Keanu's Bogus Journey
With his latest film, Keanu Reeves has shaken off the 'young, dumb and full of come' tag and reinvented himself as a major league action hero. It's taken eight years, but at last he has landed an adult role which best suits his acting talents, and one which is likely to win back his gay fans
by Paul Burston
Just what is it that makes today's homo-icons so different, so appealing?
Time was when gay men were content to drool over the latest Hollywood hot bod, without needing to justify the object of their lust in terms of acting ability, spiritual beliefs, political persuasion or similarly poor substitutes for raw sex appeal. Certainly, this was the case with Rob Lowe, an Eighties bratpacker whose popularity rode on an unprecedented willingness to bare his bottom at the drop of a towel. Such talent was still a rare commodity back in 1983, which was the year Rob was invited to strip off for a minor role in Francis Ford Coppola's teen-angst flick The Outsiders.
His efforts did not go unrewarded. By 1986, he was demanding starring roles of his own. Youngblood was a typical Rob Lowe vehicle. The pop-mythic account of a pretty boy's battle to assert his masculinity by becoming the star player in the local ice-hockey team, it gave Rob plenty of scope for doing the things he did best: look pretty, work up a sweat and wander around locker rooms in various stages of undress. Stuck in a supporting role as a second-reserve member of the team was a spotty adolescent by the name of Keanu Reeves. Nothing much to look at at the time, he got twelfth billing, half a dozen lines, and less screen time than Rob's jockstrap.
Eight years, one media scandal and several naked butt-shots later, Rob's film career is at an all-time low. Keanu, on the other hand, has risen to the top of the Hollywood hip list. What's more, he appears to have made a few influential friends, the likes of which Rob Lowe could only dream of making an impression on. I'm thinking here of the scores of seriously-minded critics prepared to pay Keanu Reeves the same kind of attention they normally reserve for more overtly 'intellectually-challenging' talents such as Madonna.
At 29, Keanu Reeves is not only the most talked-about actor of his age (Sky magazine seems to find something to say about him practically every month); he is also a fully-fledged 'phenomenon', an 'icon' whose 'cultural significance' is weighed up everywhere, from the pages of The Modern Review to the lecture halls of the Art Centre College of Design, Pasadena, where students are invited to "use Reeves' films as a departure point for discussing culture and philosophy", (Naturally, the college authorities are keen to stress the rigorous academic discipline of the course on offer, pointing out that students would only be treated to a screening of, say, Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure as a means to helping them engage with the arguments outlined in Michel Foucault's essay on Nietszche.)
Asked to comment on his new-found role as a learning aid, Keanu was characteristically laid back. "I guess I'm not really involving my imagination to that," he told a reporter recently. I'm just kind of acknowledging it as an existence." If only his many fans in media-land could display a similar degree of reserve when it came to filing their copy. Rarely do you read anything concerning Keanu Reeves that doesn't end in an exclamation mark. He's hot! He broods! He sneers! His name means 'cool breeze over a mountain'! He has wit, intellect and devastating good looks! He uses words like 'bodacious'! He rides a 1972 Combat Norton motorbike! He sometimes takes his clothes off!
And he's very, very popular with gay men. When Greg Gorman persuaded him to pose naked for a photo session, the evidence found its way onto the walls of homosexual abodes the world over. Armistead Maupin made reference to his boyish good looks in Maybe the Moon. Dennis Cooper made a fetish of his blank allure in Frisk (though it seems unlikely that even a dreamboat as apparently heavily-sedated as Keanu would take kindly to being the object of a necrophiliac's fantasies). John Patrick, editor of The Year in Sex, an annual gay glossary of hunks and heart-throbs, made a meal of 'his delicious lips, armpits, eyes and waist'.
Even bitchy old Sandra Bernhard (whose talent for passing off spiteful remarks as cutting-edge humour makes her more of a gay man than a lesbian) was moved to speak kindly on the subject of his extraordinary (some would say, inexplicable) popularity. "He has the look of jailbait, and that's damn sexy," Sandra said not so long ago. "He's a kooky kid, admittedly short on cultural references, but I dig him that way."
It would be nice to present a case for Keanu's queer appeal as evidence of gay men's heightened sensitivity and acute cultural awareness. So I won't. Besides which, there really isn't much to go on. Despite The Independent's claim that he is 'More Than A Sex God', rumours of his skills in other departments are greatly exaggerated. According to Who's Who in Hollywood, he is 'a performer of some range and versatility'. Appraising his career in a 'Fan Letter' for The Modern Review last year, Polly Frost displayed all the blind passion of the true fanatic, arguing that 'it isn't easy to strip away your defences as a performer', and using words like 'subtle', 'original' and 'honest' to describe Keanu's performances in a few of her favourite films.
'Crap' would have been closer to the truth. Pitifully limited in his range of expressions, Keanu is only ever remotely persuasive playing variations on his own, admittedly attractive, man-boy persona. His most successful roles were as the troubled teen in River's Edge (1988), the goofy teen in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989) and in the dodgy follow-up Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey (1991).
The trouble with teen roles is that they tend to dry up the day your skin starts crying out for liposomes. Judging from the parts he's been chasing lately, Keanu appears to have taken note. "My acting parts have paralleled my personal growth from a kid to a young man to a responsible adult," he claimed a few months ago. But where is the evidence that he's grown at all? Certainly not in his films. Try as he might, Keanu isn't terribly convincing when he's required to act like a man. This is particularly true when the man in question hails from any part of the world other than California. Accents have never been Keanu's strong point, which goes some way to explaining why he was so dreadful as Jonathan Harker in Coppola's Dracula. English accents are notoriously difficult for Americans to fake in any case. Add to that the demands of pretending not to notice when his hair kept changing colour and you can see why it all proved too much for the poor boy.
Sadly, he can't offer the same excuse for his performance in Kenneth Branagh's colour-balanced but boring Much Ado About Nothing. Part of the problem here seems to have been that his role as Don John the Bastard didn't actually require him to act, merely to strut about looking mean, moody and magnificent. It is through Keanu's often bungled attempts at fleshing out a character that he usually ends up revealing the most attractive parts of himself (what Polly Frost refers to as 'his natural physical gifts'). Worse still, the cosmetic requirements of the role ruled out any possibility of failing back on his boyish charms. The come-to-bed eyes were set in a hard stare, the goofy grin was hidden beneath an even harder beard. Branagh must have recognised the problem. As a cheap concession to Keanu's worshippers, the director had him strip off for a massage. But even with all that baby oil glistening on his chest, he looked too suspiciously adult, too grown up to be a proper boy-toy.
Of course, the first step to understanding Keanu Reeves' place in a gay man's heart (and loins) is to accept that acting has little to do with it. "Young, dumb and full of come" is how his embodiment of an FBI agent was described by a fellow cop character in Point Break (1991), Kathryn Bigelow's heavily iconic, cheerfully ironic take on the buddy action movie, centred on a gang of bank-robbing surfers. Keanu played the improbably named Johnny Utah, an undercover cop assigned to penetrate the surfers' ring - though for much of the film he looks as though he'd much rather be penetrated by the gang leader, played by Patrick Swayze. Relying on Keanu's curiously passive, vaguely androgynous quality to subvert the macho excesses of the story line, Bigelow was rewarded with the best adult performance Keanu has given - and the most easily appropriated in gay terms. A spermfest of surf, sweat and male bonding rituals, Point Break was to homoerotica what Bigelow's earlier Blue Steel was to dykey androgyny. Despite the fact that homosexual acts never fully enter the picture, it remains the queerest thing that Keanu has committed himself to.
Queerer, certainly, than his retentive performance as Scott, the 'Prince Hal' of Portland, in Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho (1991). Now available to rent (and buy), Idaho has Keanu hawking his ass while resisting the affections of fellow hustler Mike (played with scene-stealing sensitivity by the late lamented River Phoenix). "I only have sex with guys for money," Scott mumbles when Mike declares his undying love. "Two guys can't love each other." Gay men being the contradictory creatures they are, this was the performance which resulted in legions of queens fantasising about their own private Keanu.
If Idaho saw Keanu taking his desirability very much for granted, his latest film looks set to cement his reputation as a major box office draw. A Seventies disaster movie cunningly disguised as a Nineties action thriller, Speed has Keanu butching it up as Jack Traven, a fearless LAPD cop trapped on a runaway bus set to explode the moment the speedometer falls under 50mph. Never mind that his performance is exceptionally bad, even for a genre in which bad acting is the rule that gives exceptional talents the opportunity to prove themselves. Never mind that the bus is the real star of the film. Speed's success in America has already given rise to the tabloid myth that Keanu Reeves is the greatest action hero since, well, the last one.
And, of course, the greatest irony of all is that this is probably the film that will win him back all those gay fans put off by his ridiculous appearance in Much Ado About Nothing and ridiculous accent in Little Buddha. With his close-cropped hair, pumped-up body and porn-star growl, Keanu's performance in Speed is the best facsimile yet of all that gay men desire: an action man with gripping hands and eager, come-fuck-me eyes. Sadly, we don't actually get to see much of the body. He never gets around to taking his shirt off. And this being a 'straightforward' sort of action movie, the only desires represented on screen are resolutely heterosexual. But when did that ever make a blind bit of difference?
What, exactly, is the queer appeal of Keanu Reeves? I think that great Queer theorist Kenneth Branagh probably summed it up best when he remarked that, "Keanu has an aloof quality, a faraway quality. You can't get close to him, he is somehow unattainable. That makes him very, very attractive. He seems to display all the qualities one would want: a very sexy, erotic physical being. And yet he's got something at the back of his eyes that says, 'No, I won't be committing here.' He'll always be on the bus, heading off."
THE FILMS OF KEANU REEVES
If you plan to study the Reeves oeuvre, you will be advised to include the following sterling performances in your syllabus.
In which Keanu plays twelfth fiddle to Rob Lowe as a Menage ice-hockey player with raging hormones (judging by his complexion that is, not by the amount of sex he gets).
Accent: None to speak of. He only has half a dozen lines after all.
Flesh: Not a lot. Midly sexy if you have a thing about menage boys wearing knee-pods.
River's Edge (1987)
In which Keanu plays one of a bond of logically-challenged teenagers (right) trying to cover up a murder committed by an unconcerned friend.
Accent: Good practise for Bill & Ted and entry to the Crispin Glover school of overacting.
Hair: Long, lank and lovely.
Flesh: Who knows what wonders lie within Ione Skye's sleeping bag?
Dangerous Liaisons (1988)
In which Keanu does his Little Lord Fauntleroy act, fails to satisfy Uma Thurman's needs, then swashes his buckle with his dastardly rival, John Malkovitch. Brave young Keanu wins his daring duel, but only because slippery Malkovitch lets him.
Accent: Mid-atlantic, sinking fast.
Hair: Floppy in a fringey sort of way.
Flesh: The odd flesh wound stains a billowing period blouse.
Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989)
In which Keanu plays an underachieving student with delusions of rock stardom who travels through firm in order to complete a history project. With the help of Socrates (pronounced Soh-craits) and Freud (Frood), Reeves and school pal Alex Winter snuggle up into a time-hopping phone box and discover that they are a few feathers short of a boa in any century.
Accent: Californian bimboy drawl, to which he is unnervingiy suited.
Hair: Through a hedge backwards, though never losing that sensitive fringe.
Flesh: Most notable the space between the hem of his Bermuda shorts and the top of his baseball socks.
*The sequel, Bogus Journey (1991), is a carbon copy of the first.
Keanu plays a dysfunctional son-in-law to Steve Martin's far-from-fully-functional family. On the arm of River's ex, Martha Plimpton, they make the ideal teenage slacker couple.
Accent: Teenage slacker's rarely speak audibly.
Hair: With a mower.
Flesh: A nice hot bath would have done us all a power of good.
I Love You to Death (1990)
In which our hero plays one of a pair of spaced-out hit men hired by Tracey Ullman to kill her husband Kevin Kline.
Accent: West coast, doped up to the eyeballs.
Hair: Nothing a spot of hot-oil treatment and a hood wouldn't fix.
Flesh: Best kept under wraps in this guise.
Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (1991)
In which Keanu plays the intriguingly named Martin Loader, a young journalist who falls for his older aunt. Described by one reviewer as 'an ingratiating puppy walking on its hind legs'.
Accent: Deep Southern. About as authentic as Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Hair: Short back and sides in a pseudo-Forties fashion.
Flesh: Not a lot. A few bedroom scenes in which he keeps himself well-covered and one scene where we see him in his vest and pants.
Point Break (1992)
Keanu plays Johnny Utah, an undercover cop who infiltrates a gang of bank-robbing surfers, and develops a love/hate relationship with the leader of the gang, played by sun-bleached and surprisingly sexy Patrick Swayze. Keanu and Patrick hold hands and finally fall for each other (in a skydiving sense), but the space in Keanu's bed is reserved for tomboy and soon-to-be Tank Girl, Lori Petty.
Accent: Talks in a deep voice quite a lot.
Hair: Floppy, irresistible when wet.
Flesh: A number of bare-chest shots. A few scenes that could win him first prize in a wet T-shirt competition.
My Own Private Idaho (1992)
Keanu plays Scott, a rich kid slumming it with a bunch of rent boys in order to get at his father. Director Gus Van Sant incorporated elements of Henry IV, Part One into the script, with varying success.
Accent: Keanu does Shakespeare... not!
Hair: Floppy for most of the film slicked back when he smartens up for daddy.
Flesh: The sexiest shot is when he poses bare-chested on the cover of a gay porn mag and tells us he's only in it for the money. Savour that scar.
Bram Stoker's Dracula (1993)
Keanu plays Jonathan Harker in Coppola's romantic re-telling of the Dracula story. Wooden, even by his own standards.
Accent: Graduate of the Dick van Dyke School of English?
Hair: Beautifully combed and set, though the colour does tend to change frame by frame.
Flesh: This is Victorian England remember. Just the one four-in-a-bed romp and some nice neck shots.
Much Ado About Nothing (1991)
Keanu plays Don John, the Bastard in a Ken 'n' Emm production of a Shakespeare comedy. Idaho's Henry IV dry run finally pays off.
Accent: Who knows? Portuguese? Italian?
Hair: Slicked back a la Sheriff of Nottingham, complete with pointy block beard.
Flesh: One scene involving lots of baby oil.
Little Buddha (1994)
Keanu is god, it's official. He plays Prince Siddartha, who sits under trees, pondering life and becoming a budding young Buddha in the process.
Accent: Rumour has it Bertolucci didn't ask him to try an Indian accent until the first day of shooting. It shows in a Peter Sellers kind of a way.
Hair: Mostly long and straight, though his Braun Independent is never far from his side for those special occasions.
Flesh: Lots of it, most of a bright orange.
In which Keanu plays Jack Traven, a cop who pits his wits against a falling lift, a speeding bus and a runaway tube train. A sequel is planned, in which Keanu tries to halt a runaway bike and gets his kit off to intercept a careering surfboard.
Accent: Is that a buzzsaw in your throat or are you just auditioning for a part in the next Jeff Stryker movie?
Hair: Action man lives! Or is it a piece of fun fur?
Flesh: Sweats a lot to reveal lots of muscles in all the right places, but never actually takes his shirt off. What a wimp!