Max DeCurtins takes a deep look into Nicholas Hoult’s azure eyes and examines the question of straight-washing in Tom Ford’s adaptation of the classic gay novel A Single Man.
All aboard the Pathos Express! (Warning: all the spoilers ahead.) Well, maybe not express; this is not a short re-view. While I should strive for more concision, this isn’t gonna be one of those times, so strap in and let’s do this.
A Single Man represents fashion designer Tom Ford’s directorial debut, a self-financed adaptation of landmark gay author Christopher Isherwood’s novel of the same name. Isherwood often laced his work with autobiographical hints, and his decades of observation and experience through some of the most turbulent decades of the 20th century somehow distill into a shockingly blunt and highly relatable novel that runs to under 200 pages.
The story follows a day in the life of George Falconer (Colin Firth), a British expatriate and professor of literature at an unspecified Los Angeles-area college. George is the titular single man on account of his longtime partner Jim (Matthew Goode) having died in a car accident eight months prior to the narrative present. George has a highly dysfunctional best-friendship with fellow British expat Charley (Julianne Moore), with whom he drinks, dines, and reminisces.
George is a man wracked with grief over the loss of his partner and alienated by the dictates of heteronormativity, so much so that on the day we follow him—according to the movie, at least; more on this later—George intends to take his own life. Over the course of the day, however, encounters with a male hustler (Jon Kortajarena) and more significantly George’s literature student Kenny Potter (Nicholas Hoult) maybe just start to convince George to give life another try.
I wasn’t out in 2009 and, in a new city without much in the way of friends yet, I saw A Single Man alone. I didn’t come out until three years later, but being that close to lifting the weight of the closet tends to leave one hypersensitized to gay subtexts. I hadn’t read the novel and my purpose in seeing the movie was something of a self-admonishment. (“See! Look how awful the closet is to George! Do you really wanna keep doing this?”) I recall thinking that the film seemed powerful if a bit narcissistic, more interested in showing things to me than I was interested in seeing them. This remains true ten years later, but I’ve long since read the novel and boy, do I have thoughts.
As with any adaptation, critics and fans will always have occasion to quibble with the editorial decisions involved in making the written word into a workable film. I’m not here to be one of those people screaming about how the movie is different from the book and HOW DARE THEY. Some situations demand a heavier hand. Once in a while, though, the author’s material turns out to be more or less filmable as-is and deserves a light editorial touch. A Single Man is one of those rare examples.
Ford wasn’t adapting a sprawling high fantasy saga; he was filming a story about a dude in L.A., and yet his editorial license feels like a sloppily generous pour of Scotch. It seems he mistook Isherwood’s deliberately spare prose for a partially finished portrait that needed filling in with his own somewhat rococo personality. Nevertheless, reactions to the film ranged from fulsome praise to mixed; most of them rightly praised Firth’s performance and accurately took note of Ford’s tendency to visual excess. And then there’s this hilariously strange and terrible review by former New York City Mayor Ed Koch in The Atlantic. (“This is An Important Homosexual Film!”)
After ten years, however, I’m left to wonder if any of the reviewers had actually read the text—and for those that did (mostly because they say they did), whether they understood what Isherwood wrote. Because it seems to this re-viewer that when it came time to respond to a first-time director who took up no less than a foundational work of modern gay fiction for his debut venture, the professionals broke out the kid gloves.
I don’t know how much hay we should make of the fact that, like The Reader, A Single Man was distributed by the now-defunct Weinstein Company, which was acquired under Chapter 11 bankruptcy only last year. On the one hand, it’s hard to argue that the movie is retroactively, ipso facto tainted for having been marketed and distributed by a company that propped up a predatory monster. If Weinstein hadn’t distributed it, surely another company would have.
On the other hand, the marketing for A Single Man sparked controversy from the get-go, and much of it traces directly back to the Weinstein Company. They were, after all, unabashedly chasing Academy Awards. Critics saw straight-washing at work; Ford responded to this criticism with an unsatisfying answer that also managed to reference our cultural squeamishness with male nudity on screen (see also The Reader), and Weinstein—who clearly wielded a lot of power over the company’s projects and often abused it—was simply an asshole about the whole thing.
I wasn’t aware of this controversy at the time, but with ten years’ hindsight I’m inclined to go with the cynical answer: yes, the Weinstein Company straight-washed the marketing of A Single Man, but arguably, so would have any number of other film distributors. That a long tradition exists of straight-washing gay narratives or gay subtext, or even excising them outright, merely provides easy cover. But to what degree is the film itself straight-washed?
There’s plenty of reason to think it’s not. For example, Ford retained the scene on campus in which George, walking and half-heartedly listening to his colleague Russ Dreyer (dearest Piemaker and sometimes frustratingly cagey member of the tribe Lee Pace) drone on about some academic question as it relates to the recent Cuban missile crisis, spies two scantily clad young men playing tennis. As in the novel the camera, representing George’s gaze, luxuriates in their muscled torsos and joyful exertions. These are not images aimed at a straight male viewer. (And how refreshing!)
Similarly, Ford leans hard into Kenny’s seductive beauty in numerous scenes, of which one is this lovely image of Hoult sitting astride a motorcycle.
And while straight-washing often involves editing out explicit material, Ford does his best to split the difference between the novel, which avoids gratuitous nudity but does give George a look at Kenny in all his glory, and pulling a Call Me By Your Name. There’s some demure backside as Kenny goes to take a shower in George’s home, but honestly, after re-viewing The Reader, all I could think about during this scene was the no-frontal-nudity clause almost certainly buried somewhere in Hoult’s contract.
Most importantly, though, Ford doesn’t shy away from depicting George and Jim as a couple. In the very first scene of the film, George imagines kneeling to kiss Jim’s bloodied face. In George’s flashbacks, they’re not exactly snogging passionately, but their body language is intimate and their familiarity speaks to a mature relationship. When George and Jim first meet at the Starboard Side and a young woman asks Jim to buy her a drink, Jim, without taking his eyes off George, responds, “I think I’m taken.”
In these ways, no, A Single Man has not been straight-washed.
But Ford made other decisions that undeniably muddle the novel’s fairly clear opinions on George vis-à-vis Jim, Charley, and Kenny. Perhaps the most unforgivable one, the one that blew up into the film’s marketing flub, has to do with the nature of George’s relationship to Charley. As far as I can tell, there is no suggestion that George and Charley were ever together, either in the novel or in Isherwood’s comments about it. Ford, however, deeply insinuates this in one of George’s flashbacks to a conversation with Jim; he even invents a fight between the two dysfunctional friends based on such an imagined prior romance.
But wait, there’s more:
In Isherwood’s novel George goes to see Doris, a woman who piqued Jim’s unexplored bi-curiosity (the only clear example of such) and briefly took him away to Mexico, a trip that angered George greatly, even though he had himself given Jim permission to go. We only meet Doris as she lies dying in hospice care; George visits her only because while she lives, a little piece of Jim lives on as well. But witnessing Doris’ decline has a hidden salutary effect: George gradually lets go of his resentment, a necessary step in coming to terms with his grief over Jim’s death, which in turn allows him to feel invigorated by Kenny’s interest.
Ford doesn’t just omit any mention of Doris; he swaps George’s and Jim’s character histories entirely, to the extent that Isherwood defined them. He makes Jim out to be the gold star, while shifting the suggestion of a hetero history onto George and Charley.
Why, if not to make George seem less gay? Why, if not to deflect attention to Charley, whom Isherwood paints as perpetually one drunken evening away from alienating George? Does Ford think that the George-Charley dynamic isn’t interesting enough unless they fight over something fundamental? And why does that fundamental thing have to be a failed straight relationship? Is George—gods forgive me—not Authentic™ otherwise?
The specter of straight-washing doesn’t end there. For reasons unknown, Ford omitted nearly all of a crucial monologue that George directs at Kenny toward the end of the novel. From a filmmaking perspective, this is unquestionably Ford’s biggest blunder. To lend a bit of plot context:
After dining with Charley, George ends up at the Starboard Side. Intending to drink alone, George is surprised when Kenny turns up, and they exchange flirty banter over glasses of scotch. After this, they cross the street to the beach and go for a carefree bit of drunken skinny-dipping in the Pacific, in one of the movie’s best scenes—and one of the only ones that make me feel like a seasoned pro is at the helm instead of a newbie director. Well after midnight, they retreat to George’s house, where they come damn close to fucking.
George’s speech scene in the novel, in the wee hours of the morning, positively drips with sensuality: George describes Kenny languidly draped, like a classical Greek youth wearing a chlamys, with a blanket that falls elegantly, in stages, off of Kenny’s shoulders. “At this moment,” George observes, Kenny is “utterly, dangerously charming.”
George asks Kenny why he was in the neighborhood. Kenny answers evasively, alluding to a nearby motel where he and his purported girlfriend Lois once had sex, and his attempt to make that happen again. (In the novel, Lois is Nisei Japanese-American but WOMP Ford whitewashed her.) Kenny’s excuse is that he and Lois got into an argument, and that she drove off, leaving him conveniently stranded near Camphor Tree Lane, George’s street.
George isn’t having any of it, and calls Kenny on his shit. George first takes aim at Kenny’s pretext. He promises Kenny that he’ll dine with Charley on the same night every week, and that he will absolutely never return before midnight. He tells Kenny the house is never locked, and even instructs him how (and where) he can discreetly fuck Lois without anybody the wiser.
But George knows that Kenny won’t ever take up the offer. Kenny, he charges, knew Lois wouldn’t ever agree to return to that motel. He goaded her into it to give himself an excuse to be in the neighborhood.
Finally, with negative fucks left to give, George scolds Kenny for wasting precious time and energy on flirting, for beating around the bush, for seducing him intellectually and sexually but not having the balls to follow through, to be honest with himself and with George. He’s angry at Kenny but also very clearly ready to mash faces, and other bits, together.
This scene is as close to catharsis that George ever gets in the novel. It’s just after this that George bids Kenny good night, goes to bed—George dreams of Kenny having sex with one of the tennis players and awakens long enough to jerk off—and finally, has a heart attack in his sleep.
Why in the world did this sequence, the last scenes of the novel, get altered so dramatically? Yes, Kenny gently and lovingly dressing the cut on George’s forehead—something that doesn’t happen in the novel—makes for a touching visual, and it is mildly erotic in its way. But in exchange we lost what could have been an extended sequence of a bare-chested Nicholas Hoult sensually bathed in firelight while Colin Firth blasts him with a pathos-filled monologue that mingles grief with desire, and I am not here for this.
It distresses me to see how many of the core people involved in this film, not least of all Ford and, yes, even the mesmerizingly azure-eyed Hoult, either sincerely believed in—or were asked to push—a tendentious narrative of Kenny’s character that held him as probably “mostly straight” with at most a whiff of ambiguous bi-curiosity who just sort of cosmically sensed a mutual platonic connection with George and is in reality little more than an unconventional friend.
This narrative is bullshit.
In the novel, Kenny is coded as closeted, over and over and over again—and barely attempting to conceal it in his louche interactions with George. To give but one example of many: George speaks in his class of minorities and the invisibility that sometimes attends them (in the novel, George’s class on Huxley actually turns into a bit of a rant about minorities and liberalism that feels almost like a Twitter fight). The film’s cinematography and editing reinforce Kenny’s closeted-ness, scrutinizing Kenny’s giveaway behavior whenever George intones a line pregnant with gay subtext. You’d better believe 2009 me noticed this REAL fast. After their impromptu swim in the Pacific, George expresses shock when Kenny moves to leave without putting his clothes on. “You’re going to walk home like that?” George shouts. “Are you crazy? They’d call the cops!” Kenny responds nonchalantly. “Nobody would have seen us. We’re invisible—didn’t you know?”
We’re invisible. Given the allusions to the LGBTQ community that George made in his class, and the conversation they have over drinks at the Starboard Side, you’d have to be Devin Nunes-level stupid not to draw the obvious conclusion. Kenny, for all his youthful inexperience, is not a fool. (In the novel, after they get out of the ocean, Kenny uses his own shirt to pat George dry. Ford omits this visual in the film but keeps Kenny’s line.)
We’re invisible. That’s a statement of membership. Kenny is gay and intensely attracted to his older professor. This is a straightforward narrative that not only has the benefit of being simple—Occam’s razor again—but also has the weight of real-life histories of intergenerational gay relationships behind it. Isherwood almost certainly contextualized Kenny this way, rather than as some ambiguously bi-curious unconventional friend, a prima facie explanation that an alarming number of commentators seem to have pushed. Most of the professional reviewers either went along with this or barely mentioned Kenny altogether, choosing to see his character as peripheral.
Yes, Isherwood introduces Kenny as someone of ambiguous disposition, which is presumably where Ford, Hoult, and so many others derive their obfuscatory reading. But that’s not where Kenny’s character ends; he walks right up to the precipice of having sex with his male professor. This evolution is important because A Single Man, in addition to all the other ideas it considers, manages to say something about the confusion of navigating the complex, uncertain sexuality of another human as a gay man in a straight man’s world.
The problem with minimizing Kenny’s role in A Single Man is that it takes some of the poignancy out of George’s death. Just as George—who has had to put up all his life with a world that does not welcome him—may have turned a corner with his grief, startled out of his torpor by Kenny’s interest, he fucking dies of a heart attack. Any suggestion of or hope for a second act for George—maybe with Kenny, maybe without—is snuffed out. He lost a loving partner, and then he lost the chance to heal and maybe find love again. It hurts.
Interpretive license aside, any argument that stops short of reading Kenny as gay is straight-washing, denialist bullshit.
So where does all this leave A Single Man after ten years, a decade that saw marriage equality precariously prevail? To be honest, I’m not sure. My perspective now informed by Isherwood’s spare yet unsparing prose, it’s fair to say that A Single Man remains as conflicted as its marketing.
While the flirtation with straight-washing makes me chafe, I also take issue with Ford’s invention of a suicide framing. George expresses no plan to kill himself in the novel. Quite the opposite, in fact: Despite his grief, George revels in being alive. (In the novel, he even goes to the gym, which I suppose Ford had to cut, because when you’ve framed the entire film as someone’s last day of life, who the fuck is gonna spend their precious time at the fucking gym?) Moreover, George’s death of a heart attack comes as a near-total surprise, a macabre note that lands like the final bar of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, a quick way of concluding a novel that probably could not, for its own sake, have gone on much longer. The material is arresting enough in its own right without the need for additional pathos or a foreshadowing feint at George’s lurking heart problems. So why the suicide plan? In a word: gravitas.
Ford’s idea of gravitas is somewhat of a caricature of Hollywood and Art house cinema: the slow-motion sequences, with ponderous shots of eyes and mouths; the impeccable focus on period aesthetics; the momentary flushes of saturation in the film’s color palette; and composer Abel Korzeniowski’s mournful, sometimes dissonant strains of instrumental music. The violin has a long association with pathos, both on screen and off—it’s what you deploy when mothers are separated from children and soldiers die in the trenches or become prisoners of war. Is it moving? Yes. Is it maybe just a little overkill for a story that, at least in Isherwood’s telling, stresses the mundane ordinariness of one day in the life of one man? Absolutely.
The other main musical material in A Single Man is Shigeru Umebayashi’s “George’s Waltz.” Waltzes are often thought of as grandiose, most commonly exemplified by the floofy clichés of Johann Strauss Jr. or Chopin’s rubato-filled, Romantic piano works. Minimally scored, as Umebayashi’s cue is, waltzes can also signify melancholy, subverting the expectation that dances are expressions of happiness and vigor. At times the score seems almost to want to grate on the listener; at other times it seems to reach for wisps of classic musical tearjerkers, like “Sunrise, Sunset” and Barber’s Adagio. George is equal parts rage and despair, and the score reflects that.
Pile on a revolver, effortlessly tapping into what Steven Rydman, writing for Lambda Literary, describes as the “stereotypical notion that all gay characters in the face of tragedy and without the support of society must contemplate suicide, a fate that was too often expected for gay characters, especially in films about this era,” and you’ve got one more thing that screams: THIS IS A SERIOUS FILM.
Given all this, it’s a testament to Colin Firth’s acting chops that his performance single-handedly manages to mitigate many of Ford’s excesses. George’s natural terseness leaves Firth to communicate the character’s despair in expressions and gestures. Nowhere does this leap to the fore as clearly as in the single-shot scene of George receiving news of Jim’s death (and the family’s wish to bar him from the funeral). His delivery stood out to me then and still does now.
On somewhat the opposite end of the emotional spectrum, Firth makes George’s awkward search for the right position in which to shoot himself into a dark, absurd, uncomfortably humorous sequence that succeeds in spite of the ham-handed nature of Ford’s suicide framing. I suppress a chuckle even as my brain goes: THIS IS HORRIFYING.
Firth’s performance also plays well against Nicholas Hoult’s almost bumpkin-esque earnestness, even if I find Hoult’s affectation of a Californian accent adorably bemusing. Kenny’s that kid who, when he gets to grad school, will find a way to make tripping on drugs part of his dissertation—and think it important.
By contrast, Juliannne Moore’s performance as Charley has not weathered as well. Moore’s Charley, and by extension Ford’s, comes off as forced and stiff—pointless even, beyond her having been there for George when word came of Jim’s death. Isherwood’s Charley, by contrast, is performatively gregarious and far too pleased with herself, no matter how much self-loathing may lurk underneath. Charley is an archetype—the friend given to self-aggrandizing who gets sloshed on the regular and fancies their intellect keen and their wit sharp, the one who will repeat the same tired litany of slights and not care that you’ve heard them five thousand times already, the one who craves validation and conspicuously seeks it out. The problem with putting such a person on screen is that the real-life version of this archetypal friend is usually both endearing and insufferable in equal measure. Whether you can handle the insufferable depends on your mood, and after ten years, my mood for A Single Man has soured ever so slightly.
In so many ways, Isherwood’s novel represents a rare work of fiction that doesn’t require much adaptation to produce a plausible film. It’s compact. It lends itself to character exploration. It’s full of human struggles: life and death, mourning and desire, present and past. There’s no Hitchcockian drama or trademark M. Night Shyamalan Plot Twist™. Ford (and Firth) captured a lot of this, and that’s often all we ask of adaptations—that they capture the spirit of the text. Sometimes, though, that’s asking too little.
There’s something disquieting about an openly gay director declaring that he sees a landmark work of gay fiction as “not a gay story” with the misplaced confidence that he lives in a post-sexuality world, similar to how former President Obama is sometimes criticized for a naïve vision of a post-racial America. We do not live in a post-sexuality world any more than we live in a post-racial America. It’s temptingly aspirational to try to find the universal in a story of love and loss, but A Single Man exists precisely because George’s experience is not universal; a straight man would not have experienced what George experienced, and that’s the whole goddamn point.
I only wish Ford had been able to see it.
— Max DeCurtins