Lassie, Rin Tin Tin, Benji, Flicka, Tarzan's pal Cheetah, Babe the sheep pig... Animals have played important roles in many movies since practically the medium's birth. The Doctor Dolittle films (1928, 1967 & 1998-2001) each showcase a menagerie of furred, feathered and finned creatures, and an entire zoo is featured in the aptly-titled 2011 family drama We Bought a Zoo. When you add animated renditions of our non-human friends courtesy of Walt Disney and others, it is hard to think of a movie that doesn't feature at least one animal character.
This is no less true when it comes to the films our LGBT community holds dear. Brokeback Mountain wouldn't feel as authentic without the horses ridden by cowboys-in-love Ennis and Jack, nor without the flock of sheep they were so fatefully hired to shepherd together. Dorothy couldn't have escaped the clutches of the Wicked Witch of the West without the help of her devoted little dog Toto in The Wizard of Oz. And where would Audrey Hepburn's Holly Golightly have ended up in Breakfast at Tiffany's, adapted from a novella by gay writer Truman Capote, without the similarly free-spirited cat who leads her to a sexy new neighbor played by blonde and beautiful George Peppard? (On a side note, Tiffany's Orangey the Cat is the only feline double-winner to date of the PATSY Award, given by the American Humane Association's Hollywood branch to the best animal performer of each cinema year; her other win was for the 1951 film Rhubarb.)
Yes, animals may be trying to rule the world (at least according to this summer's hit TV series Zoo) but they long ago conquered the silver screen. Dogs, a.k.a. man's (and woman's) best friend, have been natural scene-stealers in many movies. There's The Thin Man's Asta, the unforgettable Old Yeller, the similarly tear-jerking My Dog Skip and Marley & Me, and Annie's rescued buddy Sandy, among many others. However, two canine stars stand out in gay circles despite controversy over one of them. The Silence of the Lambs was met with heavy criticism from GLAAD and others upon its release in 1991 over the thriller's depiction of a transsexual serial killer known as "Buffalo Bill." However, Bill's scruffy poodle-mix Precious served to both help humanize the disturbed character and provide an opportunity for one of his would-be victims to escape. The escapee ends up adopting Precious as the FBI moves in on the killer.
Verdell, the adorable Brussels Griffon co-star of 1997's As Good as It Gets, similarly helps to soften the film's initially detestable leading man Melvin, a dog-hating obsessive compulsive writer played by Jack Nicholson. It falls to him to care for Verdell when his gay neighbor (played by Oscar nominee Greg Kinnear), who is also the dog's owner, is brutally attacked and hospitalized. With Verdell's help, Melvin gradually overcomes his anti-animal, anti-gay and generally anti-social ways.
Breakfast at Tiffany's aside, cats have more often than not played villainous movie roles. Think of Dr. Evil's partner in crime Mr. Bigglesworth in the Austin Powers series or Mr. Tinkles, who is bent on world domination (and voiced by out actor Sean Hayes) in 2001's Cats & Dogs. Cinderella's Lucifer notwithstanding, Disney helped give them a more positive image with such films as That Darn Cat!, The Cat from Outer Space and The Aristocats. A heroic feline has a prominent role in Hocus Pocus (1993), another Disney movie that has garnered a sizable gay following thanks to its campy star turn by Bette Midler. Binx is actually a 17th century boy transformed into a black cat by Midler's wicked witch and her sisters. 300 years later, Binx enlists a group of teenagers to help finish the job he started and destroy the resurrected sorceresses once and for all. More recently, Ben Affleck takes solace in the companionship of his devoted cat after the mysterious disappearance of his over-privileged wife in last year's Gone Girl. And when it comes to big cats, who can forget Katharine Hepburn's pet leopard of the title of 1938's comedy classic Bringing Up Baby or Elsa the lioness from Born Free?
Rabbits have made memorable appearances (and in one famous case, a non-appearance) in a number of films. There's the unfortunate pet bunny belonging to Michael Douglas's family that gets boiled alive by Glenn Close's psychotic jilted lover in Fatal Attraction (1987), the scary oversized rabbit that haunts Jake Gyllenhaal's dreams in the cult classic Donnie Darko (2001), the even bigger mutated rabbits of 1972's Night of the Lepus, and the decidedly cuter and more docile Bunzo, companion to the title character in this year's excellent Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter. A new gay-themed movie currently making the festival rounds, Xenia, also features a bunny that helps its teenaged owner along the difficult road to maturity. One also mustn't overlook Watership Down (1978), the animated saga about a colony of British rabbits migrating to a safer new home.
Arguably, the most beloved big-screen rabbit of all time is never actually seen except in an artist's rendering at the very end of the film. Harvey, released in 1950, stars Jimmy Stewart as an eccentric, alcoholic man whose best friend is an invisible six-foot tall rabbit for whom the movie is named. Harvey is actually described as a pooka, a mythological creature drawn to social outcasts. Naturally, the townspeople think Stewart's character is insane and try to convince him Harvey is not real. Friendship wins out though, and one can view the movie today as something of a pro-gay parable with its leading man's insistence on remaining faithful to his "unnatural" relationship.
Apes, chimpanzees and primates of various species have long roamed, swung and charged across the silver screen. There are the numerous Tarzan, Bomba the Jungle Boy and Planet of the Apes movies of course, as well as various incarnations of The Jungle Book (new versions of both Tarzan, starring True Blood's Alexander Skarsgård, and The Jungle Book are due in 2016). Gay actor Tommy Kirk starred as the title character of 1965's The Monkey's Uncle, whose "nephew" Stanley is a chimp smart enough to help their college's failing football players to pass their exams. More serious to be sure are the socially-conscious 1980's dramas Gorillas in the Mist, with an Oscar-nominated Sigourney Weaver as murdered gorilla conservationist Dian Fossey, and Project X, in which Matthew Broderick and Helen Hunt confront the abuses suffered by apes subjected to military testing.
This overview truly provides a mere sampling of the significant part animals have played in cinematic history. I haven't even mentioned the equine stars of National and International Velvet, The Black Stallion and War Horse; the ursine players in Grizzly, The Edge and The Bear (does Ted count?); the titular deers of The Yearling and Bambi; undersea heroes (Free Willy, The Incredible Mr. Limpet, Finding Nemo) and villains (Jaws, Orca, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea); and the lovable birds of March of the Penguins, Fly Away Home or Samantha the Goose in one of my all-time favorite films, Friendly Persuasion (1956). Whether friendly or ferocious, animals can be movie stars too.
By Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.