The internet is filled with speculation about whether du Pont was gay. So let’s just start with the assumption that he was. Well, okay, maybe not gay like a post-Stonewall “out” gay person who identifies as part of a gay community. And probably not even gay like a self-loathing-but-hiring-hustlers closet-case gay like Roy Cohn. But let’s concede that, whatever the rumors (and the settled-out-of-court sexual harassment case and the quickly-annulled marriage to a woman), Du Pont’s strongest attachments seemed to be to men, specifically the athletic men with whom he surrounded himself.
So how does Foxcatcher depict du Pont’s non-normative erotic life? Miller’s film portrays du Pont not so much as a homosexual but as a machosexual: someone who valorizes masculine power in himself, in his companions, and in his nation. Du Pont’s power is financial rather than physical, so he buys large athletes and large guns in order to increase his own sense of masculinity. Does he “desire” these men? Well, he certainly objectifies them, and he wants to be able to control them, even dominate them. I’m not sure if that’s desire, but in Miller’s film, it’s deeply creepy and emblematic of all that’s wrong in America.
Foxcatcher primarily follows the relationship, beginning in 1987, between du Pont (Carell) and Mark Schultz, an Olympic wrestler played by Channing Tatum, complete with cauliflower ear and protruding lower jaw. Mark won an Olympic medal in 1984, and he still trains with his older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo), but he’s living an impoverished existence, both economically and spiritually. When watching Carell’s rich older man “seduce” Tatum’s virile younger man with money, drugs, and helicopter rides, I couldn’t help but think of Mordaunt Shairp’s play The Green Bay Tree, performed on Broadway in 1933.
In this British melodrama, a wealthy sophisticate named Dulcimer corrupts young Julian with a life of idle luxury, even getting in the way of Julian’s engagement, until Julian’s working-class father shoots the old pansy dead. The play never directly addresses homosexuality, but, as the director of the American production Jed Harris noted, “The suspicion had to be there. That’s the only way you can explain what was going on” (Alan Sinfield, Out on Stage, 118). So The Green Bay Tree relies on coded signifiers for homosexuality, such as Dulcimer’s meticulous sense of style and penchant for witty epigrams in the manner of Oscar Wilde. Miller uses a similar technique of connotation: when the audience sees that Tatum’s character, after spending time with du Pont, has dyed blond tips and mousse in his hair, we know that something has gone terribly wrong.
The film critiques du Pont’s attempts to purchase masculinity, and it’s a moment of high camp when du Pont throws a hissy fit because the army tank he ordered didn’t come with the machine gun he requested. But the film itself displays a deep fear of emasculation, at times functioning as a horror film, with du Pont as the monster who threatens the hero’s masculine virtue. In one particularly creepy sequence, du Pont wrestles Mark late at night, alone in the gym in the dark. Since the film can’t imagine or depict actual homosexuality, it shows du Pont on top of Mark, with Mark’s face mashed into the ground, subjugated and emasculated not by du Pont’s superior athleticism, but by du Pont’s financial power. If Mark wants to get paid, he will submit. While some audience members might read this scene as “gay,” the filmmakers can imagine male same-sex relations only as emasculation, part and parcel of the decadence brought about by excessive luxury, wealth, and power.
Meyer Levin asserted this same connection in Compulsion, his dramatization of the Leopold and Loeb murder case on stage (1957) and screen (1959). Leopold’s homosexuality is simply a failure of masculinity caused by too much money—and too much intellectualism. In Meyer’s view, if the boy played more baseball and read fewer books, he wouldn’t have become a homicidal homosexual. Note also that du Pont, like Leopold, is an ornithologist. Du Pont’s collection of stuffed birds might remind the viewer of yet another queer killer: Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). Like Bates, du Pont has a mother who disapproves of her son’s erotic life. In Miller’s film, Vanessa Redgrave manages to give some depth and resonance to this role, despite the ready-made Freudian cliché of the overbearing mother.
Foxcatcher contrasts the emotionally stunted and sexually frustrated du Pont, as well as the morose and victimized Mark, with the most vibrant character in the film, Mark Ruffalo’s Dave Schultz. Dave is the burly and bearded older brother, a family man who adores his wife and two little children. He’s a man of principle who can’t be bought by du Pont’s money. Although he agrees to work as a coach at Foxcatcher, his conscience won’t allow him to call du Pont a “mentor” or a “hero,” because he knows it’s not true. Indeed, his unwillingness to submit to du Pont may be what makes him du Pont’s murder victim. The film does little to set up the shooting in terms of a direct cause and effect, and the audience might understand the violence simply in terms of du Pont’s increasing megalomania. The film does nothing to suggest that the murder is directly tied to du Pont’s sexual desires—and the real criminal case established that there was no “gay angle” to this murder. The audience of the film, however, will understand that Dave Schultz, the good brother and father, the normative family man, has been shot and killed by the queer psychotic.
One might argue that the film is simply being true to the facts of the case. If Miller’s du Pont falls into homophobic cliché, it’s because du Pont himself lived those clichés. Perhaps. But when depicting a homicidal homosexual, the key difference between a homophobic film and a non-homophobic film is the degree of subjectivity given to the queer character and the degree of empathy asked of the audience for that queer character. If du Pont is an egomaniacal sexually-frustrated closet case, what exactly is his experience, and how might we understand it in a way that doesn’t simply pathologize homosexuality? Even if du Pont is a monster, what are the forces (psychological, social, ideological) that construct his monstrosity, and how do all of us potentially participate in those forces? The film fails to go deeper into the character’s inner life, and it fails to look outside to the broader social landscape in which the character exists. Therefore the film remains frustratingly opaque, never challenging the homophobic understanding of queerness as emasculating and deadly.