Homoeroticism in Sergio Leone’s films

The one thing that always bothered me about the Sergio Leone mob epic Once Upon a Time in America was its twisted depiction of women. In Leone’s world, the classic Madonna/whore complex that is typical of many Italian narratives seems to be going full throttle, its women characters neatly divided into two categories: total sluts and angelic virgins. The most difficult scene in the film is obviously Noodles’ rape of Deborah (his second on-screen sexual assault in the film), a moment that came to mind at a recent conference where someone gave a paper on how rape in film always serves to distinguish crooks with a moral center from those who are true villains. Not so in Leone’s world, apparently… 

In Once Upon a Time in America, it’s fairly obvious that the character of Max (played as an adult by James Woods) is gay: when the boys take turns with the neighborhood slut Peggy on the tenement rooftop, he can’t get it up, and when Noodles has his first kiss with Deborah, Max is the peeping tom who interrupts the moment, calling upon Noodles’ innate loyalty to get him back by his side. Throughout the film, Max is repeatedly shown in close-up leering lasciviously at his friend, and frequently making off-color comments about his sexuality (“You didn’t turn pansy on me, did ya?”). Max’s sexual attraction to Noodles is most obvious in the scene where Noodles rapes Tuesday Weld’s character, assaulting her from behind as Max watches them. Their relationship and its complex twists and turns of animosity and betrayal clearly serve as the basic engine for the plot, while their various heterosexual affairs are all defined in terms of violence and/or objectification of women.

This made me think about Leone’s famous spaghetti Westerns, from his “Man With No Name” trilogy through to Once Upon a Time in the West. Over and over again, we see strong, very macho men in these films who are somehow always more interested in each other than they seem to be in the gloriously beautiful women with whom they share the stage: A Fistful of Dollars revolves around the phallic rivalry between Clint Eastwood and Gian Maria Volonté (the latter has the bigger gun, but Eastwood’s quicker on the draw!); For a Few Dollars More can be read as the tender courtship between Eastwood and Lee van Cleef; in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, Eastwood himself becomes the object of sexual attraction that causes rivalry between Van Cleef and Eli Wallach; and in Once Upon a Time in the West, even the lustrous presence of Claudia Cardinale has no noticeable affect on the strangely ascetic Charles Bronson. Jason Robards’ Cheyenne character, who comes closest to at least noticing Cardinale’s curvaceous shape, ultimately still prefers to hang out with Bronson rather than linger for a roll in the hay with Jill McBain.

I haven’t read any books or articles on the sexual politics of the spaghetti Western, much less an in-depth biography of Leone personally, so I don’t really know if this remarkable fascination with homosocial/homosexual relationships is grounded in Italian culture, derives from the director’s weird perspective on gender, or both. In any event, there are some interesting things going on in these films that seem to warrant further investigation. Who knows? If someone smarter than me puts his mind to it, we might end up with a brilliant analysis of how Leone’s oeuvre features cowboys that are gayer than the tenderhearted couple from Brokeback Mountain

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9 Responses to Homoeroticism in Sergio Leone’s films

  1. Gus says:

    “much less an in-depth biography of Leone personally”: Christopher Frayling, Sergio Leone: Something to Do with Death

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  3. Kent says:

    You really are one deprived faggot aren’t you. The lives of drifters (by the definition of it) or bounty hunters signify a life more void of sexuality. With that the cowboy and gay thing ends. But seeing you are so fond of looking at things that just are seemingly oblivious to your homo eroticism craving mind, try watching dipshit movies and lay off of S.W.

  4. Darger says:

    Kent: You really haven’t been watching these films very closely. Even I, as a straight man could detect the massive homo-eroticism in all Leone’s films. C’mon who else would’ve cast all those ugly, ginger kids?

    • JulianElse says:

      Very true. Max is in love with noodles. Everytime they have a fight, Max forgive everything in two seconds, loses his shit afraid to lose his “friend”, and runs after Noodles and ask for a swim. Not, let’s say, share a pizza, but share a swim. And he has to fuck all the girls Noodles like. Not to mention he’s jealous as fuck and dumps his girlfriend to prove Noodles their thing is the only important matter. It’s platonic of course, but c’mon, It’s obvious. What I don’t know is to what point Sergio Leone was conscient of that.

  5. Lee van Cleef? No, I think you mean Eli Wallach. Blondie and Tuco’s relationship is one of the great movie bromances, in my opinion.

    • Rethink UvA says:

      I’m not arguing with you there! But I was referring to the relationship between Eastwood and Van Cleef in For a Few Dollars More.

      • My mistake. But the angry, violent, vengeful bromance between Eastwood’s bounty hunter and Wallach’s bandido does make up about 2/3 of ‘IBiBiC’. There’s even a scene of Blondie playing idly with the end of a bedpost in front of his naked frenemy.

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