,” the homophobic anger and threat which one might expect is not present; Bostock is merely anxious that nobody has witnessed this scene (Adair, 136).

[18] Unlike De’ath, Whale’s sexual advances toward Boone are not romantically or sexually motivated but tactical.  Conceiving of Boone as the “masculine American killer,” Whale thinks that kissing such a man would result in murder (Bram, 158).  Sexually assaulting Boone, Whale taunts him: “What will you do to get yourself back”; “You’re not such a real man after all”; “You undressed for me. I kissed you. I even touched your prick.  How will you be able to live with yourself” (Bram, 244-46).  Whale even tells Boone, “No jury on earth will convict you”; “You’d be the innocent youth. Protecting his virtue from the dirty old pansy” (Bram, 246).  Despite this provocation, Clay cannot kill him and tearfully responds, “You didn’t do shit. Except make a fool of me. I thought you were a friend … Look. You shit on me tonight. I trusted you, but you shit on me” (Bram, 246-47).  Boone’s emotional reaction to this assault reveals a sensitivity and fragility that Whale had not expected from Boone’s hard manly frame (Bram, 63); Boone feels betrayed by the friend he trusted, forcing Whale to ask apologetically: “Can you forgive me? Can we be friends again after tonight?” (Bram, 250).  Rather than ending with tragic deaths, these films and novels present brief life-changing friendships that complicate the stereotypes of nationality and sexuality which they evoke.  Although rejected by Bostock, De’ath’s American adventure has reinvigorated his creativity and complicated his sense of his own sexual identity.  Similarly, Whale has to revise his own conceptualization of heterosexual masculinity when Boone exceeds its parameters, and find the courage to end his own life.  These friendships overturn the concentration in other films and novels on the “potential threat of homosexuality hidden behind homosocial bonding” (Wyatt, 57).  They redress the emphasis placed on homophobia as “endemic and perhaps ineradicable in our culture” and the idea that it polices all male relationships and prevents the close friendships which the texts under discussion foreground (Sedgwick, Between, 89).  Here, the gay/straight male friendship offers a model of male interaction that is emotionally transformative and reciprocally valuable.  These friendships exist in sharp contrast to conventional understandings of male homosociality as shaped by fear of and rivalry with other men, which lead to aggressive and violent competition for material goods, status, and women (see Kimmel, “Homophobia”; Sedgwick, Between; Greven).


[19] The discussion of the gay Englishman in America suggests that, on one level, this figure seems “amicable to the interests and values of mainstream America” because “innocuous and inoffensive” (Keller, 4-5; Cover, 73-4).  The gay Englishman’s acceptance by American culture is inextricably connected with the prior association of male homosexuality and English masculinity in the American mindset, making American masculinity the standard of manhood.  This is reinforced by the film adaptations of Love and Death on Long Islandand Father of Frankenstein, which feature two veteran English actors. John Hurt plays Giles De’ath and Ian McKellen plays James Whale, both of whom are associated with homosexuality; Hurt is famous for playing the gay activist Quentin Crisp and McKellen is openly gay.  In contrast, Bostock and Boone are played by two very popular, straight actors Jason Priestly and Brendan Fraser.  Particularly reassuring for readers and viewers of these texts is that the relationship between an elderly gay Englishman and a young straight American man will remain nonsexual and avoid presenting sex between men (Aronson and Kimmel, 47).  Bostock refers to De’ath as “an old friend,” and Boone describes “[Whale as] an artist. A gentleman. And old. He’s too old to think about any kind of sex with anyone” (Bram, 120, 170); the Englishmen’s central function is to pass on their wisdom to the next generation (Keller, 64-5).  However, the gay Englishman in America in these texts is also a challenging figure, who is not the abject other of male heterosexuality or the tragic victim of his own sexuality; instead, the texts explore the complexities and nuances of these men’s personalities, unsettling and denaturalizing national and sexual typecasting (Butler, 3; Russo, 129-132).  What is also provocative in these texts is their foregrounding of American masculinity as the object of queer desire, which complicates the way American masculinity is understood.  For example, De’ath obsession with Bostock underlines the marketability of an androgynous, feminized, and passive version of American manhood; while Whale’s manipulation of Boone reveals the vulnerability, loneliness, and anxiety inextricably connected with the performance and conceptualization of straight masculinity.  Finally, the gay-straight friendship between the gay Englishman and straight American offers a new paradigm of male homosociality, which obfuscates the homophobia that shapes male-male interaction:  American men fear that other men, regardless of sexuality, will emasculate them and expose their failure to measure up as “real men” (Kimmel, “Homophobia,” 277).  In the same way that “the most openly acknowledged gay male” stands outside the oppressive imperatives of masculinity (Sedgwick,Epistemology, 164), a non-sexual friendship between an openly gay man and straight man can facilitate the kind of intimacy, closeness, and affection, bordering comfortably on the homoerotic, that is so often proscribed in homophobically charged friendships between male heterosexuals.

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