Sex Scenes: 'Velvet Goldmine' is the Gay Fan Fiction We Need Right Now
Photo via IMDb
Velvet Goldmine (1998, Todd Haynes) is a movie made for alienated horny alt teens. It’s erotic fanfic come to life. The plot imagines a reality where David Bowie (known here as Brian Slade played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers) has an intensely romantic gay love affair with Iggy Pop (Curt Wild as played by Ewan McGregor). The bewitching bisexual vibes are at an all time high, and the “glamour” of the binary pales in comparison, everything is glitter, to be alternative in the post hippie 70’s is to be a “freak”, it’s all open, all edgy, all pansexual. These are the decadent and glimmering 70s that have been revisioned recently by Alessandro Michele for Gucci.
The film is set during Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust era, his most glam rock and most alien chapter. The movie eschews accuracy to instead to explore the meaning of fandom (perhaps suggesting fandom is inherently bisexual.) The plot revolves journalist Arthur Stuard (Christian Bale) who has grown from teenage fan into music journalist investigating, through a series of interviews and flashbacks, the mystery of Brian Slade’s staged homicide and his disappearance. The Bowie character exists in the movie exclusively as the object of idolization and fascination for the young music journalist, who through this fandom will find an identity (in the music! As a secret freak!) and through this acceptence will discover his queer sexuality.
The idea of fandom as a queer activity has long been theorized in queer studies. In the 1993 book Cinema and Spectatorship, Judith Mayne writes that “coming-out stories to shared pleasures in camp to speculations about the real lives of performers,” have become the narratives that queer identities are formed around. The emergence and overlap of stan twitter with the lgbt community has only made the connection more obvious.
Velvet Goldmine makes an effort to declare membership to both fandom and the LGBT community. Far from the somber style in the director’s previous movie, here Haynes indulges in Liberace-like flashes, displaying all the camp and weirdness of an Andy Warhol meets John Waters collaboration, along with the fashionably saturated oranges and blues of 1990s psychedelia. Hayes quotes Oscar Wilde as the “original interesting man from outer space, whose children are all the dandys, glam rockers, and britpoppers.”
Bowie famously refused to sell the rights for his songs to the movie, but hearing Marc Bolan and Bryan Ferry next to Pulp and Placebo only reinforces the continuity between 70s glam and 90s brit pop. Even the movie poster shows a Jonathan Rhys Meyer that looks more like Damon Albarn of Blur than David Bowie.
It is a known fact that David Bowie carefully cultivated the mystery of his sexuality and gender identity, through declarations, retractions, and even expressions of skepticism from people who were close to him. Velvet Goldmine collects, like gilded bread crumbs, all the clues from Slade/Bowie’s life about his sexual ambiguity. It shows us the Dante Gabriel Rossetti inspired hyper-femme Bowie of The Man Who Stole the World, who with long golden locks, wearing an ornate dress sees an oiled up, glitter covered Wild/Iggy Pop masturbating on stage, and of course it’s love at first sight.
The Bowie character is immediately infatuated with Wild, identifying aspirationally in this Dionisian performance, the exact energy he needs to get out of his creative slump and move beyond his demure effeminate persona. Soon after we see a tabloid picture of a kiss between Slade and Wild to which the journalist fan, played by Christian Bale, will be caught masturbating by his conservative parents. (Though in pop culture reality it would have been Bowie and Lou Reed kissing, not Iggy Pop).
We also see the infamous blow job guitar solo. Slade, entranced by sharing the stage with Wild, prowls towards him on hands and knees, grabs his ass as he twists his tongue in between the guitar chords. What we don’t see so much is the disavowals, the backtracking, the back and forth between claiming to be gay and being bisexual, that ends up declaring that everyone is bisexual (but then no one is really queer).
Peter Doggett in his biography The Man Who Sold the World - David Bowie and the 1970s tells us that when his mother called him asking “What is happening David? Are you changing your sex?” he assured her “Don’t believe any of it, Mum.” Even Lou Reed commenting on the antics of glam rock would say “Just because you are gay, you don’t have to camp around in makeup. You just can’t fake being gay. If they claim they’re gay they’re going to have to make love in a gay style, and these people aren’t capable of making that commitment.”
But even if Bowie’s declaration of queerness was just for show, it is easy to forget how radical that was in 1970s England, an era in which homosexuality had been decriminalized in 1967 and when 93% of the population still saw it as an illness requiring medical intervention. Boy George would write in his autobiography “Even if Bowie’s claim that he was bisexual was a fashionable hoax, he marginalized himself for a sizeable chunk of his career. He took a risk that nobody else dared and in the process changed.”