Tuesday, January 10

The Express Doesn't Stop Here Anymore

All these years later it doesn't really matter whether I saw Brad Davis or not but I am pretty sure I did... twice.  Both occasions were fleeting and a few weeks apart at the same gay bar. It was late, the bar was dimly lit and most of us had probably had a few too many. Dancing was not a specialty at the bar but here was this shirtless person dancing around by himself with a crowd gathered around him. 

I was attracted by what I saw but noticed that he was rather manic, which lessened my ardor somewhat.  I was bummed when he suddenly ran out as I wanted to say something to him.  Then a couple of weeks later I saw him again, even more briefly, not dancing, but again shirtless and manic.

I had no idea who he was but I never forgot that guy.  When, a couple of years, later I saw Midnight Express and Brad Davis popped up on the screen, I said, omg, that's that crazy guy from the bar.  

Well...!!!  It seemed like pure serendipity to me and I searched out all I could about him... looked up stuff (those Hollywood bookstores provide lots of juicy stuff that may not make the bookstores in downtown Norman, Oklahoma).  And like all good sleuths, I asked around.  I heard he was married although he apparently wasn't when I saw him.  There were gay rumors but at that time not nearly to the extent that would soon occur.

What I did hear more about was what a wild man he was.  It was rumored that he was a serious substance abuser, booze and drugs. It was said that he had engaged in numerous public disturbances, some of them in a state of undress.  He was a goodtime Charlie when he wasn't too far gone and could get surly and morose after he'd had too much of whatever was being served.

He desperately wanted to be a good actor, one who was highly-regarded by his peers, and he would be the first to admit that what he liked the most about acting was the money.  He usually needed to make some. Upon the release of Midnight Express in 1978, everyone seemed to be talking about him... handsome, hunkyedgy, tense, moody, a bad boy, the new James Dean.  I was 100% behind that and knew I would follow his career.  I just had no idea how brief that career would be and how quickly he would go from being the most talked-about new boy to being thrown out with yesterday's newspaper. Hollywood quickly forgot about Brad Davis.  Let's find out why.

Born sassy in Tallahassee, Florida, in 1949, he was the product of an alcoholic dentist-father and a mother who sexually abused him. It may account for why he seemed to have trust issues most of his life.  He thought the boogeyman was out there.  He always felt he had something he needed to protect and acted out in ways to do so which certainly didn't always serve him.

He had learned to pretend as a young child because children who lead horrific home lives do that.  He was already pretty good at pretending to have a normal home life and great parents when it occurred to him that he was a little different from the neighborhood tribe.  Having a knack and need for assessing the scene quickly, he knew to hide his attraction to boys by just doing a little more pretending.

In high school it seemed only natural that he would gravitate toward drama.  If that isn't a whole lot of pretending, what else is it?  He'd heard it paid some top bucks.  After a couple of school plays and hearty applause (he confessed later in his life that applause really got to him, made him feel that people cared and that he was special).

After high school he hightailed it to Atlanta, Georgia, and studied acting and worked performing in professional plays.  He then moved to New York but it didn't work out and he returned to Atlanta. Soon he was back in The Big Apple again and enrolled in the American Academy and Dramatic Arts and acting in off-Broadway plays. 

There were those who said Davis enjoyed a pretty freewheeling gay lifestyle in New York but by the mid-70s with his move to California he became more secretive.  (You couldn't prove it by me by the crowds he drew at that bar.) He wanted to be a movie star like he'd wanted nothing else and felt he needed to be more circumspect.  It turned out that it was television where he first became known to those outside of the New York arena when he played Sally Field's boyfriend in Sybil (1976) and had a decent, four-episode part as Old George in the acclaimed Roots (1977). 

In 1976 he married a woman whom he had known for five years strictly as a friend.  The marriage may have surprised a few but it lasted for 15 years or so and produced a daughter (who allegedly is a transgendered man today).  By all accounts it was a good relationship and his family was at the core of why Davis would be so concerned about making good money.  In the ways that really meant something to them, there was great devotion on both parts.

As Billy Hayes in Midnight Extpress

His first theatrical movie and his most famous role came in 1978 with Midnight Express.  This is a film that always evoked strong opinions in people.  I loved it but have been in many a conversation with those on the other side.  Billy Hayes got caught trying to smuggle hashish out of Turkey in 1970 and was sentenced to prison and a scary, dangerous, sadistic one at that.  Billy didn't help his cause at all, chiefly due to his arrogance, and ended up earning a longer stretch until one day he escaped.  In real life Billy was bisexual but that aspect was downplayed, although there was a brief gay scene.  One thing that struck me with Midnight Express was its rawness, some of which made me wince. 

Some of the gay press questioned that if Davis wanted to downplay his gayness, why did he accept (pursue?) several gay roles?  

Yes, there was an attraction and of course there was that weak link from the past but what really popped my cork was his acting, his presence. In the few pictures I saw him in, I thought he was riveting, high-strung, nervous, a definite bad boy.  

He admitted that he had a very difficult time accepting the kind of fame he attained after Midnight Express.  It proved to be a little too express for him and he escalated his drinking and drug-taking with a vengeance.  

While I checked for when his next flick was coming out (not easy to do in pre-IMDb days), I caught him leading a starry cast in a TV miniseries, A Rumor of War, and again he impressed me.  More dazzling was his turn as another wild guy, one who is engaged in a threesome of sorts in A Small Circle of Friends (1980).  Karen Allen and Jameson Parker formed the rest of the trio. Under-rated at best, it was a lovely tribute to friendship (one of my favorite subjects) played out against the anti-Vietnam environment of the mid-60s.  I don't know why this little gem didn't click.  If it had it might have made all the difference in Davis' ascent.

The following year he returned to off-Broadway and Entertaining Mr. Sloaneanother gay role.  Later that year he appeared in Chariots of Fire about those who ran in the 1924 Olympics.  It won Oscar's best picture award and, of course, was great visibility for anyone in it but I questioned why he would accept a small role while the leads were played by Ben Cross and Ian Charleson. Davis would claim the gay Charleson would come on to him but he resisted the temptation.  Maybe his chariot wasn't on fire.

In 1981, after years and years of serious abuse of drink and drug, he got clean through his association with AA.  He went public with it. 

In 1982 Querelle was released and I believe his participation in it ruined his career.  It was unquestionably gay-themed but one could almost call it chomping at the bit to be porn. Davis stars as a character who is not only gay but a thief and a murderer.  He is involved in kissing scenes (with Franco Nero, no less) and is topped before your very eyes.  I am sure Hollywood was not quite ready for that.

As the lusty Querelle

Querelle is a sailor who wears pants that are so tight that, as has been said, you know what religion he isn't.  The action takes place in and around a whorehouse run by the always-vibrant Jeanne Moreau.  It concerns sexual tensions among all the characters which amount to little as it all winds down.

I thought it firmly established Davis, once and for all, as one of the sexiest actors in the movies.  I found him handsome, but it is unquestionably his generally unclothed body that seemed to capture most people's attention.  He made a number of films that showed his butt, which he claimed was one of his best parts.  I would never have guessed that he had a problem with being short.

Suffice it to say, Querelle is not for everyone. I'm not sure it's even for me (although I own it) because it was just a brutally nasty story about unscrupulous people and not the most coherent flick I've ever seen.  It is directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, one of the central figures of the New German Cinema, an iconoclast, a rebel who stirred or warped (depending upon your point of view) the imaginations of people through 40, often avant garde, films.  He was gay and he loved to shock.  Gee, I wonder what he had in common with Davis.

Davis became quite enamored of Fassbinder, finding him eccentric and brilliant.  They might have forged more of a working relationship except that by the time Querelle was released, the director had died at 37 of an overdose.  While Fassbinder had been overcome with joy that Davis had accepted the role, he told him it was career suicide for him, particularly if the film were released in the U.S.  Davis knew that gay was still taboo in Hollywood and that careers are ruined when one gets identified as being gay or accepting gay roles (certainly more than one) but he went ahead with it anyway, probably because of his desire to work for Fassbinder.  It's too bad.

Davis would not make another theatrical film for five years. Worse, he would never again make a truly good film or have one of those unforgettable roles.  He knew that Hollywood was trying to forget it ever knew him and it made him crazy. He mainly worked in television, mostly in TV movies.

The year, 1985, was quite a year for Brad Davis.  It started off with his portrayal of Bobby Kennedy in Robert Kennedy and His Times. I found his casting rather astonishing considering his choice of films, his reputation, substance abuse and otherwise. But he turned in an unflinching but empathetic and deeply lived-in portrait of the senator and everyone thought so. Nonetheless, it stayed right there.

Also in 1985 he and his wife learned that he was infected with the HIV virus.  They made the decision to keep the information to themselves, fearing a Hollywood backlash and a lack of work.  I suspect that Davis was certainly disliked in some circles as much as he was liked in others.  Count most gays, I expect, in the latter grouping.  Regardless of whether one liked him or not, most all agreed that he was controversial.  It was part of who he was and he liked it.    

Then there were his mixed messages on being gay.  Was he or wasn't he?  On a bold day he might answer the question of have you ever slept with a man with who hasn't done that or if he was feeling particularly frisky, why, whaddaya got in mind?  He might say, hey, I'm married, with a wink.  He would not outright deny it.

Hollywood was likely asking what he had in mind with his furtive excursions to gay establishments offering various venues.  It's always been a small town, populated with lots of small people. Word would have spread on him quickly. Such things always did. There have always been a lot of gays in the rank and file but those at the top have long been homophobic (some of them were gay, too). The point is Davis didn't feel secure and Hollywood never really trusted him and felt he mocked them.  He would never be one of them. They had seen to it.

Although he had good medical coverage through his union, he made certain that he paid for all treatment relating to his condition out of his own pocket so that nothing could be traced. This would have been a very expensive decision and helps to point out how badly he needed to work.

Rock Hudson's death that same year, 1985, certainly bolstered Davis' resolve to keep his mouth shut.  He had seen the Hollywood knickers getting all twisted over that one and they liked Hudson. How in the hell would they treat Brad Davis, controversial star of gay dramas?

And again, if it makes sense that he formed the opinions he did, then one might wonder why he accepted a role of a gay man on Broadway in Larry Kramer's AIDS drama, The Normal Heart. Wasn't the idea to deflect?  Perhaps being an actor and wanting a good role overrode his other concerns.  He originated the role of Ned Weeks to great critical acclaim.

Afterward he didn't work much at all.  No one called or returned his calls.  He later claimed this time, about six years, was one of sheer terror.  He was gripped with fear over no work, no money and possibly being found out.  The vitality, the light in his eyes, that mischievous quality, was long gone.  Who would be surprised to learn the strain of how he lived could have shortened his life? The only movie he made that captured any real attention at all was the Robert Altman-directed, Tim Robbins-starrer, The Player (1992), where Davis and a number of others played themselves in brief cameo shots.

He wanted to tell the public about his illness about a month before he died but his frailty prevented him from doing so.  He did manage to make public that I make money in an industry that professes to care very much about the fight against AIDS-- that gives umpteen benefits and charity affairs with proceeds going to research and care.  But in actual fact if an actor is even rumored to have HIV he is given no support on an individual basis.  He does not work.  He never got to write the book he wanted to about what it was like to be infected with AIDS and have to remain anonymous about it.  

Brad Davis died in 1991.  He was 41 years old.  They may have forgotten about him but I never have.  

Next posting:
The Directors

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