Why has Hollywood put Ben-Hur back in the closet?

Gore Vidal always hinted at a sexual element between the Jewish prince and his Roman betrayer, but the remake seems uninterested in exploring gay subtext

The acerbic writer Gore Vidal once said that there was, in his opinion, no such thing as a homosexual or a heterosexual person.

There are only homo or heterosexual acts. Most people are a mixture of impulses if not practices, he said.

And yet Vidal, himself bisexual, was also something of a champion of diversity. For the release of the 1995 documentary The Celluloid Closet, which revealed the gay subtexts in a number of famous Hollywood movies, the celebrated playwright, essayist and author of controversial 1948 novel The City and the Pillar revealed he rewrote scenes in the early part of the 1959 biblical epic Ben-Hur to hint heavily at a prior sexual relationship between Charlton Hestons title character and his childhood friend (and later betrayer) Messala (Stephen Boyd).

The revelation caused a storm in the letters pages of the Los Angeles Times in 1996, with Heston accusing Vidal of exaggerating his part in writing the screenplay and denigrating the good name of the films director, William Wyler. In his reply to the Times, Vidal revealed there was good reason for the films star to have been unaware of the Ben-Hur/Messala relationships gay subtext, as no one had dared tell him about it before the shoot. But he confirmed that he had discussed the matter with Boyd, who duly followed the screenwriters lead for the key scene in which the boyhood chums meet again after many years apart. The initially reluctant Wyler, Vidal claimed, had also come around to his way of thinking at the last gasp. Heston made no further reply.

These old wounds are opening once again thanks to comments made this week at the Los Angeles premiere of the films current remake, which stars Britains Jack Huston and Toby Kebbell as the former boyhood buddies who find themselves on opposite sides of the racial and religious divide in Roman-occupied Jerusalem. Asked if the new version would address Vidals reading of the relationship between Ben-Hur and Messala, Kebbell told the UK Press Association: It wasnt something we avoided but it wasnt something we had, then added: In 1959, the gay context was very important. They need a voice. You shouldnt have to hide in the dark about something you feel and youre grown with. That was their own thing they wanted to portray and we didnt need to. Its a different time, thankfully.

At the same premiere, producer Roma Downey seemed to be siding with Hestons interpretation of the facts. I dont even know if that was true in that film, she told PA. Here we have two brothers. They love each other. Theyre raised in the same household and its so tragic to see their family just ripped apart.

So here we have one key cast member suggesting there is no need for a gay reading because the battle for equality has been won in 2016. And a producer (one, by the way, who is best known for her part in the creation of the CBS faith drama Touched By an Angel) sweeping the entire subtext under the carpet. Might this be something to do with the fact that studio Paramount has rather built up the part of Jesus, a minor player in the original, with the aim of pulling in Bible belt audiences to see the remake?

If so, this feels like a missed opportunity. At a time when Glaad has repeatedly called on Hollywood to improve the visibility of positive gay characters in major movies especially given the prominence of LGBT leads on the small screen in hit TV shows such as Orange is the New Black it would surely have made more sense to explore Vidals reading. And not just for the sake of diversity.

Vidals main reason for rewriting those early scenes in the 1959 version was to create a realistic and meaningful explanation for Messalas betrayal of his adoptive brother. And hes right, isnt he? Only a jilted lover would behave as the Roman tribune does, ripping Ben-Hur from his gilded existence as a wealthy Jewish prince and throwing him into a life of poverty as a galley slave, not to mention sending his best friends mother and sister to prison, where they contract leprosy. The usual explanation for Messalas cruelty, that he is responding to the near-death of a Roman dignitary hit by falling tiles from Ben-Hurs ill-kept roof, simply doesnt cut it.

As Vidal explained in his letter to the Times:

Over the years, I have told the story of how, faced with a hopeless script for Ben-Hur, I persuaded the producer, Sam Zimbalist (this was an MGM film and the writer worked not with the director but the producer; later the director, in this case William Wyler, weighed in) that the only way one could justify several hours of hatred between two lads and all those horses was to establish, without saying so in words, an affair between them as boys; then, when reunited at pictures start, the Roman, played by Stephen Boyd, wants to pick up where they left off and the Jew, Heston, spurns him. This is the scene that was shot and this is the scene that viewers of The Celluloid Closet watched, with my commentary. Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan wrote that seeing an appropriate clip makes a strong case for the truth of Vidals assertion that Boyd was in on the scheme while Heston was not.

But Vidals version of events clearly doesnt fit the marketing plan, isnt part of the faith-based narrative and has therefore been excised almost completely from the new version. Were told Messala has a genuine reason to be upset with Ben-Hur in the Timur Bekmambetov-directed remake, which loses those famous falling tiles in favour of a naughty zealot hiding out at the Jewish noblemans house who shoots the visiting dignitaries when his benefactors not looking.

What a pity that in clearing up a historical anomaly, the remake has missed its target in other rather more vital ways. Heston would no doubt have been pleased. Vidal, one suspects, less so.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/aug/17/ben-hur-remake-gore-vidal-charles-heston-gay

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