Established in the earliest days of the American film industry, Paramount Pictures traces its lineage all the way back to 1912 and the founding of the Famous Players Film Company, which was one of three companies that would merge in 1916 and eventually become Paramount. In recent years, many of its most recognizable releases have been big-budget, mass appeal franchises including Star Trek, Transformers, and Mission Impossible.
If one only looks at Paramount Pictures’ most recent crop of films, it may appear that the studio is not particularly fond of taking risks, but that hasn’t always been the case. Starting in the mid-nineties, Paramount released a string of films that were either LGBT-themed or LGBT-inclusive, including Home for the Holidays (1995), Clueless (1995), The Brady Bunch Movie (1995), Brain Candy (1996), Kiss Me Guido (1997), Election (1999), The Talented Mister Ripley (1999), and The Next Best Thing (2000).
In 1997 the studio partnered with Scott Rudin Productions to release the mass-appeal gay-themed comedy In and Out, which garnered a great deal of publicity for a kiss between lead Kevin Kline and love interest Tom Selleck, and became a box office hit. In fact, In and Out along with fellow Paramount releases Mister Ripley and The Hours (2002) are three of the top 10 highest grossing gay or lesbian themed films in the United States.
PAIN & GAIN
Michael Bay directed this true crime story of a group of Florida bodybuilders who, in a desire to get rich, concoct a hair-brained kidnapping scheme that eventually leads to murder. The film is Bay’s attempt at a wry satire of the American dream, though the director’s usual penchant for hyper-masculine indulgence (including women-as-sex-objects and brutal violence) is still very much on display, which significantly undercuts whatever contemplation Pain & Gain may be trying to inspire in the audience. It also gives a disturbing context to a scene in which Paul – one of the body-builders and a fervently Christian ex-con – is aggressively hit on by an old male priest, who he then proceeds to brutally beat. Ostensibly, the scene is meant to show that Paul has a violent side bubbling beneath his surface and the actual beating is only shown for a couple seconds, but it still feels like a moment meant more for shock value and the audience’s prurient enjoyment than anything related to character development. Ultimately, the filmmakers consciously chose to include a gay man whose sole purpose in the film is to act like a lecherous pervert for a few seconds (thereby also providing a “gay panic defense”) before being beaten up. This event is completely absent from the article the film is based on, meaning it’s just a mean-spirited scene that could have been removed without any bearing on the plot.
THE WOLF OF WALL STREET
The Wolf of Wall Street actually has quite a lot in common with Pain & Gain, in that they’re both stylized accounts of real-world events in which men break the law and exploit others to achieve the wealth they aspire to, and they’re both from well-known directors. However, Martin Scorsese’s films are expected to hit a much higher bar than most in terms of quality and thoughtfulness, so it’s even more disappointing that Wall Street’s treatment of its lone gay character is so depressingly similar to Pain & Gain. Partway through the film, the finance hustler Jordan Belfort (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) is convinced to hire a butler by his new fiancée. Immediately following his introduction, we see Belfort's fiancée walk in on the butler and a variety of other men engaged in an orgy. This is quickly followed by another scene in which the butler is beaten and intimidated by Belfort and his cohorts over some money that was presumably stolen by an orgy attendee, and is then hauled away by the cops. The scenes containing the gay butler are self-contained and add up to less than three minutes. Whatever minor narrative purpose this character serves is completely over-shadowed by the sense that it’s also one more example of the main characters’ outrageous behavior the audience is invited to take delight in watching.
There are a litany of similarities between the two 2013 Paramount releases discussed above, but one of the most jarring was the way they exploited the violent attacking of disposable gay male characters for what was at best unnecessary character development, and at worst, fleeting entertainment value. Contrasting these two R-rated releases, LGBT characters were completely absent from any of Paramount’s big budget franchise films like Star Trek or G.I. Joe, but a complete lack of inclusive content would have been preferable to the regressive characters they did include. Moving forward, we hope Paramount will adhere to the following guidelines for all future LGBT characters: Don’t simply include LGBT characters in films aimed at an adults-only audience. Don’t exclusively define these characters by inappropriate or aggressive sexual behavior within moments of their appearing onscreen. And don’t follow up that behavior with depictions of them being violently attacked before inviting the audience to forget they ever existed. Paramount can and must do better.