Thursday, May 02, 2013

Queering the Image

Tonight I caught the tail end of an old black and white film, Macao on TCM. I love films like this because they trade in the idea of the exotic and are interesting to see how they interpret those who live in these marginal worlds. What was interesting was that I spotted a familar face in the film, but didn't know who it was. The internet allows with a few key strokes to fuel that interest quickly and before you knew it, I figured out it was Philip Ahn. Appearing as a character actor in lots of films he is a regular for anyone who loves these old films. While looking up his Wikipedia page there no entry of a married family which led me to wonder, "was he gay?" and of course after punching that into a search query I came up with Michael Guillen's review of Hye Seung Chung's Hollywood Asian: Philip Ahn and the Politics of Cross-Ethnic Performance (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006). Below is a section from Guillen's blog speculating about Ahn's sexuality. 

But there was something else about him, Hye Seung commented, "something almost campy." There was the rumor that Ahn was homosexual and—as an aside—Hye Seung recounted that she received a couple of hate mails from the gay community for not establishing that Ahn was homosexual in her book. But how could you, I asked her, when there was no direct evidence or admission on his part?

Exactly, Hye Seung agreed. Maybe he was bisexual? She didn't know. There are conflicting stories and the bottom line is that he never identified his sexuality. Besides, that was not the concern of her book. But she can say in retrospect that there was something in his performances you could say was campy. The way he carried himself. Almost a comedic quality. In some of his minor roles there's something campy about how he plays the sidekick to the masculine male hero. It's somewhat appealing for being a little less aggressive than most masculine portrayals at the time. His was a different kind of masculinity. Even before there was such a thing as the new "softer" masculinities that became a big thing in the '70s, if you look at Ahn's performances in the '30-'50s—except, of course, for the WWII propaganda films where he plays an outright villain—there's a softer, kinder masculinity that somehow appealed to everyone.

Hye Seung lays this out intriguingly in her book: "The doubling of the two actors—Rock Hudson and Philip Ahn—provides an opportunity to tease out queer readings of their respective masculinities. Battle Hymn was produced at a time when Rock Hudson's own sexual identity was in crisis. His marriage to Phyllis Gates—allegedly arranged by the studio—was near dissolution, culminating in divorce in 1958, one year after the film's release. The marital and psychological crisis of the closeted, gay man is subtly allegorized in Hudson's screen performance as Hess, who forges more profound and meaningful relationships with men than with women. Hudson's Hess runs away from his complacent small-town life and pregnant wife to return to the militaristic world of intense homosocial bonding. Although heterosexual seductions continuously stalk Hess in the form of Miss Yang, an attractive woman apparently in love with him, he seems completely unresponsive and oblivious. Rather, Hudson/Hess enjoys engaging in spiritually fulfilling conversations with James Edwards/Lieutenant Maples and Ahn/Lu Wan, whose religious devotion and biblical wisdom reinstate his own faltering beliefs. He also consoles his two-war buddy and wingman Don DeFore/Captain Skidmore, at his deathbed—a lengthy, tearful farewell that can be identified as the film's one true 'love scene.' The contrasting yet mirroring masculinity of Hudson and Ahn is particularly intriguing precisely because both actors' offscreen identities are affiliated with the discourse of homosexuality. While the white male star Hudson had to assume the mask of ultra-heterosexuality and normativized manliness to conceal his gay self, the Asian supporting actor Ahn was often cast in sidekick roles that called for an effeminate bodily comportment assimilative of amorphous queer sexuality. Thus, what Ahn's Lu Wan ventriloquizes for Hudson's Hess is not simply the latter's religious conscience but also a potential for expressing queer masculinity, repressed in the homophobic culture of the Eisenhower era." (2006:162-163, fns. omitted.)

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