The Unexpected Queerness of Paul Thomas Anderson

By  · Published on January 6th, 2017

How LGBTQ characters and motifs reoccur throughout the (straight) filmmaker’s work.

Paul Thomas Anderson in a photoshoot for GQ.

Growing up as a young gay cinephile can be a lonely experience. While other blossoming movie nerds were able to escape their lives through films that often doubled as fantasies of falling in love with or pining after a beautiful woman, my helplessly queer 12-year old self often felt left out. Of course, later on, I would discover a plethora of legendary LGBT filmmakers and their works, but at the time my film school was anything I could find on the IMDb Top 250. These films, while curated by a very select Internet crowd, were full of classics and masterworks that made me feel better about being depressed, about growing up in a small town, about wanting to become an artist in spite of a regular life; why couldn’t they make me feel better about my sexuality? And then came the fateful day I found a film making its way up the list; it was the first film I ever saw with a gay character that wasn’t a campy bit role, and the first film I ever saw that let them act on their love for another man. That film was Boogie Nights, written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.

Fast forward to now, when my filmgoing habits have (luckily) expanded far past a meaningless list on a website. I have been fortunate enough to see every aspect of my life represented in many great, mainstream films, from the awkwardness of my childhood to my love life as a young adult. I’ve devoured the filmographies of gay filmmakers like Pedro Almodovar, Gregg Araki, Todd Haynes, John Waters, and everyone in between. And while I love these filmmakers and their ability to give a firsthand account of what it’s like to be queer, I will always have a place in my heart for the way P.T.A.’s films captured the confusion and angst of my adolescence and coming out. When I say this to fellow film buffs who are queer, they usually aren’t too happy: “but he’s straight; what could he know about what we go through?” Or, “but he’s never had a gay protagonist.” And yet I firmly stand by my belief that no greater filmmaker has more accurately translated the pathos and themes of the gay experience than P.T.A, even if he has a wife and four kids.

It is true that P.T.A. has never made a film with a gay protagonist, but nearly all of his protagonists are men committed to making sure no one else thinks they are gay, and that is just as relevant to the LGBTQ community. The very first scene of his very first feature, Hard Eight, features John C. Reilly’s character expressing his fragile masculinity the moment he warns a suspiciously friendly stranger that he “doesn’t suck dick”. In Boogie Nights, Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler reacts in shock and disgust when Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s Scotty attempts to kiss him. A sister of Adam Sandler’s character in Punch Drunk Love asks him if he remembers “when we used to call you gay boy,” before he abruptly shatters a sliding glass door in a shocking show of force, as if to prove her and the rest of his sisters wrong.

Even P.T.A.’s gay supporting characters show the tell-tale signs of latent self-loathing and internalized homophobia. Promptly after being rejected by Dirk in Boogie Nights, Scotty insists he is just “wasted” and “out of his head.” Later in the same film, a young man paying to watch Dirk jerk off assures him that he is “not gay.” In Magnolia, William H. Macy’s Quiz Kid Donnie Smith frequents a bar where he lusts for a beefy, masculine bartender, and shows disdain for the effeminate older patron who questions his motives. One could be tempted to use these examples of miserable gay characters as evidence of homophobia in P.T.A. himself, but one look at the rest of the people in his films will shut this down. In the films of Paul Thomas Anderson, almost everyone is lonely and pathetic in some way, so why should his gay characters be any different?

On the subject of homophobia, P.T.A. is also keenly aware of and unafraid to show how weak, narrow-minded people will use being gay as an insult to deflect from their own insecurities. After being insulted by a guy following a porn shoot gone wrong, Boogie Nights’ Roller Girl screams homophobic epithets after him and beats him; intercut with this is Dirk being assaulted by a gang of surfer bros for letting a guy watch him jerk off for money. “You shouldn’t do this sort of thing, faggot,” they cry, before robbing him in a darkly funny show of their hypocrisy. In Magnolia, Jason Robards’ frail and dying Earl Partridge drops the word “cocksucker” as often as some people use the word “the.” And yet, we are constantly reminded that he is an old man from a bygone time who never overcame his own ignorance.

P.T.A. also has yet to make a film set in this miraculous, progressive time that we call the modern day; a post-Matthew Shephard time where no one should ever feel ashamed to be open about their sexuality, and where blatant homophobia is now frowned upon in public and in the mainstream. He includes gay characters and themes in films set during much more conservative chapters of history to acknowledge that they existed long before the age of “It Gets Better,” in times when it seemed like it would only get anything but. A common and irritating pattern in gay films set before the 21st century is for their characters to die by the end of the film, whether they contract AIDS or suffer a hate crime. In both Boogie Nights and Magnolia, we see both of his major gay characters alive and well by the time the credits roll. We see these characters given some sort of redemption and hope for the future, instead of a eulogy at a funeral.

Beyond the surface of P.T.A.’s gay characters and subplots, there is a wide array of other elements that one could interpret one way or the other. There’s the curious solitude and chastity of Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, who adopts a son instead of conceiving one. There’s Bigfoot Bjornsen in Inherent Vice, a banana-fellating brute with a keen sense of style and aggression that screams overcompensation, but for what? And of course, many have interpreted the relationship between Freddie and Dodd in The Master as perhaps more than just master and servant, though how anything could be gayer than that is beyond me (“I just wanted them to shut up and kiss already,” Marc Maron told P.T.A. in his two-hour interview with him, to which Paul replied “maybe they should have”). Also worth noting is P.T.A.’s keen understanding and constant portrayal of father-son relationships, which play a huge role in the upbringing and development of gay men. He captures these relationships with startling intimacy; through his writing, we feel the sheer joy of being accepted by a father figure, as well as the pain and despair of being rejected by one.

There’s a quote from drag icon RuPaul that is popular throughout the queer community: “Gay people get to choose their own families.” Although luckily it applies less to younger people like me who are growing up in more accepting homes, it rings true for the majority of gay Americans who had to come out to much less enlightened parents. Many of them were kicked out or shunned, left without a family to return to in a dark and confusing world. Such a concept could not be more emblematic of perhaps every single film P.T.A. has ever made; all of his films follow people ousted from their families, seeking desperately to find some sort of group or community of fellow misfits where they may find solace and solidarity. That is perhaps beat-by-beat the exact experience many gay people have when they find active queer communities that they can call home. Many a gay person from the seventies led lives parallel to Dirk Diggler’s, who leaves his emotionally abusive household for a life of pleasure and open sexuality. The films of P.T.A. strike a chord with everyone for various reasons, but for me it was the way they capture that strange mix of excitement and terror in leaving the restraint of childhood for the great journey of self-discovery that is adulthood; the desire to find happiness, but finding it in abnormal ways. Nobody is “normal” in his films, anyway, but they celebrate it and find meaning in it regardless.

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21. Filmmaker. Writer for Film School Rejects. Featured on MTV, Indiewire & The A.V. Club.