Andrew Belonsky

Judging Gays in Mel Brooks' "History of the World: Part I"

Filed By Andrew Belonsky | January 16, 2011 11:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Marriage Equality
Tags: Bea Arthur, Mel Brooks History of the World: Part I, Ron Howard The Dilemma, Vince Vaughn

When I was younger, I thought Mel Brooks' History of the World: Part I was absolutely uproarious. And it is.

bearnaisehistory.jpegWho can keep a straight face watching Roman Empress Nympho, played by the late, great Madeleine Kahn, rating her potential orgy partners' penis size? And what about the glitzy musical number during the Spanish Inquisition, complete with harmonized Rabbis and synchronized-swimming nuns? It is pure parodical gold.

But watching the movie more recently, my first view in over a decade, I was struck by something that never occurred to me in my younger, less politically aware days: the at-times offensive role gays play in History, and what it means about the true nature of comedy.

The movie, you might recall, opens with the dawn of man and his neolithic woes: lack of fire, dinosaur attacks, the birth of the first art critic. Then comes marriage: a cave man hitting a woman over the head before dragging her back to his lair. And then comes gay marriage: the same exact scenario, only with two men.

This scene makes 'History' seem progressive beyond its years: few comedians were using their craft to highlight the innocuous nature of same-sex relationships, and the potential oppression inherent in marriage. As the film -- and fictional time -- moves on, however, gay characters take on a distinctly negative air.

From the Stone Age, Brooks and his rotating troupe jump ahead to the Roman empire, where Dom DeLuise reigns as emperor, all the while tormenting his servant, a character who's clearly a homosexual and referred to as a "little fag."

Later, during the French revolution, Count Da Money Count de Monet (!) and his flamboyant attendant Bearnaise, played by actor Andréas Voutsinas, who also played gay in the original 1968 The Producers, have this exchange:

Bearnaise: I don't like your cuffs!... I don't like your cuffs! I don't like your cuffs! A man's cuffs should be even with the tip of his "pee-pee." Yours are all the way down to your balls!

Count de Monet: At least I have them!

Bearnaise: Bitch!

The implication, of course, is that Bearnaise, as an ostentatiously gay man -- the only kind -- lacks balls.

One can easily imagine gay rights activists would skewer 'History' if it were produced today, as they did late last year, actor Vince Vaughn and director Ron Howard were lambasted for including the line "Electric cars are so gay" in their movie, The Dilemma, which opened yesterday.

"When 'gay' is used as a pejorative in such a public way for millions to see and laugh with, it legitimizes and propels the many taunts that gay people endure," said GLAAD president Jarrett Barrios at the time of the protest.

Under pressure from Barrios' group, Anderson Cooper and many others, The Dilemma's producers agreed to pull the line from the trailer, although refused to excise it entirely, all in the name of comedy.

But Brooks' History can be forgiven a few cheap shots because it was written in a different time, right? And Voutsinas, best known for his directing work on the stage, may have been gay (I can't find confirmation one way or another), a fact that could make his portrayal of Bearnaise more palatable for a politically sensitive audience. These factors should be taken into account, sure, but the true difference -- the real reason 'History' can be judged kindly -- may be more complicated than that.

Consider the movie Bruno, about the misadventures of Sacha Baron Cohen's gay fashionista character. I don't know about you, but I thought it was an atrocious movie, partially because Cohen's portrayal crossed the line from jocular to offensive in no time at all. Any potential empathy I may have felt for Bruno was lost in the sea of crudity. The movie was, quite simply, dumb, something 'History' ain't, and that's where the real meat of comedy becomes more clear.

History can be allowed a bit of low-brow humor because it ultimately has more brains than brawn. As Brooks said of his style, "I have bad taste with a deep fount of intellectuality."

We can overlook questionable quips in History because the movie's too much of an ingenious gem -- "Don't get saucy with me, Bearnaise!" -- to be tarnished by some slight imperfections. It has one of the most important ingredients of an effective comedy: a brain.

To help prove my point, here's a great scene with Bea Arthur ruminating on the nature of philosophy. Hint: it's all bullshit.

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Drew_the_Great | January 16, 2011 1:01 PM

I thought the Bearnaise character was more about historical (literal) castration than a figurative "lacks balls/manliness" context. Maybe I'm wrong on that?

friday jones | January 16, 2011 5:59 PM

I think it's a mistake to equate "swishy" with "gay," a mistake I expect more from clueless straight people. Bearnaise was swishy, but he played a character in an age of foppery and dandies. That swishy fancy-wigged fellow in the satin knee pants was probably pulling more tail than a lobster fisherman.

Before America entered into its current knuckle-dragging phase, it was widely acknowledged that some men were effeminate without being gay, but nowadays we're so simple-minded that we automatically assume that every fop with a lisp we see is representing as gay. That would come as somewhat of a surprise to their girlfriends with some of these guys.

It's just as limited as thinking that if a man says that he's gay, then he must be a swish too. Most of the gay men I know lack any tendency towards effeminacy, though I do know a couple of effeminate gay men too.

"That swishy fancy-wigged fellow in the satin knee pants was probably pulling more tail than a lobster fisherman."


Also w/the the teens of today... swishy fancy-wigged fellow in the satin knee pants is now internet "fan girls" of Yaoi, lusting over Beiber-doo, wearing in what most folks would consider "skinny jeans" & a fitted top.

Not feminine... just because it's not what is typically visible as "male", let alone hetero male... doesn't make it atomically "girly/fag".

We have to stop making things so freaking...
BOY vs GIRL in our own LGBTQRXYZ community.

Who freaking CARES???

My Dad always said...
Statistics prove that half the population has BALLS.
The other half of the population has TITTS.

Well, I think it take TITTS to be fancy man... straight/gay/fag.
I think it takes major TITTS to knock the stockings off of what a woman is to present herself... straight/butch/dyke/lezzie.

Take life by the TITTS.

George Byrd | January 16, 2011 6:50 PM

Like South Park, Mel Brooks tends to lampoon everyone equally. His movies are full of mockery of Jewish people, and he's a Jew. I see absolutely nothing wrong with the portrayal of gays in this film. Indeed, if I did, I would have to throw the entire film out with the bathwater. I mean, is there a single portrayal in the film, which isn't an obvious satire?

Kirk Lammert | January 16, 2011 7:21 PM

I have to agree with Drew here... it came across to me more of him having been castrated (voluntarily or not), a eunich of the age so to speak. And hell... one of the Emperor's best remembered lines is to his lackey, "Ok, faggot! What's next?"

Yeah, "faggot" or "fag" is a common slur in HOTW1. I watched it recently too & was shocked at how homophobic in the name of comedy it is. I still love the flick - it's one of the best Mel Brooks movies let alone best comedies, but I'll admit I was a little disappointed when I watched it recently and saw all the blatant homophobia.

Asked what he finds sexually attractive, Mel Brooks (jokingly) answered: "Small kittenish girls and big chunky men." This was sometime in the late 80s or early 90s. Or maybe my unconscious made all this up because I keep remembering "High Anxiety."

Brooks provides one of the best lessons for reading what humans consider "the word of God"

"the Lord has given me these 15 co....Ooooops....ten..yes, these ten..oooopss,ow, ow ow! ..vait a minute..ok, here, these three commandments"

You self-righteous S.O.B.s who claim that the gay slurs in this film are offensive and extraneous simply need to get off your high horses. Mel has stated in MANY situations how he empathizes with and understands the trials and troubles of those in the gay community; he harbors no genuine homophobia or negativity towards us (yes, "us"). Remember that little musical he made in 2001 called THE PRODUCERS? If not- quit reading this immediately and look into said musical. The hilarious song and scene with the flamboyant director Roger DeBris and his even swishier "assistant" should provide solid enough evidence to support my aforementioned claim regarding Mel's position on gay liberation. By the by, the musical also pokes fun at Jews, Germans, elderly women, Swedish babes, blacks, black Irish, Native Americans, Hitler, Broadway moguls, actors, prisoners, etc. As the director of the Feast of Offenses known as BLAZING SADDLES, I'd find it far more disconcerting had our demographic been omitted from Mel's stock of slingshot targets.