Homosexuality in Mainstream Comedy and the Confused, Fascinating Sexual Politics of ‘Partners’

partnersThe fascinatingly dated 1982 mismatched buddy comedy Partners, which was just released on Blu-Ray by Olive after decades of screaming public indifference about its home video status, doesn’t just have a premise similar to that of William Friedkin’s notoriously brutal, unsparing drama Cruising: its premise is identical. Both films, which were released around the same strange and fraught cultural time, when AIDS was just starting to forever change the way people saw homosexuality, revolve around macho, heterosexual police officers who go undercover as homosexuals to investigate a murder within a tight-knit gay community. And in each film the mission profoundly affects the psychology of the straight cop going undercover, causing him to question his own sexuality as his investment in the gay world grows deeper and deeper.

Cruising has undergone a dramatic journey from a controversial, incendiary psychodrama protested by the gay community for reinforcing negative stereotypes of gays as violent, self-loathing and sex-crazed maniacs even before its release to a wildly divisive cult movie and then, finally, to a film treasured by the same gay community that once abhorred it for preserving a strange subsection of the underground leather daddy world for posterity. Partners has not been as lucky, or as deserving. Where Cruising has been rediscovered and embraced, Partners remains defiantly and appropriately unloved, a movie that was dismissed as a tacky and offensive exploitation of retrograde stereotypes at the time of its release and whose reputation hasn’t exactly improved in the ensuing decades.

That is fitting. Partners is a terrible movie, but it’s utterly fascinating for what it says about the way comedy saw homosexuality at the dawn of the AIDS crisis and how much, and how little, homosexuality’s representation in comedy has changed in the intervening years. Partners is fascinating as well for being a stunningly unsuccessful collaboration between two men who remain among the most successful men in the world in their fields.

Partners was one of the first American screenplays by French farce specialist Francis Veber, who perhaps not coincidentally had recently visited this territory with much more distinguished results in his script for the groundbreaking, Oscar-nominated La Cage Aux Folles (which went on to inspire sequels and an American remake in The Birdcage), which certainly indulged in its share of stereotyping but also treated its gay characters with an unmistakable kindness, sympathy, and depth. This is analogous to Friedkin directing the similarly controversial but seminal gay drama The Boys In The Band before making Cruising.

No one would mistake Veber for Billy Wilder, although at one point Veber’s career was so hot and Wilder’s was so cold that Wilder actually ended his career with Buddy, Buddy a remake of Veber’s earlier play and screenplay. Other filmmakers, like Leonard Nimoy, would have more success remaking Veber’s french populist hits for dumb American audiences with movies like Three Men And A Baby and Veber would alternate between French smashes and American scripts, returning again to the theme of the hilarity of homosexuality with 2001’s The Closet.  

The film was directed by James Burrows, who does not have a distinguished filmography but may be the single most successful and respected sitcom director of all time (oh, and he also co-created a show called Cheers that’s pretty good and did okay). How successful is Burrows? He was nominated for a directing Emmy every year from 1980 to 2005, with the exception of 1997 (when his usually sure-fire directing devolved unmistakably into complete shit, only to rebound miraculously the next year), and won ten times.

So it stands to reason that the most commercially successful french comedy filmmaker of all time and perhaps the most revered sitcom helmer ever would at the very least be capable of writing and staging gags adequately. Partners suggests otherwise. It is not entirely without merits, first and foremost a fine lead dramatic performance from John Hurt, but is never even in the same continent or hemisphere of being funny. Indeed, Hurt more or less refuses to lower himself to the level of his material, which results in a surprisingly nuanced, affecting, and multi-dimensional performance as a melancholy man wrestling with his sexuality and self-image, but it also ensures that the movie is never funny.

The consistently awful Ryan O’Neal stars as Sergeant Benson, a veteran cop and consummate lady’s man who is none too pleased to discover that his newest assignment involves going undercover as half of a gay couple with bookish colleague Kerwin (Hurt) to investigate murders of beefcake male models who have posed in a gay-oriented magazine.

O’Neal could be dazzlingly effective in the right role, and when tormented by the right sadist (whether it’s Barry Lyndon’s Stanley Kubrick or Norman Mailer in Tough Guys Don’t Dance) but in Partners he’s rigid and constipated, a dreary stick in the mud who wears the same pained, “I can’t believe they’re asking me, a respectable heterosexual, to do this tacky gay shit” expression throughout the film.

Far too much of the film’s humor emerges from the visible discomfort O’Neal betrays as he’s asked to wear a series of exceedingly tight, skimpy, colorful outfits as he serves as the sexy bait designed to draw the model-killer out of hiding. The film’s arc calls for him to go from being the kind of narrow-minded bigot who looks askance at Kerwin for not ogling a secretary’s ass and casually throws around the word “faggot” in his partner’s company, to being a guy who is in touch with his feminine side to the point where it seems like he might be okay with remaining Kerwin’s roommate even after their assignment is finished.

In its own backwards, regressive way, Partners wants to be open-minded and progressive. It seems to feel it deserves credit for even suggesting that gays are people too. The film’s smartest, most interesting and well-developed character is undeniably Kerwin, who has a dignity and self-respect lacking from the rest of this enterprise.

Yet it’s hard to watch Partners in 2015 (I could actually just end the sentence there) and not come away with the feeling that Kerwin represents the filmmakers’ conception of an appropriate, model homosexual, a man who is effete in a way that quietly reinforces stereotypes but not screamingly effeminate enough to scare straight audiences. More troublingly, Kerwin is clearly self-conscious at best, and ashamed of his homosexuality at worst, and the film seems to admire him all the more for feeling an appropriate level of shame around his lifestyle, as opposed to all the proud, broadly drawn homosexuals the pair encounter in their investigation.

The filmmakers similarly seem to imagine it makes Kerwin more likable and relatable for him to have a one-sided crush on a hunky heterosexual officer like Benson instead of a biracial genderqueer performance artist who might challenge audience ideas about race, gender, performance and sexuality. It similarly does not seem coincidental that Kerwin is depicted as being primarily asexual and celibate, in sharp contrast to the broadly drawn homosexuals leering openly at Benson.

Partners works better as a drama about two dissimilar men finding common ground than as a comedy because it does not work as a comedy at all, though there is something borderline amusing in the film’s intimation that Benson comes to like his living situation despite himself because wouldn’t you like being John Hurt’s male roommate and have him make you delicious meals and clean up after you even if you weren’t gay?

Homosexuality is such an ingrained component of American life right now, particularly where pop culture is concerned, that it’s difficult to imagine a movie made today treating homosexuality as a hilariously and intriguingly exotic world far removed from the mainstream of American life, as its depicted in Partners. Yet the clammy, insulting and homophobic strain of gay-panic humor prevalent in Partners somehow took hold in American comedy and shows no signs of leaving. The last American comedy I saw before Partners was Fanboys, which has roughly as many instances of characters uttering the word “fag” in its various forms, and as many jokes about the automatic hilarity of straight guys thinking some gay dude wants to touch his junk as Partners, and Fanboys is just a sadly conventional comedy about nerds, not a film explicitly about homosexuality, like Partners.

We’ve come a long way in our depictions of homosexuals in pop culture and in comedy since Partners embarrassed the gay and straight world alike, but the fact that so many comedy professionals still can’t seem to imagine anything more innately hilarious than straight dudes doing gay dude stuff (see, or rather don’t see, recent movies like The Interview and Get Hard for further proof) sadly confirms that we still have a very long way to go.

Nathan Rabin is the former head writer of The A.V. Club and the author of four books, including Weird Al: The Book (with “Weird Al” Yankovic) and, most recently, You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me.

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