MOVIES

How A Line From Bette Davis’ Biggest Flop Became A Gay Cinema Icon

“Beyond the Forest” was widely panned upon its initial release, and it marked a less-than-amiable split between Bette Davis and the studio she’d worked under for nearly two decades. And yet, it was apparently memorable enough for acclaimed playwright Edward Albee to reference it in his famous 1962 play, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” The 1966 film adaptation of that play starred Elizabeth Taylor as Martha, who, in Taylor’s own inimitable style, quotes Davis’ “What a dump” line. Thus, its brilliance was brought to a new generation of moviegoers.

Charting the line’s journey from Davis to Taylor — each an icon in her own era — is somewhat simpler than charting how it became so iconic in the gay community specifically. A video retrospective on Davis posted to YouTube by noted drag performer Jaymes Mansfield describes how “gays rediscovered the film,” calling it a “treasured gem of camp.” Old-school Hollywood actresses like Davis, Taylor, Mae West, and Judy Garland have long been icons in the gay community, representing a certain blend of resilience, grace, and femininity.

“Davis’s star career has become inextricably enmeshed with the history of gay male fandom,” film and literature professor David Greven writes on his blog, Jump Cut. He argues, “An important aspect of the woman’s transformation, one of the woman’s film’s defining events, is its metaphorical value as a coming out allegory. I speculate that one of the reasons why gay men have been so drawn to the genre is that the woman’s travails and specifically her transformation allegorize both closeted gay male identity and coming out.”

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