Bright Lights Film Journal

Cruising with Camille: An Interview with Camille Paglia

“Please note that even Margo Channing, threatening a ‘bumpy night’ for her hapless guests, merely fumingly forecasts. It’s a gesture of mind, not body.”


Camille Paglia, the scholar and culture critic, is the University Professor of Humanities and Media Studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, where she has taught since 1984. She received her B.A. from the State University of New York at Binghamton in 1968 and her M.Phil. and Ph.D. degrees from Yale University in 1971 and 1974 respectively.

Her books are: Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson (Yale University Press, 1990; Vintage Books, 1991, national bestseller); Sex, Art, and American Culture (Vintage Books, 1992, national bestseller);Vamps & Tramps: New Essays (Vintage Books, 1994, national bestseller); and The Birds, a study of Alfred Hitchcock published in 1998 by the British Film Institute in its Film Classics Series. Her fifth book, Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-Three of the World’s Best Poems, was released by Pantheon Books in April 2005 and became an immediate national bestseller. It was published as a Vintage paperback in January 2006 and also became a bestseller. Her work is internationally known and has been widely translated. Her next book, a study of visual images that will be a companion book to Break, Blow, Burn, is under contract to Pantheon Books. Her third essay collection is also under contract to Pantheon.

Prof. Paglia is a contributing editor at Interview magazine. She has written numerous articles on art, literature, popular culture, feminism, and politics for publications around the world, including, for which she was a columnist for six years, beginning with its debut issue in 1995. She has lectured and appeared on television and radio extensively in the United States and abroad.

In an international poll conducted in September 2005 by the British magazine Foreign Policy and Prospect, Prof. Paglia was named at number 20 in the list of the Top 100 Public Intellectuals in the world.

Prof. Paglia spoke with Mark Adnum in August 2006.

MARK ADNUM: Bette Davis said that when she woke up on her sixtieth birthday, she “screamed and stayed in bed all day” and also remarked that “anyone who says that life begins at forty is full of crap! As people get older their bodies begin to decay. They get sick. They forget things. What’s good about that?” How are you and the aging process getting along?

CAMILLE PAGLIA: I laughed out loud at your great Bette Davis quote! It really conveys her formidable, unconventional personality and blunt, pragmatic Yankee spirit. Don’t forget she was an Aries (like me) — Aries women are devotees of Nietzschean will power and inexhaustible nervous energy. So it’s no surprise that Davis, despite the fact that her movie career was never dependent on beauty, would despise aging.

As for me (I’m turning 60 next April), I don’t think I’m any less incredulous about the surreal passing of time than the other members of my youth-obsessed 1960s generation. Fortunately, the 60 barrier has been breached already by our rock and pop icons — those who didn’t drop dead decades ago, of course. I think, on the basis of my hero Keith Richards’ recent adventure in Fiji, that I should stay out of palm trees, but I haven’t hit any major incapacities yet (knock formica).

Because of their ubiquitous cruising principle, aging is generally a more critical issue for gay men than it is for lesbians. Old dykes retain status as tough customers, while aging gay men need money, fame, power or all three to keep their clout vis-à-vis the beautiful boys who so casually and cruelly rule the roost.

In real life, as I’m always reminding people, I’m Agnes Gooch, not Auntie Mame! That is, I’m just a gal from Syracuse — the gung-ho, earnestly clerical scribe, not the high-fashion party queen and night owl. So hitting 60 doesn’t change much.

I’m deeply enjoying being a parent — which I certainly would not have been able to do while I was writing Sexual Personae for 20 years. That 700-page tome was a round-the-clock operation, requiring a fanaticism of attention and persistence that could not possibly have been combined with a responsible family life.

For your readers’ information, my partner, Alison Maddex, gave birth four years ago to a boy, Lucien Harry Maddex, whom I legally adopted. (He inherits his names from the two sides of Alison’s family.) My favorite amusement these days consists of tossing balls around or endlessly watching impudent cartoons like Sponge Bob Squarepants,which I think immensely superior to nearly everything else on current TV.

Speaking of legendary (and dare I say it, aging) divas, Barbra Streisand commences her latest tour in Philadelphia this fall and Madonna plays Philadelphia this summer. Will you be attending either?

I saw Streisand at Madison Square Garden in New York in 1994, her first return to the concert stage in 27 years. She was visibly nervous but in superb voice. The hometown crowd was quite emotional to see her again, so it was very memorable. But I doubt I’ll attend her concert this year — I dislike those cavernous venues, which hardly suit a performer of Streisand’s fine artistry.

Streisand was electrifying when she burst on the scene in the early 1960s — my high-school friends and I were mad for her. My mother took me to Manhattan from upstate New York to see Streisand in Funny Girl, at the height of her new vogue. Young people today will never understand how the peevish, hectoring, middlebrow Streisand once represented vibrant, funny, madcap nonconformism and was at the forefront of the revolution in women’s gender roles.

I just saw the first of Madonna’s two concerts in Philadelphia, and I wasn’t thrilled with it. I simply wanted to see her — not be assaulted by an avalanche of pretentious, irrelevant images dizzily winking on giant screens. Alison enjoyed it — she’s much more of a True Blue Madonna fan, while I can’t turn off my beady critic’s eye. The lugubrious montage of doleful African orphans framing a glammed up Madonna as she reclined on her sparkly disco crucifix was too much by twenty miles.

Madonna seemed to be doing suspiciously little dancing — there was a lot of skipping up and down the ramps, along with Charo-like hair-whipping and nimbly acrobatic leg work on a stripper’s pole. But I felt that Madonna was often holding her neck and shoulders stiffly — as if her collarbone, which she broke in that riding accident last August, were bothering her. I wouldn’t be surprised if all this premature touring has aggravated it.

However, no one can doubt Madonna’s energy, drive, and perfectionism, as well as her infallibly theatrical fashion sense. She’s been a huge force in the modern performing arts, and whatever gripes one may have about her present taste or lifestyle pale in comparison to the enormity of her achievement.

When Streisand was directing The Prince of Tides, she is alleged to have screamed at her gay son Jason Gould to “Walk like a man!” when he was — apparently — walking in an unmanly way while acting in a pivotal scene. I often recall that anecdote when I think of how, despite the fact that almost every gay men I have ever met has failed to resemble the hyper-manly gay cowboys of Brokeback Mountain in any way, shape or form, the gay mainstream insisted to all and sundry that that movie “represented them”, and “told their story accurately”. Note that we heard little out of the mouths of most gays about Capote — which was playing at the same time — despite its conspicuous cinematic qualities and its reminder to millions that one of America’s literary legends was a homo, albeit a flamer. Though the vast majority of gay men anchor their lives in urban communities where effeminacy and flanerie are par-for-the-course, their icons-of-choice are invariably stoic Marlboro Men, or brooding and displaced James Dean style hustlers e.g., River Phoenix in My Own Private Idaho, while less-flattering though more true-to-life gay characters are invariably shunned. What’s your take on this?

I’m sorry that Capote turned out to be such a dark, unpleasant movie. I think its grisly multiple murder theme may have overshadowed Philip Seymour Hoffman’s complex starring performance, which justifiably won an Oscar. Breakfast at Tiffany’s (from the Capote novel) was one of the canonical movies of my adolescence — and key to my later startling discovery of my strangely shared taste with gay men.

I became a fan of Truman Capote himself when he was a frequent guest on TV talk shows of the 1960s and ’70s, whose much more extended and relaxed format let him shine. It was astonishing what Capote got away with on mainstream network TV — a fey campiness that was far from the norm in those more closeted times.

Today, camp is no longer fashionable — in public, that is. Camping may be going on at fever pitch at gay bars and parties, but except for a few comedic TV shows, the official house style for gay men is now driven by politics: gravitas is in — an odd accessory indeed in the metrosexual toilet kit.

Further to that, the week after Brokeback Mountain failed to win the Best Picture Oscar, Annie Proulx deliberately mispronounced the title of the winning film Crash “Trash” and happily admitted to producing an (I thought embarrassing) self-described thousand-word “Sour Grapes Rant” that was published in The Guardian. How did you react to the spectacle of grown gay adults — Pulitzer Prize-winning authors among them — having public conniptions and impassioned debates over the picks of a film awards show that — despite its dignity and pop-cultural magnificence — routinely awards top prizes to people like Gwyneth Paltrow and Helen Hunt having ignored figures such as David Lynch, Alfred Hitchcock and Thelma Ritter? Why does it suddenly have to be “homophobia” when your favorite film doesn’t do so well at the Oscars? I don’t remember war veterans marching in protest when Shakespeare in Love won over Saving Private Ryan.

Yes, Annie Proulx embarrassed herself with that maudlin screed in the Guardian,which simply showed how little she knows about Hollywood and its checkered history. The Academy Awards have never been about “merit” per se but about the public image of the film industry; they were instituted amid the controversies over movie sex and violence in the 1920s, which led in turn to the studios’ adoption of the Hays Code in the early 1930s.

Proulx’s article is bafflingly incoherent: she gushes about being party to the glitz that night while simultaneously scorning it; then she charges Hollywood with being too right-wing and yet too liberal. (She claims the “conservative” Academy denied Brokeback Mountain the award for Best Picture but then complains that a hip-hop song about pimps won the Oscar.)

You’re so right to mention the outrages of Gwyneth Paltrow and Helen Hunt being voted Oscars for third-rate performances. One of my personal crusades is to dog Hunt and her Hollywood clique forever for the atrocity of her winning the statuette over Kate Winslet, who single-handedly carried a worldwide blockbuster, Titanic, through her virtuoso display of emotional power and athletic prowess (remember that ax in the rushing waters!). I wrote then in, and I renew my call here, that anyone who sees Helen Hunt in the street or anywhere else should shout, “Give back Kate Winslet’s Oscar!”

Brokeback Mountain was certainly pioneering in the persuasive way it made a sexual relationship between men emotionally credible to a straight audience. Director Ang Lee rightly won the Oscar for that. But I don’t think Brokeback Mountain is a great film. It’s far too long, soggy, and monotonous, and its bleak portrait of small-town and working-class life is (in my indignant view) condescending and offensively elitist. Without the picture-postcard mountain photography and wonderfully evocative score (which won an Oscar), this would be a small movie on the early ’90s indie level.

I was steadily annoyed by the over-stylish, absurdly clean and unwrinkled clothes of the two leads (they looked like Ralph Lauren catalog models) and by the sexist stereotyping of their betrayed and increasingly unattractive wives. Heath Ledger deserved his Oscar nomination, but (contrary to Annie Proulx’s assertion) it wasn’t really a major Oscar-winning performance. Ledger impressed me at first with his muted, strangled delivery, but he showed little development over time in his character and relied too often on a series of phlegmatic, shop-worn mannerisms borrowed from James Dean and Montgomery Clift.

As for Jake Gyllenhaal, I found him initially intriguing, but all that smirky eyelash-batting began grating on me. By the second half, he had morphed (with the mustache and sideburns) into a Las Vegas-period Wayne Newton impersonator — hardly a macho role model. I found the sudden removal of Gyllenhaal’s character from the script via a brutal gay-bashing simplistic and egregious — although no more so than the earlier bizarre mutilation-murder of an old gay man in a gully, which Ledger’s character was improbably forced to narrate.

The intrusion of a political agenda so baldly at those points struck me as factitious and reductive, betraying too-heavy manipulation by the screenwriters. (The director, in contrast, tried to soften that material by treating it as mere cinematic flashes.) Why hammer the audience? — unless you have no confidence in your central theme. Those coercive details artistically diminished the film and, I suspect, harmed its Oscar chances.

A great film by definition is one that invites and demands repeated re-viewings. For example, I’ve seen such films as The Philadelphia Story, Gone with the Wind, All About Eve, The Ten Commandments, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Auntie Mame, Ben-Hur, Suddenly Last Summer, Lawrence of Arabia, and Valley of the Dolls countless times and look forward to many more. For me, they are permanent life experiences.

I’m sure many gay men will take intense and even ecstatic pleasure in revisiting Brokeback Mountain‘s fantasy cowboy romance. But I have no interest in seeing that dreary film again. I had quite enough exposure to the buggy, dank discomforts of camping when I was a teenaged Girl Scout, thank you very much. Arthur Hiller’s intelligent 1982 film, Making Love, starring Harry Hamlin and Michael Ontkean, remains my favorite film to date about gay men.

As we’ve been discussing, gay men have a well-deserved reputation as fanatic cinephiles. The in-the-closet Joan Crawford worshippers of the pre-1960s gave way to the neurotic, dog-at-a-bone “positive representation” chorus line of the 1970s, which picketed the set of Cruising and was exemplified by Vito Russo and his Celluloid Closet. These days, it’s all about whether or not Tom Cruise is gay and, of course, Brokeback Mountain. Oliver Stone once said that every gay man thinks they’re a film critic, and Quentin Crisp said that he went to the movies “incessantly and reverently.” Yet, as far as I know there’s no particularly deep relationship between cinema and lesbian culture. How would you account for this?

I noticed this odd phenomenon while I was still in college. I had a community of response to film with gay men but virtually zero with lesbians. It’s partly why my dating life was such a frustrating blank. My theory is that gay men, unlike lesbians, have an innate, hyper-acute visual sense. It’s related to what I have speculated to be the genesis of much (but not all) male homosexuality: an artistic gene that ends up isolating sensitive young boys and interfering at a crucial moment with the harsh dynamics of schoolyard male bonding.

I loved Cruising — while everyone else was furiously condemning it. It had an underground decadence that wasn’t that different from The Story of O or other European high porn of the 1960s. I bought the Cruising soundtrack, which was really radical for its time, and played it for years. (By the way, one of the leather-clad cruisers in the New York park was played by Larry Atlas, whom I knew from when I taught at Bennington College in Vermont in the 1970s. He’s the hulking, strong-featured young guy with a mop of curly hair.)

The gay opposition to Cruising prefigured the dismayingly Stalinist gay and feminist picketing of Basic Instinct — in which Sharon Stone created one of the most indelible, charismatic dominatrixes of all time. It’s why I was so pleased to be invited to do the audio commentary for the DVD of Basic Instinct (which I recorded in a Philadelphia studio famed for its old soul and disco hits).

It strikes me that the irony of all the Vito Russo-style bellyaching is that it’s been heterosexual filmmakers who’ve made the more authentic films about the gay or lesbian experience than gay or lesbian filmmakers have. I mean, don’t you think that the lesbian scenes in Bertolucci’s The Conformist or Tony Scott’s The Hunger were far more sensual and knowing than, say, those in Donna Deitch’s Desert Hearts? William Friedkin‘s Cruising and The Boys in the Band were harsh films but speak to me quite clearly about some of the darker shades of the gay male experience and even the truncated love story in Alan Parker’s Midnight Express was, I thought, a lovingly filmed sequence that resonated with my sense of oft-problematic male-male desire. Meanwhile, though a growing network allows gay and lesbian filmmakers to tell their own stories, the majority of films that play! at the local gay and lesbian film festival offer such negligible amounts of resonance that they may as well be played backwards and in Chinese. What’s your opinion?

The veneration for Vito Russo is so over the top. When it came to the arts, Russo was a literalist, an industrious bean-counter. My big influence in college and graduate school was Parker Tyler, whose early writing on film had verve, wit, and oracular power. Russo was a Johnny-come-lately compared to the prolific, erudite Tyler.

I agree about the melting eroticism of Susan Sarandon fixated on ultra-vamp Catherine Deneuve in The Hunger — utterly magical! But that film was ruined by a gross excess of tacky blood and guts, for which the director should be blamed. I’ve always adored Midnight Express — not so much for the tinge of homosexuality as for its compellingly nightmarish atmospherics (and of course its sublimely operatic Giorgio Moroder score). And don’t forget the divine Stephane Audran stalking regally around Chabrol’s Les Biches!

When it comes to Desert Hearts, alas, I can admit no faults in that delightful film. I saw it eleven times at its first two releases in Philadelphia in 1986. The lead roles were splendidly played by straight women (Helen Shaver and Patricia Charbonneau, who had just learned she was pregnant) — and with wider range and subtler dramatic inflections than demonstrated by the stars of Brokeback Mountain. Desert Hearts was remarkable in its sense of place, its mesmerizing stream of music (country and Western classics), and its sharply observed supporting roles. If only more gay films had that kind of richness and humanity.

Oscar Wilde would turn in his grave if he learned of those who want to encourage the growth of a gay and lesbian filmmaking culture and so pour effusive praise over almost-invariably woeful films that are screened year after year at gay and lesbian film festivals all over the world. As I recall, Wilde instructed us that a text is either well made or poorly made, and should never be valued according to whether or not it satisfies the concerns-of-the-day of whatever stakeholders praise or condemn it to foster their own agenda. Bruce La Bruce has said that one of the greatest tragedies of AIDS is that is killed off gay aesthetics, which were immediately replaced by the drably political ACT-UP era crisis-atmosphere which has never receded, though the epidemic, in the gay community, has. (You have described the gay culture as being “flash frozen” in this respect). It’s like you have to be a film lover, or gay: you have to choose, for example, whether you praise ! a cinematic masterpiece like The Silence of the Lambs or harp about what a terribly homophobic piece of anti-gay Hollywood propaganda it is. Does the AIDS-induced fall of the grand gay aesthetic make you sad and yearn for a renaissance, or have you shrugged your shoulders and given up caring? Do you foresee a thaw at some point within the next decade or so, or has gay culture only just commenced its long journey into a deep, long Ice Age?

As a disciple of Oscar Wilde (whose epigrams I began studying in adolescence), I definitely feel alienated from the ideology-driven standards of many gay festivals. And I completely agree with Bruce La Bruce’s analysis about the death of gay aesthetics.

One problem is that film-making in general declined in quality from its high points in studio-era Hollywood and European art film of the 1950s and ’60s. The precipitous drop-off can even be seen in the careers of genius directors like Bergman, Fellini, and Antonioni. The great age of movies may be over, replaced by other genres, such as digital animation and Web communications.

If we are ever to see a revival of artistry, young film-makers must study and absorb the great movie past. To build on the small, weak, one-dimensional films of the 1980s and ’90s is a dead end. The same thing with writing: if young people simply draw on the shallow, cynical, jargon-clotted postmodernism of the 1980s and ’90s, they’ll produce nothing that will last.

This is why I exalt Tennessee Williams as a supreme role model: he was openly gay (daring at the time) but never ghettoized himself. He lived in the real world and thought and felt in passionate, universal terms — which is why he created titanic characters who have had worldwide impact and who are still stunningly alive.

In the U.S., urban gay male culture seems to be a victim of its own success and has been overtaken by a showy, brand-name materialism. Interest in the arts is no longer its social binder. Lesbians have become far more interested in beauty, but it hasn’t visibly transferred over to cultural interests. Nevertheless, I’m still hopeful that strong young voices will eventually emerge from the general banality to endorse and celebrate the arts.

On your “Break, Blow, Burn” website you listed the Top Ten lines of movie dialogue. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw you hadn’t included at least one line from Showgirls, such as “dancing ain’t fucking” or “We’re all whores, darlin’.” I thought classics such as these encapsulate my impression of your attitudes and ideas — why did they miss out on a place?

While my pagan system of pro-sex feminism does indeed exalt the stripper and the whore, my favorite movie lines nearly all fall into what I described in Sexual Personaeas Oscar Wilde’s emblematic category of arch distance. Dancing and whoring reactions, which the Wildean aesthete mordantly observes from afar. Please note that even Margo Channing, threatening a “bumpy night” for her hapless guests, merely fumingly forecasts. It’s a gesture of mind, not body.

To adapt what Mr. O’Hara exhorts Katie Scarlett about land (the red clay of Tara) in Gone with the Wind, “Mind is the only thing that lasts!”

NOTE: This interview first appeared on Mark Adnum’s fabulous website It’s reprinted here with the kind permission of Mark and the goddess Paglia!