“I don’t know what I’m going to do. But it will be my decision.”
-Robert Stack, Bullfighter and the Lady
In the opening five minutes of Bullfighter and Lady (1951), viewers may well start wondering if they have walked into a documentary by mistake. The camera sits squarely in front of a door at a bullring. It opens and a fierce-looking black bull charges out. “This is death!” intones a deep and very serious male voice, the sort that is only ever used for the blunt reporting of facts. We see, in a quick succession of shots, various real-life Mexican toreros. All of them are frozen in static poses – loitering with no clear fictional or narrative intent. The ring is crammed with spectators and circled all the way round with ads for various products. One of them is for AMBULANCIAS GAYOSSO. We start to wonder again. Is it not a tad ghoulish for an ambulance to tout for business at a bullfight? Or is it maybe just practical?
As the matadors pose in their full-blown macho splendour, they often obscure the sign behind them. In shot after shot, we can see only three letters: GAY. Clearly, this was anything but a conscious directorial choice. The writer-director Budd Boetticher and his producer, John Wayne, were among the most robust heterosexuals in Hollywood. Had there been any notion of how this slip-up would read decades later, Boetticher and his crew would have gone to great pains to see it did not happen. Yet in moments like these, Bullfighter and the Lady may be saying a lot more than its makers ever intended. It is hard to think of another classic Hollywood film – although Lives of Bengal Lancer (Henry Hathaway, 1935) and Spartacus (Stanley Kubrick, 1960) both come close – in which aggressive masculinity and latent homosexuality seem to be so deeply, if inevitably, intertwined.
Bullfighter and the Lady was Boetticher’s first film as an A-list Hollywood director. It was a personal and, in many ways, an autobiographical project. The young Oscar Boetticher, Jr (to use his real name) had spent some years in Mexico as a gringo obsessed with bullfighting. He had trained as a bullfighter and won, incredibly, some degree of acceptance – just as Johnny Regan (Robert Stack) does in this film. Returning to the United States, he broke into movies as a technical consultant on the bullfight scenes in Blood and Sand (Rouben Mamoulian, 1941). This remake of a Rudolph Valentino film from 1922 starred another androgynous matinee idol, Tyrone Power, as a young matador whose married life comes a poor second to the sweaty, all-male intimacy of the bullring. He falls prey to a femme fatale (Rita Hayworth) who seems less of an actual woman than a cross-dressing embodiment of his taboo homoerotic urges.
Not that Boetticher, in his own film, would ever stoop to such camp melodramatics. Its title notwithstanding, Bullfighter and the Lady puts its focus squarely (if not exclusively) on physical courage and friendship between men. Its central relationship is between Johnny Regan – Stack with his hair dyed blonde, so impeccably coiffed that he evokes Jean Marais in Orphée (1950) by Jean Cocteau – and Manolo Estrada, the aging bullfighter played by Gilbert Roland. Each man envies the other his sporting prowess. When Johnny gives Manolo a lesson in skeet-shooting, the older man says proudly: “I am the male Annie Oakley!” When friends wonder why Johnny wants to follow his idol into the bullring, Johnny answers: “It’s the tomboy in me.” As the film goes on, the two men seem to merge emotionally and visually. An early scene contrasts them side by side. Johnny’s dark suit turns his hair an even more dazzling blonde, while Manolo’s white suit sets off his swarthy Latin looks. Later on, they appear together in identical white shirts and black trousers, dressed so much alike that they might almost be twins.
“Their friendship is so strong that it sometimes borders on the homoerotic,” Fredrik Gustafsson writes. “During a few scenes it looks like they are about to kiss. They never do, of course.”1 Given that Bullfighter and the Lady was shot on real locations in Mexico in 1951, it may not be entirely necessary to point that out. Yet when Johnny’s heterosexual love life goes awry, it is Manolo he runs to for help. This involves seeking his mentor out in a steam-room, stripping naked and wrapping up in a large white towel. When Manolo learns that Johnny suspects his lady friend of cheating on him, he turns to a near-naked man who is lying face down on a table – and slaps him smartly on the buttocks. It is Johnny’s supposed rival in love, who turns out to have no interest in the lady whatsoever. All misunderstanding is cleared up and peace is rapidly made.
Yet the lady (Joy Page) does not re-enter Johnny’s life all at once. It is only when Manolo is fatally gored in the ring – after coming between Johnny and an angry bull – that she attempts some sort of rapprochement. Their full reunion takes place only once Manolo has died – and his spirit seems to enter Johnny through some weird man-to-man psychic osmosis. After his final triumph in the bullring, Johnny tells the adulating crowd that it was not he who fought the beast at all but Manolo, still alive and working through him. It is a critical commonplace to describe Boetticher as an ‘individualist’ director. Peter Wollen describes his modus operandi as follows:
He looks for values in the encounter with death itself: the underlying metaphor is always that of the bullfighter in the arena. The hero enters a group of companions, but there is no possibility of group solidarity. Boetticher’s hero acts by dissolving groups and collectives of any kind into their consistent individuals, so that he confronts each person face-to-face.2
Yet when this confrontation leads to a full-blown transfer of identity from one man to another – when a man dies to be reborn in one who is still alive – then the radical individualism of Boetticher becomes far more complex and problematic than it first appears. Bullfighter and the Lady celebrates not only the assertion of individual identity but also the loss of it. Johnny Regan becomes himself only by merging with and ‘becoming’ Manolo Estrada. In the same way, Manolo achieves immortality only by dying and living again through Johnny. The triumph of his acolyte comes about as a necessary counterpart to Manolo’s sacrificial death. This merging of two male souls – and the deeply homo-social nature of their bond – seems to call both rugged individualism and macho heterosexuality into question.
It is easy to understand why so many theorists have accused Boetticher of devaluing and marginalising women. Laura Mulvey does her best to convict him by quoting him in his own words:
What counts is what the heroine provokes, or rather what she represents. She is the one, or rather the love or fear she inspires in the hero, or else the concern he feels for her, who makes him act the way he does. In herself the woman has not the slightest importance.3
These disclaimers may ring true up to a point. Yet Bullfighter and the Lady has not one but three strong women, all of whom show pronounced masculine and/or androgynous qualities. Joy Page, in her role as ‘the lady’ Anita, is skinny and boyish and appears at a rural corrida in what looks like male drag. Katy Jurado, who plays Manolo’s wife Chelo, has a heavy build and mannish features; that same year, she was cast as a lesbian in the women-behind-bars melodrama Cárcel de mujeres/Women’s Prison (Miguel Delgado, 1951). As an American tourist with an eye for young toreros, Virginia Grey plays the sort of role commonly referred to as ‘a gay man in disguise’ – as she would years later in the trash classic Love Has Many Faces (Alexander Singer, 1965).
At odd moments, the subtexts of Bullfighter and the Lady veer teasingly close to the gleeful perversities of Pedro Almodóvar. In Matador (1986) a retired bullfighter (Nacho Martínez) becomes a serial rapist and murderer in a bid to keep his repressed homosexuality at bay. He passes his psychosis on to his hapless young pupil (Antonio Baderas) in a way that echoes the spiritual vampirism between Johnny and Manolo. In Talk to Her (Hable con ella, 2002), a bookish and oversensitive hero (Darío Grandinetti) falls under the spell of an androgynous lady bullfighter (Rosario Flores). She leaves him bereft when a bull gores her in the ring and she falls into a coma. The Spanish director has remarked: “Even though bullfighting is a very masculine world, the torero takes on the female role in the corrida. He hops about like a ballerina. He teases the bull, seduces it. It’s a typically feminine role.”4
In the case of Bullfighter and the Lady, it may have been these subtexts of androgyny and homoerotic desire – as much as the two-hour-plus running time – that led the producer John Wayne to cut the film to 87 minutes. The cuts were made by Wayne’s own favourite director, John Ford. The missing scenes were not seen by the public until Boetticher himself restored the film in 1986. This was, ironically, the same year in which Almodóvar released Matador. For the international art-house audience, at least, bullfighting would never look the same again. Yet the polymorphous perversity of Almodóvar is blunted by the way the director revels in it and flaunts it so overtly. Boetticher plays a similar game in Bullfighter and the Lady, yet never once does he slip and show his hand. His film is all the queerer for being played so straight.
- Fredrik Gustafsson, “On Ethics and Style in Bullfighter and the Lady” in ReFocus: The Films of Budd Boetticher, Gary D Rhodes and Robert Singer, eds. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017), p. 31. ↩
- Peter Wollen, “The Auteur Theory” in Film Theory and Criticism – Introductory Readings, Sixth Edition, Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen, eds, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 567. ↩
- Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, in Screen 16 (3), p. 6-18. ↩
- Frédéric Strauss (ed.), Almodóvar on Almodóvar, trans. Yves Baignières, (London: Faber and Faber, 1996), p. 57. ↩