The B in LGBT is not explored in cinema as much as the L, the G and, latterly, the T. But there are some glowing exceptions.
Bisexual men and bisexual women are depicted very differently in cinema. In the worst examples, films can be downright squeamish about their characters’ bisexuality – see (or don’t) Oliver Stone’s timid biopic of Alexander the Great (Colin Farrell played a more interesting bi character in 2005’s A Home at the End of the World). Tinto Brass’s notorious Caligula was far less timid but far more offensive, showing the Roman emperor’s sexuality as just another example of his appalling decadence. Laurence Olivier’s famous, unreciprocated pass at Tony Curtis in the baths in Spartacus (1960) – “My taste,” he hisses, “includes both snails… and oysters” is meant to add to his repulsiveness. Still, things are getting better – if even James Bond is allowed a suggested previous sex life with males, as is hinted in Skyfall (2012), then Hollywood cinema is at least acknowledging other sexualities.
10 to try
Each of the recommendations included here is available to view in the UK.
Bi women are even less visible in Hollywood films, particularly before the last couple of decades (a surprising exception being Lauren Bacall’s psychiatrist in 1949’s Young Man with a Horn). Often, if bi females are portrayed at all, they are as monsters (pick any European vampire film at random from the 1960s and 70s) or as titillating sex pots (pick any DVD at random from your sex shop). Sometimes they are just confused young women who think they are lesbians, but ‘change their mind’ after a steamy session with the nearest hunk (as in overwrought 1967 melodrama The Fox). There are exceptions – Angelina Jolie’s career was launched through her charismatic performance as a tragic model in Gia (1998), a superior TV movie.
Some of the films below may not fall under the label ‘bisexual’ in the conventional sense. Is a man who has sex with a man in prison bi? Is a supernatural entity that sleeps with an entire household able to be allocated a sexuality? Perhaps ‘great films in which sexuality is fluid’ is a more accurate description. But either way, the following selection brings together some of the most interesting films in which characters enjoy sex with men and women.
Sex in Chains (1928)
Director William Dieterle
Prison has been a favourite setting for filmmakers wanting to show homosexual desire. Usually the location is an all-female jail, either to enable sensational scenes of unrepressed lust – sleazy sexploitation flicks such as Barbed Wire Dolls (1976) became a staple of softcore cinemas – or to examine relationships between women in a world without men. Sexual relationships between men in prison is usually restricted to brutal rape scenes, but William Dieterle’s silent drama Sex in Chains, outrageous title notwithstanding, is far more sensitive.
After accidentally killing a man who was hassling his wife, Franz (played by Dieterle) is jailed for three years. Frustrated to the point of madness through being away from his wife, he gives in to temptation and sleeps with a fellow prisoner, who falls in love with him. Although nominally a rallying cry for prison reform, the film’s depiction of Franz’s sexuality, though ultimately tragic, is moving and heartfelt. It’s a reminder of the commendably liberal depictions of same-sex relationships that appeared in many films from the Weimar era, including Different from the Others (1919), Mikaël (1924) and Pandora’s Box (1929).
Les Biches (1968)
Director Claude Chabrol
One of Claude Chabrol’s most intriguing films, Les Biches opens with a rich woman, Frédérique (Stéphane Audran), picking up a young street artist (Jacqueline Sassard) called Why and taking her back to her apartment. They then hightail it to the Riviera with the older woman’s rather weird gay male cronies, but their bohemian idyll is torn apart by the arrival of a handsome architect (Jean-Louis Trintignant). The visitor has a sexual liaison with Why, before Frédérique makes her move and embarks on a relationship with him herself, to the chagrin of Why.
A synopsis of the plot sounds like a tired chauvinist fantasy, but Chabrol isn’t much interested in his leading man. It’s the power play between the two women that excites, leading to a gripping psychological, and very enigmatic, thriller. Games are a symbol throughout, even inviting the audience to play along and unravel its mysteries (Why’s name is a gift for film studies tutors). Audran won the best actress award at Berlin for her compelling performance.
Director Pier Paolo Pasolini
It may seem reductive to call Terence Stamp’s enigmatic character in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s masterpiece bisexual, but given he seduces an entire family – father, mother, daughter, son – and their maid, it’s not wildly inaccurate either. A repressed wealthy family has their world shaken up by a visitation from a beautiful stranger. Following passionate exchanges with all of them, they are devastated when he suddenly leaves the narrative halfway through the film, changing their behaviour in dramatic ways – one becomes a nymphomaniac, one becomes a saint, while the shy son becomes an abstract artist.
Jolting the Italian ruling class out of their bourgeois stupor, Stamp’s antichrist destroys society’s constructs – in the most directly political metaphor, following the visitor’s departure, the father gives his factory away to the workers and wanders naked into the desert. His final howl to camera is a disquieting finale to a highly provocative film.
Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971)
Director John Schlesinger
A landmark film, this, as it was the first British film to show two men kissing. It stars singer Murray Head as a bisexual artist who embarks on simultaneous relationships with a Jewish doctor (Peter Finch) and a divorcee (Glenda Jackson) – both are aware that they are “sharing” their lover, but tolerate the set-up for fear of losing him. The film is non-judgmental about its characters, and just four years after gay male relationships were partially legalised in the UK, its positive portrayal of a happy homosexual man was groundbreaking.
Sunday Bloody Sunday won BAFTAs for best film, best director (John Schlesinger), and for the performances of Finch and Jackson. Eagle-eyed viewers will spot the film debut of Daniel Day-Lewis, in a small role as a vandal.
Director Bob Fosse
Although Cabaret has become a key gay text, its fanboys and fangirls tend to deify the performances of Liza Minnelli as singer Sally Bowles and Joel Grey as the sexually ambiguous master of ceremonies. Both are magnificent, and both won Oscars. But the best, albeit far less showy, acting comes from Michael York as the bisexual writer (based on Christopher Isherwood, who penned the memoir upon which the musical is based) who moves to Berlin to complete a doctorate, but falls in with Minnelli’s glamorous cabaret singer. The two have a complicated relationship – they have sex with each other, and later find out they have been having a relationship with the same man, a rich baron.
York’s transformation from nervy innocence (his hesitation in revealing his attraction to men to Sally is beautifully played) to confident independence – a narrative journey Sally can’t quite make – is deeply moving. Alas, York was ignored by many contemporary reviews. Interestingly, the film hold the record for most Oscars (eight) without winning best picture (it lost to The Godfather).
Director Radley Metzger
Radley Metzger has made better movies than Score – porno The Opening of Misty Beethoven (1976) is better acted, The Lickerish Quartet (1970) is more ambitious. But its sheer, celebratory images of bisexual sex make it a superior slice of erotica. Based on an off-Broadway play, the plot is a simple one: in a European coastal town called Leisure (the location shooting was done in Yugoslavia), a sex-hungry couple make it their mission to seduce a pair of newlyweds. They succeed.
Bisexuality in sex films is usually limited to girl-on-girl action made for a straight male audience, but here the boys get to have fun with each other too. Claire Wilbur – later an Oscar-winning producer of short films – has a camp old time of it as the predatory Elvira, while adult movie icon Casey Donovan plays against type as the frigid, closeted husband. Fun fact: the telephone repairman in the original play was portrayed by Sylvester Stallone, although his look was deemed too un-European by Metzger for the film.
Basic Instinct (1992)
Director Paul Verhoeven
Gay rights activists picketed Basic Instinct for showing sensationalised, psychotic queer female characters, ruining the ending by carrying placards revealing the name of the character responsible for the grisly ice-pick murder of a man slaughtered while having sex. As for the famous scene where Sharon Stone uncrosses her legs to reveal she isn’t wearing underwear in front of a room of cops determined to find her guilty of murder, whether you see it as an indefensible, misogynist shot or a woman using her sexuality to disarm a group of inadequate men is up to the viewer (I favour the latter).
Is it great? I think so. Stone is so good, so clever and so knowing in her role that I found myself rooting for a possible serial killer. She run rings around all around her, male and female, and while her bisexuality is undoubtedly exploited for titillation by Paul Verhoeven, who offered fascinating queer characters in his Dutch films Spetters (1980) and The Fourth Man (1983) – and let’s not get started on Showgirls (1995) – at least she’s a female character who dominates the action, stealing the film from Michael Douglas’s rather rubbish detective. The DVD has one of the best commentaries ever recorded, with social critic Camille Paglia gleefully cheering on the film’s political incorrectness.
Gazon maudit (1995)
Director Josiane Balasko
Josiane Balasko, previously best known as the plain secretary who embarks on an affair with a businessman married to a beautiful wife in Bertrand Blier’s Trop belle pour toi! (1989), directs, co-writes and stars in this marvellous farce, often translated as French Twist. She plays a hyper-masculine lesbian who successfully seduces an unhappy wife (Victoria Abril) away from her boorish, homophobic husband (Alain Chabat), leading to a wildly funny ménage à trois.
Despite their many flaws, Balasko’s characters are often very likeable, especially the female characters. Although political correctness often goes flying out the window, the last few scenes are generous to its characters, as we are given an alternative family structure that leaves everyone happy – perhaps the most subversive element of the whole film.
The Comedian (2012)
Director Tom Shkolnik
That rare thing, a London film set neither in a fictional upper-middle class idyll nor a terrifyingly rough council estate, Tom Shkolnik’s film is hugely underrated. Few films have captured the experience of being someone who has followed their dreams by moving to the big city to find success, only to discover in their 30s that reality is still getting in the way. Edward Hogg plays a call-centre worker hoping to make it as a stand-up comedian. Following a disastrous gig, he falls for a man he meets on a night bus (an excellent Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, better known as Curtis in Misfits), and life seems to be on the up. But then he starts to develop feelings for his female flatmate…
Hogg is terrific as the deeply flawed hero, whose insecurities threaten to self-sabotage his happiness every step of the way. Many of the scenes are painfully recognisable, such as an awkward, funny visit to his parents. Best of all is a confrontation on a night bus near the end of the film, one of the tensest and best observed scenes in recent British cinema.
Appropriate Behaviour (2014)
Director Desiree Akhavan
This one has future classic all over it, a witty, razor-sharp tale of Shirin, a twentysomething, bisexual Iranian-American woman negotiating her troubled love life in Brooklyn. Boasting some great set pieces – the threesome scene is destined to become a classic – the film breathes the same air as the films of Woody Allen and the work of Lena Dunham, but director and star Desiree Akhavan has a voice very much of her own.
Whereas many previous cinemas depictions of bisexual women saw them as titillating objects of desire, or as indecisive and flaky, Shirin’s sexuality is simply one facet about a deeply flawed but ultimately very likeable character. The scene where she comes out to her mother is astutely observed, and will strike a chord with queer audiences, but ultimately what makes this very funny film great is the kindness it shows to all its characters.