Cruise Control

Cruising the Movies: A Sexual Guide to Oldies on TV (Semiotext(e) / Active Agents) BY Boyd McDonald. edited by William E. Jones. Semiotext(e). Paperback, 304 pages. $17.

The cover of Cruising the Movies: A Sexual Guide to Oldies on TV (Semiotext(e) / Active Agents)

Nearly twenty years ago, Susan Sontag, in “The Decay of Cinema,” lamented, “No amount of mourning will revive the vanished rituals—erotic, ruminative—of the darkened theater.” But a decade before this dirge was written, Boyd McDonald, who had largely abandoned going out to the movies in 1969 (for reasons never explained), proved that some of the most ecstatic cinephilic—and carnal—delights could be found sitting alone at home. McDonald lustily, discursively wrote about the films that aired at all hours on television, which he viewed in his single-room apartment on the Upper West Side, often focusing on minor or supporting actors, as in this tribute to Steve Cochran, a second-billed performer in White Heat (1949): “But I have digressed from my topic, and digressed so far that it may be necessary to remind the reader what my topic is: the size of Cochran’s meat.” Between 1983 and 1985, his lubricious cultural criticism ran as a column in the gay magazine Christopher Street; those pieces, along with others written for New York Native, Connection, and Philadelphia Gay News, were published in 1985 by the Gay Presses of New York as Cruising the Movies: A Sexual Guide to Oldies on TV. McDonald’s essential but under-recognized book, reissued by Semiotext(e) in an expanded edition with previously uncollected articles, offers, in its beautifully articulated bawdiness, perverse pleasures and a radical, though nondidactic, political view. It is, in other words, a model critical text.

The expansive introduction to Cruising the Movies, by experimental filmmaker William E. Jones, provides a helpful biographical sketch of McDonald and places this singular writer in a larger homo-cultural context. The “declassed Ivy Leaguer and film fan” was born in 1925 in South Dakota, served in World War II, and graduated from Harvard. He wrote and edited copy for Time and IBM for twenty years and drank excessively. He sobered up, went on public assistance, and moved to his spartan Manhattan lodging, which served as his primary screening room until his death in 1993. McDonald would write of his cherished piece of equipment: “I have confined my studies to pictures which are available on commercial TV. I watched them on a GE b/w receiver. It cost $80 and has brought me an estimated $80 million worth of ecstasy.” Before he began writing his piquant film analyses, McDonald founded the zine Straight to Hell, composed mainly of readers’ submissions of their own homosexual experiences—contributions that, as Jones notes, were “rigorously edited for style but never diluted or censored”; no less a lavender authority than Gore Vidal called STH “one of the best radical papers in the country.”

McDonald’s sinuous style, at once caustic and charitable, animates what he refers to as the “sermonettes” collected in Cruising the Movies. In addition to his XXX disquisitions on mostly forgotten B (and lower-letter) movies from Hollywood’s golden age, the volume includes book reviews (of Joan Collins’s Past Imperfect, for example) and the brilliant, abecedarian found poem “When Words Fail,” a three-page list of movie performers, many of them lesser-known character actors, that starts with Nick Adams and ends with George Zucco. This catalogue-cum-salute points to McDonald’s fondness for the plebeian rather than the aristocratic, whether on-screen or off. Jones’s assessment of Cruising the Movies as that “rare thing: a book of popular film criticism that is both unabashedly sexual and unapologetically political” is indisputable; yet what distinguishes McDonald’s prose even further is that his digs at, say, Katharine Hepburn, the Reagans, or Reagan Republicans manage to be both piercing and hilarious without ever becoming strident or nasty.

Though McDonald does not shy away from pointing out the homophobic idiocies of someone like Bob Hope—“He is Hollywood’s senior sissy and fag-baiter”—his aim in Cruising the Movies is not to classify or police movies, as Vito Russo does in The Celluloid Closet (1981), a key predecessor, as “good” versus “bad” portrayals of gays. Such Manichaeanism held little appeal for the man who wrote, “The spoken word is at least 10% of the charm of ‘talkies’ (the other 90% of course is the groins and butts of the actors)”; that “other 90%” comes under particular scrutiny in McDonald’s appraisal of Gregory Harrison in the 1981 made-for-TV movie For Ladies Only. In his mischievousness and deftness at setting up Wildean paradoxes (“She is a principal beneficiary of a perversion inherent in the picture business, to wit, that bad pictures are better than good pictures”), McDonald hews closer in style to that deployed by Parker Tyler in his witty and recherché Screening the Sexes (1972), another significant precursor. But though Tyler is not averse to using the first-person-singular pronoun, his “I” isn’t as irrepressible as McDonald’s, as evidenced by this declaration in Cruising the Movies: “Just as for sex I find a hot piece of meat preferable to a wonderful human being, so in show biz I enjoy a star more than someone who’s merely a great actor.”

Publicity photo of Gregory Harrison, 1980s.
Publicity photo of Gregory Harrison, 1980s.

Or, as Jones memorably puts it: “[McDonald] holds that talent is not only irrelevant, but a distraction from the main point of movies, the exhibition of beautiful and exceptional people simply being rather than acting. A star is above all a person millions of spectators want to rim, suck, and fuck.” (And it is always the people in front of, not behind, the camera who interest McDonald; he rarely mentions directors.) McDonald’s is always a cogent concupiscence, utilized to elevate semi-luminaries like David Nelson (Ricky’s older brother) to the exalted position of “one of Hollywood’s premier suck objects,” an honorific bestowed on the actor largely thanks to his role as a white-clad trapeze artist in The Big Circus (1959). Michael Callan, who played a similar role in The Flying Fontaines (from the same year), likewise receives high praise for the bulges revealed by his big-top costume.

While the most gloriously ribald passages of Cruising the Movies concern the men McDonald sees, and lusts after, on his TV screen—those who fall into “one of [his] 55 or 60 types”—his paeans to actresses, even if platonic, are no less impassioned. In a piece written for a 1983 issue of Straight to Hell excerpted in Jones’s introduction, McDonald underscores a key element of his cinephilia: “Motion pictures are for people who like to watch women.” (A corollary to that aesthetic principle might be this more personal avowal: “May I say that I like women better than men, but not for cock.”) His veneration of Gloria Grahame, the incomparable noir seductress, is worth quoting at length:

Gloria Grahame is a high school boy’s dream of cool, of real, effortless masculinity as opposed to the effort to act masculine made by her co-star in In a Lonely Place (1950), a poseur named “Humphrey Bogart.” She had the sullen, bored walk and talk of someone who can’t be shocked, isn’t afraid and just doesn’t give a shit. But she was perfectly feminine; the badge of her femininity was the fantastically sharp outline of her lips, or, more precisely, her lipstick. . . . I never take my eyes off her lips, but just sit waiting for her to open them and say something.

McDonald, we discover, is often drawn to actresses who display a subtle butch bravado; in singling out the performance of Jane Russell in 1952’s Macao (in which, coincidentally, Grahame has a supporting role), he writes: “Anyone who treasures cool virility cannot fail to be favorably impressed by Russell; her easy masculine style is more admirable than the more showy machismo of men, for, unlike them, she does not prey upon the vulnerable but merely counterattacks when men prey upon her.” McDonald’s sharp dissections of masculinity’s absurdity—that is, when practiced by men—amplifies his sly feminism, announced at the end of the preface: “I have, finally, no wife to thank for typing my manuscript. Unlike ‘straight’ writers, if I had a wife I’d want her to do something that’s more fun than typing my manuscript.”

As my copious citations of McDonald prove, he honed a kind of cultural criticism—personal but outward-looking, raunchy yet brainy, funny and furious—rare in his era and barely in evidence today, when we are overrun with professional (and paraprofessional) opinionators whose writing rarely rises above plot synopses with some adjectives and adverbs thrown in. Throughout Cruising the Movies, McDonald archly points out the deficiencies of what he dubs “pack journalism,” of those arbiters who had far more readers than he; Leonard Maltin’s movie-review vernacular is aptly described as “Tarzan-like English.” He presents, without commentary, an instance of flagrant plagiarism found in the New York Times’ obituary for director Henry Hathaway and aims a well-turned barb at Janet Maslin, that paper’s fixture. Halfway through the book, in an ode to actor Richard Widmark, McDonald states his frustrations with “film criticism” in general: “[Widmark] demonstrates the importance of the movie star over the movie and thus the importance of star reviews over mere movie reviews, with their constant complaints about plot.” McDonald is especially “unmoved” by any critical stance taken by Pauline Kael, among the most powerful critics at the time of Cruising the Movies’ original publication and one whose influence remains outsize today. Like Kael’s, McDonald’s sensibility was resolutely uncompromised. But his writing, even if for a very specific audience, teems with qualities—generosity, curiosity, wit, raillery, and, of course, lust—lacking in hers and that of most other critics, then or now. The columns collected in Cruising the Movies reflect the best that criticism can do—they are, as Oscar Wilde would have it, a record of McDonald’s soul.

Melissa Anderson writes about film for Artforum.