The Best of Friends

Daniel Mendelsohn looks at how Hollywood movies depict friendships between gay men and straight women

By Daniel Mendelsohn
May 11, 1998 10:16PM (UTC)
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Can men and women have relationships without also having sex? It's a
question we've been pondering ever since courtly love went the way of the
dodo, and the answer, at least in 20th century popular culture, has been a
resounding "No." In movies, it's been pretty clear that guy + girl =
romance ever since Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert -- unlikely roommates
on a madcap road trip in Frank Capra's 1934 classic "It Happened One
Night" -- started out chastely separated by a partition made of sheets, only
to end up in each others' arms. (More recently, there was "When Harry Met
Sally ..." in which not only Meg Ryan's orgasm but also the film's
commitment to exploring the uncharted waters of nonsexual relationships
between guys and girls turned out to be faked: Of course they ended up

In television series, it's true that some famous pairings between
attractive men and women have gone unconsummated for a long time. But this
imposed celibacy (which almost always leads to wedding bells, or at least a
night of bliss) owes less to a desire to explore the phenomenon of
just-good-friendships than it does to something far more practical. Sexual
tension generated plots and maintained audience interest for everything
from "Get Smart!" to "Moonlighting" and "The X-Files."
(When the male and female leads finally do get down to business, ratings
tend to go down, too.)


Perhaps in response to the inevitability of sex on the big and small
screens, on records and CDs, in your face and in your ear, a mini-spate of
recent movies has discovered a built-in obstacle that even Viagra can't
cure. In last year's "My Best Friend's Wedding" and, even more explicitly,
last month's "The Object of My Affection," the male half of the leading
couple has been gay. (In the 1997 film "In and Out," neither the guy nor
the girl realized he was gay, but oh well.)

Straight women and gay men have been forming fast friendships for years:
Both, after all, are faced with the annoying dilemma of just what to do
about men. (Or with them: A 1997 book is called "Sex Tips for
Straight Women from a Gay Man."
) Hollywood's recent interest in these
straight girl-gay guy pairings suggests, at least superficially, that
despite our cultural obsession with sex, and "relationships," many of us
dream secretly of an erotic demilitarized zone in which we can just relate.

What's frustrating is that these three films don't do their potentially
interesting subject real justice. Each, in its own way, avoids the issue,
as if sexless male-female friendships were something terribly dirty,
something we have to avert our eyes from. Perhaps that's because all three
of these movies are crypto-fag hag stories -- films about a special subset
of straight girl-gay guy friendships, those well-documented (if only
informally) relationships between gay men and women who, for whatever
reasons -- some subconscious anxiety about male sexuality, presumably --
prefer to be around men who aren't interested in them as sexual objects.


The cliché about fag hags is that they're overweight or unattractive in
some other obvious way that betrays their subconscious desire to avoid
sex with men. But a movie about a fat girl who prefers the company of gay men,
however psychologically on-target, would be doomed from the start in
Hollywood, which is even more nervous about unattractive female leads than
it is about sex. As a result, each of these movies has made its heroine a
svelte beauty. "My Best Friend's Wedding" asks its audience to believe
that Julia Roberts' character was having such a hard time getting laid that
she spent all her forlorn free hours hanging out with her gay pal, played
by a just-as-improbably desexualized Rupert Everett.

But why is Julia spending so much time with Rupert? Yes, he's outré
and sardonic and tries on funny hats in stores -- everything we've come to
expect from gay best friends in films -- but the picture fumbles its
opportunity to investigate the deeper currents in the friendships between
straight girls and gay guys, why it's Rupert and not the straight-arrow
leading man, Dermot Mulroney, who's obviously Julia's real best friend. It
would have been fun to see them bonding in some grittier or more revealing
way, and not just comparing blow job techniques, say, or reading to each
other from "Sex Tips for Straight Women From a Gay Man." What is it like
when men and women meet and connect emotionally in a territory free from
the land mines of sex and romance? "My Best Friend's Wedding" is never going
to show us that.

"In And Out" circles around the straight girl-gay guy friendship thing
even more frenetically, by making its hero, Howard Brackett (Kevin Kline),
totally unaware of his homosexuality until halfway through the movie.
Howard's fiancée, Emily, played by the adorable (and still underused) Joan
Cusack, didn't mind not getting any sex during her three-year betrothal
because Howard was "smarter, more sensitive, more interesting" than all the
other guys, and because he taught her about "art, life and magic." (Huh?
She didn't know he was gay?) When you learn that Emily used to be 75
pounds heavier, you get a tiny whiff of the other, more interesting movie
that's buried here -- the one about fey, gay Howard the English teacher and
his intense friendship with his fat-but-pretty colleague Emily, a movie
about the things that men and women may want from each other (art, life,
magic?) when sex isn't an issue. But even with a funny gay screenwriter
like Paul Rudnick, this is Hollywood, and the real movie here, the fag-hag
movie, gets buried under "In and Out" just as surely as the real, fat, fag
hag Emily remains buried underneath the cute, slim Joan Cusack.


But the most frustrating of these three movies, the one that raises the
most interesting interpersonal issues and then refuses to really deal with
them, is Nicholas Hytner's "The Object of My Affection," from a Wendy
Wasserstein script based on the 1988 novel by Stephen McCauley. "Object"
keeps promising that it's going to break out of the old Hollywood mold and
find out what happens when the cute girl, Nina Borowksi (Jennifer Aniston),
and the cute guy, George Hanson (Paul Rudd), are never going to be more
than Just Good Friends.

But, although the movie's characters may have their theories about
the psychological core of the straight girl-gay guy relationship ("You're
not a threat to her, right? -- that's the attraction," Nina's boorish
boyfriend, Vince, patronizingly asks George), its screenwriter doesn't seem
to get it. Soon after Nina and George meet, the telltale signs appear: They
giggle with adorable, photogenic self-consciousness while taking tango
lessons; they go on rides at amusement parks while breathlessly exposing
their flawless teeth; and they have serious talks at night while eating
expensive ice cream. In the movies, this is shorthand for Budding Romance.
It's not long before Nina's smashing dishes into the sink when George goes
off with another ... man.


McCauley's book -- which, like its non-comic counterpart, Michael
Cunningham's lyrical 1990 novel "A Home at the End of the World," came out
at a time when the tantalizing new possibility of a post-nuclear,
gay-straight family hadn't yet ossified into Benneton-ad cliché -- focused
on complex people in unconventional situations. (After Nina gets pregnant
by Vince, George agrees to stand in as the child's father.) But even though
the movie pays lip service to the book's interest in new kinds of
relationships between independent-minded people -- "We can make this up for
ourselves," George says in the movie -- Wasserstein's adaptation, which
makes Nina the heroine, bizarrely refashions the story, willfully
re-sexualizing the dynamic by having Nina fall for George. The
Wasserstein "Object of My Affection" is, unsurprisingly perhaps, all about
a cute, funny Jewish girl whom most guys are too clueless to appreciate.

The provocative and elaborate questions raised by the gay boy-straight girl
coupling in the book end up as moot points. This "Object" becomes just
another Feminist Lite single mom comedy, in which Mom finds herself
standing alone when the boys run off to play or get laid -- in short, just
another movie about guys' inability to commit. "I want Paul," George
responds to a besotted and increasingly bitchy Nina's impatient "What do
you want?" He tears up guiltily as if he, rather than she, was demanding
something emotionally unreasonable.

Wasserstein just can't imagine the new kind of emotional world McCauley's
book tried, however breezily, to envision. That's most obvious in the
movie's climactic confrontation between George and Nina, which takes place
at the lavish wedding of George's serially affianced and crudely womanizing
brother, Frank (Steve Zahn). Painfully aware of her desire for George,
overwhelmed by sexual frustration and hugely, uncomfortably pregnant
(men!), Nina waddles away from her table into a deserted room; a solicitous
George follows. "Look at this," she says, gesticulating angrily at the
wedding, the fancy-shmancy guests, the food, the band, the Manhattan
skyline in the distance. "This is real. We're not real." Why not?
Because George and Nina haven't registered at Bloomies? Because their
relationship won't culminate in a $100-a-person catered affair and Aunt Ida
dancing the hora in a walker? If George and Nina's dream of gay-straight
co-parenting isn't "real," that's simply because Wasserstein has made it
unreal. She's stacked the dramatic deck.


I'll come clean here: I'm helping a straight single woman raise a child --
admittedly sans roller coasters, sans tango lessons, but also sans broken
dishes in the sink. A lot of other gay men are, too. Any time Wasserstein
wants to see what "real" looks like, she's welcome to join us for our nightly
7 p.m. rendezvous with the potty (bring rubber gloves). Whatever its
pretensions to exploring new emotional and social territory, this version
of "Object of My Affection" just keeps backsliding into an entirely
conventional, nice-Jewish-girl, Upper West Side fantasy of what life's
supposed to be like. (You could say the same for the way Wasserstein fobs
the lovelorn Nina off on the black cop who rescues her from a
purse-snatching: Once again, the schwartzers are left to clean up
the mess.)

Earlier in the movie, at the point when Nina has her final argument with
the horrible Vince and tells him to get lost, there's a moment when Vince
gets belligerent with George, who has sprung to Nina's defense. George draws
closer to Nina; Vince looks from one to the other and realizes he's been replaced.
Finally, Vince snaps. "You homo!" he snarls, two inches from George's face,
and things look like they're going to get physical until Nina breaks it up.
The scene bugged me at the time, and I couldn't think why; it wasn't until
much later that I realized what was wrong with this picture. When straight
guys get pissed off at gay men, they don't say "homo" -- they say
faggot. (There's something more satisfying about the consonants.)
Wasserstein's inability to bring herself to use the N-word of gay culture
is a kind of symbol. It's a symbol for this movie's failure of will.
Despite its liberal trappings, "Object of My Affections," like other
Hollywood movies about gay men and straight women, takes the conservative
way out; it prefers looking nice to being real.

Daniel Mendelsohn

Daniel Mendelsohn, the author of a memoir, "The Elusive Embrace: Desire and the Riddle of Identity," is the book critic for New York magazine.

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