PRINT April 1992


The Story That Won't Go Away

A friend of mine told me she didn’t find JFK particularly homophobic—its several gay men, after all, are not confined to the usual stereotypes. Consider how the imprisoned gay hustler Willie O’Keefe describes businessman Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones) to Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner), the New Orleans district attorney who will try Shaw unsuccessfully for conspiracy to kill President Kennedy: “He’s not one of those limp-wrists,” instructs O’Keefe, “he’s a butch John.”

Were the even more “straight-acting” O’Keefe not referring to a trick he’d once turned, he might have described Shaw more accurately as a butch queen. Shaw exudes Southern gentility. He has a taste for champagne, and for smoking cigarettes, stylishly, in holders. He also peppers his prose with French derivatives like “badinage.” When not in the company of anti-Castro Cubans (who apparently have no qualms about mingling with maricones as long as they’re politically like-minded), he hosts decadent all male parties where the guests might wear courtly 18th-century drag, though a simple coat of gold paint will do As is de rigueur in such representations, drugs and alcohol are consumed in bulk, amid tantalizing glimpses of sadomasochist sex.

In addition to the rugged imperturbable hustler O’Keefe and the urbane middle-aged capitalist Shaw, there is also David Ferrie (Joe Pesci). Consistent with the real Jim Garrison’s account, Ferrie is a hyperkinetic pilot and soldier of fortune whose youthful hopes of joining the Catholic priesthood were dashed when he was defrocked as a novitiate because of his “weakness.” Afflicted, as well, with alopecia—a condition that leaves its victims hairless— Ferrie wears fright wigs and draws fat arcs of greasepaint to substitute for absent eyebrows. Such is the startling realism of JFK. Yet the structure of docudrama, which combines fact with fantasy, makes it possible for Stone to claim that his depiction is either allegorical or truthful, depending on how he is attacked.

Was it also in deference to “realism” that Stone portrayed his gay characters as virulent racists? At a time when homophobia needs no more encouragement among African-Americans than it does among whites, this decision offers further proof of the director’s disregard for whatever stands in the way of his determination to shed light on a conspiracy to kill Jack Kennedy.

As with other narrative forms, demonization in movies often depends on the stereotype, which induces easy recognition and thereby advances the spectator’s compliance with the plot. And despite their differences, O’Keefe, Ferrie, and Shaw do coalesce in a stereotype, one that politics sets apart from the familiar binary of nellie and butch. All three unite homosexuality and right-wing extremism, with Ferrie and Shaw also cast as rogue intelligence operatives. This stereotype is descended from an older one, according to which the hyper masculine, misogynistic soldier-male of early fascism is attributed to repressed homosexuality—rather than to the homophobic culture that induces such repression. It was through acceptance of this stereotype that Theodor Adorno, in Minima Moralia (1951), concluded that “totalitarianism and homosexuality belong together.” It was in this stereotype that the otherwise sensitive Marxist dialectician found common ground with Adolf Hitler—at the level of a shared homophobia.1

The squabble in the press between Stone and his detractors, which centers on rival claims to the historical “truth,” is merely a proprietary ritual of the patriarchal establishment. In fact the circumstances of the Kennedy assassination virtually allegorize the impossibility of unmediated access to history. More significant than the issue of “accuracy” in JFK is its paranoid vision of post ’60s American life, which has elicited so much contempt among its critics, but which actually supplies the film with its symbolic cogency. Inherent in this paranoia is the vilification of gays. Psychoanalytic theory defines paranoia, “whatever the variations in its delusional modes, as a defence against homosexuality.”2 In Stone’s account, the conspiracy to assassinate the president pervades the “military-industrial complex,” yet its only flesh-and-blood embodiments are gay men. (Oswald is dismissed as a patsy, and in any case his heterosexuality too seems insecure, with doubts cast on his marital relationship with his wife.) In one scene set in the quintessential smoke-filled and masculine room, a member of a group of military and civilian powerbrokers virtually pinpoints the film’s anxious center when he exclaims of Kennedy, “He fucked us in Laos and now he’s going to fuck us in Vietnam.”

What is most striking about this location of gay men behind the murder is its extreme overdetermination. To cast the gay cabal into even more sharply degenerate relief, Stone constructs two righteous families for the film. One, the Garrisons, is troubled but intact—and utterly two-dimensional; the other, the Kennedys, is a memory trace, but supplies the film with a critical mass of longing and desire.

In one of JFK’s few departures from On the Trail of the Assassins, Garrison’s own account of his investigation, the district attorney’s identity as a family man is established repeatedly in domestic scenes that show him at home with his children and cardboard kvetch of a wife, Liz (Sissy Spacek). Significantly, it is to this disinterested, wholly dense woman that Stone assigns the responsibility of suggesting to her husband (in one of many whiney fits of pique) that perhaps his obsession with Shaw is homophobically fueled. If the personality that Stone bestows on Liz Garrison were not enough to undermine this thought, it is swept away by the sheer momentum of historical events that he clearly considers more concrete. Soon after this spat, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy deepen the air of paranoia and mystery. It is the latter murder, discussed by the Garrisons in a truly odd bedroom scene, that restores the “normalcy” of their marriage by reviving Liz’s trust in her husband.

Meanwhile, mist-enveloped footage of a handsome, wholesome, maritally faithful Jack Kennedy and his beautiful wife and children recur, dreamlike, throughout the film’s first half, establishing a counterpoint to the chaos and death in Dallas. The vertiginous uncertainty that the killing leaves behind opens up a vacuum so strong as to mock the Warren Commission’s 26-volume report. Is it any wonder that in imagining the conspiracy that led to the murder of this handsome, peace-loving father/president, Stone finds the stereotype of the crypto-fascist fag so irresistible?

For his next film Stone will turn to the ’70s and the life and death of Harvey Milk, San Francisco’s gay city supervisor. How will this story make it to the screen? Stone, whose penchant for fashioning heroes he can identify with closely is well known, may have trouble identifying with the martyred Milk. It’s hard to overcome self-ignorance in a culture where heterosexuality is compulsory. With movies like JFK helping to define the norm, it won’t be getting any easier any time soon.

David Deitcher, an art historian and critic who lives in New York, is a visiting professor of art history at the University of Rochester.



1. See Klaus Theweleit, Male Fantasies, 2 vols., trans. Stephen Conway. Erica Carter, and Chris Turner, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987 and 1989.
2. J. Laplanche and B. Pontalis. The Language of Psycho-Analysis, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith, New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1974, p. 297.