You can tell a whole lot about a film’s impact by the GIFs that remain peppered throughout the Internet even years after its release. For Lee Daniels’s gloriously trashy The Paperboy, its afterlife is preserved in slow-as-molasses, steamy grabs of heartthrob Zac Efron’s Jack Jansen languishing in itty bitty, tighty whities, flexing his tautly muscled torso and suggestively slurping Jello. At times, the GIF-makers don’t even bother to capture Efron’s face, just the bulge in his barely-there underwear.
Though superficially a crime drama with a plot so incomprehensible that details of murder and imprisonment fade into the background, overshadowed by golden showers, telepathic sex and scenes in which the characters wander around, mumbling over each other like Sims characters gone awry, The Paperboy, in posterity (pun intended), has become a mere vehicle for spank bank material geared toward dreamy-eyed teenage girls on Tumblr and let’s be honest, more than a fair share of gay men. Buzzfeed even has a post “The 25 Hottest Zac Efron GIFs from ‘The Paperboy,’” which comes accompanied by the subtitle “This will save you the energy of fast-forwarding. And now you don’t have to watch The Paperboy.”
Is Buzzfeed’s Louis Peitzman right? Is The Paperboy’s only redeeming quality these long, lingering shots of Efron’s statuesque form? Possibly. It does seem to be one of the main points of the film and a particular fixation of its director. But it’s also so much more. Whether a naked pregnant woman eating ice cream in a swamp, Deliverance extra Tyree gutting gators or Efron’s Jack screaming at jellyfish accompanied by Eddie Bo’s saccharine song “Lucky In Love” before the film’s infamous pissing scene, the characters in The Paperboy might as well be in the running for “the filthiest people alive” with Pink Flamingos’ s Babs Johnson and Connie and Raymond Marble. All the film needed was acquitted killer Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack) convicting everyone of assholism before the film’s final bloody conclusion.
So why isn’t The Paperboy a staple in the lexicon of bad taste? A requirement in the repository of raunch? A must-watch in the syllabus of swampy sleaze? Even though The New Yorker called the film an instant camp classic in 2013, it never quite reached the camp canonization. Well, dearest Filthy Dreams readers, we’re going to put it there. While Danielle Wu gave the film some much-needed legitimacy earlier this week, I’m going to drag it back down with a celebration of its utter lack of seriousness.
In Susan Sontag’s Notes on Camp, she defines camp as “a seriousness that fails,” noting “Of course, not all seriousness that fails can be redeemed as Camp. Only that which has the proper mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate and the naïve.” Ultimately, she observes, ‘Camp is art that proposes itself seriously, but cannot be taken altogether seriously because it is ‘too much.’”
Enter The Paperboy, a film that waffles between earnestly depicting racism, poverty, homophobia, psychosexual violence and the unjustly accused in the South with over-the-top white nonsense. In fact, like Sontag’s articulation, it’s impossible to tell just how serious Lee Daniels was when making certain choices in the film, the majority of which seems barely scripted. What is clear, however, is that though the film is narrated by Macy Gray’s Anita, the Jansen’s maid and de facto maternal figure for Jack, the film’s perspective is nothing if not filtered through the gay male gaze, which not only ramps up the camp, but also is met with tension when considering the violence endured by the film’s only gay character Ward, played by Matthew McConaughey.
Of course, as previously mentioned, some of the campiest scenes in the film come directly from the camera’s (Ok, Daniels’s) loving, even caressing, gazes at Efron’s nearly nude form, which are reminiscent of Andy Warhol’s clear voyeuristic interest in his anti-Hollywood hunks like Paul America or Joe Dallesandro. Granted, it’s not hard to see why Daniels’s camera loves Efron, especially in comparison to John Cusack’s Hillary Van Wetter who looks like the physical embodiment of swamp ass. In contrast to pretty much every other character’s sweat-drenched, pit-stained, mosquito-bitten imperfections, every shot of Jack resembles the all-American idealism of 1970s vintage porn magazines or the sepia-toned mid-century romanticism of a Lana Del Rey music video.
The first time the audience is introduced to Jack is via a voiceover by Anita, who in a drab office, discusses Jack’s love of swimming and his exit from college, setting up his eventual gig as his brother Ward and his fellow Miami Times reporter Yardley (David Oyelowo)’s driver. With a whistling soundtrack interspersed between Anita’s monologue, we see Jack submerged in a swimming pool like a David Hockney painting that even he decided was a bit too much. Shot from above, in slow motion, Daniels’s camera revels in each muscle movement made under the shimmering water, before Jack suddenly glides seductively toward the audience.
No longer in school, Jack seems to spend his days wandering around his father’s house in his underwear. After the swimming scene, we enter the Jansen household as Anita barges into Jack’s room. What is he doing in there? Exactly what he appears to do throughout the whole film–lounge in his underwear looking woebegone and moody. Lying on the floor with his feet on his bed, strewn with clothing that he apparently at one time wore, he yells, “Could you please knock? I could’ve been jerkin’ off in here,” which seems like a strange thing to say to your maid.
Asked by Vulture what she thought of Efron being nearly naked all the time, Macy Gray answered, “It was totally distracting. I just wanted him to put some clothes on! I was asking, ‘Why is he naked in every scene?’ But Lee said it had a purpose. But it was every day, all day. I don’t know what he was thinking. But Zac did it very well, and he had no problem with it. I guess, if you have a nice body, you know … So he didn’t complain.”
What was that purpose? Who knows! Ironically, Daniels is quick to note that he was hesitant about casting Efron in the role, viewing him as a cheesy Disney star. However, you can’t tell that from the film. Daniels tried to explain away Jack’s constant lack of clothes to The Huffington Post’s Isoul Harris: “I know. It’s blatant, but it’s not. When I grew up, I was in my underwear all the time in my mother’s house. I did not look anything like Zac! She would say, ‘Put some pants on!’ So, with this coming-of-age story, I was replicated what I know from my childhood.” Uh huh.
This Jack/Efron lust culminates in a scene in which Jack and Kidman’s Charlotte, with whom Jack is tragically in love, dance in the pouring rain. When asked about this scene, Daniels’s notes, “It was Nicole’s last day, and it started raining, and I thought it was beautiful. I started crying. God told me to play a song. It was a tearful moment for all of us. Then I was like, “Zac, your dick print is showing, and your ass is showing, and this is the reason why people are going to say I did this on purpose.” Did I? I don’t know.”
Kidman is also filtered through the gay male perspective. In fact, most of the time her character was on the screen I wondered if between Charlotte and Anita, this is what Daniels assumes women are like–either oversexed, blow-up doll-esque tarts or sexless maids. The jury is out. Nevertheless, Daniels depicts Charlotte, with her teased cotton-candy blond hair, spackled-on on eye makeup and slurred delivery of lines like, “I’m not going to blow a friendship over a stupid little blow job,” is basically a drag queen. Tottering in her high heels in a manner that would horrify most professional drag queens, Charlotte’s heightened and even, grotesque depiction femininity is so exaggerated that it becomes an obvious if precarious performance. And I haven’t even mentioned her hobby of writing love letter after love letter to prisoners. Classy.
In David M. Halperin’s How To Be Gay, he poses two gay tropes against one another: the beauty and the camp. While Efron’s Jack is clearly a beauty, Charlotte, though a cis straight woman and undeniably beautiful, is still the camp. Don’t believe me? Just watch the scene in which she has telepathic sex with her imprisoned beau Hillary Van Wetter. Mouth open, moaning and groaning, just imagine Divine playing the same role. It would be a perfect casting! Charlotte was born to be cheap!
And yet, despite this carnival of camp, the one gay character in the film Ward Jansen is depicted as a woefully tragic and eventually, pathetic figure. While through most of the film Ward exists as serious reporter man with a sprinkling of McConaughey’s alright-alright-alright goofy Southern charm, things start to take a turn as the film nears its end. In a bar with Charlotte and Jack, Ward chases after some rough trade to a song “(Loving Him Is) Dangerous” by William B. Jolly sung by what appears to be a discount version of the Supremes. Red flag!
Suddenly, we’re in an SVU episode as Jack and Charlotte find Ward beaten, tortured and nearly murdered after this hookup gone wrong. Lying on a sheet of plastic as if he was going to be Laura Palmered, Ward’s undoing occurs rapidly, considering as of now there was no subplot about same-sex desire, leaving the viewer to realize that not only is Ward into men, but he specifically goes for Black men as we learn shortly thereafter as Yardley reveals one time he got drunk and let Ward suck him off. And what happens after Charlotte and Jack happen upon this scene? Oh yeah, they have sex in their motel room, as you do after you discover your brother hog-tied and almost dead.
In an interview with Now Toronto, Daniels described, “I dated many white men in the 80s who had issues with their sexuality, more so in the South if they were dating black men. They weren’t just dealing with homophobia; they were engaged in the ultimate taboo. That aspect of the film is dedicated to a friend I used to date who committed suicide because of his distress around those issues.”
And yet, the rest of the film is so ridiculous that it’s hard to take Ward’s undoing seriously, even with the undertones of homophobia and racial fetishization, particularly when, after another whiplash-inducing, head-spinning time jump, we join Jack in Ward’s apartment where he has transformed into a one-eyed alcoholic with a closet full of black dildos. Seriously. A CLOSET FULL OF DICKS. Metaphor: Nailed!
And really, Ward is no less campy than the rest of the film, as he salutes Jack naked while swigging from a giant bottle of vodka. In fact, his cautionary tale reminded me of vintage pulp fiction novels in which the gay character, though allowed to cavort around sexually giving the readers what they really want, eventually has to get punished in the end.
So to return to my initial question, why isn’t The Paperboy in the canon of camp? On some level, it may have to do with Daniels’s strange mixture of genres. And sure, it doesn’t always work, but it also fails the most epically hilarious way possible. Or maybe the film just hasn’t found the right filthy audience. Responding to critiques about his strange mélange of intentions with the film, Daniels said to WNYC, “Life isn’t black or white, it’s all these other colors and shades of gray that make up life…There’s humor in everything, and there’s sadness in everything, and there’s sexuality in everything.” And, as The Paperboy shows, there’s also camp in everything.