Bright Lights Film Journal

The Sissy Gaze in American Cinema

Ray Milland and Franklin Pangborn in Three Smart Girls (1936)

Shed a tear for that shimmering, noble, lost creature of the cinema — the sissy!

What’s wrong with Hollywood? Nowadays you hear everyone asking that. This very morning, I heard Tinky-Winky ask La-La, “Wha’s wong Hahwywoo, La-La?,” which is pretty darn close.

Dear Hollywood, when I look back at our good times together and ask what’s been lost in our relationship, I can only answer, “Sissies.” Oh, my Hollywood, I know you’d answer “a captive audience” or “cheaper labor” if I gave you the chance, but forget it. My answer is sissies.

Imagine a world with no sissies: Slicked hair and dismissive smirks shimmer no more. Cod-liver-oil-soaked cotton muffles your hearing — but, no, it’s merely the absence of nervous twitters. What a dark, glum world. A world in which bullies must resort to beating up normal people.

Now look at the world of 1920s and 1930s Hollywood. What grace! What spirit! Hops and flurries delight the eye; acidic comebacks scour the ear canal. What suspense! When will the hero dash from the female menace? When will the gentleman’s gentleman lose patience with the slovenliness of his master? Or openly declare his adoration?

Although for the past three decades, Hollywood has merely swapped comic-relief cowardly fags into the roles left vacant by comic-relief cowardly coloreds, true sissiness was once to be found even among hetero (if inept) heroes. What from the silent era has aged better than Charles Chaplin’s martial art of flirtation, or Buster Keaton’s otherworldly foppishness, snapping like a limp wrist between the deliria of paralysis and of superhumanly precise panic?

Why, nothing. And that’s no accident: the sissy’s twining of intense observation and cluelessness mirrors and triggers the pleasure of the cinema audience itself. His uncontrollably expressive repression, his big eyes, soft lips, and ankle-twisting missteps provide the most natural and least condescending subject/object conflation available to empathic (or, as it’s sometimes called, “narrative”) film. The medium of cinema solely and uniquely depicts the accidents of reality, and, as the accidents of reality trap, attack, and redeem him, the sissy embodies cinema’s eternally frustrated hunger for form.

In the senile arts of lyric poetry and prose fiction, the sissy seems portentous, inflated; his voice dominates with a force we know to be false; he appeals only to those power-mad sissies who wish to emulate him. In movies like The Lady Eve, however, he is flatteringly distanced from his audience, while, like them, a quick and unforgiving judge easily fooled by surfaces. Within the Dream Factory, he is the licensed territory of unfettered, albeit bruised, dreaminess. He’s a precious object asking for a swipe with a baseball bat — and yet (to turn to the cinematic embodiment of accident), James Cagney’s contempt for the sissy is always more playful and forgiving than his contempt for women. For the sissy is finally no more threatening than the play of light on a sheet of cloth.

At the height of its powers, Hollywood’s sissy specialists scampered the gamut. Usually a force for nonsensical plot complications, Edward Everett Horton’s barely closeted air managed to stretch from reassuring mature role model (in both versions of Holiday) to sinister death-in-life plague (in Design for Living). Given his thuggish build, Eric Blore’s sissiness was downright menacing at times. Ralph Bellamy effortlessly combed the brilliantine of sissy inadequacy into his inarticulate All-Americans. And of course there was always Paramount….

Glitter sprinkled over the leading men, as well. Vacuum-packed Cary Grant conveyed the isolation of the sissy as convincingly and charmingly as every other breed of isolation. Henry Fonda’s infantile limpness was so debilitating as sometimes to require literal manipulation. In his most affecting parts, James Stewart bluffed a toughness that longed for, and often achieved, complete collapse. Fred Astaire’s Gingery dances emphasized retreat more than attack. Although his lines were written with spitshine polish in mind, gawky popeyed potbellied slewfooted William Powell most resembled Franklin Pangborn physically, while pixilating with as many angles as the clever gay observers of pre-Code urban comedies.

Perhaps surprisingly, the feminine form of sissy was not super-femininity. Instead, the love interests of sissy male stars were forces of terrifyingly random or terrifyingly practical action. And the female equivalents to the ambivalent male were actors like Margaret Sullavan and Miriam Hopkins: querulous, intelligent, awkward, and driven; oddball ex-tomboys vibrating with untrustworthy intensity.

Like all personality traits, both female and male sissiness became suspect in the late 1940s and 1950s, at best treated as a transitional phase ending in, “Why, without your individuality, you’re beautiful!” Eventually the female sissy’s energy would be drained into twitchy psychos like Julie Harris and Amanda Plummer, and her restorative powers sealed behind clumsy bee-stung lips. The male of the species was eradicated similarly, albeit less quickly. Montgomery Clift and James Dean rushed the James Stewart crumple onto the screen like hypochondriacs trying to talk their way into emergency surgery. So did the 1950s James Stewart, come to think of it. Oh, there were still comic turns: mica-brittle Rock Hudson in Send Me No Flowers, speaking of hypochondria, and the miraculously responsive instrument known as Tony Randall — but very few writers or directors seemed capable of scoring them competently, as was painfully proven by Laura’s and Adam’s Rib’s confusion of charming bitch queens with villainous ladykillers, and by the ensuing mad cliché that strangled soft boys Sal Mineo and Anthony Perkins in the cradles of their careers. Even fluttering coward Bob Hope was not vulnerable enough for full sissy charm: merely craven in his worst parts, his best parts bloomed into a cartoonish unreality that was almost nightmarishly overwhelming. A split which later led on the cartoonish hand to Jerry Lewis (more inexplicable than truly sissy), and on the craven hand to Woody Allen, so suffocatingly power-mad as to erase all sissy (i.e., cinematic) power whatsoever.

After Paul Lynde retired to television, what was left of Hollywood? From 1970 on, American film has deafened us with the strident masculine whine, “I’m a selfish blind bullying creep, but I still haven’t gotten everything I want.” Contemporary hardbody stars are easy to picture in gay porn, but lack the personality needed to convey sissiness. Nowadays, only children and asexual drag queens are allowed the freedom to mince, most strikingly perhaps when the two categories are combined, as in Ma vie en rose.

Contrast, if you dare, recent American directors with one from the contemporary Golden Age of Hong Kong: Stanley Kwan. Following in the high-arched footsteps of Frank Borzage, Mitchell Leisen, and Douglas Sirk, Kwan films the world of humanity in all its comedy, tragedy, beauty, despair, surprise, and grace: in a word, sissiness.

Anyone who likes sissies would like Stanley Kwan’s movies. And everyone should like sissies because THE SISSY GAZE IN CINEMA ROOLZ OK!