The writer Boyd McDonald served in World War II, went to Harvard, and spent 20 years editing copy for large corporations, and drinking heavily. But then in the mid-1960s McDonald quit his job, quit drinking, went on welfare, and took up occupancy in a single-occupancy room on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. While there, he put out a series of explicit gay chapbooks called Straight to Hell, which mainly consisted of “true homosexual experiences” from readers. This was an in-your-face publication that once declared: “Homosexuality is not a handicap to overcome, but a blessing to wallow in.”
What is less known about McDonald, who died in 1993, is that he was a dedicated film viewer who wrote incisive short articles about old movies he watched on TV for the magazine Christopher Street from 1983-85. These pieces have just been re-published by Semiotext(e) press as Cruising the Movies, and they are consistently smart and funny while also being consistently filthy and nearly always irreverent. It’s very hard to do this kind of writing well without it becoming repetitive or just distasteful, but McDonald surveys his subjects with deadly accuracy and never loses his grip on them. In the present day, only Wayne Koestenbaum is doing this particular sort of sexy gay writing on popular culture, and McDonald shares with Koestenbaum the same discreet queer romanticism.
Throughout McDonald’s Cruising the Movies there is a dry, old-school gay humor that can see the absurdity in just about anything and also the representative value in mainstream pop culture icons like Annette Funicello. McDonald takes delight in objectifying aggressively wholesome 1950s male players like David Nelson, dubbing him “one of Hollywood’s premier suck objects” and one of his favorite pieces of “eating stuff,” and then composing cheerfully horny, mock-reportorial thoughts on Nelson like these:
“In white tights in The Big Circus, seen at 3 p.m., April 14, 1984, on Channel 5, David’s body is more starkly erotic than one that is ‘stark naked.’ The dazzling white of his costume erases all human imperfections and distractions, such as body hairs, blemishes, scars, pores, and so on, and purifies and idealizes his body while still displaying its exact form.” McDonald is hot for unaware young hunks like Nelson but he also nails the appeal of a more predatory male sexual presence like Richard Widmark: “He looks both in need of help and determined to get it—both tender and tough. It’s a fantastic way of seducing someone. Don’t say anything, just leer.”
McDonald disdains classy actresses like Katharine Hepburn and instead reserves his affection for deadpan, libidinal creatures like Jane Russell and Robert Mitchum, of whom he writes in the movie Macao (1952): “The stars…respond to all frightening and embarrassing crises, as everyone should, merely by making a cool wisecrack.” And McDonald eulogizes the moment in Clash by Night (1952) when the “authentically blue collar” Barbara Stanwyck takes a lit cigarette from Robert Ryan: “She accepted it but looked at it with an easy, graceful scorn for just a fraction of a second and tossed it over her shoulder…I was so shocked I didn’t notice what Ryan did. I believe he did nothing; what could he do?”
Many gay men of McDonald’s era fed vicariously on old Hollywood movies as a way of expressing themselves and used them for purposes of both mockery and identification. Cruising the Movies offers a hilariously detailed and arousing overview of that near-instinct sensibility, with tantalizing photos and forthright statements on McDonald’s own late-life gay bohemian freedom like this: “I often regret these days that I did not, in the days when I was eligible, become a stripper and whore, rather than prostituting my mind.”
Cruising the Movies is available now from Semiotext(e).