Mad Scenes

Posted by Madam Bubby

 

Usually a “mad scene” specifically refers to a particular scene from an opera written by bel canto composers of the early 19th century, such as Donizetti and Bellini. A soprano, usually suffering from a romantic love crisis, goes insane, and expresses her insanity, paradoxically, in difficult, complicated coloratura passages that require great vocal control.

The most famous occurs in the opera Lucia di Lammermoor. Lucia, in love with the family enemy Edgardo, is forced to marry someone her brother chooses, Arturo. Lucia kills Arturo on her wedding night. I grew up hearing the gay icon Maria Callas singing this scene on record, and I was mesmerized that she was able to invest the scene with such drama and a dark, complex timbre. Here was no Snow White singing tra la la to the birds. But, interestingly enough, the opera does not end with the mad scene. Lucia dies offstage, and her lover, Edgardo, kills himself. He actually gets a kind of tenor mad scene. But it’s generally the ladies who go mad, which reflects quite blatantly the Victorian view that women, the weaker sex, were more prone to mental disturbance: potential hysterics.

 

Callas as Lucia

Callas as Lucia

 

The mad scene by the middle of the last century started moving to the end of movies, crystallizing to some extent in the grand dame guignol movies of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The end of Sunset Boulevard, the famous “I’m ready for my close up, Mr. DeMille,” scene of Norma Desmond, deconstructs the mad scenes of operas, because she thinks she is playing the necrophiliac Salome. One even hears a bit of music from the Strauss opera as she descends the staircase (that prop usually occurs in Lucia mad scenes). In fact, by the time Strauss wrote his opera Salome, one could even say the female protagonists of many operas written by that time were mad for the entire opera (or most of the time).

 

Noma Desmond at the end of Sunset Boulevard

Norma Desmond at the end of Sunset Boulevard, Source: https://icsfilm.org/essays/the- devil-is-a-woman-sunset-boulevard-norma-desmond-and-actress-noir/

 

Thus, Baby Jane Hudson in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? dancing on the beach with ice cream cones and others of her ilk come out of a rich tradition. The director Robert Aldrich really seemed to build his grande dame guignol films toward a final mad scene for the female protagonist, though in his underrated Autumn Leaves shows a male, played by Cliff Robertson, going mad, and he gets several scenes, but the most terrifying one occurs at about midpoint.

But it is also a scene of horrifying domestic violence (he throws a typewriter at his wife, played by Joan Crawford, after slapping her around). Like Edgardo in Lucia, he accuses her of treachery, but she is innocent. In reality, his father slept with his now former wife (she a willing accomplice), and discovering them together precipitated his descent into what, based on the movie, is paranoid schizophrenia.

 

Joan Crawford and Cliff Robertson in Autumn Leaves

Joan Crawford and Cliff Robertson in Autumn Leaves, Source: http://graham-russell.blogspot.com/2018/10/reflections-on-autumn-leaves-1956.html

 

Aldrich created another mad scene in The Killing of Sister George, a groundbreaking LGBTQ movie on so many levels, not only for its filming a scene in an actual lesbian bar, but, for the fact that the protagonist, June Buckridge played by Beryl Reid (known as George because of the character she plays in a soap opera, Sister George, a jovial country nurse in an English village) is out and proud as a lesbian. Many critics today tend to place this move in the “self-hating” LGBTQ subgrenre. Yes, George is certainly not the most stable person. She yells a lot, drinks a lot, and certainly, which one could argue isn’t really a character flaw in some of the situations she encounters, shows no compunction about telling some persons off in not the most dainty language.

Her relationship with Alice does not strike one as being the healthiest by today’s standards. I remember watching the scene where George, always jealous, punishes Alice for a supposed flirting (with a man) by making her kneel before her and eat her cigar. For the mid 1960s, this scene was risqué, and I perceived that perhaps there was some element of BDSM play involved, but it also seems to be moving into the realm of emotional abuse. And it’s not Alice as the victim of the “bull dyke” George. Alice is blatantly egging her on, and by pretending to enjoy eating the cigar; yes, she does take back control of the dynamic, knowing she is hurting George by, as George both yells and cries, “ruining” it.

Thus, one can see the characters aren’t camp caricatures. The character George plays gets killed off in the series (hence the title), and the fate of her career and relationship gets wound up in the machinations of the cliched reptilian predatory lesbian, played by Coral Browne.

Spoiler alert: she loses her job and her lover; the Coral Browne character in a scene of underhanded viciousness at George’s farewell party at the television studio suggests she get a job playing the voice of a cow in an animated puppets series for children. A gut-wrenching scene occurs when Alice leaves her. Reid masterfully plays it as both horribly hurt and horribly angry together, the emotion much like that of another spurned operatic character, Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana (from the time of whole “mad operas”). Shortly thereafter, George enters the empty studio, smashes the camera equipment, and beings mooing like a cow. She is wordless. No romantic words, no ecstatic high notes like Lucia sings, no cameras for a Norma Desmond close-up.

 

Beryl Reid as George in The Killing of Sister George

Beryl Reid as George in The Killing of Sister George, Source: https://thelastdrivein.com/category/1960s/the-killing-of- sister-george-1960/

 

But, is she really mad? Does she really enter another reality like Lucia and Norma Desmond and Baby Jane? She’s not fantasizing about a marriage that never took place, and she’s not retreating into memories of a forever lost stardom. It seems she’s justifiably enraged, but also, given her indomitable character, understanding that she will do that job. She knows she has lost. She knows it’s degrading.

And like many LGBTQ persons, she knows who she is, and because she knows, she can choose, or at least to try and choose, what happens in her life. What’s sad is that she feels like she can only choose her losses. I just wonder if she’s really at the same level of victimization and its sister, in those cases, madness as the Romantic heroines of opera or the characters like Baby Jane who are both torturer and victim in grande dame guignol cinema.

Similarly. the complex dynamic where the madness, or appearance of madness exists perhaps to crystallize at the highest level of tension the torturer/victim binary, appears in a retro gay porn movie, Drive, directed by Jack Deveau (which Bijou carries on DVD and streaming). The mad Arachne plots to kidnap a scientist and eliminate everyone’s sex drive.

 

Christopher Rage as Arachne in Drive

Christopher Rage as Arachne in Drive

 

Arachne (Christopher Rage aka Mary Jim Sstunning) certainly camps it up as she attempts to set her diabolical plot in motion. But the movie unveils at the end how the one who desires to castrate is actually ferociously repressing her own sexuality. She is last seen in a dungeon with the men she had imprisoned. Secret agent Clark liberates the prisoners, and Arachne is left alone. But this whole mad porn opera contains a moment of somber lucidity. Arachne holds a glass bottle with a severed penis. She knows she is forever trapped in a cycle of endless desire like a spider in a web, consuming its mates but never satiated:

“I hunted at night until it wasn’t enough to hunt only at night, and then I hunted during the day too. I couldn’t stop. I didn’t want to stop. My thoughts were only of hard bodies, rigid with the desire for me — beautiful men swollen with the need for me. They were all around me and I chose the ones who looked most eager.

“Until I saw a man who was so perfect, with a hunger in his eyes that reflected my own hunger — and I knew he was the one. I knew we could feed from each other, claw at each other with a need we didn’t care to understand.

“Drugged with desire for each other’s hot naked skin, tense muscles pushing — and then filling me with his need, white and hot. Crushing me with his strong arms, pressing down on me and into me, until I closed my eyes with the ecstasy and perfection of him, and I screamed for him — and I screamed for me. 

“And I opened my eyes and I was alone.

“And I vowed then that I would bring an end to it all. Man would have to search no more: Arachne would be the answer.”

She knows. She knows who she is, ultimately more frightening than the mad scene at the end, which usually ends in the liberation of death.

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Sexology in 1965

By Madam Bubby 

 

March 1965 issue of Sexology

 


In March 1965, the sex education magazine Sexology, which came out in the early 1930s as the brainchild of Hugo Gernsback, addressed still at that time risque subjects such as female orgasm, lesbianism, homosexuality, and, showing the increasing interest in Eastern culture, the Kama Sutra. 

The physical culture movement, which really took off in the early part of the last century and which fed into the homoerotic muscle/physique magazines of Bob Mizer and others, had condemned prudery about sexual issues but still held up heterosexual marriage as the ideal situation in which to enjoy sex. 

Sexology reflected most of the psychosocial attitudes of that time, but after the famous Kinsey Report, when this issue came out, previous views about sexuality that relied on social conceptions of "normality" and prudishness about the body's physical functions were beginning to come under serious scrutiny. 

Gernsback, actually more famous for publishing the first science fiction magazine, Amazing Stories, was still the publisher and editor-in-chief when this issue came out. 
 

Issue of Amazing Stories

In 1965, the United States was beginning to more fully experience a cultural revolution, especially in larger cities. The Baby Boomers had become young adults who were questioning the 1950s ideals about gender and sexuality, while the dissemination of the birth control bill created, especially for women, a view that emphasized the pursuit of individual happiness (which could mean a healthy, enjoyable sex life) rather than traditional values that emphasized church, kitchen, and children. 

Homosexuality was still a taboo subject, and homosexual acts still illegal in many states, but under the influence of a more confessional culture that was beginning to allow for a more open discussion of feelings, people were finding an outlet to seriously discuss it in magazines like Sexology. It was no longer just a “dirty” subject to titillate or even shock as in the pulp fiction of the 1950s or the gossip rags like The Hollywood Reporter

Even though the medical consensus, more specifically psychologists and psychiatrists, still considered homosexuality a “condition” or “problem” or even “disease” which needed to be treated, there were glimmers that this interpretation could be misguided, and that a homosexual person could not pretend to be or become a heterosexual. The letter discussed below (which is the question of the month, “Homosexual Anxiety”) from this issue shows that so many gay and lesbian persons ended up in heterosexual relationships and then marriages because it was the social norm, to often disastrous results. 
 

Sexology's Question of the Month: Homosexual Anxiety

A 23-year-old man writes to Dr. Rutledge, concerned that even though he is sexually active with women, he has often masturbates while thinking of men. He also notes he did not have gay sex while in the military (interesting, which could imply it was not unusual to do so!). He is afraid he will “fall” into homosexuality, and he wants to experience “normal” feelings again. 

The doctor's response pretty much shows that the idea that sexual orientation is learned or conditioned was still prevalent, and sadly, for him it is still a “problem” with three possible causes. He claims gender confusion because of emotional problem in childhood (thus the boy thinks he is a girl), a typical stereotype during that time. Remember, this was long time before medical science began to understand transgender people, and that gender identity could be something different from sexual orientation. 

He then claims - and this is where he could be grasping at the idea that maybe, just maybe, being gay is not a choice - that because of a problematic heterosexual family dynamic that “they turn their natural sexual interests toward the same sex rather than the opposite sex.” He does blame the family, but perhaps he is hinting that one could naturally be gay, and that a person could who identifies as gay is doing so to make one's life easier (quite a claim in this period!) because one does not have to worry about pregnancy and financially supporting a family. (Those are also reasons why many people, especially women, had been joining religious orders for centuries, but the price was no sex at all!) 

Rutledge finally claims that extreme stress could cause one to have gay sex, in that case, a temporary aberration. Overall, he wants the person to get psychological help. 

Now, this response these days doesn't particularly strike one as being enlightened in light of our medical discoveries, but just ten years later the American Psychological Association declared that being gay was not a problem or condition or abnormality, and that steps should be taken to remove its social stigma, which the writer of the letter (one might assume in these days he was bisexual) definitely feels. 

And one should also take into account that another article in this issue affirms the physical and especially psychosocial importance of the female orgasm, long a taboo subject, and quite revolutionary for a generation whose mothers and grandmothers were taught to see the sex act as something fundamentally “dirty” and revolting to be endured only for the sake of producing children. 

And, more significantly, one of the lead stories is an actual interview with a lesbian, even if the title, “How I Became A Lesbian,” implies that it is more a learned or developed behavior than an orientation. 

Sexology ceased publication in 1983 after Gernsback sold it to another publisher, but its legacy lives on in countless other sex educators who counsel many, encouraging an open, diverse climate that celebrates the amazing spectrum of sexual and gender expressions and relationships - even while their work is hampered or put at risk by the recent upsurge in regressive reactionary movements against sex educational classes and books, against legislation protecting the rights of transgender people, against reproductive rights, and other anti-LGBTQ/anti-sex/anti-bodily autonomy agendas.
 

By the 1970s, the sexual revolution that had begun in the 1960s was in full swing, and in the heady days after Stonewall, gay men were beginning to interpret and share their sexual experiences and relationships on film. Check out some of our titles from that period on DVD at BijouWorld.com and streaming at BijouGayPorn.com!   

 

Article updated 5/10/24 to reflect the current political climate

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