After 45 Years, The Rocky Horror Picture Show Is Still A Monumental LGBTQ+ Movie
Well, how ’bout that? Today marks 45 years of The Rocky Horror Picture Show: a rose-tinted world of uber-camp, rock ‘n’ rolling sexual freedom.
In 1975, unwitting moviegoers were taken on a ‘strange journey’. From the raw eroticism of Science Fiction/Double Feature’s opening lips to the ashes of the Frankenstein Place, Richard O’Brien delivered some terribly delicious thrills on the crest of another closet-less dimension.
Above its triumphs of song, dance and gothic mischief, the film serves as a ‘moment in history’, teaching and leaving the LGBTQ+ community’s Super Heroes with an indelible ethos: ‘Don’t dream it, be it.’
From its success on-stage in the early 70s, Jim Sharman was tasked with bringing Rocky Horror roaring to life on-screen. Armed with a low budget and fiercely enthusiastic cast, the result was a tremendously fun cirque du pastiche of sci-fi and horrors of old, with earworms aplenty.
For the virgins, the film follows Brad (Barry Bostwick) and Janet (Susan Sarandon), a super-conservative couple who, when lumbered with a flat tyre, find shelter in the castle of Frank ‘N’ Furter (Tim Curry), a cross-dressing, larger-than-life ‘sweet transvestite from Transsexual, Transylvania’. Their night soon evolves from automotive nuisance to a wacky odyssey of self-discovery.
Peter Roscoe and Geoff Hardy, the creative forces behind Shropshire’s Rainbow Film Festival, loving couple and impassioned LGBTQ+ activists, put Brad and Janet best: ‘They’re so normal, they’re abnormal! They’re totally stuck in their roles… let’s have a bit of liberation.’
Prior to the film’s release, Geoff – a prominent voice of the Gay Liberation Front in its inception – explained that ‘so few people were out or visible… we had all these weak stereotypes. I think nowadays you could do those stereotypes and people wouldn’t be laughing at you, they’d be laughing with you. In those days, they were laughing at us’.
He added: ‘If you look at the one big gay film at the time, Boys in the Band, the only good queer is a dead queer. In Death in Venice, we have to be old miserable men in make-up, and we have to die. In Rope, we’re twisted psychopaths, we’re murderers, we’re rapists.’
However, especially with glam rock à la David Bowie’s growing popularity, Rocky Horror became a feasible feature prospect. In an interview with UNILAD, Brad himself, Barry Bostwick, described thinking it was ‘the coolest thing in the world’ when he signed on, but didn’t expect it to ‘change anybody’s mind or influence society in any way’.
The end result was, inevitably, far more groundbreaking, as Barry explained:
Rocky Horror was just part of the conversation around people accepting who they really were, personality-wise and sexually. Finding their own tribes, so to speak. I think that we slotted into a historical timeline for this conversation about sexual freedom.
It talks to themes that were emerging the world in small towns and people were exploring their own needs and wants and tastes. It created an atmosphere for people who wanted to act out and be someone different on a Saturday night than they were on a Tuesday, and that invited others to play out their fantasies.
LGBTQ+ films are basically ubiquitous now compared to decades prior, with the likes of Call Me By Your Name, Love, Simon, God’s Own Country, Carol, Disobedience and even Booksmart. However, many titles remain buried in streaming and VOD catalogues, as Peter said: ‘You have to accept that the money and access is a very different playing field.’
He added that LGBTQ+ representation was once ‘all crap and horrible… but then came Rocky Horror which isn’t just positive, but powerful too’, with light notably shining brightly on bisexuality.
Geoff also said:
It did something which gay people are very, very good at, which is turning stereotypes into a camp positivity. Camp is strong, camp takes the crap people throw at us and throws it back. It’s quite aggressive, it’s a wonderful thing, it’s where we stand proud.
The message was absolutely wonderful for lesbian and gay people at the time, particularly for those campaigning and on the edge of coming out, to have something that showed that our world – our humour, our camp, our outrageousness, our claim of decadence – was going to wake up this couple who walk in.
Rocky Horror‘s energy is rather tongue-in-cheek – however, as Barry explained, it ‘still required an honesty and sincerity in playing the characters. It’s a tough genre. When you’re asking people to make fun of something, it’s hard to make fun of something without making fun of yourselves’.
The inversions are particularly striking. From the opening frolicking in front of a church, to Frank ‘N’ Furter’s Rocky: a blonde, blue-eyed, hunky man that’d be considered the perfect Aryan specimen on paper, but actually ends up being a beacon of human desire unfazed by bigotry or prejudice.
Geoff added: ‘If you were looking for presumed homophobia, you wouldn’t need to look much further than most bikers’ clubs. Then you have Meat Loaf, who is so outrageous and camp. The whole machismo of the biker is just piss-taken.’
Its dark yet pantomimic aesthetic and free-wheeling spirit were, and are, the ultimate tonic for the shackles of outdated social taboo, with ‘sensual daydreams to cherish forever’. No moment better illustrates this than Curry’s iconic opening number, Sweet Transvestite – a mighty ballad of pride and confidence: ‘I’m not much of a man by the light of day, but by night I’m one hell of a lover.’
Geoff added, discussing Frank ‘N’ Furter’s legacy: ‘Especially now, with the fight coming from the far-right and fundamentalist religious groups over trans, this is an incredibly important film. Especially for young trans people, who’re going through school where trans guidance has been removed.’
Peter added that with the rigmarole of establishing adequate equal rights legislation, ‘to have the antidote of the legacy of Rocky Horror… it keeps you going’.
Barry is astute in saying ‘everybody has a Rocky Horror story’. Since watching the movie at the age of 17, I’ve dabbled in a spot of Halloween cosplay, dressing up as Curry’s poster boy – full makeup, outfit and heels. During my chat with Geoff and Peter, I became concerned that I had, perhaps, co-opted LGBTQ+ culture – however, it all falls back to the laughing at/with paradigm.
We need more people who are men and women pushing the gender stereotypes from the straight community – we need allies, we need each other… oppression is oppression, everybody suffers from gender stereotypes. It puts everybody in the cage. Anything that slaps that in the face gets my vote… which brings us back to Rocky Horror.
That’s why it’s iconic. It is serious, but it’s not, it’s taking the piss, it’s taking the genre of gothic movies, it’s taking the vampire genre, it’s taking so much stuff and throwing it back.
From the perennial imagery in gay venues, to its songs playing in youth groups and festivals, to midnight screenings where people hold newspapers over their heads and shout out ‘Asshole!’ when they see Brad – laughing, Barry admits this will probably influence the first line of his obituary – its impact on the world across the whole spectrum of sexuality is immeasurable. ‘I think that the movie will always be part of the culture, part of film history,’ the actor added.
The idea of Rocky Horror being somewhat of an educational tool seems almost obvious, with Geoff saying: ‘If we forget our history, we don’t own the present and we can’t create our future and we can’t anticipate. I think it’s a way of teaching about that particular era, a moment that woke people up.’
Barry has experienced many, many people coming to him to say the film ‘changed their life, they found their true personality, they come out the closet, they felt accepted not only in the world but in their hearts… some were on the verge of committing suicide, but Rocky Horror gave them a community to be with in the world, where it was okay to be themselves and behave as they instinctively wanted to’.
In that regard, Barry believes it’s a film ‘everybody should see at least once…. you might not get it, you might not like it, you should at least be rubbed up against it. You can take what you want from it’.
It’s almost the musical equivalent of Hellraiser; opening the doors to untapped pleasures, its castle like the Lament Configuration of carnality, its toe-tappers and infectious anarchy like hooks on your inhibitions.
In its stripping of innocence, The Rocky Horror Picture Show‘s raison d’être is to inspire, whether it be laughs, lusts, or simply reclaiming one’s spirit from the whims of sexual order. As Janet sings: ‘I feel released, bad times deceased, my confidence has increased, reality is here.’
There’s just one thing left to do: let’s do the Time Warp again.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show is available to purchase digitally, or on DVD and Blu-Ray. If you’d like to find out more about the Shropshire Rainbow Film Festival, click here.
If you’ve been affected by any of these issues and want to speak to someone in confidence, contact the LGBT Foundation on 0345 3 30 30 30, 10am–6pm Monday to Friday, or email [email protected]
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CreditsShropshire Rainbow Film Festival
Shropshire Rainbow Film Festival