How Did Top Gun Get So Gay?
Hollywood's famously 'gay' flyboy movie wasn't always seen that way
This week, Top Gun: Maverick, the much-delayed sequel to the 1980s classic, finally launches itself at the multiplex - 36 years after the ‘ace’ original. I’ve yet to see it, but will certainly debrief when I do. In the meantime, here’s a couple of pieces I penned about how the 1986 Cruise vehicle became so famously ‘gay’ - after being almost universally received as ‘straight’. (By the way, my ‘premature’ reading of it as, ahem, sausagefestive may have something to do with the fact that I first saw it while drunk on an overnight ferry heading for Amsterdam, where I would visit my first gay sauna - or ‘fighter weapons school’.)
How Did Top Gun Get So Gay?
(Originally published in the Daily Telegraph May 12, 2016)
Thirty years ago today, the stars of Top Gun were taxiing the red carpet at the premiere in New York. The airborne action movie, which features Tom Cruise’s ‘Maverick’ and Val Kilmer’s ‘Iceman’ competing for Alpha male supremacy, was about to ‘go ballistic’ and smash multiple box office records. In doing so, the Tony Scott piloted blockbuster would make A-listers out of its two preening male stars, and become perhaps the definitive 80s film.
But it has also become a shared joke these days. The subject of Saturday Night Live skits and a host of YouTube parodies.
Though it really doesn’t need much parodying. Or editing. The actual plot sees Tom Cruise as ‘Maverick’ and Val Kilmer as ‘Iceman’ wrestling in the air for ‘top’ – with Kelly McGillis trying, vainly, to come between them.
Then there’s those lingering locker-room scenes, in which the sweaty jocks stand around wearing only towels and perfectly gelled hair, apparently waiting for the cheesy porno muzak to start.
And that ‘ambiguous’ dialogue: “Giving me a hard-on!” whispers one flyboy to another, watching videos of dogfights. “Don’t tease me!” replies his buddy. “I want butts! Give me butts!” shouts an angry air traffic control officer. And the final reel consummation between Iceman and Maverick on the deck of an aircraft carrier in the Indian Ocean, cheered on by the entire crew, after all that playing hard to get: “You can be my wingman any time!” “Bullshit, you can be mine!”
And of course, the immortal volleyball scene, in which oiled guys in jean-shorts and shades flex and strut and jump to the sounds of ‘Playing with the Boys’.
All this, plus Tom Cruise at his prettiest and poutiest, in leathers and on a motorbike. When not in his underwear.
So it’s difficult to believe it now, but when Top Gun was released in 1986, the vast majority of the people who flocked to see it did not think it ‘gay’. At all. They would likely have dropped their popcorn at the suggestion – and the movie wouldn’t have taken $177M internationally, making it one of the most successful of the decade. Instead Top Gun was seen as the story of airborne, aspirational male heterosexual virility. Nice-looking, worked-out male heterosexual virility.
Even nearly a decade on, in 1994 when I wrote about the outrageous homoerotics of Top Gun in my book Male Impersonators, plenty of people still weren’t prepared to have Top Gun’s heterosexuality impugned. Later the same year the director Quentin Tarantino made a highly controversial cameo appearance in the movie Sleep With Me, arguing that Top Gun was about a gay man struggling with his homosexuality.
The journalist Toby Young, a Tarantino fanboy, was moved to write an essay in the Sunday Times defending his favourite movie’s heterosexuality from Simpson and Tarantino’s filthy calumnies. As I recall, his ‘clinching’ argument was that Top Gun couldn’t be a gay movie because he’d watched it twenty times – and he’s straight.
And in a queer way, he was right. Top Gun isn’t of course a gay movie. But it’s flagrantly not a very straight one either. Whatever the intentions of its makers, it’s basically ‘bi’ on afterburners. And this seems to be widely accepted now.
So how did attitudes towards Top Gun change so much? How did its virile heterosexuality so spectacularly ‘crash and burn’?
Well, partly because everyone is so much more knowing these days, or at least keen to seen to be. And we have tell-tale YouTube (and Tumblr) to collect all those ‘incriminating’ clips. It’s why we talk about ‘bromance’ now – instead of ‘innocent’ buddy movies. And partly it’s because Top Gun has come to be seen as the quintessential 80s movie – and the 80s are now seen as culturally ‘gay’. Or camp.
For instance, despite his apparently entirely heterosexual personal life, Simon Cowell is seen as screamingly ‘gay’ – culturally. And his whole personal style, the hair, the white t-shirts, the leather jackets, the Ray Bans is Top Gun. (Even his business model is Top Gun – the karaoke, and the struggle to ‘be the best’.)
All that said, the erotic ambiguity of Top Gun – which is what really powers it – is in the spectacular collision between the mostly sublimated homoerotics of traditional Hollywood war and buddy movies, and the glossy ‘gayness’, and emergent male vanity and individualism of 1980s advertising. It’s somehow both innocent and explicit all at once. A proto-metro war movie.
In 1985, the year before Top Gun was released, a new UK TV ad campaign for tired jeans brand Levis featuring Nick Kamen stripping in a launderette had caused a sensation – sending Levis sales into the stratosphere. Like Top Gun, the ad was set in a mythical 1940s, but with a 1950s soundtrack. Although we’re all familiar with it now, jaded even, back then the male body was just beginning to be sold to the mainstream – very often taking its cues from gay porn, because that was really the only reference point for the sexualized male body.
The late Tony Scott, like his older brother Ridley, had learned his craft in the UK ad business – and their father was a career soldier. Hence the glamorous, fetishizing presentation of the young men in the movie, alongside the more traditional homoerotic-homosocial banter that we now find so hilarious. Those infamous locker-room scenes were the Launderette ad all over again – only gayer.
What Top Gun succeeded in doing was making the then new, consumerist, very non-traditional male vanity of the 1980s look traditional and patriotic – and the military an attractive, sexy proposition for a new generation of young men with different expectations to their fathers’. Hence the generous loan to the film-makers by the USN of the super-carrier USS Enterprise. (Reportedly USN recruiting went through the roof after the film’s release.)
After all, some years earlier the USN had loaned a destroyer to a disco band called The Village People to record the promo of their single ‘In The Navy’. Back then, most people who bought their records didn’t think The Village People were gay either. They just thought them fun archetypes of straight American machismo.
How Don & Tom Made Top Gun So Steamy
I’ve been devouring – a little late – High Concept: Don Simpson and the Hollywood Culture of Excess, Charles Fleming’s page-turning and hair-raising 1998 biography of the late Hollywood producer and ‘bad boy’, who along with his ‘good boy’ partner Jerry Bruckheimer were the most successful independent producers in Hollywood in the 80s and early 90s. Inventing, or at least formulating and trademarking, the so-called ‘high concept‘ blockbuster – such as Flashdance (1983), Beverly Hills Cop (1984), Crimson Tide (1995) and The Rock (1996).
Simpson, originally hailing from Anchorage, Alaska, comes across as surprisingly compelling figure, in many ways monstrous and grotesque, yet strangely likeable, in all his human weaknesses and vanities: a kind of real-life, if slightly less believable, Bret Easton Ellis character – working right at the evil, cracked heart of the American Dream factory.
While a producer at Paramount in 1980, before going independent, he crafted a ‘Paramount Corporate Philosophy’ paper, which is gobsmacking, in both its honesty and clarity about what Hollywood is – and isn’t.
“The pursuit of making money is the only reason to make movies. We have no obligation to make history. We have no obligation to make art… Our obligation is to make money, and to make money it may be necessary to make history, art or some significant statement. To make money, it may be important to win the Academy Award, for it might mean another ten million dollars at the box office. Our only object is to make money, but in order to make money, we must always make entertaining movies.”
But you’ll understand why I particularly perked up when I came across an account of my namesake and Bruckheimer’s attempts to seduce a reluctant Tom Cruise into starring in a film they were producing that you may possibly have heard of, called Top Gun.
According Admiral (Rtd.) Pete Pettigrew, the US Navy liaison they had hired to keep the USN sweet (Top Gun was made with the support of the Pentagon – who famously loaned them an aircraft carrier), it seems that those steamy locker room scenes the movie is now famous for, partly thanks to the dirty mind of yours truly, was Mr Cruise’s idea. He wanted the movie not to be about killing but about ‘sporting excellence’.
‘At their first meeting, Cruise, who had just finished shooting Legend and still wore his hair shoulder-length, expressed his concerns. Primarily,… Cruise did not want Top Gun to be a movie about killing. He wanted to know about the “locker room” scenes and the locker room facilities at the Top Gun school, because… Cruise felt that’s where a lot of the action should take place. “He wanted to make this look like a sporting event, not about warmongering but about competition and excellence,” Pettigrew said…. Pettigrew expressed his doubts. The USN flying school at San Diego did not encourage competition…’
Disappointingly, the Top Gun trophy, central to the movie and the hotly contested object of desire for smouldering, slicked-back rivals Maverick and Iceman, was entirely the creation of the scriptwriters. It didn’t and doesn’t exist.
Despite the understandable reservations of Pettigrew, the idea was eagerly seized upon by Don Simpson – albeit for more fleshly reasons than those advanced by Tom. Pettigrew was overruled (as he seems to have been almost consistently) and his concerns over long-haired Tom’s yen for lots of locker room scenes were addressed in a typically blunt Simpsonian fashion:
‘When Cruise left the room, Simpson told Pettigrew, “Look, we’re paying one million bucks to get him. We need to see some flesh.”
And boy, did we.
Simpson was hyper-heterosexual – and if he were still alive, his aggressive sexual behaviour would likely be the subject of a plethora of #metoo accusations. But he was certainly not blind to male beauty, not least because he was a producer who longed to be a movie star. He was forever trying to improve and enhance his looks and was a high-rolling, early-adopter of metrosexuality. On the ‘cutting edge’, in fact.
In addition to his dandyish foibles (he would berate staff for pressing instead of fluffing his jeans), according to Fleming, between 1988 and 1994 Simpson had at least ten surgical procedures to enhance his looks. Including collagen injections in his cheeks and chin, a forehead lift and a restructuring of his eyebrow, to give it ‘sterner definition’; liposuction of his abdomen and a collagen injections in his lips and fat injection into his penis to make it bigger.
This latter procedure was, as is usually the case, a failure – penis enlargement ops are essentially a very expensive form of penis mutilation. But because it was Simpson’s penis the op had to fail on a big scale. “It had turned all black-and-blue, and it was very painful”, a source is quoted as saying. “There was a lot of swelling and fever. In the end they had to take out whatever it was they put in there. You can’t believe how pissed Don was.”
In yet another glimpse of the masculine future, Simpson was not simply all about the phallus either. His masculine self-consciousness was versatile – he also had a ‘butt lift’ op. Apparently he was particularly disappointed in his natural buttock bestowment.
“Every time I ever visited his office, he was always in there trying on jeans and complaining about his ass,” a friend of Simpson recalls. “He always thought it looked funny in pants.”
Simmo also struggled with his weight – binge-eating pizzas and entire jars of peanut butter, then switching to punitive diets. Essentially he was a constant work in progress, one fuelled by self-loathing and self-loving. And lots and lots of drugs, prescription and proscribed – particularly cocaine. The highness of his concepts was largely white-powder-fuelled.
A Top Gun sequel, called, Top Gun: Maverick, is due to ‘go ballistic’ this year, and will star a Tom Cruise who, more than three decades on is still forever Maverick. Albeit Maverick with an increasing admixture of Sandi Toksvig.
The sequel will be helmed without Don Simpson, however. Like that other pop cultural, pill-popping over-consumer, Elvis, he died of massive heart failure on the crapper, in 1996, aged 52. Twenty one different drugs were found in his system, including antidepressants, stimulants, sedatives, and tranquilizers. Fleming reports that Simpson was spending $60,000 a month on prescription drugs alone.
The Elvis parallel doesn’t end on the crapper, either. Critic Peter Biskind argued in 1999 that Simpson was to “gay culture what Elvis was to black music, ripping it off and repackaging it for a straight audience”.
According to Biskind, Paramount, where Simpson started his career, was ‘the gayest studio’. While there, Simpson was instrumental in bringing American Gigolo (1980) to the screen. Produced by his future partner in crime, Bruckheimer, Gigolo is another definitively 1980s film that that even out-gays Top Gun.
This was because Paramount:
‘took gay culture, with its conflation of fashion, movies, disco and advertising… and used it as a bridge between the naïve high-concept pictures of Spielberg in the 1970s and highly-designed, highly self-conscious pictures’.
‘High concept’, in other words, was highly camp.