You’d think the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) might have their hands full fighting for federal marriage equality, equal employment and healthcare rights, and other areas of discrimination faced by American LGBTs. This, after all, is its beat.
But apparently not. The organization has decided to become an Oscars campaigning force for The Imitation Game, a cinematic work of fiction about a gay British wartime hero, placing a full-page advertisement in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times beseeching Oscars voters to honor the memory of computing genius Alan Turing.
Chad Griffin, the HRC’s president, and Harvey Weinstein, whose Weinstein Company made the movie, would also like the 49,000 other men prosecuted for what was then called “gross indecency” to be officially pardoned as Turing was by the Queen in 2013.
This would be a venerable and welcome move, but The Imitation Game is far from a brave movie in any way when it comes to Turing’s personal life; it backtracks on his sexuality, and for it now to wear its gay pride badge to get liberals on side for Oscars votes is laughable and ludicrous.
To boil it down: fantastic campaign, but the most cowardly, wrong-headed film to hang it on.
With the bubbling controversy around American Sniper, and now The Imitation Game’s rabble-rousing the Oscar campaigns are dabbling in real, gritty politics to garner votes.
However, one wonders if the HRC has actually seen The Imitation Game, which in truth should be roundly criticized by it and other gay organizations for all but erasing Turing’s gay identity; this if organizations like the HRC weren’t in thrall to Hollywood stars and powerbrokers for their celebrity-studded red-carpet benefits.
Indeed, at the weekend the HRC honored the movie at one such benefit, and its newspaper ads are suitably stirring: “Honor this movie. Honor this man. And honor the movement to bring justice to the other 49,000.”
Mistakenly the HRC advertisement says that 49,000 included men and women. However, lesbian sexuality was never criminalized in Britain (Queen Victoria is oft-cited as saying she did not believe it existed); the gross indecency laws affected men having gay sex only.
Gay sexuality would be decriminalized in Britain in 1967, but the age of consent was set at 21 for two men having sex with one another in private; it was 16 for heterosexuals—and the age of consent, after much campaigning, was only equalized in 2001.
The gross indecency convictions are an ugly hangover of a more prejudiced era, and The Imitation Game’s rallying call has even been taken up by famous gay celebrities, like Stephen Fry, who addressed a BAFTA screening in London, thus: “There is a general feeling that perhaps if he [Turing] should be pardoned, then perhaps so should all those men whose names were ruined in their lifetime.”
But are the film’s producers’ intentions entirely focused on the 49,000 men? As The Hollywood Reporter pointed out, this isn’t the first time the Weinstein Company has sought to align politics and its Oscar-hope movies; it sought to link Silver Linings Playbook with mental health legislation.
When Milk won Sean Penn a Best Actor Oscar in 2009, and Dustin Lance Black for Original Screenplay, both men used their speeches to advocate for gay rights and equality, but in that film’s case it was apposite because it was a full, flesh-and-blood portrait—workplace and bedroom, light and dark—characterization of Harvey Milk, the San Francisco City Supervisor assassinated in 1978. Black’s speech was particularly moving.
The Imitation Game’s portrayal of Turing is nowhere near so deep, and interrogating, and for it to invoke gay political equality as part of its Oscars campaign is in stark contrast to its own timidity and cowardice at evoking Turing’s homosexuality.
The HRC did not respond to requests for comment, and yet the proper question it should ask of its mascot movie is why a film about Turing features so little about his sexuality and sex life, and why it fights shy of explaining or illustrating the gay sex crime it apparently now wants to have repealed so urgently. If it wasn’t brave enough to tackle the grit of Britain’s gross indecency laws on film, how can it lecture or instruct others to do so?
Instead, The Imitation Game focuses on the cornerstone of Turing’s work, cracking the German Enigma Code of World War II, and barely addresses Turing’s sexuality. We see no relationships, no trysts, no sex—and this from a film that now wants the repeal of convictions of men like Turing persecuted under a law based around gay sex.
The central relationship, as sketched in the film, is wholly platonic, and shown between Turing, played by Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley as his colleague and close friend Joan Clark. Turing is never seen with his then-lover Arnold Murray, and his sexuality is shown in cinematic parenthesis. Sure, we see him falling for another boy, Christopher, at school, but this amounts to youthful buds of desire. He names his code-breaking machine after this much-missed first love.
He has a conversation in a pub with a colleague, played by Allen Leech, who advises him to stay in the closet; a policeman is shown discussing the case of his home being burglarized and the information that Turing is gay is revealed. The same policeman and he have a conversation about it. But there is no sense of Turing as gay as an adult, with a gay sex life that ultimately led to him being prosecuted. The “gay scenes” in the movie feel like afterthoughts, often conveyed without speech. There is not a speck of gay sexual desire on screen.
The film only explains and evokes the crime of gross indecency in a narrative card on screen after the action has ended. There’s some maudlin, worthy speech-making—Turing is the noble victim, all-knowing, bravely stoic, and screwed by the system. His homosexuality in The Imitation Game is absolutely old-school: he is a de-sexed victim, all the better, one presumes, for a mainstream audience to feel sorry for.
Seeking to justify the omission of Turing’s sex life and sexual identity from the film the makers now claim is proudly all about sexual persecution, Graham Moore, the film’s writer, told a panel at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival: “Most of the movie takes place at Bletchley, where he was famously celibate,” Moore said. “He wrote a letter to a friend where he described Bletchley as a ‘sexual desert.’ It’s not like we cut it out. It never came up.”
This is nonsense: Turing’s sexuality was with him, current, personal, within him, throughout his life, including when he was at Bletchley. The film nervously tiptoes around it, and shows us an implied partner in a police station, makes a big deal about what prosecuting him will mean, yet does not show why he was prosecuted.
“I’m excited about the debate happening around The Imitation Game because it’s a debate I want to happen in culture,” Moore added. “We’re really glad our film can be a part of that conversation…Alan Turing wasn’t a gay mathematician, he was a mathematician who happened to be gay, and we felt that was an important cultural statement.”
This gay-as-adjective, rather than defining characteristic, is a familiar liberal canard. It’s supposed to imply: “We were too high-minded to show this person being gay, having gay sex, showing his emotional life; no, instead we wanted to portray the searing injustice of the homophobia they faced.” Turing, in The Imitation Game, is gay only to serve his martyrdom.
The problem with this well-meaning approach, as in The Imitation Game’s portrayal of Turing, it turns your character into a one-dimensional victim. Their sexuality becomes a narrow descriptive band, a one-note political category, instead of part of a broader canvas of character. And now the filmmakers are basing their entire Oscars campaign around Turing’s sexuality, and his sex life being verboten.
The film is more interested in Turing the codebreaker, not Turing the gay man. Fair enough. But then you can’t expect everyone else to get buzzed about the gay thing when awards season rolls around, when your film has significantly glossed over it.
The Imitation Game winds up feeling like one of those films where the real story, in this case Turing's personal life, is happening off-screen. The producers clearly made a decision not to extensively feature his adult private life.
We do not see Turing undergo chemical castration, we only see him at the end of the film, mired in desperation, at his home with Christopher the computer, his true love made into a machine—and, of course, who is there to have a tender, desexualized chat with him about anything other than being persecuted about his sexuality but doughty, loyal Joan? Phew peeps, our couple have reunited.
And after that, it is left to the title cards to tell the real meat of Turing’s gay story, which the film has chosen to omit.
Academy members, don’t be blackmailed. Don’t give in to the rainbow campaigning mantle The Imitation Game has clothed itself in. Award the film the awards you feel it deserves based on its artistic merits, but not its sexual equality politics which are utterly lacking on screen, and now hastily being assembled around the movie’s carcass to appeal to Hollywood liberals.
Perhaps it’s their own shame at so ill-serving Turing’s private life that is motivating the film-makers to campaign to overturn the gross indecency convictions of those 49,000 men prosecuted in the UK. Fair enough, but it would have been a more resounding campaign had The Imitation Game itself been a braver, and more sexually honest film.