The Boston Herald

16 March 2004

With a wink and a nudge, homosexual subtext has been understated in entertainment.(Arts and Lifestyle)


In this tell-all, show-all era, we've all but forgotten the naughty pleasure of subtext.

In the 1970s, TV crime busters Starsky and Hutch buddied up in their Ford Gran Torino, disco patrons belted out the Village People's "Y.M.C.A." and Felix, the fussy half of "The Odd Couple," nagged slob roommate Oscar like a one-man Fab Five.

And the Religious Right didn't bat an eye.

Back in the day, pop culture officially turned a blind eye to gay and lesbian life, but discreet messages - deliberate or inadvertent - went out under the wire.

Today "Starsky & Hutch," the campy remake starring Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson, lets that "special-friends" angle spill from the closet. After all, subtext is lost on the "Will & Grace" generation. The love that dare not speak its name now is making seating charts and hiring caterers.

Is this the death of subtext? If so, its obituary yields a rich history.

In Victorian England:

** Sherlock Holmes and (the married) Dr. Watson were inseparable. (Elementary, my dear, DEARWatson.)

** Writer Oscar Wilde was forthright about his homosexuality but his 1890 novel "The Picture of Dorian Gray" is a masterpiece of extreme-makeover understatement.

Leery of violating morality codes, Hollywood filmmakers relied on subtext to show what could not be uttered on screen in classic films:

** "Rebecca" (1941). Mrs. Danvers certainly had a thing for her dead mistress.

** "Queen Christina" (1933). Greta Garbo cross-dressed with abandon.

** "Ben-Hur" (1959). Screenwriter Gore Vidal created tension between the two leading characters by implying a previous relationship between Ben-Hur and his rival, Masala. Star Charlton Heston apparently never caught on.

** "Spartacus" (1960). Tony Curtis' comely slave boy is told by a Roman general he likes both "oysters and snails." (The line was cut before release and restored in a 1990 re-release.)

Subtext reached a campy nadir in the anything-goes but strangely innocent 1960s:

** Just what about the relationship between the Skipper and his "little buddy" on TV's "Gilligan's Island" (1964-1967)? File under: "Master and Commander"

** And holy bathhouse! In "Batman," (1966-68) the Caped Crusader and his "young ward" Robin would dash to crime scenes in gaudy tight tights and not even the Joker would snicker.

** Across the universe, the final frontier was a threesome. In "Star Trek," (1966-69), Captain Kirk, science officer Spock and Dr. "Bones" McCoy bickered like longtime companions when they weren't saving the universe. An entire genre of fan fiction dubbed "slash" (i.e. Kirk/Spock, Spock/McCoy) later sprang up to chronicle their erotic adventures in OUTer space.

** The uber-conservative star of the original TV series "Dragnet" (1951-59, 1967-70), Jack Webb would most likely be horrified at intimations about Sgt. Joe Friday, who seemed to have no personal life and no interests outside police work. That was before the similarly disciplined FBI director J. Edgar Hoover was outed as a tough-talking cross-dresser.

In contrast, when producers of "Xena: Warrior Princess" (1995-2001) discovered that Internet fans were speculating about a relationship between Xena and sidekick Gabrielle, they started playing to the Sappho crowd with wink-wink plot twists and sly jokes.

As for that heroic duo of Frodo and Sam in "The Lord of the Rings," hobbit lovers simply say, "Don't ask, don't tell."

For better or for worse, however, pop culture is bidding adieu to subtext. Who knows how future generations will view such iconic matchups as the Lone Ranger and Tonto, the Three Stooges and even Timmy and Lassie?

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