The Hidden History of Queer Reds, as Told by the Coen Brothers

Channing Tatum as Burt Gurney in Hail, Caesar!

Universal Pictures

Hail, Caesar!, the Coen brothers’ latest film, is many things: a classic caper, a love letter to old Hollywood, a comedic romp through the boundaries of many genres. The movie proudly flaunts its flubbed lines, oversized egos, gossip-column scandals, and let’s-put-on-a-show scrappiness as the Coens peek behind the silver screen to reveal the massive amount of work required to produce a motion picture. Yet submerged beneath its glitzy nostalgia and madcap fun, the film offers an important reconsideration of a moment in history when Hollywood incubated two of the most profound threats to America’s perceived domestic bliss: Communism and homosexuality.

The past 12 months have seen a number of films, ranging from the dramatic (Bridge of Spies, co-written by the Coen brothers) to the ironic (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.), that directly address this historical period with eyes wide open. Perhaps most strikingly, Jay Roach’s Trumbo tells the story of Dalton Trumbo, one of the infamous Hollywood Ten, who had his career derailed when he was caught in an anti-Communist dragnet that blacklisted him for his unapologetically un-American activities

Though Hail, Caesar! recasts Cold War tragedy as farce, its representation of Communists is no less significant. In the film, a “study group” of radicals, dubbing themselves “The Future,” espouse a Marxist interpretation of historical materialism. Sure, they drug and kidnap Hollywood star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), currently filming a Ben-Hur-style epic, to secure $100,000 in ransom money from his studio, but they also announce their “scientific” worldview and quibble over methods for bringing about the downfall of the ruling class.

The spectre of homosexuality, meanwhile, emerges at several key points in Hail, Caesar! Actor Burt Gurney’s (Channing Tatum) queerness is initially signified in an Anchors Aweigh-style musical number, “No Dames!,” a rousing tavern sequence that casts Gurney as a randy sailor lustily “lamenting” the homosocial life at sea. The campy song’s salacious double-entendre morphs into an all-male choreographed dance number, sandwiching Gurney between two horny seamen. He also becomes embroiled in a queer whisper campaign when Hedda Hopper-style columnist Thora Thacker (Tilda Swinton) threatens to write about a sodomistic tryst involving director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes), with whom Gurney is now having an affair, and Baird Whitlock that apparently earned the latter his role in On Wings as Eagles. However, Gurney’s Communism paints him as an unreliable source.*

Gurney is eventually revealed to be the gay Communist leader of The Future. In a penultimate scene, Gurney stands triumphantly on the prow of a ship sturdily rowed by the fellow travelers in his study group, the scene scored to a Red Army Choir performance of Grigori Machtet’sSlavery and Suffering.” Burt’s blond hair and pursed lips suggest Soviet-era propaganda as he gazes powerfully into the future. At the same time, his strong masculinity channels familiar gay male depictions popularized in physique magazines from the 1950s. He embodies the hope and promise of the Soviet utopia alongside the highly sexualized prettiness of the matinee-idol queer.

The Coen brother’s allusion to homosexuality and the radical left is not a product of fiction. The Cold War indeed saw a stepped-up persecution of homosexuals in federal employment and society at large, which occurred alongside the politicization of gay women and men through an emerging movement of radicalized “homophiles.” Hollywood employed a large number of gay folks as actors (think Tab Hunter and Rock Hudson, both products of Henry Willson’s beefcake fantasies) and employed homosexuals behind the scenes in jobs as set decorators and designers, where they joined unions embraced by radicals. A large number of Communists were similarly drawn into the Cold War motion picture industry, even in the face of a punishing blacklist that was implemented to purge them as the powerful forces of McCarthyism took hold.

The broader cultural landscape in Southern California attracted great swaths of leftists and homosexuals to settle in enclaves close to the creative atmosphere of Hollywood. Harry Hay, a founding member of the Mattachine Society, one of the earliest gay rights organizations in America, was inspired to form his own study group in part through his relationship with Will Geer, the gay Communist grandpa on TV’s Waltons. That the founders of the modern gay rights movement were also current or former members of the Communist Party is less surprising when taking into account the fact that the party attracted all kinds of dispossessed Americans to join their revolution.

The Coen brothers channel these histories as part of their portrait of Cold War Hollywood. Radical gay characters like Burt Gurney are rarely represented in depictions the Cold War, but they are no less a part of that history. A committed gay Communist who expertly tap-dances as he sings among a chorus of sailor boys squanders a windfall to save his puppy. A bumbling actor who delivers a populist soliloquy written by a presumably Communist screenwriter—ultimately forgetting the final word that everyone around him seems to possess: “faith”—hides a history of same-sex sodomy. The camp sensibility of the screen musical is revisited as an epic oceanic voyage that delivers a queer revolutionary to a Soviet submarine. In Hail, Caesar!’s most pivotal scenes, homosexuality and communism overlap in ways that betray Hollywood’s official amnesia about its own queer red past.

Yet for all the attention given this important history, the film still ignores the fact that racial equality was a significant pillar of the Communist Party’s platform as early as the 1920s. The party attracted many black members to its cause, and the Chinese-American writer H.T. Tsiang wrote a number of queer proletarian novels exploring race, sexuality, and class before becoming a modestly successful actor in Hollywood. The left’s rigorous interracialism sits uncomfortably with the Coens’ unnecessarily whitewashed portrayal of Communists—and, in fact, all of Hollywood—which is receiving fair scrutiny from a range of critics.

Still, though its tone occasionally comes across as flippant, and its historical omissions render the portrait incomplete, the fact of Hail, Caesar!’s production suggests a thawing of the Cold War that has at last allowed for a more nuanced grappling with the era’s intersections and contradictions. In opening that door, the Coen brothers aren’t alone: From New York artist Yevginiy Fiks’ invocation of notoriously anti-gay and anti-Communist publisher Bernarr Macfadden’s Physical Culture in his installation Homosexuality Is Stalin’s Atom Bomb to Destroy America (2013) to Tony Kushner’s provocative play The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures (2009), a moment ripe for exploring the hidden history of interconnections between homosexuality and the left seems to have arrived. America is now ready to talk about homosexuals and Communists without shuttering them in separate historical closets. In the classic mode of old Hollywood, Hail, Caesar! embeds that history in the trappings of its irresistible style. But as the Coens’ motley cast of characters also reminds us, behind the scenes that captivate and delight, this movie is doing a lot of important work.

*Correction, Jan. 13, 2017: This post originally misstated the specifics of Thora Thacker’s investigations into sodomy between actors and the director of On Wings as Eagles. It also misstated the film’s title.