Recently, the intrepid co-hosts of Sound on Sight radio asked me to help host a podcast devoted to Keanu Reeves. I had been hoping for a long time that they would have just such a podcast, and I wanted to take this opportunity to explain a little bit more about why I find Reeves to be such a fascinating figure, and why I have spent so many hours of my life thinking about him and enjoying his films. It’s already fairly common knowledge that Reeves is a pretty spectacular human being. In terms of recounting his personal awesomeness, this article (http://www.ranker.com/list/the-7-greatest-_true_-keanu-reeves-stories-ever-told/joanne) does a better job than I ever could. Give it a glance. But being an amazing human hasn’t necessarily won Keanu the accolades he deserves in the artistic world. And so, in terms of arguing for his value as a film star, I’ll take my own crack at it with this claim: Keanu is queer.
Now, before you get too excited, I should probably explain a bit more about my particular use of the word queer. In colloquial language, the word is still associated with sexuality and, in particular, sexual identities that aren’t straight. In academia, where I spend most of my time, the sexual connotations are taken to be just one part of the larger arena in which queerness operates. As Peter Brooker says so well in his Glossary of Cultural Theory, “‘to queer’ is to estrange or defamiliarize identities, texts and attitudes that are taken for granted and assumed to have fixed meanings.” (212) So, in effect, queerness can be at work anywhere where hierarchies have been erected that aim to make one thing seem better than another, and, really, to make us believe that we can be sure there are two self-evident ‘things’ there at all.
Let’s make this more concrete, and take on the biggest issue first. Keanu is, as you may have heard, a bad actor. He’s terrible, he’s wooden, he’s bla bla bla. I have no interest in arguing with anyone about what constitutes good or bad acting; however, people of every opinion will have to admit one thing: he’s still around. It’s been about 27 years since Reeves first hit screens, and Hollywood still wants him in films, and people still want to watch him. And while my whole essay will be trying to give different reasons for why this is, the acting question points us toward the first ‘thing that we take for granted’ that Reeves unsettles: the idea that there is a stable thing that we can point to and call ‘good acting.’
Acting styles change with time, just as all forms of representation do. Variety opens onto the next possible style or convention. During the podcast, I pointed out that while I concede that Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure is not up to Hollywood’s accepted standards of technical prowess and production values, this does not dictate whether it is a film worth watching. Technical prowess wins awards and makes films like Ray and Walk the Line. While Bill and Ted’s spawned a generation of knock-offs, when was the last time you thought about Ray or Walk the Line? The way that Reeves’ voice often seems a little too flat, the fact that it’s discomfiting to watch him cry on screen, and that he has the same run and walk in every single film are examples of his queering force. His unusual performance quality reminds us that these categories of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are just concepts that we use and that, as this is all they are, they can always be used differently. French filmgoers in the 60s who really liked Le cinéma du papa were really sure that all those Nouvelle vague films were technical failures and just plain bad. And maybe they were right. For a little while, anyway.
And lest you think I have thrown in some sort of towel and am just defending bad acting, I think Reeves is an amazing performer. If you haven’t recently watched My Own Private Idaho, River’s Edge, The Gift, Scanner Darkly or, really, any of his comedies, do it now. Really. I’ll wait.
Now that you’re back, let’s move on to a more interesting category: gender! Cast your mind back to that most wonderful of films, Point Break. Do you remember the scene, about midway through the film, when Bigelow is shooting Reeves and Lori Petty from above as they lie in bed and Reeves stares, consternated, at the ceiling? Have you ever noticed that Reeves and Petty look, well, pretty much exactly the same? While I’m giving Bigelow the credit of foregrounding this particular aspect in Point Break (I mean, whose idea was it to give them the exact same haircut?), Reeves’ androgynous qualities are a defining aspect of his persona. We can see a similar mirroring happening years later between Trinity and Neo in The Matrix. I would argue, however, that this particular queerness, this troubling of that so contested line between the categories of male and female, is expressed in Reeves’ career by more than just his looks.
Before we get there, you’ll have to forgive me one more quick detour into film theory (I told you I live in academia, right?). Feminist film critics from the last few decades have argued a couple of things about Hollywood cinema, which I will sum up thusly: Hollywood cinema is all about organizing looks. We look as the camera looks, and the camera looks as the male character in the film looks, which is at the woman. The male is the active force in the film, chasing something that is often, but not exclusively, the woman. The woman is the spectacle – she is a passive force, a thing to be gained and not known, and her appearance often disrupts the forward narrative motion of the film. These arguments are a lot more complex than I’m able to express here, and there is a whole lineage of theorists who’ve thought of every counter argument you might currently be formulating. You should google Laura Mulvey or Teresa de Lauretis if you want to read more.
As you may have figured out, it seems to me that Keanu both troubles and makes obvious these kinds of structures. Most noticeably, Keanu is himself a spectacle. The camera in his films often wants to linger on his face and body in a way that is usually reserved for actresses. His presence in films is more inward than outward, or active (an obvious conclusion when you compare him to someone like Bruce Willis, who, in his action roles, has the inner life of a jar of pickles). And here we stumble across a fact I brought up in the podcast, which is that Hollywood in general seems to be uncomfortable with acknowledging Reeves as an ‘action star.’
Though his most successful films all fall into the action category, one can trace a pretty consistent push to put him in films ‘for women.’ As a result, I’ve had to sit through a lot of movies like Sweet November, The Lake House and even, God help me, A Walk in the Clouds. And I can report back: these films are not nearly as interesting as the ones in which Reeves’ persona is working against something like the expectations we bring to action films. And sure, one could say, they’re just bad films, but that doesn’t cover it. I’m going to lose a few of you here, but I’ll say it, The Lake House was underrated. Especially when compared to the really, truly bad Keanu films, which aren’t the romances, but rather Johnny Mnemonic, The Watcher and The Last Time I Committed Suicide (oh, so very, very bad). This push to get Keanu over where we can be comfortable with him, i.e., romancing the ladies, is evidence of the discomfort that his straddling of the supposed line between the male and female genders produces. I imagine the (non-)thinking goes something like this: he looks a lot more masculine next to Charlize Theron than next to Joe Pantoliano, so let’s get him next to Theron already.
The disquiet his looks cause sprouts up in another form as well, and this would be the eternally recurring assumption that Reeves is gay. This rumor has been around for a long time, probably since the My Own Private Idaho days, and once reached its apex when paparazzi claimed that Reeves had gone on a spending spree with supposed lover David Geffen’s credit card. That news story actually happened. I have no idea about the event itself. My own personal experience with the gay rumor reached a head when a young psycho once came into the video store where I was working, spotted Reeves on the screen, and screamed into my face “HE’S GAY.” He fled the store before I could insert a DVD into his late return slot.
Now before I say anything else, there is an important point to be made here: Reeves deserves some serious credit for not denying this rumor, or even giving it the time of day. In other words, not only did Reeves star in (and thus help green-light) one of the most important queer films ever made (My Own Private Idaho), playing a non-straight character a decade before it was as accepted as it is now, he does not think being gay is something anyone should have to defend against. Anyone who wants to claim that Reeves isn’t intelligent should think about that for a second – Reeves understands that as soon as you say, ‘Well, being gay is fine, but I’m definitely not gay,’ you’ve really said that being gay is not fine. There is a much more nuanced version of this argument in Michael De Angelis’ book Gay Fandom and Crossover Stardom: James Dean, Mel Gibson and Keanu Reeves, and I point interested parties in that direction (I must acknowledge that my understanding of Reeves not denying being gay is based on De Angelis’ much more researched and historically-oriented work, which I read many years ago. If I have forgotten any details, I’m sure the internet will let me know).
As I mentioned earlier, feminist film theory holds that Hollywood consistently attributes a mysterious inner life to its female characters, an inner life that makes them attractive to their male counterparts (and, hence, unattractive once ‘known’) – this idea is surfacing again these days in the discussions around the ‘manic pixie dream-girl.’ Can’t we very easily say that Keanu has this same attribute? In his contemplative gaze, he seems to impart to us that there is something behind his visage that we can’t quite reach. You want to describe him as ‘deep,’ as having some depth that we cannot ourselves fathom. Perhaps this is why he so well cast as drug-users (I Love You to Death, A Scanner Darkly) or as characters that are experiencing reality differently than those around them (The Matrix). And he is not somehow more feminine for having this opaque inner life – rather, Reeves’ having it shows that it is not an essential quality of a certain gender. In fact, perhaps everyone has it. Perhaps none of us knows ourselves completely, or could explain every aspect of ourselves, and Reeves’ excellence lies in his special ability to impart this fact to us.
But before we take the red pill and fall down that rabbit hole, I have one last (I swear) point to make in my quest to convince you of Reeves’ greatness. It seems to me that the fascination and devotion Reeves draws likely springs from the way he always seems to be fine just ‘being there.’ The Zen quality we find in Keanu is probably what inspired Bernardo Bertolucci to cast him as the Buddha, for goodness’ sake. It’s not that Reeves embodies some facile idea of peacefulness, or being at one with oneself (although he might), but rather this: whatever unfathomable thing is going on inside of Reeves, it doesn’t seem to be about trying to get somewhere else, or outsmarting someone, or proving that he is worthwhile. It’s probably this aspect of Reeves’ character that makes him such an easy target for those people who are desperately trying to do these things.
Reeves is an emblem of the value of giving yourself over to something without knowing exactly what to expect and to demand, unlike the stars that fit into the boxes that reward those kind of expectations. This is queerness, the realization that human identity means that all the things we will become are not the things we are now, and that ‘identity’ does not mean that we have to be identical to ourselves and our past selves. When we bring pre-set ideas to bear, when we can’t let go of our hierarchies of gender, race, taste, and sexuality, we close ourselves off to the way things might be soon. And, worst of all, we don’t get to have the blast that is watching, and loving, Keanu Reeves.
– Kate Rennebohm