The Motion Picture Production Code, also known as the Hays Code after censor/stick-in-the-mud Will Hays, regulated film content for nearly 40 years, restricting, among other things, depictions of homosexuality. Filmmakers still managed to get around the Code, but gay characters were cloaked in innuendo, leading to some necessary decoding.
When it comes to camp, there are few characters that can hold a bejeweled cigarette holder, let alone a candle, to Mame Dennis Burnside. As embodied by the incomparable Rosalind Russell, sporting the greatest tuck in all of cinema history, Mame is the draggiest queen of them all. Seriously, Miss Dennis is giving you LIFE in an endless parade of outfits, each more fabulous than the last:
And every drag queen can take a note or two from her on how to throw shade:
Or how to make a proper entrance:
That the film didn’t get so much as a Best Costume Design Oscar nomination is one of the greatest travesties in Academy history. But behind the sequins, behind the one-liners, behind the candelabra, Mame advocates for an open mind as she steers her young nephew Patrick away from the provincial upbringing he was doomed to experience before she came into his life.
The film was based on the 1955 novel, Auntie Mame: An Irreverent Escapade by Patrick Dennis (née Edward Everett Tanner III), who was inspired by his own aunt, Marion Tanner. The literary Mame is a far bawdier and brassier broad than her celluloid incarnation. Dennis, himself a bisexual, imbued Mame with a gay sensibility that somehow connected with stuffy, conservative, McCarthy-era, post-war Americans. She invites transvestites to her parties, associates with many famed homosexual artists and writers while making veiled lesbian allusions to her relationship with gal Friday, Agnes Gooch.
For all her broad thinking, however, Mame can be quite homophobic — throwing around “faggot” every now and again while expressing relief that Patrick isn’t “that way.” As Everyday Heterosexism points out, censoring the book’s gay content ironically made the movie more gay-friendly.
The movie, however, was drawn more closely from the subsequent play by noted queen Jerome Lawrence and his hetero writing partner Robert E. Lee. Roz Russell originated the role on Broadway in 1956, earning a Tony nomination in the process, so it was a no-brainer to bring her on for the film. She would go on to win a Golden Globe and earn her fourth and final Oscar nomination for the role — in all fairness, she lost to Susan Hayward camping it up in another queer classic, I Want to Live! Any title featuring an exclamation point already has an unfair advantage.
From the opening shots of Auntie Mame the viewer can be sure they’re in for an over-the-top spectacle.
Cigarette holder. Check. Opera gloves. Check. A wristful of bracelets. Double check. Young Patrick and his maid, Nora, arrive in the middle of the day where a rager of a party is still in full swing. Present are a few characters one often didn’t see on the big screen in 1958: LESBIANS!!!
They’re casually tucked away in plain sight, and in defiance of the Hays Code, but they’re an example that Mame’s world is far from black and white, and neither are her friends. Meanwhile, BFF Vera Charles (Coral Browne) set the (open) bar for all future boozy besties, from Patsy Stone in Absolutely Fabulous to Karen Walker in Will & Grace.
Later, we’re treated to another gay stereotype in the form of a fierce shop queen who tries to read Mame to filth for her inability to ring up customers for anything besides C.O.D.:
Mame’s liberal attitude conflicts directly with conservative Dwight Babcock, the banker entrusted to reign-in her freewheeling ways. In the film’s most lurid (for 1958) scene, Babcock drags Patrick home after finding him in a school that advocates free love and no clothes:
That little stunt lands Patrick in a boarding school where Mame is less able to exert her considerable influence on him. As a result, he comes dangerously close to marrying an uptight debutante from the kind of snobby, prejudiced family she tried to keep him away from. But Mame will have none of that:
Yes, she may be madcap and eccentric and probably a drag queen, but Auntie Mame is also fiercely intelligent and independent. Her strength and staunch individualism is what has resounded for so many generations of queer audiences. That and her message to live, live, LIVE!
Oh, the Susan Hayward of it all!
Lawrence and Lee would go on to adapt Auntie Mame into the musical Mame, starring gay super-icons Angela Lansbury and Bea Fucking Arthur, which was then adapted into the awful movie musical of the same name, starring Lucille Ball. But even Bea couldn’t save that turkey. Fast forward to the present, and Auntie Mame continues to live a long and impossibly queer life, with none other than angelic androgyne Tilda Swinton stepping into the character’s legendary shoes in a planned upcoming remake.
Methinks Roz would approve.