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'Beautiful Thing' Was the Film That Made Being Gay OK

How the movie helped me come out after my time as a student in Newcastle, which I spent trying and failing to get my closeted rugby-playing sex partner to commit.

by Chris Mandle
19 November 2014, 6:05pm

Still from 'Beautiful Thing'

​When it came out – literally – in 2011, Andrew Haigh's Weekend was hailed as a brilliant indie masterpiece. The drama looked at two gay men who met on a Friday night and spent the subsequent weekend shagging, snorting and slurring their speech. 

But beyond the casual recklessness, the film's introspective lens looked at two men who felt like non-conformists in their own culture, men who tried not be defined by their sexuality but found that roping off parts of their identity came with its own problems.

I often wonder what it would be like for today's young, closeted gay men to grow up with films like Weekend. Films that make living as a gay man look like less of a coming-of-age tale or a shimmering plot point and more like what it actually is: typical and a little underwhelming. Weekend's steady realism dulls the streets and suburbs of Nottingham, and the way it removes the sheen from a subculture that's used to being doused in glitter feels like a surprisingly colourful move.

Still from Andrew Haigh's 'Weekend'

When I was growing up, I'd have welcomed a film like Weekend, but looking back, I don't know if it would have actually helped me come to terms with my sexuality. It's so laid-back, so conversational; there's not even really much sex in it. Sure, it's great if you want to see rich, complex gay characters on screen who don't fit the mould. And don't get me started on the dreamy eyes and non-ironic flat cap of leading man Tom Cullen. But I think there's something pretty potent about a figurative slap in the face, and for me, Beautiful Thing was the film that did just that.

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In 2008, I was in my first year of university, and starting to realise that – rather than spending the next three years sanding down my rough edges – I might leave Newcastle a different person altogether. And given that I don't spend my weekends going to gay saunas robbing people while stuffing chloroform-soaked rags down their throats, I'd say that "emerging from university like a pretty well-adjusted guy" went quite well.

I didn't really throw myself into Newcastle's saturated gay scene because, to the closeted, small-town mentality, it was a crime scene I could do without scattering my fingerprints across. Instead, I drank as much as I could tolerate in an attempt to scale the walls I'd built around myself, visited the same straight clubs as my straight mates and tried to fan the flames of a mentality that said: if Tiger Tiger can hold 2,500 people, a few of them must surely want to go home with me.

Shortly into this defiant approach, I was in a very physical, very clandestine situation with a broad, rugby playing type who was only affectionate so long as the sun had set and the curtains were drawn. Come daylight, a hand on a hand caused a reaction in him like an electric shock, and he'd bolt away like Roadrunner on gak. No spooning, no snuggling, no post-coital reflection. 

I told myself it would take time for him to get out of that just-spunked stupor that had him ceasing all forms of contact with me for days on end while he pursued barked up the wrong trees, swaddled in self denial. But depending on when you asked him, he wasn't gay. Or didn't feel like being gay. Sometimes, he "shouldn't". Other times, he "couldn't".

But he kept coming back. So with a zippy bedmate whose idea of a good night out involved a fistfight, a few hours in a casino and then a blowjob during Family Guy reruns, I felt crushed under the weight of my own thoughts.

One night, we watched Brokeback Mountain; a film that gained huge critical acclaim for its nuanced portrayal of a doomed gay romance. The thought of seeing it at the cinema gave me stomach cramps at the time, because the very film communicated something to people that I had no control over. But here we were one night, both tired, a little burnt out, at a point where we could stand each other after sex but not at the point where we wanted to talk about our feelings. We were keen to try and glean something, anything, from a film, when we felt like real life was failing us both.

It turns out that watching a film where two men try to be open about their relationship, but one gets bludgeoned to death off screen and the other is resigned to live a joyless, solitary life, clutching onto the fragments of his truest love is not the kind of thing you watch when you're not out yet.

It paralysed me with fear. This film was supposed to be empowering, and clever, but it just made me sad. In the following days I felt my gay thoughts, and my renewed sense of self, sinking like a dinosaur in a pit of tar.

Next time, we watched something else. And that's where Beautiful Thing came in. Originally a stage production, it was made into a film in 1996 (and remade back into a play in 2013). Beautiful Thing is a coming-of-age tale set on a council estate, as Jamie and Ste, two outcast teens, grow close and develop romantic feelings for each other.

I guess the weird thing about Beautiful Thing is how much it moved me in 2008 versus how awful I find it in 2014. The first time I watched it, it was stirring, resonant and powerful. Two lads, who grow up in a society that isn't designed to be open minded, find themselves accepted by the people surrounding them. Considering the physicality involved in my guy's heavy heel-digging, I couldn't help but find this a breath of fresh air.

That doesn't mean the film holds up to heavy scrutiny. Watching it back, Beautiful Thing is a rosy fantasy, cloyingly sentimental. Ste and Jamie aren't really well understood in the film, tentatively accepting their shifting sexuality then going to a pub full of middle-aged drag queens in lieu of hanging out with people their own age.

But there was something poignant in Jamie nicking a copy of Gay Times from a newsagent and reading it under the covers  – given that we were wearing headphones while watching the film, lest anyone in my flat hear a gay film being played (don't ask), the significance wasn't lost on us. 

There's some powerful moments, though, generally anything involving Jamie's mum Sandra, played by Phil Mitchell's missus and all-round tough cookie Linda Henry. Her hawk-like glare, the way she shuffles about the estate in her slippers, even the way she lights up a fag is rough around the edges, and her reaction when Jamie comes out to her is actually pretty moving.

The fact is, though, Beautiful Thing is a pretty unremarkable thing. At its core, it's a film that can be summed up as "two lads come out as gay and nobody really cares" and, as reductive and underwhelming as that sounds, there was a point in my life where that was all I needed to hear. That everything would be fine.

From this year's big gay film release Pride to Andrew Haigh's HBO show Looking (like Weekend but transported to sun-kissed San Francisco), there's a wave of clever film telly that's showing gay men everywhere we don't have to buckle to objectionable preconceptions and lazy stereotypes.

And while it's incredible to see LGBT tropes being taken apart like poorly constructed furniture, it's also important, for me at least, to remember the film that helped me put everything together in the first place. A film like Beautiful Thing, which promised nothing, delivered little, but still hung on one simple, basic principle. You can be gay, and you can be happy, and you can stop fighting.

​@chris_mandle

More from this column:

​'The Human Centipede 2' Is the Film That Made Me Love Life

​'Pulp Fiction' Was the Film That Made Me Realise I'm Not Cool

​'Vanishing Point' Was the Film That Made Me Wanna Go Out in a Blaze of Glory