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Submitted by Nicky Smith

Gay times at the ballet
From: Brief Encounters : Lesbians and Gays in British Cinema 1930-1971
By: Stephen Bourne

In Powell and Pressburger's dazzling The Red Shoes, Victoria Page (Moira Shearer), a young ballerina, dances to international stardom with a celebrated European ballet company. But her successful career is complicated by her love for - and marriage to - Julian Craster (Marius Goring), a struggling composer, and her divided allegiance to Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook), a martinet impresario. He tells her 'The dancer who relies on the comforts of human love will never be a great dancer. Never !' However, though The Red Shoes has been celebrated for nearly half a century as one of the screen's great heterosexual love stories, the central relationship in the film is essentially a gay one. yet it doesn't exist on the screen. Why the paradox?

It is a well-known fact that Walbrook plays a renowned ballet impresario who was based on Diaghilev. His extraordinary gay relationship with the ill-fated Nijinsky evolves into two chaste, heterosexual professional associations in TRS. One is with Craster, the young composer. His first appearance is very queeny with heavy make-up under his blond locks, but this was probably an attempt to make Goring look younger (he was thirty-six at the time). the other - and more central to the story- is with the beautiful, red-haired dancer Victoria. however even a superficial reading of the film reveals that no such 'love' exists between Victoria and Lermontov, nor was it meant to. Victoria is a slave to the dance; Lermontov has no personal feelings for her whatsoever. She wishes to be a star of the ballet; he has the means to make herone of the greatest. The bargain is struck. Her fate is sealed. She dances - and dies.He will carry on, searching for another Victoria and another.

The evidence is there. Just look again at their first meeting. Disturbing (not romantic) music plays on the soundtrack, and this cleverly works against and disrupts, the 'heterosexual romance'. He looks radiant, but not because of her. It is the dance he loves, not the woman. 'I know nothing of her charms, and I care less' he says. Also, Lermontov's appearance says it all. He wears a 'dress'. He's decadent (he eats grapes). In short, he's a magnificent queen, with flowers in his room, and a love of opera. He knows exactly what he wants. Boronskaja (Lumilla Tcherina) says 'he has no heart', but she is wrong, he has a heart of fire. He is cool in the middle of chaos, always in control, never rude, never abuses his power. He's the gay man as perfect leader. He doesn't have children, so he has to create. When he says 'it's about time I sat down with my family', he is referring to the dance company, his constructed family.

Walbrook's performance is magnificent. He is not Clark Gable, Burt Lancaster or Chalrton Heston, not is he meant to be. Neither is he overtly camp, or effeminate. His performance is subtle, and the actor seems totally at ease with his role. Perhaps Walbrook was comfortable with Lermontov because he was not playing a heterosexual, or love scenes with Moira Shearer. Said Michael Powell: 'Anton conceals his humility and his warm heart behind perfect manners that shield himlike a suit of armour...He goes underneath every line of dialogue, every emotion. [ALIM p635-6]. Lermontov's dealings with Julian Craster (who loves - and is loved by - Victoria), are curt and business-like. This inhibits the dramatic richness of the film more than somewhat, and it is regrettable that censorship prevented Walbrook and Goring having the love affair that would have created exciting tensions. Goring's part is essentially bland and underdeveloped. When they appear together, Walbrooks' repressed feelings and tunnel vision are very much in evidence. The depth and colouring this actor gave his role as the 'eternal beloved' friend of Candy in [ Blimp] are missing from his role as Lermontov. Lermontov becomes nasty towards Craster only when he realizes he is going to take Victoria, and all those wonderful ballet roles she is going to play, away from him. Says Craster: 'You're jealous of her'. Replies Lermontov: 'Yes, but not in the way you're thinking'.

Apart from Walbrook and Lermontov, The Red Shoes is also important for the way it portrays other gay characters. Gay ballet dancer and actor Robert Helpmann is cast as Ivan Boleslawsky, Lermontov's principal male dancer. He has a moderately important role in the backstage story. Wearing what we now recognize as gay apparel (for example, the safari jacket he chooses [in a fashion crime almost equalling Walbrook's dressing gown !] for the dinner party scene must have de rigueur casual wear for certain gay men in the 1940s and beyond), Helpmann acts in a restrained, but still markedly gay manner. It is a pity that the core of the film's drama couldn't have been similarly authentic. Throughout the film, Ivan and the other gay men are seen as equals and professionals. For a change, they are not caricatured. They integrate, work together and, in this respect The Red Shoes is a progressive film.

In one of the most famous screen debuts, Moira Shearer almost obliterates her male co-stars with he bewitching charm and intensity. The Red Shoes is much loved for Moira's performance, and highly regarded for its astonishingly rich decor, and Hans Christian Andersen ballet. The film remains one of the most loved in British cinima, fitting in perfectly with the sado-masochistic underpinnings of other popular camp melodramas of the era like Madonna of the Seven Moons and The Seventh Veil (and Asquith's earlier Pygmalion). That the relationship between master and slave betrays none of the erotic charge of those films, is something which most audiences and many critics have chosen to ignore. That The Red Shoes is only a beautiful shadow of what it could have been is a source of regret. On the evidence of [Blimp], Powell and Pressburger could have handled the subject with much greater insight.

In Britain The Red Shoes was nominated for a British Academy Award as Best British Film (it lost to Carol Reed's The Fallen Idol). In America it received an Oscar nomination for Best Film, rare for a British film, but lost to another home-grown success, Laurence Olivier's Hamlet. It received Oscars for its art direction/set decorationand music score as well as nominations for Pressburger's screenplay, and editing. In his 1993 book, Alternate Oscars, Danny Peary named Walbrook his Best Actor of 1948. He noted Walbrook's elegance, charm and wry wit, and said he gave a 'sad, disturbing portrait of a complex, frustrated man who is so dedicated to its art - he calls ballet his religion - that he suppresses his human qualites'.

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