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Four years ago, the stars of the successful BBC comedy series “Gavin and Stacey” made the mistake of starring in an abysmal comedy known as “Lesbian Vampire Killers”.
The movie was quickly forgotten, but I was reminded of it recently when I saw the latest – and last – film by acclaimed American director Steven Soderbergh, “Side Effects”.
Soderbergh’s film could easily have been given a similar title, even though it was not in any sense a comedy.
But the theme of homicidal lesbians is central to the plot, and the film absolutely reeks of homophobia.
Not everyone will have seen it that way, of course.
When I first heard about the film, a reviewer talked about it revolving around a conspiracy in which the pharmaceutical industry played a key role.
The film’s tagline was “one pill can change your life”.
The story seems at first to be about the side effects of a new anti-depressant which may – or may not – have contributed to a young woman (played by Rooney Mara) murdering her husband (Channing Tatum), who has just returned home after a few years in jail.
Jude Law plays the psychiatrist who prescribes the medication, and later becomes a kind of amateur detective, determined to figure out what really happened.
So far, so good. What follows contains spoilers, so if you really want to see the film and don’t want to know how it turns out, stop reading.
It turns out that the pharmaceutical company isn’t a protagonist in the story, it’s done nothing particularly wrong, and it doesn’t even seem that the young woman took the pills.
It’s not the “one pill” that changed her life, or ended the life of her unfortunate husband.
It was the fact that she had a lesbian relationship with her psychiatrist, who treated her for depression when her husband was taken away by the FBI.
The psychiatrist, played by Catherine Zeta-Jones, would not have been out of place in “Lesbian Vampire Killers”.
It is only at the end of the film that Mara’s character confesses to Jude Law her motivation for killing the unfortunate Tatum.
She first became depressed when her bourgeois lifestyle ended suddenly as the FBI descended on a garden party to arrest Tatum on charges of insider trading.
Zeta-Jones seduced her vulnerable, and much younger, patient, and the two conspired – as lesbians do, apparently – to murder Tatum when he got home from prison.
Their relationship was kept a secret from everyone.
And their motivation wasn’t just love (or lust). There was some scheme to make a fortune by linking a pharmaceutical company to the crime, thereby driving its share price down and reaping millions on the stock market.
Near the very end of the film, Mara and Zeta-Jones meet up and embrace, discussing where the money has been stashed – though at this point Mara has betrayed her lover, and is wearing a wire.
Some viewers and critics didn’t see any of this as homophobic, but others certainly did.
If there were loads of films made by Hollywood A-listers in which the lead characters were lesbians, “Side Effects” would just be one forgettable movie in which the women were not very nice.
But how many Hollywood films with budgets of over $30 million feature a lesbian couple at the centre of the story? Very few, I imagine.
And the linking of forbidden love to murder is quite explicit in “Side Effects”.
It may not be obvious to British audiences, or even to the British leads in the film, but America is a deeply homophobic country which lags behind much of the world on issues like gay marriage or gays serving in the military.
Homophobia is explicitly used by the right in America, including even mainstream politicians like Mitt Romney. Where right-wing policies such as austerity or tax breaks for the very rich became unpopular, homophobia – like racism – becomes quite useful for the right.
It differs from most forms of bigotry in that it’s still quite acceptable, it seems, to incorporate homophobic elements in a mainstream film. It would be hard (though not impossible) to do the same with more traditional prejudices, such as hatred of Blacks or Jews.
There was an uproar in America when Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty” implied that torture was an important part of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. Right-wing politicians like John McCain led the charge on that one, and it’s one of the reasons Bigelow’s film couldn’t be named “Best Picture” at the Oscars.
No one expects McCain, Romney and politicians like them to speak out against the homophobia in “Side Effects” – but one wonders why the left, in America and elsewhere, hasn’t been more outspoken in taking on this vile, bigoted film.