Much has been made about the gayness -- or lack thereof -- of A Single Man, the debut feature by former Gucci creative director Tom Ford. The film -- a big-screen adaptation of Christopher Isherwood's 1964 novel -- zooms in on a pivotal day in the life of a gay professor overcome with loss following the sudden death of his long-time partner, Jim.
Set in early Civil Rights-era California, A Single Man is meticulously styled in Ford's tell-tale maximalist/modernist aesthetic. Every piece of furniture, clothing and set design betrays the arch mid-century glamor Ford has long touted -- a coolly controlled palette repeatedly shattered by lust, anger, loneliness and grief.
That homosexuality anchors each of these emotions renders Ford's "A Single Man is not a Gay film" claim tenuous at best. But God is in the details -- and the details of George Falconer's gayness are as murky as the cocktail-induced haze anesthetizing his boozy best friend Charlotte, played by Julianne Moore.
A Single Man opens with one death, Jim's, and ends with another. Much of what transpires in between can most accurately be described as enduring rather than living. George numbly negotiating the obligations to his students, his colleagues and his acquaintances. His battles to restrain a still very active libido without erasing his remaining sexuality. His stabs at kindness and compassion even as he feels both have forsaken him. And his fleeting flirtations with hope and joy despite the real possibility each -- at least for him -- are long past their expiration dates.
These are universal experiences in basic humanity immediately understood by anyone -- of any sexual orientation -- for whom loss is no stranger. And, indeed, in much of the film Falconer's homosexuality is an afterthought -- more suggested via metaphor than explicitly conveyed through dialogue or dramatics. There is no Brokeback-like coitus-crescendo in A Single Man, only expertly-stylized sensuality coupled with glimpses of the magical-yet-mundane coupledom that George cannot live without.
This is where Ford's "Gay/not-Gay" claim may truly hold water. Because either by consequence or design, A Single Man reveals very little of what it means to actually be Gay in early '60s America. His homosexuality suspect, George routinely encounters -- and smoothly deflects -- what we could now call homophobia from his neighbors, Jim's family and even his best friend. We quickly learn how they feel about George's Gayness. But drowning in doom and despair, George himself is far less forthcoming.
Instead, George's inner world is filled with little more than memories and sorrow. And by omitting his day-to-day Gayness, Ford transforms his protagonist into a sort of "every-Gay" upon which viewers and reviewers can easily ascribe their own contemporary narratives.
It helps that George certainly looks the part. Slim, handsome, White and well-off, George effortlessly conforms to the almost impossible-to-meet standards of any sexuality in any era. Pre-AIDS and bordering on the celibate, George also displays the benign, buttoned-up Gayness currently touted as the homo-ideal. Young men crave him, women desire him and his enduringly-glam gal pal still seeks a life with him decades after their brief dalliance. Remove all that grief and Gay-hating and being George doesn't look so bad. And as Ford makes clear, with Jim around it definitely wasn't.
It would be easy to project a political agenda upon A Single Man and declare it an allegory for current gay-lib battles like the Marriage Equality debate. Yet doing so would be both imprecise and anachronistic. For one thing, George certainly pays a steep price for the intolerance around him. But despite alarmist CNN articles, we've mostly evolved past the era of "family-only" funerals and code-laden literature lectures.
Then there is Ford himself, who's repeatedly insisted A Single Man is even less political than it is gay. Considering Ford self-financed the flick, such sentiments owe as much to potential profits as identity-politics. But even if he is copping out, Ford is one Gay icon who's more than earned his pass-pass.
Forever-partnered -- and forever out -- Ford has long been a rare genuinely Gay presence in fashion-land. And while hardly warm-and-fuzzy, Ford's remained a visible -- and relatively virtuous -- counterpoint to the sex-and-drugs vulgarity of suddenly-sexual colleagues such as...say... Marc Jacobs. You may hate Tom Ford because he's rich and thin -- I certainly do -- but there's never been anything contrived about his sleek-and-chicness.
Which leads us back to Ford's film. I, too, agree with the charges he straight-washed A Single Man's marketing campaign. Promotional posters featuring Moore and Colin Firth en amour certainly do smack of insincerity if not downright manipulation.
But both Ford's medium and message need to be heard and I say get folks to the cinema by any means necessary. Critics aside, A Single Man is a singular success precisely because of its manipulative abilities. The film is not tragic like Brokeback Mountain or heroic like Milk, but rather elegant, intelligent and refined on the outside -- unjust and enraging within.
A Single Man isn't a film that demands you take to the streets -- or to the ranch. Instead, with its focus on love and loss, the film draws you inward to a place of contemplation rather than confrontation, compassion rather than outrage. These are all essential human conditions -- and essential conditions for any struggle to truly triumph.