Homophobia in the cinema of Mel Brooks

History of the World Now that comedy master Mel Brooks has turned 90, I think we should examine an element of his oeuvre that has, to a certain extent, been swept under the rug rather disgracefully while praise for his achievements has been lavished on him to no end.

I’m talking about the homophobia evident in many of his films—something you rarely hear about when it comes to contemporary discussions of his work … but an aspect that shouldn’t be pushed aside, no matter what his contributions to the world of cinema have been.

Has Brooks been irresponsible during his moviemaking career? I know that’s a potent word to use, yet I can’t think of any other in light of the attitudes toward LGBT folks conveyed in a number of his flicks—including classics such as The Producers (1967), as well as not-so-good pictures such as Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993).

It’s easy to chalk up The Producers to being a product of its times: pre-Stonewall riots, an era when understanding of homosexuality was naïve at best, frighteningly condemning at worst. That can’t be a good excuse, however, and the fact is, one of the film’s main characters is a gay man named Roger De Bris who shocks con-artist showman Max Bialystock and accountant-partner-in-crime Leo Bloom by dressing in drag while living up to his reputation as an incompetent director who revels in bad taste. The associations here are powerful: This person is a silly individual, an object of hilarity, someone to be laughed at. We’re supposed to laugh when Bialystock warns Bloom that he’s “peculiar” and are provided evidence of this when De Bris’ effeminate assistant, Carmen Giya, opens the door in an extremely mannered way. We’re also supposed to laugh when Bialystock calls the surprised director a “lousy fruit” after the producer’s plans go awry.

I can’t laugh at that.

We live in an age where human beings may be viewed from a variety of angles, with perception shaped by various influences, including motion pictures. And although the cinema is an art form, and all art must be looked at from an objective perspective, there’s a line that we have to draw—particularly when the work encourages us to judge someone or something not only from an aesthetic standpoint, but also from a moral one. That’s the issue with The Producers. It links the gay characters in the film to silliness, tackiness, perversion and idiocy, and while the flick does lash out at other targets, this kind of offensiveness stands out. There’s no balance; De Bris and Carmen Giya are operating in a vacuum. Prejudice, here, is an issue to make light of.

Which makes me wonder how LGBT people got the brunt of the bigotry in Brooks’ Blazing Saddles (1974), which lambastes racism while making fun of homosexuality at the same time. This is the movie where Hollywood director Buddy Bizarre (played by Dom DeLuise) comments on the sound of “steam escaping” when his group of foppish, top-hat-and-tails-clad gentlemen responds to him and barks the order, “Watch me, faggots.”

Funny, right? Ha, ha. Why wouldn’t you want to laugh at a disturbing homophobic slur? After all, it’s all meant in good humor, no? These folks are just mincing gay men. They can’t be taken seriously.

See the problem? Homophobia isn’t considered “equal” to other biases in the context of this movie, and that’s just offensive. But it gets even worse less than a decade later: Brooks’ History of the World: Part I (1981) features the f-slur even more predominantly and treats it as a joke; Brooks, playing an ancient Roman comedian/philosopher, breaks the fourth wall in saying it directly to the audience. Laughs are expected.

Blazing SaddlesI’m not sure what he was thinking when he dished out this bit of cinematic garbage, but when he starred in Alan Johnson’s remake of To Be or Not to Be (1983) as an actor whose wife’s dresser, Sasha, is gay, it seemed like a half-hearted apology. Now, after all of those frightful verbal attacks on LGBT lifestyles, he decides to show that he really respects individuals who adhere to that orientation? Too little, too late, in my opinion. The damage has already been done. It didn’t help that 10 years later, Robin Hood: Men in Tights came out with an affected villain, the Sherriff of Rottingham (portrayed by the late, great gay actor Roger Rees) and the idea that wearing tights is somehow unmanly and emasculating—unbefitting the eponymous hero and his crew … and therefore all too humorous.

There’s a trend here, isn’t there? Yes, it’s a bad one. And it’s distressing to see that Brooks, as funny as he and his films can be, had to resort to this kind of loutishness to get laughs.

I know: It seems absurd to criticize the master of bad-taste comedy of prejudice, especially as his slings and arrows fall every which way they can. I’m concerned, though, that current observation of his work ignores the intolerance that rears its ugly head in these pictures … some of which are regarded as comedy masterpieces. There’s a difference between laughing at someone and laughing with someone, and I’m afraid the segments I cite here supply proof of the former. In doing so, they offer reasons for bigots to consider homosexual people as nothing more than comical nonentities, absurd anomalies that don’t deserve respect but can always be the subjects of punchlines. That’s irresponsible laughter, my friends, as well as irresponsible filmmaking. And Brooks should realize the impact of these efforts and how wrongheaded they have been.

It’s too late now to go back in time and erase the malignancies out of these scripts, pare the performances in these pictures down. Yet it’s not too late to ensure that more accurate and sensitive portrayals of LGBT people are set forth in movies made today. The power of the cinema is great, and its effects can be wide-ranging. Surely we can have quality filmmaking that takes a responsible, respectable stance from an orientation viewpoint. For the more we promote such efforts, the better the attitudes of audiences will be toward folks who are different from them. And the better those attitudes are, the sooner we’ll put the hate broadcast by Brooks’ worst celluloid offenses behind us.

We’re on our way there already, I think. Let’s make sure we never lose sight of this goal—ever.

 

Simon Hardy Butler is a writer and editor living in New York City. He has written for publications ranging from Zagat to Adweek and operates a restaurant-focused blog called Critical Mousse (criticalmousse.com) that showcases his opinions on the culinary arena. He also blogs about anti-Semitism for the Times of Israel. His views and opinions are his own.

6 thoughts on “Homophobia in the cinema of Mel Brooks

  1. 5K thumbs up for this post. I can’t even let myself think about how many people who had to be silent about being gay were in the room while people who wouldn’t dream of telling a denigrating joke about blacks made fun of homosexuality.

  2. I laughed a lot at The Producers, but not at any specific slur. In fact, I don’t even recall the scenes you mention, as I generally think of the musical stage scenes, or Max having to seduce the old ladies to get funds. I didn’t think that Blazing Saddles was very good, nor The History of The World:Part 1. Although in both cases, I also didn’t really notice, or remember, any of the moments you describe. I didn’t even bother with his version of Robin Hood.
    Perhaps this sums up your issue. I was so used to this constant humour at the expense of gays, I didn’t even notice it? If I had been a gay man, I surely would have, and if I had been a black man, I might have been offended by representations black men over the decades too.

    I would be interested to hear what you think of films like The Birdcage, where the whole crux of the humour is about gay lifestyle, cross-dressing, and the intolerance towards it. Of course, I have to remember that I am 64 years old, and brought up on TV shows that mocked homosexuals, drag artists in pubs and on TV, together with serious films like ‘Victim’ (1961) that dealt with the victimisation and problems suffered by those who had to live a secret life.
    Even though I came from a tough working-class district of London, I never experienced any animosity towards gays of both sexes, and was able to make many friends in that community as I grew up.

    Best wishes, Pete.

    • So interesting to hear your take, Pete. And you’re right: Over here in the States, we had Percy Dovetonsils and the “Yeeeeessss” fellow in the store on the Jack Benny Show, who all could be construed as being homophobic caricatures. It’s only recently that more sensitive portrayals have become the norm–and even now, there’s still much to be done from that standpoint.

      I thought The Birdcage was pretty dreadful from a cinematic standpoint, though it did try to present a (relatively) tolerant message. A better film was the movie it was based on, La Cage aux Folles, which, though flawed, realistically tried to show a family unit with LGBT individuals as normal and healthy and featured a delicate, tender performance from Michel Serrault as one of the fathers. So there have definitely been sensitive, strong portrayals of LGBT lifestyles onscreen in the past. Too bad Brooks couldn’t have drawn from them.

  3. Interesting take, Simon. I’ve always read the scenes you’re talking about here as attempts to undercut homophobic ideas and parody them. Interesting to consider the original intention behind these scenes versus the way they play in 2016.

    • Thanks, James. It’s true that public perceptions change over the years, and that’s an interesting interpretation. I’m afraid, though, that Brooks, as usual, was playing the scenes for laughs … and I feel strongly that the intent went beyond any attempt to depict character.

      As a related aside, when I was growing up in the 1980s, the video for the Dire Straits song “Money for Nothing” played frequently on MTV, and there’s a line in it that prominently (and shockingly) features the f-slur. Sometimes MTV appeared to cut that segment out of the video … and sometimes it didn’t. Unfortunately, I think sensibilities at the time were different, and sensitivities toward LGBT needs were not often taken into account. Rather shameful to think about.

      • Having gone back to some of these scenes following your article, I must admit they do jar more than I’d remembered.

        As for Dire Straits… I know the song, but have never noticed the use of the word. It’s possible I’ve only ever heard the cleaned up version.

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