Our man Brad – death of actor Brad Davis
Robrt L. Pela
Amid persistent gay rumors, Brad Davis rode drugs and sex to an early death from AIDS complications. Since his excesses killed him, why are we still hooked on his tragic glamour?
Brad Davis was not gay. Just ask anyone. His best friend, a gay man, insists that “just because Brad had sex with men doesn’t mean he was a homosexual.” His former colleagues refuse to go on record saying that Davis wasn’t straight. And his widow–who in her March 1997 memoir of the late actor, After Midnight: The Life and Death of Brad Davis, admits that he worked in a gay hustler bar and lived with a drag queen before making it big–says, “I don’t know why everyone wants to believe Brad was gay.”
Perhaps we want to believe Davis was one of us because of the many gay roles he played during his nearly 20-year career. Or maybe it was the sexed-up vulnerability he expressed in so many of his performances. Or maybe it’s the stories that have surfaced since his death about his six-year battle with AIDS, an ordeal he kept secret and with which many gay men can identify. Whatever the reason, Davis was haunted by rumors about his sexuality during his life, and since his death he has become a gay icon whose assisted suicide in 1991 only adds to his tragic memory.
Whatever Davis’s declared sexual orientation, his hard-partying, promiscuous image has been well-documented since his death, and this profile, so much like that of a stereotypical gay man, has further fueled our connection with Davis. “Brad was a bad boy for a very long time,” admits his widow, Susan Bluestein Davis, speaking to The Advocate in an exclusive interview. “He was always partying, always very promiscuous. For a lot of people, that meant he was gay.”
While most of us reject such negative stereotypes of gay men as promiscuous party animals, it’s hard to overlook the growing popularity of gay circuit parties, which seem to promote drug use and multipartner sex. “If these parties had been around when Brad Davis was a young man, he’d have been dancing his ass off at every one of them,” says a former colleague of Davis’s who prefers not to be identified. “Barring that, he’d be playing these party boys on the screen.”
In the words of writer and friend Rodger McFarlane, Davis was “the perfect ’70s clone. He was scrumptious. Anyone who ever had a budding gay libido–including me–saw him on the screen and projected all their postadolescent fantasies onto him. Long before we became best friends, I had a huge crush on him.”
So did most of the rest of us. In gay role after gay role, Davis teased us with possibilities: There was his homoerotic shower scene in a Turkish prison in Midnight Express (1978). And his gay sailor in Querelle (1982), in a scoop-neck tank top and white jeans so tight that the film’s legendary gay director, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, declared that the trousers “revealed what religion Davis wasn’t.” Even Davis’s stage roles were queer: He appeared in Larry Kramer’s Sissies’ Scrapbook early on and later starred in Kramer’s AIDS-themed The Normal Heart in New York.
“On the stage and screen, Brad said everything gay there was to say at the time,” says McFarlane. “Plus, he was the last example of that decadent free-love era.”
That connection with a long-gone age of innocence is part of the reason Davis, for many, symbolizes our gay past. According to activist and writer Michelangelo Signorile, who documents the gay circuit party scene in Life Outside: The Signorile Report on Gay Men: Sex, Drugs, Muscles, and the Passages of Life, that’s a dangerous model we can do without. “When Davis was portraying gays on the screen, drugs and promiscuity were less a threat than they are today,” he says. “Now the drugs are more potent and more destructive, and with AIDS the dangers of multipartner, casual sex are greater than ever.” If Davis represents anything for gay men today, Signorile says, it should be a warning about the perils of excess.
Davis can also be held up as an example of the consequences of leading a closeted life. If he was gay, it’s possible that Davis’s carousing was a means of “acting out” against the pressures of the Hollywood closet. “The pressure for a Hollywood actor to remain closeted is 10,000 times greater than for the rest of us,” Signorile says. “It’s very possible that, if he were gay, Brad Davis resented that condition of his career.”
Those closest to the late star want us to believe that Davis literally partied himself to death. Bluestein Davis writes at length of her husband’s drug abuse, and McFarlane suggests that Davis may have contracted HIV from “passing around needles at A-list parties.” Neither makes much of the fact that Davis worked as a prostitute when he first moved to New York in the early ’70s. His widow doesn’t mention that in her memoir; McFarlane dismisses it by saying, “He hustled, but so did a lot of struggling young actors back then.”
Although Bluestein Davis contends that “Brad was amused that so many people questioned his sexuality” and McFarlane insists that “Brad didn’t give a flaming shit that people thought he was gay,” the effort to present Davis as a naughty heterosexual continues. “It’s just that when you talk about Brad’s being gay, it makes Susan look like a beard, and she deserves better than that,” McFarlane says. “Their marriage was forged from great love and hard times, and their daughter doesn’t need to be hearing that her dad was gay when he was not.”
On the other hand, McFarlane gives Davis credit “for never saying he wasn’t gay when someone asked.” But according to Signorile, this sort of mixed message is dangerous to young gay men just coming out. “Kids are better assisted by heroes–actors and other high-profile people–who are more honest about who they are,” he says. “Davis was one of the few actors who played more than one gay character in movies. A young gay man could easily fall in love with that face in that role, then think it’s all right to emulate Davis’s off-screen lifestyle.”
Bluestein Davis is appalled that the excesses that led to her husband’s death should ever be glamorized. “It would sadden me to think a young gay man would make some correlation between idolizing Brad and thinking there was something sexy about his being a drug addict,” she says. “The fact is, he died of AIDS, and his last two years were horrifying. If anything, he’d want to stand as an example of what bad judgment and bad choices can lead to.”
COPYRIGHT 1997 Liberation Publications, Inc.
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group