Saturday, December 26, 2009
Josh Birdwell: the Queer Quaker?
Anthony Perkins, like Marilyn Monroe and James Dean, was the kind of actor whose characters you have trouble disassociating from his personal life.
It may be that like them he became iconic for playing a specific type of character which led the media to obsess with every aspect of his life.
Watching "Friendly Persuasion" I had the notion that his character's arc was an exact parallel for Perkins' sexual orientation.
Perkins plays Josh Birdwell the eldest son of a Quaker family (his parents are played by Gary Cooper and Dorothy McGuire). His religious upbringing demands he gives unconditional love to everyone and refuses to engage in any violent acts.
This bring him trouble because the movie is set during the American Civil War and the men in his community refuse to enroll and murder other soldiers.
Considering that being a soldier was the prototypical characteristic of a man, Josh begins to feel uncomfortable for not acting like society demands him to.
Like a gay man confounded by his sexual awakening he begins to feel shame for not fitting in with the rest. It's important to note that even if he plays a Quaker, other Quaker men in the movie have very strong reactions towards the war. When a soldier irrupts in their service to ask them to enroll, he looks down when he's approached by him.
While his friend Caleb (John Smith) has a more direct response as he states that he would like to go against his religion to fight in the war.
In a latter scene the whole family goes to a fair where Josh is asked to wrestle a man to win a bet (both big no nos among the Quakers) he refuses when Caleb agrees to take his place.
In this scene Josh becomes fascinated by the way in which his friend manages himself.
When Caleb actually begins to win the fight Josh seems confused as in whether to cheer him or feel ashamed for not being the one up there.
There is also an expression of desire in Perkins' face as he watches an extremely macho ritual unfold before his eyes.
It's easy to believe that Josh had never seen two men involved in such an intimate kind of contact before. Perkins himself was experimenting with homosexual affairs during this time, but like most actors of his time he wasn't out.
When Josh and Caleb get bullied by men who mock their different way of life it's evident that their religion can be exchanged for almost any other issue related to minorities.
Later in the movie Caleb goes with his father to visit a friend of his. Immediately her three daughter corner him with the idea of snatching him as a husband.
During these years Perkins was making his film debut and becoming a heartthrob all over the world.
Like Josh, Perkins was intimidated by women. They created an anxiety in him which he didn't know how to control.
During the whole scene of the visit Josh seems absolutely terrified of the girls in question. It helps that they look like Cinderella's stepsisters.
Curiously there is a very Freudian presence in this scene in the shape of the father portrait hanging in the back.
Can this be a reminder for Josh and Perkins to act according to patriarchal traditions?
During the filming of "Friendly Persuasion" Gary Cooper tried to get his daughter to date Perkins absolutely ignorant of the fact he was gay.
Allegedly he later was awful to the young actor and barely spoke to him. It can be said that in a way Perkins had to fulfill son roles in and out of the movie with Cooper.
When Josh listens to war stories from his sister's beau, he begins to feel guilty for not adhering to what he thinks he should be doing.
Josh decided to enlist going against his mother's wishes, but making his father feel like he grew a conscience.
This decision is highlighted as being a return to masculinity for Josh. Note the framing of this moment. He makes the decision but we don't see his face as he walks down the stairs. Just the rifle. To point at the obvious phallic-ness of the weapon would be too easy.
But what's important is how the scene hides his facial expression. It was as if Perkins was regaining his social status by hiding his true self (the face in this case).
In the same way Perkins had his first heterosexual affair years later with actress Victoria Principal who was almost twenty years her junior.
He then got married and established a traditional family, but it has always remained a mystery why did he do this.
"Friendly Persuasion" might suggest as a sort of premonition that Perkins would give in to conventions and deny his true self.
The scenes where he's in battle show him fitting in among the others, but looking completely empty and distressed.
When he finally kills a man (his true self perhaps?) he suffers and is close to death but is granted a second chance at life.
Hollywood was suggesting that to justify being "different" you have to go through some sort of moral tunnel, if you survive it you can remain in their world by getting rid of everything you were.