A good-looking Nova Scotian teenager named Neil O’Hara follows his dream to Hollywood. Just a few minutes off the bus, he meets Bob Mizer near Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Los Angeles. Mizer tells him that for $5 all a guy has to do is pose for a few pictures around a pool. Mr. O’Hara accepts Mizer’s offer. Sound like a movie plot? It is.
The true story of Mizer, the late, mild-mannered publisher and photographer of Physique Pictorial , a magazine begun after World War II that featured nearly nude men in the name of good health, was one of the subjects of the 1996 book about physique magazines called Beefcake and published by Taschen. The book has inspired a film by former New Yorker Thom Fitzgerald, whose first feature film, The Hanging Garden , won awards in 1997.
Mr. Fitzgerald, who moved in the late 1980’s to Halifax, Nova Scotia, jokingly described his film as the history of “our forefathers and their struggle to take their clothes off.”
The look of Beefcake ? Think Gucci. Think John Bartlett. Think of any major recent men’s underwear campaign, taut with crotch shots and pec-sploitation. Think Beat-generation clothes. Khakis and white T-shirts. Box-cut stretch bathing suits. In scenery, think neo-Egyptian-esque architecture. Campy Hollywood 1950’s design. Cocktails! Beverly Hills rococo. Hustler whites.
“For interiors, we found everything we needed rather easily, even in Halifax,” said Beefcake designer D’Arcy Poultney. Mr. Poultney, who teaches costume history at Dalhousie University in Halifax, sought secondhand 50’s furniture–the look that every hipster now wants most in clothes and interiors. “The stuff is ending up in thrift shops. Isn’t that the way? What’s in fashion is what’s available in secondhand clothing stores. Whatever your parents are throwing out is hip.”
Combining material both dramatic–Neil’s story–and documentary–interviews with Jack LaLanne and Warhol superstar Joe D’Allesandro–blending fact with fiction, Beefcake was made for about half of what the average aforementioned underwear ad campaigns cost. In a telephone interview, Mr. Fitzgerald estimated his total expense at about $500,000 to make the film over a 15-day period on a set built in a warehouse in Nova Scotia, followed by several days of shooting on locations nearby.
“Bob Mizer left an archive of about a million stills, as well as films made by his agency, which he called the Athletic Model Guild. We knew what his house and studio looked like,” explained Mr. Poultney. “First thing we needed, of course, was a pool. We borrowed an above-the-ground pool and built Mizer’s house and studio on two levels around the pool.” The film was shot in winter. Mr. Fitzgerald recalled directing naked, sunbathing actors as they frolicked around Mizer’s fictional pool. Off camera, a Canadian blizzard blew his way, and the crew shivered in their snow parkas.
James Worthen, Beefcake ‘s costume designer, said he worked with a $5,000 budget. That’s limited indeed, although, according to the plot, the costumes were skimpy. Besides khakis, jeans and T-shirts, the costumes consisted of bathing suits and posing pouches (basically codpieces with G-strings) for a few dozen actors, and dark suits for the actors who played censors and Federal agents.
Mr. Worthen’s tour de force were the costumes for actress Carroll Godsman, who played Mizer’s mother. In the film, she makes the posing pouches for Mizer’s models and serves them cake and cookies as the barely dressed studs wait for their next close-up. Ms. Godsman gives a great performance as a doting mother who is eventually wrecked by disappointment.
“You’ll notice,” Mr. Worthen said, “that every outfit I made for her incorporates bits of tea towels. Five thousand dollars is one reason for the tea towels. The other reason is my grandmother. Growing up, every time I saw my grandmother she had a tea towel stuck in her pocket.”
In the beginning, Mizer honestly believed he was doing good work by publishing “health” magazines that appealed to bodybuilders, women and, although he never dared say it, gay men.
“Photographs of men in the near-nude were common in the health and bodybuilding magazines, but readers were constantly reminded that those men were there to inspire ideals of health–mental and moral as well as physical–and not for anyone’s mere enjoyment. There was the unspoken agreement that men never took their clothes off just to be admired for their looks,” wrote Beefcake author F. Valentine Hooven III.
Mizer and other physique photographers did not have an easy time, especially during the McCarthy era. Police harassment and investigations by the United States Postal Service were frequent. “I think Bob Mizer believed he was producing health magazines and helping star-struck wannabes. If you lie enough, you believe those lies,” said Mr. Fitzgerald. “But in 1949, people who admitted they were homosexual could be lobotomized. Or chemically castrated,” as was the great British mathematician Alan Turing, who made the mistake, in 1952, of reporting a burglary by a street hustler. “The Post Office in the U.S. enforced the obscenity laws,” continued Mr. Fitzgerald. “They could open your envelopes, after all. You used to not be able to show a male body with any hair. Slowly, the laws changed. First, underarm hair allowed. A penis was allowed in the mid-60’s.”
Mizer never photographed full-frontal nudity. But the authorities eventually got him for running a male prostitution ring. For years he had been referring his models to other photographers and artists. Whatever else they did for those photographers, or what those artists got for their $5–or whatever the rate was by the mid-60’s–didn’t concern Mizer, who died in 1991. It should have.
“One has an impulse to judge Bob Mizer by today’s standards, said Mr. Fitzgerald. “But what I got out of making this movie was a good amount of respect for previous generations of gay artists who went to jail so I don’t have to.”
There will be a benefit premiere of Beefcake at Anthology Film Archives, 32 Second Avenue at Second Street, on Oct. 7; the proceeds will go to the New York Lesbian and Gay Experimental Film/Video Festival. On Oct. 13, Beefcake will open to the general public at Film Forum for a three-week run.
Billy’s List: Quiz time!
1. “Dawls” is?
a. According to Out magazine, drag-queen slang for hits of Ecstasy.
b. A fashion line designed by Ryan Rush.
c. The Off Broadway musical version of Valley of the Dolls , written and performed by Joey Arias.
2. The Dress Lodger is a new novel by Sheri Holman. What is a “dress lodger”?
a. A large Victorian credenza made in cherrywood.
b. A fashion victim who kills for dresses.
c. A prostitute who rents a dress to attract a higher class of clientele.
3. Who is Adrian Nicholas?
a. The man who helped perfect the “wing suit,” made by Bird-Man International.
b. The British soldier credited with inventing khakis in 1896 when he traded his red felt uniform in India for cooler cotton pajamas dyed with yellow saffron dust.
c. The young decorator from Little Rock, Ark. who was chosen by Hillary Clinton to do the new house in Westchester as a “chintz-free zone.”
Answers: (1) b; (2) c; (3) a.