Saturday, March 5, 2022

Reverend's Interview: Open Your Eyes with "Coded"

Many have never heard his name but our community owes a debt to artist J.C. Leyendecker. Born in 1874, Joseph Christian Leyendecker was a German-American illustrator considered one of the preeminent American illustrators of the early 20th century. He way also openly gay to a degree unheard of at the time.

Leyendecker is best known for his poster, book and advertising illustrations, the trade character known as the Arrow Collar Man and his numerous covers for The Saturday Evening Post. Between 1896 and 1950, he painted more than 400 magazine covers during what is considered the Golden Age of American Illustration. No other artist, until the arrival of Norman Rockwell two decades later, was so solidly identified with one publication. Leyendecker died in 1951.

One commentator had this to say: “Unlike Rockwell’s celebration of traditional family values, Leyendecker’s two hyper-masculine, square-jawed, all-American icons of Thanksgiving — a Puritan and a football player — eye each other like two men cruising a gay nightclub with a strict and peculiar dress code.” In doing so, the artist contributed to an idealized image of gay men that endures to this day.

A new, Oscar-shortlisted documentary short film about him is now streaming on Paramount+. Coded: The Hidden Love of J.C. Leyendecker was directed by award-winning gay filmmaker Ryan White (Ask Dr. Ruth, Serena, The Case Against 8). Out actor Neil Patrick Harris provides narration as the voice of J.C. Leyendecker. It won the grand jury prize for best short documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival as well as a special recognition from the GLAAD Media Awards.

White was himself honored by Queerty two years ago as one of “50 individuals who are leading the nation toward equality, acceptance, and dignity for all people.” He recently chatted with me about his latest film via email.

CC: Hi Ryan! I understand you're very busy so thanks for taking the time to respond. When and how did you first learn about J.C. Leyendecker?
RW: I made a series for Apple TV+ in 2020 called Visible: Out on Television, about the history of queer representation throughout television history. It began with the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954, which was the first time the word “homosexual” was ever said on television. It was in the research of that storyline that my team discovered this period that predated McCarthyism where there had been quite a bit of LGBTQ progress, especially in New York. We learned about this prominent artist of the time named J.C. Leyendecker, but his storyline didn't fit in Visible. So I always wanted to return to his story, and making a short film allowed me to do that.

CC: What spoke to you most or inspired you most about his story?
RW: All of my films have been character films. Although Leyendecker has been dead for 70 years, I see Coded as a character film as well. Even by today's standards, his artwork is very homoerotic. I was fascinated that this man was doing this subversive work 100 years ago, and I wanted to know more about him. It also felt like his legacy had been somewhat forgotten and I wanted to know why.

CC: How did your documentary come together?
RW: Short films are tough to get financed and made, but I had a great team of partners that all recognized the importance of telling Leyendecker's story. My editor Rejh Cabrera worked tirelessly to cut the film and find the right emotional tone. Danny Madden was the incredible animation director who brought the visuals alive, and my longtime composer Blake Neely brilliantly scored the film inspired by the music of the 1920's.

CC: I really liked your approach in showing how Leyendecker's life and work have influenced modern-day LGBTQ artists. How did you decide to take that approach?
RW: We always wanted to tie the past to the present in the arc of the film. Leyendecker's artwork paved the way in many ways for the more overt queer imagery we see in advertising today. So we decided to explore a couple more modern-day storylines like Subaru and trans model Jari Jones to highlight the ripple effects of Leyendecker's legacy. We also wanted the film to be somewhat of a cautionary tale that history repeats itself. We can't pat ourselves on the back and say we've reached the finish line; Leyendecker's life story is a prime example of how quickly progress can be ripped apart.

CC: While your film sadly didn't make the final nominations for this year's Academy Awards, it was a finalist in the Best Documentary Short category. How did it feel to make it that far?
RW: That's a huge honor to be shortlisted! It's hard to get buzz and attention on a short film, so the awards conversation definitely helps garner more visibility.

CC: Your documentary paints a rather rosy picture of the relationship between Leyendecker and model Charles Beach, but I've subsequently read accusations that Beach took advantage of his longtime partner. What is your response to these?
RW: I would actually say our film doesn't create a rosy — or any — portrait of their day-to-day relationship, because we don't know enough about it. We had to rely on primary sources to tell the story because it's a documentary, so it doesn't allow a lot of room for conjecture. But I'm sure a 50-year relationship has plenty of room for drama and ups-and-downs. I think that would best be explored in a scripted project though, where you have a little more leeway to write a character and fictionalize things.

CC: If Leyendecker were alive today, what do you think he would be doing or concerned about as an artist?
RW: That's a great question. He was undeniably an advertising genius, so I like to imagine he'd be working for top brands and causes.

CC: What are you working on now? Do you have any other LGBTQ-interest projects in development or on your wish list?
RW: I am making a documentary about a robot that “lived” for 15 years on Mars! As far as I know, she doesn't identify as LGBTQ (laughs). It will come out on Amazon later this year. I call my job “Career ADD”, it allows me to skip around from topics that are totally different from one another and keeps me on my toes.

Coded: The Hidden Love of J.C. Leyendecker is now streaming on Paramount+.

Interview by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film and stage critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.

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