Jay Leno, the zeitgeist diviner of late-night talk, regaled his audience recently with mock footage of a "cameo" from a hot new film. There were Jack and Ennis, the cowboy lovers from Brokeback Mountain, in a fevered clinch, while King Kong sniffed the air around them with evident interest. Though this montage tapped into the nasty equation of gay love and animal behavior, it also faced the unsettling fact that our most cherished icons of masculinity are being queered--at least in the movies.
But just how queer are the greatest ape and those two vaqueros? That depends on what queer is. If the term means homosexual, it has everything to do with Brokeback Mountain and nothing to do with King Kong. There isn't the slightest hint in this remake that the world's most famous alpha is into guys. But director Peter Jackson has changed the relationship between Kong and his human captive in a way that is very queer, indeed. Heterosexual they may be, but this pair is utterly outside the norm.
Both films are sagas of doomed love. In Kong it's the bond between a yearning animal and a helpless woman; in Brokeback it's a secret gay affair set in the mid-century American West. Of these two scenarios the closet drama is certainly more gripping, thanks largely to Annie Proulx's powerful story and Ang Lee's unsparing direction. Brokeback Mountain makes the cruelty of homophobia unmistakable and the consequences of passing for straight painfully clear. And everything you've heard about Heath Ledger's performance as the more locked-up lover is true: His face is a map of deprivation. In the context of their time and place these male lovers are certainly queer, but seen in the present their story seems oddly conventional. That's because it conforms to our current assumptions about homosexuality.
Take the fact that both Jack and Ennis had brutal, distant fathers. It's a devastating critique of patriarchal culture, but it also echoes the fashionable fundamentalist idea that disapproving dads make deviant sons. No wonder the Christian right has been so muted in its objections to this film; some of their websites even praise its loving values, while adding (as a protective afterthought) that the relationship itself is repugnant. Not that Brokeback is a brief for reparative therapy. It soundly rejects the idea that the sexuality of these men is subject to change. It makes their gayness fully comprehensible--you might say Heath legible--and that lays the groundwork for a certain kind of empathy.
Many women (and not a few gay men) will see in Ennis a recognizable type: the man who needs you to break through his armor, though you can't. This shared perception is the key to a gay film's success in the mass marketplace. And as Brokeback's producer has said, women are its target audience. Perhaps it's an aspect of female de-repression, or a sign of the shifting sexual order, but many women enjoy watching gay characters--and not just on Will & Grace. Homo soaps rule the airwaves in Thailand, and in Japan comic books featuring gay romances are bestsellers thanks to girls. One thing about these homo heroes is that no matter how flexible they are, they're really, really gay. All sorts of problems are solved, and anxieties quelled, by making homosexuality innate and essential. Even the ads for Brokeback Mountain affirm this idea of a fixed gay identity--as in "Love is a force of nature."
The love in Kong is impossible in nature. It can exist only in the queerest regions of the pysche, where human and animal selves may merge. But even the subconscious changes, and in order to modernize this beloved but bigoted tale Peter Jackson has had to alter its underlying assumptions about white male power. He can't dislodge the story's racist core, but its sexism proves more malleable. In the original all the captive woman did was scream, but in this remake she bonds with Kong--and that crucial change turns a classic affirmation of the sexual order into a saga of awakening.
The ape, whose life is an endless battle for supremacy, discovers a new feeling through his love for Anne Darrow: delight. And the mighty primate's loyalty unleashes Darrow's own suppressed power. This transference is represented in the film's most moving scenes: the sunset idyll, when she stands by Kong's side, her popping muscles gleaming in the pink light; and the midnight romp through Central Park, when Kong glides along an icy pond on his furry rear with Darrow in his lap. As "he" falls to his famous death, she hesitates for a crucial moment before leaping into the arms of her human fiancé, and in that space between her destiny and her imagination the system that contains her is suspended. Of course, the moment doesn't last: Boys and girls, this is a tragedy!
The suspension of sexual categories, tentative as it may be, makes King Kong more ambitious than Brokeback Mountain, though it's hardly as accomplished a work of art. But the most notable thing is the way both films see the world. It's a brutal, unforgiving place in which love outside the norm struggles to be something more than a self-destructive gesture. That's as true in our time as it was in cowboy country a generation ago or during the Depression, when Kong is set. Explanations for sexuality change, but queerness remains.