Heterosexuality’s Phantom Stalking

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Fashion designer Norman Hartnell, in his London office in 1944, is the clearest model for Paul Thomas Anderson’s Reynolds Woodcock, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, in “Phantom Thread.” | PUBLIC DOMAIN/ WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Back in the day (1969 to be exact), in his book “The Season: A Candid Look at Broadway,” arch-homophobe William Goldman declared, “The three leading experts on heterosexual married life during the past 20 years have been Williams, Albee, and Inge, all three of them — at least to my knowledge — bachelors,” which was a problem Goldman claimed because, “In general, the homosexual on Broadway, especially the playwright, has to dissemble: he writes boy-girl relationships when he really means boy-boy relationsh­ips.”

That was a long time ago, in a pre-LGBTQ liberation land far far away. In 2017, with out and proud queer writers, directors, and actors and what Chritopher Isherwood called the “heterosexual dictatorship” in full retreat, Goldman’s “gay panic” is more ridiculous than ever. In fact, with Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Phantom Thread,” the situation appears to have been reversed. For this film, set in the fashion world of the 1950s, rather than dealing with the gay men who made it great it shoves them into a closet they never occupied.

When “Phantom Thread” was first announced many suspected that Anderson was making a biopic of Charles James, the British-born designer regarded as a mentor to Halston, Karl Lagerfeld, and other fashionistas of note. So much so that when you look for pictures of James on Google, you’ll find one of Anderson’s star, Daniel Day-Lewis, right next to him.

With Daniel Day-Lewis’ Reynolds Woodcock, Paul Thomas Anderson straightwashes ‘50s design world

This James-centric angle was brought up at the film’s preview screening in New York last month and immediately shot down by Anderson, who asserted his film’s anti-hero Reynolds Woodcock was drawn from the lives of Cristóbal Balenciaga, Hardy Amies, Norman Hartnell, Michael Sherard, Digby Morton, Edward Molyneux, Victor Stiebel, and John Cavanagh. The things is each and every one of these designers was gay. Reynolds Woodcock, while acting like a younger and ever-so-slightly less imperious version of Clifton Webb’s “Waldo Lydecker in “Laura” ( one of the greatest “coded gay” characters of the pre-Stonewall era), is seen (in long shot) taking the hand of the film’s heroine Alma (Vicky Krieps), a café waitress Woodcock makes his model and muse, and pulling her into his bedroom. What goes on inside that bedroom Anderson doesn’t show. And that’s because he has no idea what gay men think of straight women or how we interact with those whose beauty inspires us despite a complete lack of sexual desire.

Anderson, who has sired four children with his partner Maya Rudolph, doesn’t have the slightest clue about any of this, and therefore makes a character who is otherwise gayer than IKEA on Super Bowl Sunday, straight. The shot of Woodcock taking Alma’s hand is all he gives us to establish straightness — and it’s all he needs. The bulk of the action, unbeliveable as it sounds, revolves around her efforts to keep Woodcock for her very own by feeding him poison mushrooms and then (without any medical assistance) nursing him back to life. In other words a gay man on the edge of death is apparently, to her, him at his most desirable. In this, “Phantom Thread” is cousin to the “Twilight” series, in which a woman falling in love with a vampire stands in for a woman falling in love with an HIV-positive gay man.

A really good film could have been made about gay fashion designers and their straight female muses. The two (count ‘em) Yves Saint Laurent biopics released in 2014 go into this to some degree. Something more — say about Saint Laurent and Catherine Deneuve — would be fascinating. And that’s not to mention the long-promsed but never made biopic of Halston — one of whose muses was Anjelica Huston. Will “Phantom Thread” shut the final door on that? I suspect it might.

Daniel Day-Lewis as Reynolds Woodcock in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Phantom Thread.” | LAURIE SPARHAM / FOCUS FEATURES

Reynolds Woodcock is modelled most directly after Norman Hartnell, a designer whose Wikipedia page reports, “never married, but enjoyed a discreet and quiet life at a time when homosexual relations between men were illegal. In many ways, the consummate Edwardian in attitudes and life-style, he considered himself a confirmed bachelor, and his close friends were almost never in the public eye, nor did he ever do anything to compromise his position and business as a leading designer to both ladies of the British Royal Family and his aristocratic or ‘society’ clients upon whom his success was founded.”

In “Phantom Thread,” Reynolds Woodcock describes himself as a “confirmed bachelor” which was the “polite” pre-Stonewall way of saying “I’m gay.” But we never see him interact with other men.

Wikipedia also reports, “Hardy Amies when speaking of Sir Norman Hartnell, another renowned dressmaker to the Queen, commented: ‘It’s quite simple. He was a silly old queen and I’m a clever old queen.’”

So why has Paul Thomas Anderson, a silly young heterosexual, created this exercise in straightwashing? That Daniel Day-Lewis, whose career was launched when he played a cheeky gay punk with a Pakistani boyfriend in “My Beautiful Laundrette,” has elected to end his career with this closet caper is more than a tad depressing. Here’s hoping Anderson’s poisoned mushroom of a movie won’t start a cinematic fashion trend of its own.

PHANTOM THREAD | Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson | Focus Features | Opens Dec. 24: Regal Union Square Stadium 14, 850 Broadway at 13th St.; | AMC Loews Lincoln Square 13, 1998 Broadway at W. 68th St.; | Opens Jan. 11: Alamo Drafthouse Cinema — City Point, 445 Albee Sq. W. at Flatbush Ave., Brooklyn |

Updated 2:20 pm, September 4, 2018
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Reader feedback

Maitland says:
I must confess that I was curious about Reynolds Woodcock's sexuality when I began reading about this movie, but assumed that straightwashing was so decisively on the decline (DaVinci's Demons notwithstanding) that it wouldn't be an issue here. Silly me.
Dec. 22, 2017, 5:56 pm
Reason says:
This is an insane and idiotic review of a wonderful movie. To the reviewer: Not everything is about your gayness. Phantom Thread is not the story of a fashion designer, but rather it is a love story between a man and a woman wherein the man happens to be a fashion designer. Anderson said himself (in an interview with Bill Simmons) that his screenplay began as simply a love story between a man and a woman and that he and Day-Lewis settled upon the character's occupation as the story developed. You should be embarrassed for dismissing this masterpiece for failing to fit into your own myopic agenda. I will not be surprised if this comment is deleted for failure to be "respectful", but what could be less respectful than a review that trashes a film for failing to live up to the reviewer's own Idea of what the sexual orientation of a FICTIONAL character should be. There is no "straightwashing" here. If your sentiments expressed in this review truly reflect the lens through which you view the world, perhaps you should consider taking some time for self reflection and broaden your horizons beyond your sexual identity.
Jan. 1, 2018, 9:34 am
louisproyect says:
I enjoyed the film even though I don't care for Anderson particularly but this review is right on the money. (I am straight for what that's worth.) Perhaps if you interpret the film as a kind of latter-day version of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" with cloaked sexual identities, it would be plausible. But why would anybody want to make such a film today?
Jan. 6, 2018, 10:28 am
jake12 says:
There are two separate criticisms that seem to be conflated here. (A) Anderson made a character, who based on history should have been gay, straight. And (B) Anderson is out of his depth and doesn't know how to write a closeted gay man interacting with a straight woman. The former is fair, but the latter I disagree with because I don't think Anderson intended to hint that Woodcock was gay. I was also watching for signs of closeted sexual preferences but never got any. As you said, he barely even interacts with men, and when he does (e.g. with the doctor) he's completely disinterested. I therefore took his "confirmed bachelor" comment as literal. He cycles through muses because he gets bored and is unable to hold down a relationship because he's obsessed with his work and is a selfish jerk. Yes, Anderson used a historical moment that should have been the domain of a gay man and straightwashed it. But to assign his character preferences that Anderson didn't intend and then proceed to knock him for doing a subpar job at writing a gay character is a step too far.
Jan. 16, 2018, 10:40 am
David Ehrenstein says:
Of course Anderson never "intended" the character to be gay because like so many straights he's utterly indifferent to LGBT life and sees the world entirely from his own perspective. For that reason alone he never should have embarked on a film of this kind. What is "insane and idiotic" (to quote one of my critics) is to regard straightness as an absolute. What he has put together here is not "a simple love story between a man and a woman." It's a film about a domineering man who treats women like furniture and the one woman who "loves" him expressing said "love" by poisoning him.
Jan. 17, 2018, 12:03 pm
jake12 says:
"For that reason alone he never should have embarked on a film of this kind" Fair enough. Maybe I misunderstood your original review. But if the flaw is in the premise itself, and not in Anderson's writing or characters, why then pick apart scenes like his illness and see a ham-handed HIV metaphor? Once you've identified such a fundamental flaw, of course no scene is going to work for you. I guess I'm able to set that basic problem aside and still appreciate the performances, the beautiful and lush cinematography (saying something for a film shot primarily indoors) and the certainly NOT simple love story about an obsessive and abusive man and a woman who is apparently up for the challenge.
Jan. 31, 2018, 11:52 am
anonymous says:
Simply put: a film about a self-loathing and repressed homosexual meeting his self-willed doom through the chosen vessel of a scheming predatory female, the ultimate freedom from the restraints of a toxic heterosexuality socially enforced (then as now) to achieve money, wealth and fame in the false glamour of "fashion". Never cursed, indeed. Even Lewis himself couldn't face the implications of the character as it pertains to himself....hence, "his retirement".
Feb. 21, 2018, 7:52 am
anonymous says:
As an interesting aside: homosexuality, as described within the orthodox confines of Christian sin, was traditionally always referred to as a "curse".
Feb. 21, 2018, 2:39 pm

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