I needed to get some movies from the library, for a story I’m writing. (Can’t tell you much, but hint: It involves movies.) They had one I needed but not another one, and then I looked up, and what did I see at eye level: “Ben-Hur.” Well. This seemed positively karmic. (What did we say before we all knew about karma? Oh, right — “coincidental.”)
I took it home, and tried to think of the last time I watched it all the way through. Decades at least. The running time is 212 minutes, so it’s not the sort of thing you watch while waiting for a chicken to roast. It’s on cable every so often, and certain scenes are classics, the kind you stop and watch when they flip past — the chariot race, of course, and the galley-slave parts, when the evil Roman general wastes lord-how-many lives just to see if Charlton Heston can maintain a punishing pace at the oars, pushing the overseer to bang his drum faster and faster. (As if. Charlton Heston could withstand anything. He was the Chuck Norris of his day, without the roundhouse kicks.)
I put in the DVD after Kate went to bed, and soon was in the first-act scenes of Judah Ben-Hur meeting his childhood friend Messala, newly returned to Judea as the Roman tribune. And it’s, like, the gayest scene ever. Long, smoldering glances. Silences charged with eroticism. They did that Roman hand-to-forearm clasp, and held it. I’m thinking, “Go on, Charlie. Kiss him. You know you want to.” Dennis Quaid didn’t give off pheromones like this when he was cruising the bars in “Far From Heaven.” Someone asked how that sister of yours was doing, historical-movie code for the Girl Who Will Divide Them, and it’s like they’re exchanging small talk about the weather.
Why didn’t I notice this before? Maybe because the last time I saw this movie I was 19 years old. Long before Google was invented. Laptop open, “homoeroticism in Ben-Hur,” and in about two seconds was reading this in Wikipedia:
In interviews for the 1986 book Celluloid Closet, and later the 1995 documentary of the same name, screenwriter Gore Vidal asserts that he persuaded director Wyler to allow a carefully veiled homoerotic subtext between Messala and Ben-Hur. Vidal says his aim was to explain Messala’s extreme reaction to Judah Ben-Hur’s refusal to name fellow Jews. Surely, Vidal argued, Messala should have been able to understand that Judah, his close friend since childhood, would not be willing to name the names of his fellow Jews to a Roman officer. Vidal suggested a motivation to Wyler: Messala and Judah had been homosexual lovers while growing up, and then separated for a few years while Messala was in Rome. When Messala returns to Judea, he wants to renew the relationship with Judah, but Judah is no longer interested. It is the anger of a scorned lover which motivates Messala’s vindictiveness toward Judah. Since the Hollywood production code would not permit this to appear on screen explicitly, it would have to be implied by the actors. Knowing Heston’s aversion to homosexuality, Vidal suggested to Wyler that he direct Stephen Boyd to play the role that way, but not tell Heston. Vidal claims that Wyler took his advice, and that the results can be seen in the film.
(Charlton Heston denies this, btw. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)
I realize, for serious film buffs, this qualifies as the ultimate Duh observation. But I guess there are holes in everyone’s knowledge base, and I’m glad this one was filled. Next week: Why keeping the shark out of sight until the last 20 minutes was the right thing to do for “Jaws.”
And I only just realized that by watching “Ben-Hur,” I missed Bill Moyers’ “Buying the War.” Damn.
If bloggage is light around here lately, it’s because I brutally trimmed my bookmarks earlier this week, in a no-doubt futile effort to cut down my goofing-off temptations. If you see something you think I should link to, send it along. In the meantime, here’s a story about a topic near to my head if not heart these days: How newspapers should handle online reader comments, on individual stories; it’s the trend that’s sweepin’ the nation. This was the subject of the letter to the editor I wrote a few weeks ago, which I might as well have set fire to in an ashtray; it was to the Free Press, and I was prompted to do so after reading the comments on the story about the guy who was first thought to have died from a homophobia-inspired beating, but turned out to have spinal stenosis, instead. (It’s complicated, but it’s not really important for what we’re talking about.) Free Press readers chimed in to say, “I bet he was used to taking a pipe from behind” and other witticisms. You should have seen the chatter after a black kid with an unusual first name was named Mr. Basketball. The Klan probably made printouts for next year’s banquet.
Anyway, I pointed out that it’s useless to fret over your attention to diversity in the newspaper if you’re going to let people attach comments like this to stories, and leave them up, unchallenged. That’s what the above-linked story’s about. Discuss, if you like. I’m off to the gym.