Giddy retro kitsch, talking-heads documentary and intensely campy melodrama are just a few of the ingredients tossed into the mulligan stew that is Beefcake. The nominal subject is Bob Mizer (1922-1992), the notorious L.A. photographer and publishing mini-mogul who joyously celebrated the male physique in low-rent movies and under-the-counter magazines. Instead of making a straightforward biopic, however, writer-director Thom Fitzgerald has attempted something appreciably more ambitious: A sympathetic and impressionistic meditation on Mizer's contributions to an American homoerotic subculture that somehow survived and thrived during the repressive '50s.
As played by Daniel MacIvor in stylized and fictionalized vignettes that give the movie a sense of narrative momentum, Mizer comes across as a sensitive milquetoast who devotes most of his energies and all of his passion to his dubious art. Chronically fascinated by the ineffable beauty of muscular young men, Mizer specialized in photographing scantily clad hunks for fun and profit. In 1945, he founded the Athletic Model Guild, an agency for buff male models, and published a catalogue to showcase his clients at their most photogenic. The agency was a bust -- but the catalogue circulated far beyond the intended readership of artists and photographers. So far, in fact, that Mizer shifted gears and created Physique Pictorial, one of the first commercial magazines aimed at connoisseurs of studly pulchritude.
There is something at once sweetly innocent and leeringly carnal about Mizer's '50s photos, many of which are prominently displayed in Beefcake. There are pictures of clean-cut, all-American fellows at work and play -- sunbathing, wrestling, baling hay, lounging on the beach -- wearing nothing more than smiles and "posing pouches." There are other, slightly more sinister shots featuring unsmiling men in chains, or bound and kneeling, or intimidated by small groups of rough trade. And, of course, there are the pictures -- and the movies -- where they men continue to smile, but don't bother to wear pouches.
How did Mizer get away with it? Well, think of it as an early example of don't ask, don't tell. Ostensibly aimed at bodybuilders and would-be muscle men, Physique Pictorial promoted its male models as wholesome embodiments of robust health and physical fitness. To this end, Mizer wrote gushy mini-biographies of each tasty stud muffin, describing this one as "a playful rascal," that one as "a young man of strength and conviction," and so on. All of which fooled hardly anybody, but allowed Mizer at least a fig leaf of protection against obscenity charges.
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Like many other magazines of its type, Physique Pictorial (which continued to publish two years after Mizer's death) was immensely popular with closeted gay men, curious straight women and teenaged boys grappling with sexual identity crises. In his autobiographical debut feature, 1997's The Hanging Garden, Fitzgerald focused on the very sort of insecure young man who might have savored Physique Pictorial as a guilty pleasure. In Beefcake, the Canadian-born writer-director underscores fact with fiction by following the misadventures of Neil O'Hara (Josh Pierce), a straight and strapping young man who journeys from Nova Scotia to Los Angeles to seek fame and fortune, and winds up posing in Mizer's magazine. During his first day in the big city, Neil fortuitously runs into the photographer -- ah, the magic of the movies! -- in front of Grauman's Chinese Theatre. Mizer makes his pitch ("Hey, have you ever thought of modeling?") and a star is launched.
Beefcake insists that, for the most part, Mizer followed a "look but don't touch!" policy while dealing with his subjects, even after several of the well-endowed young men started to live in the home Mizer shared with his supportive but disapproving mother (Carroll Goodman). In a key scene that plays like an overheated collaboration of Douglas Sirk and John Waters, a tremulous Mizer steps out of the closet only long enough to be serviced by a brazenly seductive "hep cat" who's overly fond of "reefer." (Hipster patois is something of a running gag throughout Beefcake.) More often, though, the buttoned-down Mizer seems almost prudish, if not entirely asexual. It's almost shocking when, late in the movie, the photographer is arrested and charged with operating a male prostitution ring. MacIvor's performance is engaging and compelling, but Mizer is too sketchily rendered as a character for the audience to make full sense of his complexities and contradictions. And it doesn't help much that the movie's wink-wink tone of fey self-parody undercuts any attempt to portray Mizer as a martyr for his cause.
Fitzgerald tries to shed additional light on his elusive subject by interviewing some of Mizer's contemporaries, including Joe Dallesandro, the former Andy Warhol superstar who bared all in Mizer's movies and magazines, and Jack LaLane, the straight-arrow health-and-fitness fanatic. LaLane is nonjudgmental, even respectful, when he speaks of the late photographer who elevated beefcake photography to the level of homoerotic fantasy. Asked about Mizer's reported pimping of his models, LaLane simply shakes his head and says, "I would never do that." And then, his eyes twinkling with mischief, he turns the tables on Alexander by asking: "Why would you ask? You want a date?" You can't help feeling that Bob Mizer would have been a much happier man if he could have approached life with some of LaLane's sass and brass.
Beefcake. Directed by Thom Fitzgerald. Unrated.