Saturday, March 19, 2016

Remembering a Daring Cinematic Exploration

. . . of the struggle men face, writes Ken Anderson,
when affection for another man is felt yet the societal
and morality-imposed roles of "friend" are inadequate.

In the lead-up to the recently released (anti-)superhero film Deadpool, there was a lot of talk about the nude fight scene between Wade Wilson (aka Deadpool), played by Ryan Reynolds, and the movie's villain, Ajax, played by Ed Skrein. The two were said to engage in hand-to-hand combat, naked, while a building burns down around them. The scene was said to be inspired by the brutal fight in David Cronenberg's 2007 film Eastern Promises, where Viggo Mortensen's character is attacked by a group of gangsters in a sauna.

I saw Deadpool upon its release, and agree with Dominic Preston's assessment: "crass, childish, and consistently entertaining." The much ballyhooed nude fight scene was nothing to write home about; for one thing, it is only Reynolds who briefly appears naked. It did however serve to remind me of perhaps cinema's most famous (or should that be infamous?) nude wrestling scene between two men. Yet unlike the scene in Deadpool, this one actually has something significant to say.

I'm speaking, of course, about the scene in Ken Russell's 1969 film, Women in Love, when Rupert (Alan Bates) and Gerald (Oliver Reed) wrestle naked in a large stately room lit only by a roaring fire. It's a daring scene, even by 1969 standards, and one that Ken Anderson insightfully discusses and analyzes on his blog, Dreams Are What Le Cinema is For.

Anderson's reflections on the film begin with a humorous aside:

As a hormonal pre-teen whose nether regions went all a-tingle at the sight of Oliver Reed’s Bill Sikes waking up in Shani Wallis' bed in the 1968 kiddie musical, Oliver!; no one wanted to see Ken Russell’s adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love more than I. More to the point: no 7th grader with a wholesale unfamiliarity with either D. H. Lawrence or Ken Russell wanted to see Oliver Reed appearing full-frontal naked in a movie more than I.

Following (with added images and links) is what Anderson's says about Women in Love's most notorious scene, one that's daring, he says, "not in its exposure of flesh, but in its exploration of a subtextural, taboo attribute of a great many onscreen male relationships . . . and many real-life relationships as well."


Given your average ratio of anticipation to disappointment, it came as no small surprise to discover, after having waited so many years, Women in Love’s fabled nude wrestling scene more than lived up to its reputation. Satisfied with merely being sensually enraptured by the sight of two obscenely sexy actors wrestling in the altogether; I wasn't at all prepared for what a dramatically powerful and daring scene it is. Daring not in its exposure of flesh, but in its exploration of a subtextural, taboo attribute of a great many onscreen male relationships (and, I daresay, many real-life relationships as well).

I'm not sure who said it, but someone once made the keen observation that homophobia in men is not really rooted in a general distaste for male-on-male sexual contact, but rather in the fear of "What if I like it?"

Heterosexual men have established a social order in which they have left themselves few avenues allowing for the expression of male affection. In lieu of this they have contrived a network of female-excluding, male-bonding rituals so convoluted and complex (sports culture, strip clubs, ass slapping, "bros before hoes" guy codes, homophobic locker room humor, bromance comedies, misogyny masked as promiscuity [the Romeo syndrome], etc.) you sometimes wish they'd just have sex with each other and get it over with. One can't help but feel that the world would be a less aggressive, insecure place if they did.

In Women in Love, Rupert and Gerald's friendship is really the most intimate, passionate, and loving relationship in the film, but Rupert uses words and lofty theories to mask his inability to fully confront his own sexual confusion, while Gerald is too emotionally remote to allow himself to address the issue at all. On the heels of the death of Gerald's sister and following Rupert's less-than-fulfilling consummation of his affair with Ursula, the two friends find themselves at a loss for how to "appropriately" comfort one another. So, as is the wont of repressed heterosexual males the world over, Rupert and Gerald resort to displays of physical aggression as a heterosexual means of expressing homosexual intimacy.

As the friendly combat gives way to a physical exhaustion matching their physical closeness, it's clear to Rupert that Gerald feels "something" akin to his own feelings. But before that ultimate intimacy can be broached, Gerald, in an act of willful misunderstanding, finds it necessary to break off what has been established between them before things have a chance of preceding any further. (Wrestling by firelight, the very natural state of their nudity is made vulgar and shameful by the intrusion of the modern electric light he abruptly switches on.)

As a fan of 70s movies, what makes this sequence particularly compelling for me is how it symbolically evokes the unaddressed subtext in all those post-feminism, male-centric buddy pictures of the decade. Films like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Midnight Cowboy, and Easy Rider – films in which women are shunted off to the sidelines – are all essentially male romances. In each film, women are present, even loved, but there's no getting past the fact that the deepest, most profoundly spiritual love occurs between the male characters. Women in Love's wrestling scene dramatizes the struggle men face when affection for another man is felt and (in this instance) the societal and morality-imposed roles of "friend" are found to be inadequate.

It's an outstandingly courageous sequence whose confrontational frankness wrests Women in Love out of the past and centers it far and above what most mainstream filmmakers are willing to do today. Who knew? A sequence I only expected to be a feast for the eyes proved to be food for thought as well.


In The Guardian's obituary for Alan Bates, Derek Malcolm writes the following about the actor and his role in Women in Love.

The most famous – some would say notorious – scene from Alan Bates's screen career was the controversial nude wrestling sequence in Ken Russell's adaptation of D. H. Lawrence's Women In Love. Uncharacteristically, since he was an actor who usually rewarded his watchers in more subtle ways, Bates matched the macho Oliver Reed throughout the bout.

Neither actor was at all certain about performing the scene, being terrified, according to Russell, that one or the other's sexual equipment would not look adequate. But they both had a drink at the local pub to discuss the matter and, being comforted that neither was much smaller than the other, agreed to shoot the match. The shock caused by the sequence was considerable at the time, and even now it seems audacious.

This was Bates's most physical role. But his true forte was suggesting the inner turbulence of the characters he played, like that of Ted Burgess in Joseph Losey's The Go-Between or the intruder with Shamanic powers in Jerzy Skolimowski's The Shout (1978). His presence on the screen went far beyond either his looks or bearing.

Finally, about Alan Bate's own sexuality and personal life, Wikipedia notes the following.

Bates was married to Victoria Ward from 1970 until her death in 1992, although they had separated many years earlier. They had twin sons, born in November 1970, the actors Benedick Bates and Tristan Bates. Tristan died following an asthma attack in Tokyo in 1990. Other sources report Tristan died of a heroin overdose in a public toilet.

Bates had numerous homosexual relationships throughout his life, including those with actors Nickolas Grace and Peter Wyngarde and with Olympic skater John Curry. In 1994 Curry died from AIDS in Bates' arms. Even when homosexuality was partially decriminalized in Britain in 1967, Bates rigorously avoided interviews and questions about his personal life, and even denied to his male lovers that there was a homosexual component in his nature. While throughout his life Bates sought to be regarded as a ladies' man or at least as a man who, as an actor, could appear attractive to and attracted by women, he also chose to take on many roles with an aspect of homosexuality or bisexuality. He let this part of his life appear as he played the role of the sexually-frustrated Rupert in the 1970 film Women in Love.

In the later years of his life, Bates had a relationship with the Welsh actress Angharad Rees and in the last years, his companion was his lifelong friend, actress Joanna Pettet, his co-star in the 1964 Broadway play Poor Richard. They divided their time between New York and London.

Bates had undergone a hip replacement shortly before being diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer in January 2003. He suffered a stroke later that year, and died in December after going into a coma.

Related Off-site Links:
Alan Bates's Secret Gay Affair with Ice Skater John Curry – Donald Spoto (Daily Mail, May 19, 2007).
Alan Bates: A Man Addicted to Love – Donald Spoto (Daily Mail, May 21, 2007).
Obituary: Sir Alan Bates – Michael Billington (The Guardian, December 29, 2003).
Wrestling: "The Heterosexually Acceptable Form of Homosexual Foreplay"The Leveret (October 14, 2008).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Manly Love
Edward Sellner on the Archetype of the Double and Male Eros, Friendships and Mentoring
A Fresh Take on Masculinity
Rockin' with Maxwell
Integrating Cernunnos, "Archetype of Sensuality and the Instinctual World"
The Naked Truth . . . in Dance and in Life

No comments: