Easy Chair — From the September 2016 issue

Giantess

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The radical is so often imagined as the marginal that sometimes the truly subversive escapes detection just by showing up in a tuxedo instead of a T-shirt or a ski mask. Take Giant, the 1956 film directed by George Stevens. It stars Elizabeth Taylor and features three queer men, Rock Hudson, James Dean, and Sal Mineo, who uneasily orbit one another in ways that seem only partly about their cinematic roles.

This is what caught my eye the first time I saw Giant. It was the thirtieth-anniversary screening at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre, the great 1,400-seat dream palace where, from my mid-teens on, I learned from the sighs and groans and snickers of the gay men around me in the dark to notice homoerotic subtext, to delight in women with verve, and to appreciate camp and bitchiness and cliché.

In the film, Elizabeth Taylor plays that rarest of joys, a woman who breaks the rules, triumphs, and enjoys herself rather than winding up dead or deserted or defeated, as too many female rebels have in too many movies. The year before my first viewing, Hudson had died of AIDS, and Taylor had begun advocating and fund-raising for those with the then-untreatable and horrifically stigmatized disease. Her outspoken heroics in real life made her a little like the unconquered heroine she was in the movie.

Whenever I see a woman like that onscreen, I get revved up in a way that men who identify with Hollywood’s endless stream of action heroes must be all the time. Just watching Jennifer Lawrence walk down a Texas street like a classic gunslinger in the 2015 biopic Joy gave me a thrill I get maybe once a year. Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen was the hard drugs. Beyoncé’s recent videos have offered some of the same satisfaction, of a woman who slays and doesn’t stay down. Distaff invictus, lady with agency.

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