Homoerotic gangster movies provide one of the great, epic, forbidden romantic motifs in cinema. This marriage of homosexuality and machismo, which goes hand-in-hand as nicely as homosexuality and Catholicism, usually remains unacknowledged by genre fans, perhaps because said subtleties are customarily cloaked in a maelstrom (pun intended) of supercharged patriarchal excess. Who knows, maybe these characters are just bi-curious gangsters. Who hasn't had the occasional tingle of wondering what life is like on the other side?
It's safe to say that nobody does crime and gangster pictures like Martin Scorsese. Films like Raging Bull and Taxi Driver are synonymous with tortured heterosexual masculinity, but there's something else there, too: a homoerotic subtext that's veritably ablaze with energy. Sometimes this element is overt, as in The Departed, but if you really care to look, such moments abound.
So, whether your poison is Catholic guilt manifesting through male sexuality or the kind of poetically subtle (and strangulated) chemistry that never gets off the ground, read on for your naughty little primer on homoeroticism in Scorsese movies.
Is there homoeroticism in Goodfellas? It depends on who you ask. Certainly, there is brotherhood and masculinity and raging erotic energy, but, according to some, there's also a nice, sexually-subverted family dynamic going on, especially behind bars. Chris Holmlund, author of American Cinema of the 1990s: Themes and Variations, describes the film's unforgettable (and cozy) prison-cooking scene as an exercise in
"Privileged domestic bliss, [with the gangsters cooking] elaborate pasta dinners and shaving garlic bulbs with razor blades. Prison as a site of male rape has been replaced with another kind of homosocial scene, the all-male family, with gang member Billy Batts (Frank Vincent) in an apron, stirring the meat sauce. Far from being feminized by this activity, gang members can claim the kitchen work as ethnic masculinity."
This all seems a little too Freudian, academic, and grasping-at-strawsy, frankly, but whatever: that prison cell is more fabulous than most apartments.
Gangs of New York piles Catholic imagery and metaphors on top of homoeroticism so heavily and densely it's hard to tell when one ends and the other begins, which is perhaps the point. Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis) plays a fatherly role to young Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio). Guiding him through adulthood in the absence of his actual father, he plays a part like that of a priest, or god. Yet Bill has killed Amsterdam's father ... which, sticking with the Biblical metaphors (seems appropriate, since Amsterdam's father was a priest), makes Bill the Romans, if Jesus stands in for the patriarch on Earth.
On top of being a father figure and betrayer, Bill is something of a "daddy" to Amsterdam. In one famous scene, Amsterdam wakes up next to Jenny (Cameron Diaz), with whom he has just finished a round of hanky-panky, to find Bill watching over him. Bill once had a long-standing affair with Jenny, so, if you're keeping score, they are father-son, daddy-twink, and Eskimo brothers. Draped in an American flag and sitting beside a sweaty, bewildered Amsterdam, Bill delivers a monologue about what it means to be a man.
Later, Amsterdam plans to kill Bill. Aware of the impending betrayal, Bill throws a knife (e.g. a penis that "penetrates") into Amsterdam and accuses him of not acting like a real man; he also slaps Amsterdam across the face.
Bill then lays Amsterdam on a table and mounts him, and Bill head butts him repeatedly in an act that looks a bit like a body bucking in ecstasy as it rides its partner to climax. At the end of the film, during a final confrontation between Amsterdam and Bill, the two end up lying side-by-side on the street like lovers recovering from a vigorous round of fornication.
While it's true that some see the intensity of Nicky Santoro's (Joe Pesci) relationship with Sam Rothstein (Robert DiNiro) as homoerotic, it's equally true many do not. Certainly, there's an element of hero-worship, at least until Nicky gets too big for his britches and ends up (still breathing) in a hole in the desert. In the scene above, Santoro meets Rothstein in the desert like a partner in a clandestine romance, and they bicker like a couple whose relationship is coming apart at the seams.
Casino is still filled with subtexts and profundities of all stripes, and along with Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, and Mean Streets, it ranks among Martin Scorsese's all-time bests.
- Photo: Warner Bros
With its joyous, ebullient energy and fantastic evocation of a great, lost era in New York City history, Mean Streets is a vibrantly gorgeous valentine to the Big Apple. It's also an intense and deeply cerebral exploration of human relationships, and its most important relationship, and love affair, is very evidently the one between Johnny Boy (Robert DiNiro) and Charlie (Harvey Keitel). Senses of Cinema calls it:
"[A] '70s buddy film crossed with a film noir and a musical. The couple of the film are clearly Charlie... and Johnny Boy... rather than Charlie and his girlfriend Teresa (Amy Robinson). This can be seen in one particular sequence in which Charlie and Johnny Boy stay out all night and sleep in the same bed together. Charlie gets out of bed and goes to the window, where he sees Teresa dressing. The next scene cuts to Charlie and Teresa making love in a hotel room. The displaced homoeroticism is clear."
As is the timeless theme of Catholicism and deliverance.“You don’t make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home," says Charlie, who has essentially sought to redeem himself through martyring himself for Johnny Boy. A romantic interchange for the ages.