Film Critic Ellie Burridge analyses the complex representation of same-sex relationships in IT Chapter Two – contains Spoilers!
Editor’s Note: This feature contains spoilers for IT Chapter Two, which is still in cinemas.
‘Be proud’ says the voiceover at the end of IT Chapter Two. On the screen, Richie (Bill Hader) crouches in front of his childhood town’s ‘kissing bridge,’ deepening the carving he first made when he was thirteen: R + E. It is a heartbreaking moment of Richie acknowledging, for the second time in twenty-seven years, that he was in love with Eddie (James Ransone). The moment hurts all the more because Eddie is dead, and Richie never told him how he felt.
There is no moment of pride for Richie in IT Chapter Two, contrary to the saccharine voiceover’s directive. Although his storyline revolves primarily around his sexuality, the film brutalises his emotionally in a way that sticks out like a sore thumb when, by the end of the film, all the other surviving protagonists have found some semblance of closure and happiness — except Richie, who is still closeted and heartbroken.
The film’s interest in gay people is established from its opening: it is interested, primarily, in gay suffering. Celebrated gay filmmaker Xavier Dolan cameos as Adrian Mellon, a character whose only purpose is to be gay and die horribly. First, he is attacked by a group of homophobes, who assault him and throw him off a bridge; secondly, he is eaten by the titular IT. Adrian’s boyfriend is forced to watch the entire attack; later, Richie is similarly helpless to prevent Eddie’s death at the hands of IT. The parallels between the two couples are emphasised by the filmmakers’ decision to establish that both Adrian and Eddie are dependent on inhalers — but what purpose does this alignment serve, other than to communicate that same-sex relationships cannot end happily?
What stings is that there is a heterosexual couple in the film, providing an upsetting foil to the tragedy of Richie and Eddie’s relationship. While Richie sobs over Eddie’s death, Ben and Beverly consummate their relationship with a kiss. These things happen simultaneously, compounding the message that where gay characters can only suffer, straight ones can find love. Gay movie-goers are no strangers to this kind of double-standard; it is a long established norm that LGBT movies don’t have happy endings.
Moreover, Richie’s character arc is curiously static when compared with those of the other characters. Bill (James McAvoy) overcomes his guilt; Beverly (Jessica Chastain) escapes abuse and accepts the love she deserves — even Eddie manages to find the bravery to save Richie from IT’s clutches (this being the act that results in Eddie’s death). In contrast, Richie gets no closure. He is taunted by IT about his ‘dirty little secret’, a set-up which seems to suggest that Richie will admit how he feels to Eddie, or at least tell his friends that he’s gay. He never manages to do either. His breakdown over Eddie’s death is as close as he ever gets to verbalising how he felt; thus, he ends the movie in much the same place as he started, albeit with more grief and trauma to deal with.
And yet it would feel disingenuous for films to never explore the fact that being gay can feel painful, isolating and dangerous. IT Chapter Two does feature glimmers of a wonderful exploration of gay identity — in all its horror. Let’s start with Bill Hader (honorary member of the LGBT community ever since his first appearance as Stefon on Saturday Night Live), who pushed for the filmmakers to explore Richie’s sexuality rather than relegating it to subtext. In an interview with The New York Times, Hader said: ‘Andy [Musichetti, director] and I talked about how overt we should make it, and I said if it’s not overt, then why he in the movie? You can’t do a half measure on it. You’ve got to go the full way or don’t even allude to it. Let’s not be coy. Let’s just say what it is.’ Hader’s performance is nuanced and funny enough to make Richie shine as a character (most reviewers have noted as much and his chemistry with James Ransone means that the relationship between Richie and Eddie is easy to root for.
Despite the clear lack of gay voices behind the scenes, there are a few moments throughout the movie that feel authentic all the same. One is when Richie is handed an invitation to his own funeral; when he looks to see who gave it to him, it is the decaying body of Adrian Mellon (the victim of the hate crime at the film’s opening). ‘Hope to see you there, handsome,’ Adrian says. There are echoes of a line from poet Richard Siken’s ‘A Primer for the Small Weird Loves’ in the exchange: ‘you know a boy who likes boys is a dead boy unless / he keeps his mouth shut.’ Adrian was proudly, openly gay and he was punished for it; Richie, in contrast, is miserable but ‘safe’ inside the closet.
The spectre of the closet recurs throughout the film, most notably when Richie and Eddie are confronted by three doors, denoted as ‘Not Scary,’ Scary,’ and ‘Very Scary.’ Richie chooses the ‘Very Scary’ door, on the other side of which is the inside of a closet. Being inside the closet is almost equally as scary to Richie as coming out of it; he has spent twenty-seven years unable to live authentically, without telling Eddie that he loves him. Thanks to IT, he never gets the chance — or the courage — to.
Amongst all of this suffering, there is only one scene during which Richie and Eddie are given the chance to be happy together. It is a flashback to when they were children, and contains one of the movie’s few hints that Eddie felt the same way about Richie. The flashback shows the two (as played by Finn Wolfhard and Jack Dylan Grazer) playfully fighting over the single hammock in the gang’s underground hideout, with Eddie eventually deciding to jump on with Richie. Young love in films is almost always straight; IT Chapter Two‘s implication that Richie and Eddie loved each other since childhood — that Eddie was, as Hader has said, Richie’s first love — is refreshing (and, yes, cute) to see.
IT Chapter Two, for all its glaring faults in depicting gay characters, has resonated with LGBT people — myself included. The film made me angry, but it also made me cry seven times. Perhaps it signifies a step forward in terms of Hollywood representing a range of gay stories across more genres than just romance and coming-of-age. Perhaps it is emblematic of Hollywood’s deeply regressive attitude towards LGBT rights. Only one thing is for sure: Bill Hader should be in all the movies.
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