Sal Mineo: Martyr No More
Although nearly 65 years old, Nicholas Ray's 1955 classic Rebel Without a Cause has provided, for better or for worse, what many Americans still consider to be the central Jungian archetype of the Typical American Teenager. Jim Stark, as played by James Dean, is depicted as an adolescent Christ – the Ur-example of young Boomer angst – bearing on his shoulders the pains and frustrations of all white American high school boys, replete with all the lusts, loves, rages, and dumb mistakes his demographic is meant to commonly commit and experience. That Dean himself often appeared very Jim Stark-like in interviews – flip yet guarded, intelligent yet shy – only helped to cement Rebel's eventual reputation as the one true exemplar of white male teenage life in the American 1950s. Between Rebel Without a Cause and The Wild One, a new generation of American teens was given a voice. Their hand-wringing parents, meanwhile, were treated to the secret, vicarious thrill of witnessing what sins the children were getting up to when they weren't looking).
Rebel's widespread cultural influence, however, has claimed an unlikely victim: Sal Mineo. In Rebel, Mineo plays John “Plato” Crawford, a diminutive, adoring sidekick to Jim who, we intuit very early on, is also very much in love with him. Plato is often victimized and abused, and the protection of Jim provides Plato with not only comfort, but the promise of a new father figure and, as modern audiences can clearly see, a potential lover. Plato was a very cagey character. During Rebel's famous climax, Jim, Plato, and Jim's girlfriend Judy (Natalie Wood) hole up inside Griffith Observatory, hiding out from external interlopers. In the safety of the shadows, Plato begins suggesting a new domestic setup for the three of them: Jim and Judy are now America's new mom and dad, with Plato as, yes, their son, but more so their proud third wheel. It doesn't take much imagination to see that Plato is suggesting a sex-fluid polyamorous domestic scenario. Suggesting such a non-traditional sexual scenario wasn't necessarily out-of-the-realm in 1955; Alfred Kinsey had published his famous volumes Sexual Behavior in the Human Male and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female in 1948 and 1953 respectively, so the topic had been ostensibly broached.
But Plato does not get his wish; he dies at the hands of the aforementioned interlopers. Plato, so commonly read as gay, was immediately – and many would say unfortunately – codified as the archetypal image of closeted gay angst. Mineo, in giving such a sympathetic and nuanced performance, was swept up in that image: But Mineo and Plato became something that it would take cinema decades to shake loose: a gay martyr. It doesn't take too close a look at cinema's history to reveal example after example of gay and bisexual characters who are undone by their secret love, and who are just as often sacrificed (I could provide a lengthy list of examples, but I would instead point readers to the still-relevant 1995 documentary The Celluloid Closet, which traces the history of gay stereotypes far better than I ever could).
The overall lesson was clear to queer audiences: homosexuality and bisexuality are just too corrupt for this world, cinema would often tell us, and the gay and bi characters are guilty, guilty, guilty. Sal Mineo was not the first to play such a part, but he did – through Rebel's success and cultural foothold – become what might be cinema's prime queer martyr, as it were. That Mineo was himself a closeted bisexual who wouldn't openly talk about his sexuality until the 1970s didn't help this frustratingly persistent image. That Mineo was tragically murdered in 1976 at the age of 37 cemented the parallels even further. Because of the strength of Mineo's performance as Plato, and because of the tragedy of his death, the line between character and actor has become speciously blurred by the ensuing decades.
Mineo, in stark contrast to Plato, was not the antsy, tragic martyr as depicted in Rebel. In fact, in a 1972 interview with Bose Hadleigh (published in Hadleigh's book Conversations with My Elders), Mineo speaks openly and frankly about his career, his sexuality, and the way the press tends to “otherize” bisexual men too much. In that interview (which can be read online here), Mineo comes across as approachable, unguarded, and completely comfortable. He's even refreshingly crass and definitely funny. He was very far from the twitchy, sad figure of typical gay angst he had come to be yoked with.
Mineo is one of those many bisexual male celebrities who is often “rounded up” to gay. Although he had relationships with men and women – and he openly described himself as bisexual – popular perception was that he only was interested in men. This is, of course, a frustration shared by many bisexual people: they're seen as being only as gay or as straight as the person their dating or sleeping with that day. When he was engaged to Jill Haworth, rumors were flying that she was only his beard to cover for the fact that he was having an affair with Bobby Sherman. I don't know what sort of relationship arrangement Mineo had with Haworth (if he was out to her or if their relationship was an open one), but they did continue to date on and off for years and remained close up until his death. There is even a story of how Mineo once punched Aaron Spelling in the face for dating the much younger Haworth.
Many have said that Mineo's known sexuality was responsible for his inability to find work after the 1950s. He auditioned for many high-profile feature films but was often turned down. Mineo, in the Hadleigh interview, blamed not his sexuality, but his Italian teen idol good looks for his career decline. Mineo had a vulnerable, boyish face, even into his 30s. He looked kissable and innocent. Mineo felt that he was not pilloried because of his bisexuality, but because directors didn't want to hire actors with teen idol good looks to play adult characters. Additionally, Mineo felt that his dark hair and dark eyes – hallmarks of his Italian heritage – were increasingly out of fashion in the 1960s. Leading men were becoming taller, square-jawed, handsome, blonde exemplars of overbearing masculinity (think Charlton Heston), an image that Mineo didn't exactly fit. “I had this baby face that made me look like a wheat-flour dumpling or something,” he said. In the Hadleigh interview, Mineo refers to himself as a “wop” more than once. In Mineo's mind, it wasn't “tragic” sexuality that undid his career but prejudice against Italians, and the all-too-common phenomenon of a teen actor being unable to make the leap into adult roles. Although he's excellent as a stalker in Who Killed Teddy Bear?, many critics didn't buy him in the part. Imagine if someone like, say, Zac Efron were to play Ted Bundy. Oh, wait...
Indeed, Mineo saw his bisexuality as something that is dismissably common. Given the swirl of rumors surrounding so many Hollywood icons, Mineo felt that being a bi male was more of an advantage than a detriment. By the 1970s, glam rock was bringing images of ambiguous sexuality into the pop consciousness, queer characters were appearing in films with increasing regularity, and films like William Friedkin's The Boys in the Band (1970) were addressing directly the tragic queer archetypes perpetuated by Plato 15 years previous; “It's not the way it is in plays,” the character of Michael intones, openly stating that not all gay people “bump themselves off at the end of the story.”
By the 1970s, in many ways, being a bi man was downright hip. “Everyone’s supposed to be bi,” Mineo said in the Hadleigh interview “starting way back with Gary Cooper and on through Brando and Clift and Dean and Newman and... you want me to stop?” Rumors of certain male actors' bisexuality were rampant and were certainly not hurting the careers of all of them. Mineo was not tortured in the least. If anything, it was his frankness and his unwillingness to give a fuck that might have gotten him in trouble; punching Aaron Spelling in the face is not the best way to get work.
Yes, Mineo's career decline was frustrating, and his death was most certainly tragic; Mineo was stabbed in the heart by a pizza deliveryman during a random robbery. His assailant didn't even know who he was. But Mineo, so often held to be a gay martyr, was anything but. He was an attractive and talented performer with two Oscar nominations to his name and a healthy attitude about the realities of finding work in Hollywood. The true tragedy is that Mineo never had the comeback he so richly deserved; the filmmakers of New Hollywood would have most certainly come knocking sooner or later. But Mineo's status as a bisexual martyr can perhaps – cautiously – be abandoned. Plato was a tragic figure—a symbol of a Hollywood unable to accept a gay or a bisexual character. Mineo spent the rest of his life fighting against that. As a service to his memory, perhaps we can begin to think of him as the enervated, frank, out-and-proud bi man that he was.
Witney Seibold is a film critic and film projectionist living in Los Angeles. He has been published in the pages of CraveOnline (now Mandatory), Movies.com, Nerdist, IGN, The Robot's Voice, and numerous other outlets. He is currently the co-host of the podcasts Critically Acclaimed (http://www.criticallyacclaimed.net/), The Two-Shot, and Canceled Too Soon, a podcast devoted to short-lived TV shows (https://www.patreon.com/canceledtoosoon). He has appeared on KCRW and KFWB to talk about film. He runs the projector at the New Beverly Cinema in L.A.
Rotten Tomatoes: https://www.rottentomatoes.com/critic/witney-seibold/movies