by Douglas Messerli
Sal Mineo (director) Two Scenes from Fortune and Men’s Eyes, promotional film for Mineo’s production of the play at the Coronet Theatre, Los Angeles / 1969
Stacey Miller (screenplay, based on the book by Michael Gregg Michaud and a story by James Franco, Vince Jolivette, Val Lauren and Stacey Miller), James Franco (director) Sal / 2011
In Sal Mineo’s Rebel Without a Cause high school locker the director announces that his character, John “Plato” Crawford is gay by featuring only a mirror—symbol of a narcissistic personality, which gays were generally perceived as exhibiting—and a fan head-shot of the lead of Shane (1953), Alan Ladd, with whom, as I have argued in my essay on that film, the entire family (played by actors Jean Arthur, Van Heflin, and Brandon deWilde) fall in love. The deWilde character, Joey in particular falls hard for the gentle stranger, pleading as the farm hand prepares to leave their homestead, in what has become the film’s most remembered line: “Shane, come back.” In a real sense, Shane became a kind of surrogate father, not replacing his own, but allowing his own father to transform himself into a local hero, a man who enabled his own father to come back to life.
Plato, who has been forced to completely give up on his own father, is seeking another kid of “daddy” to replace him, and Jim Stark is the perfect candidate. But as Mineo has himself argued, Plato does wish to play son in this film in an odd version of a nuclear family with Jim and Judy playing the mother and father. Plato has suddenly arrived at that age where James Dean’s character is not simply someone who can replace his father but might actually become another kind of figure to be loved: a sexual partner, a gay lover. It doesn’t matter that the character may not even quite recognize this, but when, after the rumble, he asks Jim if he might want to come home with him anyone with any savvy knows that it is not the kind question you ask of a potential father, but rather something you might ask of someone you’ve just met to join you for sex.
Indeed, the fact that Jim Stark is suddenly caught up in a potential love triangle between a heterosexual (Nathalie Wood’s Judy) and a gay boy (Mineo’s Plato) determines—given the requirements of the Postmaster General from Indiana Will H. Hays’ Motion Picture Production Code—that if he so far had escaped the censors’ claws, before the film’s credits he had to killed off. In Ray’s masterpiece, society, in the form of the police, kill Plato in order to save it from homosexual pollution. Hoodlum or not, Jim Stark must marry Judy if he is to be redeemed.
Mineo, an actor who later admitted to being gay or bisexual, himself dismissed the possibility that Ray was suggesting a family unit in the trio of the film’s major figures. In an illuminating interview from 1972 with the then 18-year old Boze Hadleigh, Mineo basically restated one of the major conclusions of film historian Vito Russo in his The Celluloid Closet: “...He was, in a way, the first gay teenager in films. You watch it now, you know he had the hots for James Dean. You watch it now, and everyone knows about Jimmy, so it's like he [Dean] had the hots for Natalie [Wood] and me. Ergo, I had to be bumped off, out of the way.”
Indeed, the studio had not only to “knock off” Mineo in that film, but insisted that he continue to appear as an outsider for much the rest of his career, as an Indian in the Disney film Tonka (1958), as a young Mexican draftee in Giant (1956), and again as a juvenile delinquent in need of reform in Crime in the Streets (1956) and the television drama Dino (1957)—this despite the fact that as a child actor Mineo had briefly performed on stage in Tennessee Williams’ The Rose Tattoo, played Yul Brynner’s son, Prince Chulalongkorn, in the stage version of The King and I, had the year before Rebel acted as a Page in the NBC Opera Theatre's production of Richard Strauss' Salome, and only two years after Rebel had a hit Billboard record in “"Start Movin' (In My Direction).” Besides his theater, film, and singing career, he posed in 1962 for the American pop artist Harold Sevenson for the gloriously, 9-paneled (96 x 468 inches) nude, The New Adam, now in the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum collection.
Yet in three of his films following, his characters were once more deemed expendable or dangerous enough to end the film dead. His Mexican character Angel Obregón in Giant was killed in World War II as was the private he played in The Longest Day (1962), as well as the fascinating character he played in Otto Preminger’s Exodus (1960). Mineo observes about the latter film:
“It's a terrific story, and Otto Preminger made it more than just a movie, but you know what shocked a lot of people then? My part: where Dov Landau confesses that the Nazis used him "like a woman." The word homosexual had hardly been mentioned in anything then, and when I said that...the speech, you could hear the shock. He had to die, even though he was straight and in love with this blond girl, because he was, shall we say, tainted. In the censors' eyes, anyway.”
Finally, Mineo, never truly hiding his sexuality, found himself as being seen as such an outsider that, despite two Oscar nominations, he was no longer offered suitable new roles. But far from believing that his open sexuality was responsible for the winding down of his acting career, Mineo argued that nearly everyone, at heart, was bisexual at the very least. When Hadeleigh asks him “Do you think rumors about your being bi have hurt you in your career?” Mineo responds:
“Maybe. . . Nah, I doubt it. Everyone's got those rumors following him around, whether it's true or not. Everyone's supposed to be bi, starting way back with Gary Cooper and on through Brando and Clift and Dean and Newman and . . . you want me to stop?”
BH: Did you resent the rumors?
Well, no. Because what's wrong with being bi? Maybe most people are, deep down. .. But anyhow, the rumor about me, from what I hear, was usually that I'm gay. Where, like, with Monty Clift or Brando, the rumor was that they're bi. [Brando later publicly admitted to bisexuality.]”
Mineo was even relatively forthcoming about James Dean, although still circumspect.
“BH: Were you in love with James Dean?
SM: He was a shitheel, sometimes. He liked being that way. But everybody had moments when they loved him—one way or another. I did, too. Did we have an affair, you mean?
BH: Then, or perhaps later . . . ?
SM: I might tell you some people I had affairs with—maybe. But Jimmy was special, so I don't want to say.
Becoming far more interested in directing than acting Mineo spent a couple of years in England trying out his skills before returning to Los Angeles, where, in 1969 he, metaphorically speaking, publicly announced his gay sexuality by directing the John Herbert prison drama Fortune and Men’s Eyes in which he cast Don Johnson (as Smitty), Michael Greer (Queenie, a role Greer also played in the 1971 movie version), Gary Tigerman (Mona), and himself playing the role of the fag-hating, but sexually male-on-male active Rocky. As Smitty later describes Rocky, “For a guy claiming he doesn’t go in that direction it looks to me you walk the path hot and heavy.”
For promotional purposes, two scenes of that play were filmed and released, but the 15-minute “Theatre Beat” broadcast was lost, rediscovered only in 2019, available now on the internet’s YouTube, restoring for us an important document of LGBTQ film history.
The first scene, the earliest of the work features the arrival of Smitty to the jail cell he will share with the other three actors for most of the rest of the play, revealing, in particular, the characters of Queenie and the much abused Mona, who, not having a “daddy” to look after her and having only Queenie’s protection, has been gang raped by a group of 15 guys (in the movie that number is inexplicably reduced to 8, suggesting that the filmmakers found the larger number a penises in one ass to be inconceivable). The pecking order of the cellmates is well established, with Smitty immediately recognizing that the most hostile element in the cell is Rocky.
The second scene, more subtle and intense, occurs after Smitty has finally beaten Rocky in the shower after one of their nightly sexual encounters, establishing that the newcomer is now what Queenie calls “the man of the house.” It gives us a clue to the excellent acting that Johnson and Mineo evinced in the Coronet Theatre production.
Hadleigh asks the actor an important question regarding this Los Angeles directorial debut:
“...You were letting Hollywood know that you didn't care who knew. Wouldn't that rob you of future movie roles?”
Mineo’s positive spin on being totally out in Los Angeles as early as 1969—given that several actors, straight and gay, who later performed as homosexual figures have insisted that it had hurt their careers—is utterly refreshing.
“Sure. Once I did FaME [Fortune and Men’s Eyes], I probably lost half my future chances. But that'll change—it's already changing. I think it's only going to change in a big way—in the future, I mean—if gay actors and stars and directors come out. That'll show the guys in charge that we're here, and we're gonna stick around and not keep playing bury-the-queer-in-the-fairy-tale. You know what I'm saying?
Given the many roles that he played demanding that the queer be buried, it is almost shocking that the actor nicknamed “the Switchblade Kid” was killed at the age of 37 by a knife stab-wound to his left ventricle outside his West Hollywood apartment on the night of February 12, 1976—coincidentally I swear, 45 years to the day upon which I am writing this piece.
James Franco’s 2011 film Sal, based, it proclaims, on the Sal Mineo biography by Michael Gregg Michaud, is less an actual movie about Mineo than it is a kind of faux-documentary tribute to the actor, following him for the last day and a half of his life. Several critics have compared it to Gus Van Sant’s Last Day, as critic Dan Callahan writes, “keeping almost all exposition at bay [which] makes [the] film as morbid as Van Sant's...where all we do is wait through uneventful hours with the protagonist until their foreordained death comes as a kind of finale and release.”
Franco, one immediately realizes has not yet learned how to direct a movie. He has, for example, a cinematic vocabulary of only a hand full of camera shots: face-on close up, face-on closer up, and in your face; side-face close up and side-face very close up. He prefers, however, to shoot the back of his character’s heads either close-up or very close up. He doesn’t like to show two characters interrelating and does so only when they are not fully communicating and then he often shoves objects between them such as phones and dogs. All of this, I presume, is intentional, i.e. it’s all about affect.
One might argue that there are only 7 scenes to this film in which there is hardly any action except the act of murder itself—unless you perceive exercising, talking to a producer over dinner, greeting one’s neighbors, talking to friends over the phone, or rehearsing for a play while tied up on a kitchen counter as portraying “action.” Indeed hardly any incidents in Mineo’s previous life are mentioned, and even those that are made through incidental consist of references to James Dean having daily traveled the route where the Mineo character played by Val Lauren is currently driving, and a phone call to Sal’s Jilly, evidently Jill Haworth, the woman he once had asked to marry with whom he acted in Exodus. Otherwise, if you were an outsider to film history as most people are, you might not even know who Franco’s film is memorializing until the epilogue which shows a small clip from Rebel without a Cause.
The first scene, particularly if you’re not a gay admirer of Sal, is absolutely gratuitous since it shows nothing but actor Lauren working out with barbells. I am sure Mineo did daily work out, and in this scene Franco is also referencing the many such workout photos taken of Sal throughout his career, making him a favorite among the beefcake crowd. But a long scene of muscles and sweat do not advance a plot.
Scene two is actually a rather important one since the far less well-spoken Sal than the one encountered in interviews attempts to express his aesthetics for a new film he’s desperate to make. I don’t know whatever became of the script he’s arguing for titled McCaffery, but it is apparently a piece that resembles some of the same concerns of Fortune and Men’s Eyes and the play which he’s currently rehearsing at Los Angeles’ Westwood Theatre P.S. Your Cat Is Dead since it features a young character who is “pummeled” in homosexual sex. He wants the work to be “realistic,” meaning, apparently, gritty and sexually explicit instead of a work that simply “prettifies” violent gay sex. The studio, the producer hints, is unhappy with its depictions of gays and will probably want some rewriting, which Sal absolutely refuses to do, arguing—similar to some of his assertions in the interview with Hadleigh I quote from above—that its time the public realized that gays are real people, and "there are good gays and bad gays."
It is absolutely frustrating given his apparent passion about the script and his hopes that it might reveal his directorial talents not to know more about the work. Who wrote it? What was the full plot? What happened to this film—if it wasn’t simply a fiction made up by the several screen writers. But Franco clearly believes in dropping pearls without ever bothering to pick them up (see my essay on “Dropping Beads.”)
Scene three begins with another
interesting tidbit that, if more fully explored, would have put some real meat
on the meagre dribs and drabs of dramatic information Franco provides. Sal gets
a call from C. B., whose first name, we later discover, is Court. In fact that mysterious
figure’s full name was Courtney Burr, an actor then performing in New York, who
was Mineo’s lover at the time of his death. The apartment was leased, indeed,
in Burr’s name, who paid for it since Mineo, as Franco’s film gives evidence, had
hardly any money and was in arrears on his bills. When Sal died, the police
closed off the place for several weeks and he was not allowed entry to retrieve
his own belongings. When Burr was finally able to return he discovered that
Mineo’s family had been there before him and had burned several of their son’s letters
(evidently ones that identified his sexual
Instead we get a visit from a neighbor with a dog, Bella, who Sal clearly adores, and the arrival of his cleaning woman Hazel, presumably also paid for by Burr, who not only cleans up the chaos he leaves behind each night but makes sure he’s fed by daily bringing him fresh homemade sandwiches, turkey on the day of his death.
Scene four consists of Mineo picking up a friend, who if we listen carefully, he calls Billy (Vince Jolivette)—in fact, Franco even cuts any image of him out of the first half of this scene—who presumably represents Mineo’s friend Billy Belasco, the producer with whom he’d met at the Palm restaurant in the second scene. Franco makes no attempt to help us to connect the appearances of this character or to explain how important he was to Sal’s life, since Belasco often invited him to dinner parties at his home as well. The two stop off at a medical center where Sal gets a shot (for what purpose we’re never told; did he have AIDS? Probably not, since I don’t believe there were any available medicines for that disease in 1973). Then they head off to the local spa where they swim together in a kind of hearty wrestling game and Sal has a massage inexplicably filmed in slow motion.
That afternoon Sal calls several friends to make sure they reserving tickets to his play opening the next week. He makes a longer call to Jill, worried because she taking a medicine (evidently having something to do with gynecological problems) which is making her nauseous. The call also reveals that previous to his current financial straits Mineo was sending large sums of money back home to his mother, but cannot any longer afford to do so; he’s angry that his mother has called Jill to ask for money, which he feels she doesn’t need. That scene alone would have put meat upon the skinny bones of a story that Franco refuses to tell.
Scene six is also rather important in that we actually get a chance to observe a few scenes from the James Kirkland play based on his own novel. Twice in the film Sal gives us a teaser of the plot, namely that it concerns an unemployed actor whose life is falling apart, his girlfriend having left and his pet cat having suddenly died. One night as he returns home he encounters a robber in his apartment attempting to burgle the place, and in anger and frustration ties him up and straps him to the kitchen counter.
Obviously, the coincidence of coming home to find a robber in your house has enormous significance to what will latter happen to Sal that very night. But in the silly shenanigans that Franco teases us with, the rather incoherent directions of the noted real-life acting teacher Milton Katselas (played with his back to the audience by Franco himself) and the horrendous incompetence of actor Keir Dullea (Jim Parrack) who hasn’t a clue as to what his character is about and cannot remember more than a half-line at a time, we don’t get a chance to let the plot of the play resonate on the events that immediately follow rehearsal. Was Dullea—who did after all perform in some plumb movie roles in David and Lisa, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and De Sade, and in Broadway works such as Butterflies Are Free and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof—really that bad that Franco’s Sal has to say goodbye to him with Noel Coward’s quip “Keir Dullea, gone tomorrow?”
And since Mineo had also hoped to bring Your Cat Is Dead to Broadway and even make a movie of it, why mightn’t the entire plot be told, since it fits in so well with Mineo’s directorial interests.
Just for the record, I’ll let you know that after hog-tying the intruder, the now nearly mad out-of-work actor Jimmy Zoole falls in love with the Italian bi-sexual burglar Vito, whose wife also left him when she discovered he was gay. Gradually establishing a sexual bond, the two plan revenge on their former lovers by selling a stash of stolen drugs before running off together. If Mineo had previously let the Hollywood community know about his sexual interests he was certainly now ready to tell the world.
Franco’s film takes us on a long voyage home through a myriad of colored lights and the song weaving through the entire film “Where Flamingos Fly” sung by Helen Merrill, to the carport where Mineo suddenly met destiny in the would-be robber, a black man, as frustrated and desperate as Jimmy Zoole who—when Sal cried out (all the neighbors concur) "Oh, God. Help me. Help me, God. Oh, God — please help me." (not precisely what Franco’s Sal calls out)—put a knife into his left upper chest, later described by the coroner as a stab through the heart.
The film turns to black, followed by an epilogue of two news reports, one simply saying the police have still to find the murderer, the other, two years later, reporting that they have found their man, Lionel Williams. Franco follows this with a brief clip from Rebel of the 16-year old Mineo describing to Nathalie Wood just what a good friend he has in Jim, who if you knew him really well would let you call him Jimmy.
It’s touching, but once more he’s left out the most important facts. As one might expect upon Mineo’s death everyone, including the police, suspected that the murderer was some gay ex-lover, an abused gay kid, or some young homophobe whom Sal had mistakenly picked up who committed the terrible act. Surely Sal Mineo died, in most people’s thinking, the way Joe Orton or Pier Paulo Pasolini had, the way they had to die having so transgressed the boundaries of normal sexuality. In short, the entire society was now willing to let Mineo die the same way the film studios had let Plato go, and all those others he dared to represent. The best he could have hoped for was salvation, redemption, but given that he was clearly stubborn in his perversities what else might one expect? In short the community killed Plato all over again.
The truth was that the villainous Williams, who had a long rap sheet, didn’t know, at the time of the murder, who his victim was. He didn’t even know the name until he realized from watching the news he’d killed a movie star.
The real story is so sad, as the cliché goes, it makes a grown man want to cry.
Los Angeles, February 12, 2021
Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (February 2021).