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.
When The Departed came out, it was immediately branded (or hailed) as Scorsese's most flagrantly homoerotic film in years. Most of said theorizing revolved around the relationship between Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) and Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon). An article on rogerebert.com breaks it all down, using the following dialogue between Nicholson and his his wife, Gwen (Kristen Dalton) as evidence:
COSTELLO: Sweetheart, you’re giving me a hard- on.
He starts to dial the phone.
GWEN: Are you sure it's me or all that talk about whiffin’ and crawlin’ up asses?
COSTELLO: Hey, watch your f*cking mouth.
GWEN: You watch it.
She rises and as she crosses:
GWEN (CONT’D): Let me straighten you out
The piece hypothesizes that "Costello and Sullivan... are closeted homosexuals," pointing out that The Departed is partly based on the life of Irish crime lord James "Whitey" Bulger, and that it's "documented that 'Whitey' was [allegedly] bisexual, and even had a relationship with FBI agent H. Paul Rico."
If you still have doubts, check out the above montage, which meticulously points out pretty much all the instances of Matt Damon's character's gayness.
Raging Bull is chock full of brilliantly executed homoerotic subtexts. In many ways, said sexuality powers the entire film more or less continually; some scenes veritably simmer with it, and with violent libidinal energy. One such scene is the famous Copacabana sequence, which the Guardian describes (beautifully) thus:
"Raging Bull furnishes for itself this extraordinary mix of denial and frustration. And so the picture reaches out into real terror - and the most frightening scene in the film. Vicki, Jake and Joey have gone to the Copacabana for a night out before hard training begins. At another table sit the mob… they beckon Jake to come to their table after he has seen them kissing Vicki in stealthy slowed motion. Bullish, nearly pawing the ground, he goes over and he tries to be their friend. His next fight is with Tony Janiro, a good-looking fighter, and Jake starts joking about not knowing whether to 'fight him or fuck him.' The slippage from real macho talk to a terrible homosexual paranoia is one of the best things Scorsese has ever done."
Raging Bull received eight Academy Award nominations and two wins ... no small victory, in an era when Oscars weren't just empty status symbols.
Taxi Driver, one of the greatest masterpieces ever put to celluloid, pretty much encompasses everything about the human condition, and homoeroticism is no exception. The dialogue at the beginning of the film, when Travis (Robert DiNiro) is hired to drive a cab by a boss who also turns out to be an ex-Marine, has a haunted, world-weary erotic undertone to it, as does ... on a much lewder and angrier level ...Travis's conversation with Sport the pimp (Harvey Keitel) not long before Travis shoots him.
As Lesley Stern puts it in The Scorsese Connection:
"When Travis takes his money out Sport throws his hands up and stops him:...'You wanna fu*k me? You're not gonna fu*k me, you're gonna fu*k her [Iris]. Give her the money'... Travis translates 'come' into 'blood.' When he says 'suck on this' (sticking his gun in Sport's stomach and firing) he implies: suck me and I will come (blood)."
Whether these undertones are real or imaginary (perhaps the characters are just talking and everything is precisely as soulless and hellish as it seems; maybe there's nothing lurking under the surface except death, maybe everything is a final, if beautiful, reel seen by a dying Travis) Taxi Driver is still an epically poetic look at both existentialism and masculinity.
The Wolf of Wall Street is a very different type of crime film than the others on this list, as it concerns itself with legitimate businessmen who rip off millions of people around the world from their lavish offices. Is the gay orgy scene in The Wolf of Wall Street homoerotic? Not really, since it has neither the artsiness nor the nuances that usually define eroticism; it's flashy, cheesy, and lewd.
Still, some people (as they will) took flash and cheese a step further, and accused Scorsese of actually being homophobic. According to Salon:
"In one scene, Belfort’s butler, a gay man, throws an orgy in Belfort’s home, and is then hit in the face and dangled over the edge of a skyscraper when one of his guests steals money. In another, two associates of Belfort (played by Jonah Hill and Jon Bernthal) taunt one another as 'fags' as they fight in a parking lot."
"A film directed by, written by and starring different sets of heterosexual men treads uncomfortably when it ventures into territory about people other than heterosexual men," the writer suggests. But this doesn't jive with the beautiful, and artful, homoeroticism in either Raging Bull or Mean Streets. In other words, if Martin Scorsese is homophobic, his filmography, and aesthetic sensibilities, don't appear to reflect it.