Adam and Ben-Hur.

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.

Posted at 9:52 am in Media, Movies |

21 responses to “Adam and Ben-Hur.”

  1. brian stouder said on April 26, 2007 at 11:30 am

    Setting aside Gore Vidal’s actual ‘thumb-on the-scale’ contrivances, it is worth noting that sometimes we in the present age incorrectly infer things from the actions and words of people in earlier times.

    I’m about ½ way through Doris Kearns Goodwin’s surprisingly good book Team of Rivals – and several times the idea of how 21st century observers view (and misinterpret) 19th century behaviors arise. The Lincoln/Speed relationship is one; and Seward had 3 very close, intimate relationships with men (including a fellow who died very young of tb; a political colleague in the New York state house [Tracy? Can’t remember his name – but he was much more ardent about his relationship w/Seward than Seward was about him] and of course Thurlow Weed)

    These guys wrote to one another, cared about one another, and often slept in the same bed. They all were married, and their wives were all aware of these other relationships; in fact Seward’s wife engaged in what Goodwin described as a Victorian-era no-no by nurturing an intimate correspondence with that Tracy(?) fellow, who himself turned to her when he realized that Seward was not as enamored of him as he was of Seward.

    The interesting thing (to me) is that Victorian standards (which we today laugh at) frowned upon male-female intimacy (letters and conversation, quite apart from physical intimacy) when the participants were married to others; and encouraged – indeed took for granted – close male intimacy (letters and conversation, quite apart from physical intimacy)

    And nowadays of course – “intimacy” can only refer to a quest for physical pleasure, not extended conversation about things and feelings and so on…which begs the question – were THEY more hung up than US, or vice-versa?

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  2. LA mary said on April 26, 2007 at 1:50 pm

    I don’t think I’ve ever read readers’ comments in online newspapers without being either disgusted or depressed. The anonymity of the internet brings out the worst in people.

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  3. brian stouder said on April 26, 2007 at 1:55 pm

    The anonymity of the internet brings out the worst in people

    agreed. I have posted comments here and there for the past 12 years (starting on an auto racing forum, where people were incredibly impassioned- and evil-tempered!) – and I have always posted under my own name. That is the rule I would insist on – and which print newspapers always had – that you sign your real name to your comments.

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  4. Jeff said on April 26, 2007 at 2:42 pm

    Ongoing parallel modern debate: Star Wars I thru III — since you can never quite rule out total oblivious cluelessness when it comes to George Lucas, there may be just some echo chambering at work here. But the subtext of the subtext in Phantom Menace is Ben-Hur’s chariot race and the pod-racers, and the sub-text of the sub-text of the sub-text is Anakin’s odd maternal relationship, weirdly picked up by Amidala, and the mystery of what happened to Obi-Wan and Anakin’s relationship, exactly, during the Clone Wars. Some argue that there is subtly (with Lucan unwitting?) woven into Revenge of the Sith a level of anger and betrayal from the soon-to-be Vader that comes from a changed relationship with Kenobi.

    Any gay geeks out there, tell me the state of current debate on the subject, but it all ties back to Ben-Hur. Even Vidal had not a thing to do with the script, watching the movie tells a story all its own.

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  5. brian stouder said on April 26, 2007 at 2:48 pm

    Nance invited links – and here is one on tonight’s Democratic Presidential debate

    Anyway – I (for one) am very much looking forward to tonight’s debate from South Carolina. It will be fascinating to see how the candidates – and particularly Senators Clinton and Obama – interact with one another. One line of thinking (advanced on Chris Matthews’ show last night) was that Hillary’s best tactic is to let the others take their best shots at her; she would come across as the lone woman being picked on by a bunch of men.

    More to the point, though – the Democratic congress’ funding/withdrawal bill is sure to be Subject #1 tonight – and Senator Clinton’s (and Edwards, for that matter) reaction to it will be absolutely critical….one would think that a campaign-definitive moment will occur tonight

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  6. brian stouder said on April 26, 2007 at 2:54 pm

    Forgot to mention – this excerpt from the msnbc article linked above made me laugh

    The campaign cited a letter to the editor in The Seattle Times last February that claimed Abraham Lincoln would have lost his election if he had to debate Obama instead of Stephen Douglas.

    Copy Editor Alert!!: Lincoln DID lose to Douglas, after the 1858 debates!

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  7. nancy said on April 26, 2007 at 3:40 pm

    For what it’s worth, I always thought the “Lincoln was gay” stuff was b.s. Concepts of intimacy change over time, and by 19th century standards their relationship was perfectly normal.

    Although you never know. But would it matter? Probably not.

    I find scenes like the one in B-H amusing because they have such a furtive quality. (See also, the “oysters v. snails” conversation between Sir Larry O and Tony Curtis in “Spartacus.”) They were Easter eggs for people who were in the know, and a lot fewer were, back then. By today’s standards, they’re incredibly obvious.

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  8. MarkH said on April 26, 2007 at 5:14 pm

    I agree on the anonymous blog entries. It’s good to see that most of us here use our real names, even if it’s just the first, or first and last initial. I assume they are all real, but then we’re a pretty genteel group here, if.

    Our local free alt-weekly has been trying to get away from such posts on their blog, but they will only refuse the true anonymous ones. Posters with handles can still get on, but unbridled attack-type posts are deleted anymore. Big positive difference.

    Brian, was that auto racing blog the one on CNN? I posted on their Formula One blog for awhile and I thought it was ok. It was not until I went on the NFL blog that things got REALLY snarky. That lasted about two weeks. When I started getting idiotic/profane attack emails at home from some of those bozos, I quit all together.

    BTW, Brian (and Ashley), that “Daytona” in the photo yesterday is bogus. The rear markings never looked like that and look strictly back-yard add-on. Also look closely as what you can see of the front end. Instead of the sloping, aerodymnamic extension with the hideaway headlights, this one looks chopped.

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  9. alex said on April 26, 2007 at 5:29 pm

    Gore Vidal has been a longtime booster of the Lincoln Was Queer theory; also that he gave his wife syphillis that went to her brain and made her crazy. Most inmates in penitentiaries wouldn’t consider themselves gay, but obviously many think a bunkmate’s bunghole is better than their own calloused hands. In an era when women didn’t sit at bar stools and offer it up to the first guy to pay them a compliment, it’s not a stretch to think Honest Abe and gentlemen of his time would settle for a piece of poo cooter now and then. As for the syphillis, which would have killed him if John Wilkes Booth hadn’t, he probably got that from a frontier hussy in a lawless place like old Fort Wayne.

    There was a scholarly book out about ten years ago, I think it was called “Male Impersonators,” and made much of homoeroticism in popular culture — all the old “buddy” movies and TV shows like the Lone Ranger and Tonto, Batman and Robin, etc. And football players touching each others’ butts. And Broadway show tunes like “Blow, Gabriel, Blow.” An okay read, as I recall.

    Saw Moyers last night. Wouldn’t have missed it for Ben Hur, which I remember only because I was a wee lad suffering through it when my parents watched it eons ago. As for Moyers, those of us who thought the McCarthy era could never happen again ought to wake up and realized we just lived through another one.

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  10. Cynthia said on April 26, 2007 at 6:36 pm

    Re Ben-Hur, the line that I always remember from that movie occurs when the Roman General is through talking to slave oar-man Heston and says to Heston, “Back to your oar, 41.” Cracks me up everytime.

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  11. Joe Kobiela said on April 26, 2007 at 6:58 pm

    I would have to look but I think the charger Daytona did have the front like the one in the picture and the superbird had the slopped nose.
    I have been wrong before
    but I can’t remember when.

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  12. brian stouder said on April 26, 2007 at 10:33 pm

    was that auto racing blog the one on CNN?

    The Indianapolis Star had an unmoderated motorsports forum, and in 1996 (when CART got locked out of the Indy 500, and staged the US-500 at MIS in Brooklyn MI opposite that race) that forum was loaded with invective and venom. I went in there totally unprepared for that! – but I always signed my name, and quickly noted that the worst chuckle-heads DIDN’T sign theirs

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  13. MarkH said on April 27, 2007 at 12:02 am

    Joe (and Brian and Ashley), I may have to correct myself on that previous post about the Dodge. A closer look at an enlarged version of that photo shows a sloped front end extension. It may be a real Daytona based on other photos I found, particularly one front corner view. But I never saw the rear end treatment with the big white stripe and garish Daytona logo. The ones I remember (from high school) are more subtle, same with the Plymouth SuperBird. I was trying to post a photo here without succes, but I’ll keep trying.

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  14. MarkH said on April 27, 2007 at 12:04 am

    Joe (and Brian and Ashley), I may have to correct myself on that previous post about the Dodge. A closer look at an enlarged version of that photo shows a sloped front end extension. It may be a real Daytona based on other photos I found, particularly one front corner view. But I never saw the rear end treatment with the big white stripe and garish Daytona logo before. The ones I remember (from high school) are more subtle, same with the Plymouth Super Bird. I was trying to post a photo here of the one I’m familiar with, but without success, but I’ll keep trying.

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  15. alex said on April 27, 2007 at 8:59 am

    The Superbird had the big fiberglass nose tacked on the front with hidden headlights and a spoiler about a mile high in back. The Daytona had a fat racing stripe wrapped around its ass. Both were typically either chartreuse or day-glo orange.

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  16. MarkH said on April 27, 2007 at 9:53 am

    I’ll try again to post some photos later, Alex, to show you they were the same car, big nose, tall wing and all. It was brand identification for NASCAR purposes, Plymouth vs. Dodge, but all Mopar with the 426 hemi.

    Sorry for the double post above; I didn’t enter it twice. But maybe it makes up for yesterday when it didn’t take my post for a previous thread at all.

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  17. nancy said on April 27, 2007 at 11:05 am

    When that happens — when your comment doesn’t appear — let me know. I’m sure it got shunted to the spam file for some reason, and if I know fast enough, I can retrieve it. At this point, though, it’s not worth it to wade through page after page of porn pitches to get to it.

    If you’re a first-time commenter, you get moderated, but once you’re approved, you’re in. The exceptions are when you change computers or e-mail addresses, but those get approved eventually, too.

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  18. brian stouder said on April 27, 2007 at 11:37 am

    and don’t forget the NN.c Rules List:

    Rule Number A1A: Don’t piss off the proprietress

    (hard to do in any case – in fact, a remarkable [although punishible] feat!)

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  19. MichaelG said on April 27, 2007 at 3:24 pm

    I have a picture of a Daytona that I took at Bonneville a couple of years ago. It’s orange with the nose and the ass stripe and all. If someone can tell me how to attach it to this comments section I will be glad to do so.

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  20. MarkH said on April 27, 2007 at 5:52 pm

    Here’s some photos of how I remember them looking, especially the top photo of the blue Plymouth Super Bird. Dodges looked the same with a name change.

    Nance, I think the non-post was my fault, as I went away from my computer for a while on work related stuff and it went to sleep. when I revived it the unsent message was still there, but it did not get posted. No worries; if I think it important enough, I’ll repost later. But thanks for the feedback!

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  21. harry near indy said on April 28, 2007 at 7:39 pm


    as for the fact that you never noticed the homoeroticism in ben-hur before now, i have this speculation:

    maybe you don’t have gaydar, or it needs some fine tuning.

    i read an essay by vidal several years ago on how he put the homoerotic subtext into ben hur. he also claimed that heston was too ignorant to know what was going on, but i think that was just vidal acting as an instigator.

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