Is it possible for society, or Hollywood, to look at a man in his mid-40’s, who’s unmarried and asexual, without assuming he must be homosexual? That’s one of the questions that ran through my mind as I watched the new movie SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS. While the issue of Holmes sexuality has dogged the fictional character for decades now, it seems to have reached a new zenith in this sequel to the Robert Downey Jr. hit from 2009. Director Guy Ritchie and his screenwriters Michele & Kiernan Mulroney have dialed up the gay quotient here so dramatically that this one borders on being a mincing, drag show.
|Robert Downey, Jr. in drag in SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS|
During the press junket for the first film, Downey Jr. said he played Holmes as a homosexual. Various studio personnel associated with the picture quickly denied that, suggesting that Downey Jr. was only joking, but that interpretation does seem quite likely. And in A GAME OF SHADOWS, his performance has become an utter caricature.
In the most sniggering and blatant scene in the manic and over-produced sequel, Holmes interrupts the wedding night of his partner and friend Dr. Watson (Jude Law). He breaks into the newlywed’s private cabin on their honeymoon train to warn them of eminent danger heading their way from nemesis Professor Moriarity. To get on the train, and get past Moriarity’s minions, Holmes dresses in disguise, as is the want of the character. But the disguise he chooses here is female. And he makes for one ugly woman, as he hasn’t even bothered to shave his three-day Bohemian beard. Holmes then proceeds to throw Mrs. Watson off the train, saying it is for her safety. What it really does is allow Holmes to keep his hold on Watson. They even end up rolling around on the floor in a fight, which leads to them striking some positions belonging to the Kama Sutra. If anyone is going to project coitus with Watson, by God it’s going to be Holmes! And it will be played for sniggering chuckles that laugh at the character rather than laugh with him. It’s not too far off the bad comedic taste demonstrated by Adam Sandler in his recent cross-dressing debacle JACK & JILL.
|Robert Downey in his first outing as SHERLOCK HOLMES two years ago.|
So, is director Ritchie being a naughty schoolboy or is he being a bit homophobic? We know that Ritchie loves the world of macho men and thugs as evidenced by his body of work, but I won’t presume to provide a qualified psychological evaluation of his motives here. All I know is what shows up on the screen. And what has dominated his two Holmes movies now is a character that is quite ridiculous. He certainly doesn’t resemble the Holmes that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote. In addition to be overtly fey, Holmes here answers most of his conflicts with fisticuffs or martial arts, rather than little gray cells. I know that this franchise is trying to bring new fans into the Holmes fold, but do they have to be the TRANSFORMERS fans and the Willis and Stallone crowd?
Interpreting Holmes as gay could make for an interesting movie even though that was never the intent of Conan Doyle’s writing. The foundation of Holmes’ relationship with Dr. Watson in those original stories was that the consulting detective needed a roommate to help him pay the rent. And Watson was struggling to make ends meet in his medical practice so it made logical sense for them to move in together. And of course, the real reason Watson is there is to write Holmes’ stories. His first-hand accounts give the mysteries an immediacy that a third-person narrator could not.
Billy Wilder toyed with the possibility of a gay Holmes in his 1970 film THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES. In that original story, not based on any actual one Conan Doyle wrote, a Russian ballerina wants Holmes to father her child, but to get out of that task, he tells her that he and Watson are 'involved.' Holmes wasn’t necessarily admitting to being gay, he was really just being anti-social. And shutting her fantasies down in the most immediate way. What was really Holmes' motivations was that he didn’t want to get that close to anyone, male or female.
|Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke as Holmes & Watson in the British TV series from the 80's.|
In the 1980’s British TV series THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, the finest adaptation of the Conan Doyle stories ever produced, the characters of Holmes and Watson were played as only friends. Even though Jeremy Brett, the best Holmes ever, was a bisexual, he never let that color his interpretation of the character. The way he related to his Watson’s (First David Burke, then later in the series, Edward Hardwicke) was based solely on what was there in Conan Doyle’s stories. His Holmes was prickly, arrogant, cocaine-addled, and mercurial, for sure, but he wasn’t gay. He didn’t notice a woman’s beauty, like that of his client in “The Sign of Four”, because Holmes rarely had time to register anything that wasn’t directly related to a case.
|Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch in SHERLOCK on BBC TV.|
In SHERLOCK, the one-year-old BBC series that places the titular detective in the modern world, that Holmes is much closer to Brett’s interpretation than that of Downey Jr. Played by the sublime Benedict Cumberbatch, his Sherlock is brilliant, brusque and anti-social, with no time for boys or girls as he is utterly obsessed by his job solving crimes. And his relationship with Watson (Martin Freeman) is more friendly and respectful than has often been portrayed in past versions, but there is nothing between them that suggests gay subtext. In this new telling, the homosexuality is that of villain Moriarity. He has not only admiration for his nemesis Holmes but also a bit of a man-crush on him as well.
Which brings us back to Guy Ritchie’s version. What is driving his take on Holmes which has led him to allow the character to become such a caricature? Does he essentially view the Holmes tales as comedies? Ripe for parody? Or has all that testosterone filling up his gangster movies gotten to him? Is he obsessed with men? Could the explanation for these strained and over-the-top forays be that elementary?