Why is the landlord in the Wicker Man played in the camp style?
June 21, 2021 2:59 PM   Subscribe

My wife and I were watching The Wicker Man (1973, the 'Final Cut' released in the 2000s) for the summer solstice, and neither having seen it for decades, had forgotten quite a few of the details -- including the fact that the landlord in Summersisle can only be described as tremendously camp. It's great to see queerness in cinema, but we're wondering what the narrative point is.

It doesn't look like the actor was hiding his sexuality in real life -- he appears to have been well known for it, including for having had an affair with David Bowie. We're trying to figure out the story rationale for having the landlord of the pub, whose narrative purpose is largely to have at some point (apparently) sired a daughter, be so overtly presenting his sexuality differently than the other burly bearded hetero men of Summersisle.

Always great to see representation in film, but we're wondering if there's something we're missing in terms of British film language or '70s culture that makes this a strong narrative choice in a movie that pretty much nails all its other narrative choices. Is the fact that this is the landlord, as opposed to say, the harbourmaster relevant? Does it tie into his later role as the jester/Punch (which gets usurped by Howie)? Are we supposed to assume/know that Willow is not his daughter (and why would that be important to the film)? Is there a metanarrative reason having to do with British films and a heritage involving characters in certain roles?

It may be as simple as the director knew the actor and wanted to throw him some work, but it's such a noticeable element that we're trying to find a rationale there.
posted by Shepherd to Media & Arts (8 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: One thing I can point to is that only a year later, the BBC would air Penda's Fen, which combines elements of folk horror with an overt LGBTQ storyline--perhaps evidence of LGBTQ realities being normalized in a mildly comparable time, place, audience, and genre. On the other hand, this interview with the director of The Wicker Man seems ambivalent about LGBTQ issues (search for "that was fine, but they hijacked the feminist movement") in the course of a mild disavowal of feminist content (search for "we weren’t particularly conscious of feminism"), so I wouldn't predict LGBTQ representation in the film was especially progressive either. In fact, for the scene in question, I'd guess the character is supposed to be read in a non-progressive way to bring in a connotation that people on the island are all suspect.
posted by Wobbuffet at 3:54 PM on June 21, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I never noticed it, but going back and rewatching the scene I think it's just one more element to throw Howie off-balance (along with the blatantly horny old men and the long haired youth!)
posted by kingdead at 4:47 PM on June 21, 2021 [8 favorites]

I’m with kingdead - I think it’s there mostly to make Howie uncomfortable, but also to show how much “freer” the Summerislians are than their more conventionally hidebound mainland counterparts.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 7:13 PM on June 21, 2021 [5 favorites]

For the record, the actor is Lindsay Kemp and the character's name is Alder MacGregor.
posted by Nelson at 7:58 AM on June 22, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Is the fact that this is the landlord, as opposed to say, the harbourmaster relevant? Does it tie into his later role as the jester/Punch (which gets usurped by Howie)?

I think both, yes. An innkeeper is providing the place for sin/licentious behavior in a town, e.g. booze and secrets and having strangers under their roof, and therefore it's appropriate that MacGregor is Punch.

Also, in terms of storytelling stereotypes, an innkeeper is often the character providing broad comic relief. At the time, the mainstream (aka straight) interpretation of the entertainment value of camp was often just that "it's funny" and not intentional queer representation. (Or more darkly, that queerness is ridiculous and therefore hilarious, but I don't feel that the campiness of MacGregor was being held up for mockery in this film. Just the opposite, as kingdead mentioned, it's just another wild thing about Summersisle to throw Howie off-balance.)

Anyway, I don't think that MacGregor's character was necessarily supposed to be interpreted as gay. More that if you knew who Lindsay Kemp was, the camp could be seen as a bit of an in-joke/double-entendre.
posted by desuetude at 8:56 AM on June 23, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: This question motivated me to watch the movie. And what a movie! Wow. Thanks for that. Here's the main scene featuring the landlord, btw.

I don't think the innkeeper is meant to be understood as homosexual. As in, a man who has sex with men. The first thing we see after meeting him is his daughter, followed by a rousing song all about the "landlord's daughter". If he were understood to be homosexual it'd be a little odd to characterize him as the father of a child. Also there's not a single erotic or sexual moment in his acting or character. For a film entirely saturated with transgressive public sexuality the fact he is not sexual seems not an accident. Now maybe that was just prudery, depicting homosexuality would be a step too far for the film censors. Or maybe homosexuality wasn't quite in step with the fertility-centric sexuality of the story. Or, well, maybe he isn't really a sexual character at all.

(TW: homophobia.) But he's definitely portraying a menacing queer character. I'm not sure I would have picked up on it, despite years of expertly spotting even the slightest shade of homosexual content in old movies. But it's there. It's the costuming that seals it for me, specifically the scarf. The mincing voice helps too but it's not quite so clear to me, at least with an American ear for accents. I think Kemp was playing the queer, presumably in cooperation with the director. As a shorthand to make him strange and menacing and evil. That's absolutely a theme in cinema up through the 80s, the otherness. We recognize it now as homophobic.

I also think desuetude is right in that the fact the innkeeper is Punch in the story is important. The fool, the king for a day. Again, an asexual role (unlike the hobby horse which explicitly chases the young women.) There's a hint of contempt for the innkeeper in the script; the Lord of Summerisle makes a nasty crack about "getting drunk in your bar". The innkeeper is of low status in the village. I think the filmmaker and the actor were exploiting homophobic stereotypes as a shortcut to making him more of a fool character.

If I had more energy right now I'd try to point out more characters in cinema that are like this trope.. Bruno in Strangers on a Train leaps to mind. Or all the way back to Peter Lorre's villain in M. But instead all I have to offer is a suggestion to read or watch The Celluloid Closet if you haven't, it covers this territory pretty well. Doesn't talk about The Wicker Man though, most of it is about older films.
posted by Nelson at 10:49 PM on June 24, 2021 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for all the great and thoughtful replies -- lots of best answers here!
posted by Shepherd at 7:21 AM on July 4, 2021

None of this answers the question but I have a couple of useful obscure links about the film. First to The Wicker Man Wikia on Fandom. It's pretty thin for a Wiki but has a lot of collected detail in it. It has an extensive links page including a link to a scan of the Cinefastique article from the 1970s with a lot of detail about the filmmaking.

There's nothing in particular about Kemp's performance I could find on a quick scan. The Trivia page does note "Lindsay Kemp ( who played Alder McGregor ) had a habit of turning up at parties wearing woman's clothing and carrying a handbag. "
posted by Nelson at 6:54 AM on July 19, 2021

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