There are many reasons to skip Tron: Legacy, the ghastly new 3-D epic from Disney about a man who winds up stuck in his own video game. There's the boring script, special effects that are largely underwhelming, and a running time of 127 minutes, which no movie so cynically concocted should attempt.
But perhaps nothing about the film is quite so deplorable as Zuse, the effete club owner played by Michael Sheen. In this normally capable actor's hands, the character is a tired hybrid of Ziggy Stardust and Joel Grey circa Cabaret, a person who nearly sinks the universe while prancing around in his too-tight suit as techno music blares in the background. At a moment when people around the country are celebrating the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell, the film also serves as a poignant reminder that the gays who remain the most marginalized may not be the ones who are "butch" enough to serve but the ones who aren't.
Tron: Legacy (2010)
Sheen's character—who, it should be pointed out, isn't labeled as explicitly gay in the movie—is hardly the first example of a Hollywood villain whose gender non-conformity seems to hint at dishonesty and malevolence. Going all the way back to Peter Lorre in The Maltese Falcon and beyond, there's a storied tradition of using queeniness (or gender confusion) as a way to explain a villain's nefarious ways.
300 managed one seemingly unprecedented feat: It is both one of the most homophobic movies ever made and also one of the gayest.
In Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), Charles Laughton played a nebbishy but maniacally evil ship captain who relies on a slew of tougher guys to deliver lashings to wayward crew members. (A common hallmark of a nasty queen on screen is that he can't carry out his violence himself.) Led by Clark Gable, the men aboard rise up and take back the ship.
In The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Errol Flynn's nemesis is a sissy prince played by Claude Rains who assumes the throne when Richard the Lionheart is captured by Austria. (Another hallmark of the nasty queen onscreen is that he generally becomes king through a coup or something else that's tantamount to cheating). "He's cheerfully malevolent and completely gay," says John Farr, of the film blog Best Movies by Farr.
Claude Rains as the not especially masculine Prince John in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
In 1942, Warner Brothers released Casablanca, which went on to win Oscars for Best Picture and became known as one of the greatest movies of all time. The primary action centered around a love triangle involving Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, and Paul Henreid, but some saw Conrad Veidt's turn as a swishy SS officer who's hanging around the club as a subtle conflation of Nazism and effeminacy. "He has a certain gay quality," says Farr.
When these parts are done subtly and well, the characters' lack of masculinity can become an asset, and even secure an actor a place in history. Anthony Perkins, who was gay in real life, was brilliant in Psycho as Norman Bates, the motel owner whose mother is so overbearing he assumes her identity and goes on a killing rampage after she dies. He was nominated for an Oscar and his performance served as a blueprint for virtually every transvestite serial killer that has come along since then.
Among Perkins' high-heeled, sociopathic progeny are Michael Caine as the demented therapist in Dressed to Kill and Ted Levine as the drifter Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs. The scenes in which Levine dances around to "Goodbye Horses" and tells his would-be murder victim, "It rubs the lotion on its skin or else it gets the hose again," are about as creepy/good as it gets.
Ted Levine with moisturizer and a fluffy poodle in Silence of the Lambs
Still, when filmmakers have misused gender non-conformity, it's pretty painful to watch. In Mel Gibson's Braveheart, the moment when the horrible British king throws his son's boyfriend out the window is presented largely as comedic. Despite opposition from gay groups, the film won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1995. (In retrospect, it's pretty hard to say Gibson's portrayal of the light-in-the-loafers prince was necessary to the film's story. By many accounts, it's also historically inaccurate.)
And then there's the skin-crawling 300, an insipid 2007 blockbuster starring Gerard Butler as a Spartan king whose tiny army stages an uprising against the evil Persian "god-King" Xerxes, who looks remarkably like RuPaul. Eventually, Butler saves the day—which comes as a surprise to no one, as another trend in films that vilify transvestite-like gay men is that they almost always wind up having their asses handed to them by their real-man adversaries.
Still, 300 managed one seemingly unprecedented feat: It is both one of the most homophobic movies ever made and also one of the gayest. If Xerxes resembled nothing so much as a black drag queen, the men who do battle against him look like doppelgangers for virtually every gay porn star who's ever done a leather film.
Howard Bragman, the Los Angeles based publicist who helped numerous gay celebrities come out of the closet and recently handled the rogue JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater's media blitz, says the real problem with movies like Tron: Legacy is less that they're homophobic and more that they're riddled with clichés. Of Sheen's character, he says: "It's a classic archetype that's been around since films began, playing the butler and the valet, somebody who could do good facial expressions and express disdain with his eyes very well. I don't put a particularly homophobic bent to it. I just think it's so overused it's ceased to be interesting."
Jacob Bernstein is a senior reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for New York magazine, Paper, and The Huffington Post.