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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Gay Subtext of WIlde's The Canterville Ghost, Burton's Beetlejuice and Jordan's High Spirits

In Janeites & Austen L, Ellen Moody wrote: 
"This morning I read The Canterville Ghost.…It's a send up of the ghost story convention. …American family buys a property said to have a ghost and find it titillating…Wilde though asks what's to be afraid of. So you see a ghost. So what? He makes his Americans thoroughly pragmatic and into inventions to improve the ghost's existence and their own. They torment the poor ghost by continually washing up a blood stain. They unnerve him. They set traps and tricks. At the same time Wilde shows he can do ghost stories too. The ghost manages to kidnap the daughter at one point and the family then does become terrified. She vanished -- that's what ghosts do. In this part of the story he shows how he can whip up landscape and also labyrinthine corridors. It does end in death but then turns round to provide a cheer-y mocking ending. Yes it takes place in a country house -- and is part of a subgenre of mystery stories occurring in country houses. But Wilde is not interested in that - -it reminds me of a poor play Izzy and I saw a couple of weeks ago: the humor is really gay humor -- you are upending heterosexual norms and showing them to be absurd."

 I had never read, or even heard of, The Canterville Ghost before reading Ellen's synopsis, above, but as soon as I read it, three words immediately popped into my head: BEETLEJUICE! BEETLEJUICE! BEETLEJUICE!

And sure enough, Google immediately led me to a 12/10/2003 review at the IMDB page for Tim Burton's classic 1988 film farce Beetlejuice (one of my favorite film comedies alltime) with the following astute observations by someone going by the screen name Timefreezer3: 
“Although the basic plot may be regarded as quite original and funny, I am somehow compelled to point out that the basic concept seems to be loosely influenced by Oscar Wilde's The Canterville Ghost, a rather dark fairy tale for kids (in precisely the same tradition of Roald Dahl's creepy books like The Witches, Matilda, James and the Giant Peach etc.) . It contains the hopeless attempts of an undead British lord who haunts his castle for centuries and callously scares off or even murders in gruesome ways all the subsequent habitants of the castle (including his very own descendants) only to fail to boot out a wacky American family of Republicans, who have bought the castle and have taken over his residence. Failed efforts to show them his presence include post-midnight roaming in the hallways hauling a rusty creaking metal chain and breaking the tea set in the living room. Sounds familiar?”
had never read, or even heard of, The Canterville Ghost before reading Ellen's synopsis, above, but as soon as I read it, three words immediately popped into my head: BEETLEJUICE! BEETLEJUICE! BEETLEJUICE!

Yes, indeed, sounds very familiar! But that was my true “ Doh!” moment occurred when I pondered the fact that Beetlejuice was based on an Oscar Wilde story---that’s when it darted through me, with the speed of an arrow, so to speak, that there must, beneath the farcical surface, be a serious gay subtext both in Wilde’s story (hardly a shocker there) but also in Beetlejuice! Now that I’ve read the Wilde story (it’s very short, and readily available in Project Gutenberg), it seems clear to me that Wilde’s basic subtextual premise, implied everywhere but never made explicit---for obvious reasons, in 1906, just as in The Importance of Being Earnest---was that being gay in a homophobic society was like living an undead, shadowy, non-existence, like being a ghost!

I.e., most straight people in Wilde’s lifetime reacted to homosexuality the way children react to ghosts—with extreme horror, willing to do anything to exorcise them—but, when you actually spend time around gay people, you find out that they’re not horrible at all, no less human and alive than straight people. And so, Wilde’s coded and very pointed question was, isn’t it time to allow gay people to truly live as they are, and not as “ghosts’ who pretend to be straight in order not to be persecuted (as, of course, Wilde was, in a truly horrible way—and by the way, we saw the same theme played out in the first episode of the second season of Masters of Sex, set in 1960 America, which coincidentally began this week).  

And a little further digging led me to quick confirmation of my hunch re the gay subtext of Beetlejuice. Turns out that the story upon which Beetlejuice was most immediately based was written by Michael McEachern McDowell (1950-99), and here’s what Wikipedia tells us about him:
“McDowell was born in Enterprise, Alabama. According to his biography in the 1985 edition of Toplin, McDowell lived in Medford, Massachusetts. He also maintained a residence in Hollywood with his sister Ann and adventurer-filmmaker Peter Lake. The biography described a typical day: McDowell "writes in the mornings and spends the rest of the day looking out of the window in hope that something interesting will happen" and "collects photographs of corpses". He specialized in collecting photographs of train-decapitation victims and plaques from baby caskets. McDowell's life partner of 30 years was the theatre historian and director Laurence Senelick.”

So, based on that brief bio, it does not seem to me to be much of a reach at all to suggest that McDowell was a sharp elf and well-read gay man who wanted to use his bully pulpit as a Hollywood screenwriter to further the cause of gay rights. And so he decided he would update Wilde’s story (and its numerous prior film adaptations, beginning with the 1944 version starring Charles Laughton as the ghost—and by the way, apparently in 2016 an animated film version of The Canterville Ghost starring Hugh Laurie will be coming out!) for a contemporary, younger American film audience. But, wildly successful as the film was, I suspect that very few straight viewers of the film ever realized that the ghosts might stand for gays. Whereas, I imagine that many gay viewers understood right away.

As I ponder this further, it seems to me also that, in a lowkey, covert way, Beetlejuice is on exactly the same wavelength as one of my other alltime favorite film comedies, In and Out—but notice that in the short decade between Beetlejuice and In and Out, American societal mores had changed sufficiently so that there was no further need for code in making the same case, i.e., that gays were in fact everywhere and should not be forced to live like ghosts who are not really there.

But I am not quite done—there is a bit more of this untold story—first, the poignant 2010 obituary of Glenn Shadix, the actor who played Otho, the one obviously gay character in Beetlejuice:

“Glenn Shadix, best remembered for his portrayal of a portly, pretentious designer in the metaphysical comedy Beetlejuice, died Tuesday at his home in Birmingham. He was 58. Personal manager Juliet Green told The Associated Press that Shadix had returned to his home state after many years living in Los Angeles. An official biography says Shadix was born in Bessemer, a suburb of Birmingham, and participated in local theater productions as a youth. His website describes him as a photographer and gay rights activist; he spoke publicly about undergoing so-called ex-gay therapy as a teenager. The website Truth Wins Out said that "what many people do not know is that Shadix had undergone shock therapy as a teenager in Alabama, in an attempt to turn from gay-to-straight." In a Truth Wins Out video that Shadix made before his death, Shadix said that when he was 17 he told his parents that he was gay. He said he then agreed to undergo aversion therapy with a psychologist in Birmingham after being told by his father that if he did not "beat this thing" he wouldn't be allowed to be around his younger brothers and sisters.
The therapy, according to Shadix, involved being shown male pornography, then, when he became sexually aroused, being shocked with something that "reminded me of a car battery." He said he will never forget the words they would tell him as he was being shocked: "Don't be a sissy about the pain."
Shadix said that after the therapy, he had "this overwhelming sense of shame,"  overdosed on Elavil, then was in a coma for three days. After being released from the hospital, he said, his father took him for a drive. "We both had vodka and he told me he wanted me to live, that it would destroy my mother if I killed myself. He said he wanted me to be who I wanted to be and that he loved me," Shadix recalled.
Shadix said in the video that after his return to the South, he found that "there's been a lot of change, but there are still a lot of people -- and it's really religious based -- who believe they can change their homosexual son or daughter. ... You can stop someone from being actively homosexual, but you will always be homosexual." END QUOTE

So Glenn Shadix had attempted to please his parents and his community by turning himself into a ghost, but fortunately he survived that horror, and the world got to enjoy his talents in Beetlejuice, watching him freak out when the ghosts play tricks on him!

And second, it appears that Wilde’s story has had a very rich afterlife, not only via the many adaptations of Wilde’s story, and via Beetlejuice, but also as explained by Maria Pramaggiore in her book about the Irish filmmaker, Neil Jordan:
“In several of his films, Neil Jordan uses ghosts, rather than guests, of the nation to suggest the diverse and contentious character of Irish national identity. Ghosts haunt the Irish national imaginary in explicit ways in the farcical High Spirits…they represent the return of a repressed and unresolved national past…High Spirits concerns an Irish castle that is in danger of being foreclosed upon by an absentee, Irish-American landlord…In High Spirits,…Peter Plunkett (Peter O’Toole) concocts a scheme to attract American tourists to his dilapidated castle by advertising that it is haunted…The High Spirits project evolved as a compromise between Jordan’s vision of a film based in a comic and fanciful Irish tradition and the producers’ interest in an Irish Ghostbusters or Beetlejuice. In interviews publicizing the production, Jordan linked the film to the writing of James Stephens, Flann O’Brien, and Oscar Wilde ...The final version of the screenplay represented a collaboration between Jordan and Michael McDowell, who cowrote Beetlejuice….”

While Pramaggiore did not pick up on a gay subtext in High Spirits, and I have not yet seen that film, I strongly suspect that it is there, and that McDowell therefore was engaged on two occasions in the worthy project of resurrecting, on screen, the ghostly gay subtext of Oscar Wilde’s ghost story.

But Google showed me that the gay subtext of Wilde’s story was noticed, albeit obliquely, by one blogger a couple of years ago, in his discussion of the 1944 film version starring Charles Laughton:

“…Since I participated in a queer film blogathon in June 2011 I’ve been seeing gay subtext more in older films. In one adorable scene at the party two soldiers jitterbug quite well together. Earlier in the same sequence Rags Ragland’s character Big Harry is asked to dance by a man; he does not realize the man is asking on behalf of a female friend and Harry tries to dance with the man only to be confused when he is rebuffed. I love to see these little subversive sorts of things happen.”

And that bit about dancing was based, I think, on the following description of the eldest son in the American family in Wilde’s original story:

“Her eldest son, christened Washington by his parents in a moment of patriotism, which he never ceased to regret, was a fair-haired, rather good-looking young man, who had qualified himself for American diplomacy by leading the German at the Newport Casino for three successive seasons, and even in London was well known as an excellent dancer. Gardenias and the peerage were his only weaknesses. Otherwise he was extremely sensible.”

Was “ the fair-haired, rather good-looking young man” with the weakness for gardenias extremely sensible, or earnest? 

And, oh, I almost forgot to mention---I have been convinced for a very long time that one of the literary  inspirations that Wilde drew upon for his “Bunburying” gay subtext in so much of his writing was… Jane Austen! And in that regard, I believe The Canterbury Ghost specifically owes more than a little of its “high spirits” to Northanger Abbey---but that’s a topic for a future post!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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