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Greenwich Cipher

There is a homosexual subtext in Eyes Wide Shut that I always thought was fairly obvious, but I recently saw a contentious online discussion about this where either side of the debate was arguing its case without presenting any substantive evidence, for or against. I started wondering if the “obviousness” was just me taking Eyes Wide Shut‘s homosexual undertones for granted after having seen the movie so many times. In response, I figured I’d throw together a bit of analysis on the film’s gay subtext as it pertains to the relationship between Bill Harford and Nick Nightingale.

I understand that a lot of people take a “death of the author” stance when it comes to details that remain unspecified in movies– some will say everything is open for interpretation, most will agree that anything in a film which can’t be quantified should automatically default into subjectivism, and many believe that all readings of a film are in some way equally valid. In light of this, I’ll try to focus on the more definitive evidence for a gay subtext that the film presents, rather than the subtle, Hays-esque “queer coding”* that it employs.

*[This is the historical textual technique of implying that a character is homosexual without outright confirming it. For the quintessential example of this, see Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 film, “Rope”.]

The most concrete illustration of Eyes Wide Shut‘s gay subtext is what could be called an ‘encoded subplot’. While the homosexual quality of Bill and Nightingale’s relationship appears to be thematic rather than literal, there is a string of narrative sequences in the film which are clearly intended to metaphorically imply a semiotically proximal “gay affair” story arc.

Like lots of things in the film, the encoded subplot is made to mirror and play off of other parts of the movie. In particular, it is intended to correspond to the revelation that Domino, the prostitute, tests positive for HIV (the epidemic which has had a chronicled disproportionate impact on homosexual men, specifically).

If you pay close attention, you’ll notice that the scenes from the morning after the Somerton orgy– when Bill is trying to locate Nightingale– are meant to evoke the standard patient protocol in which someone who has been recently diagnosed with HIV tries to track down their former sexual partners and advise them to get tested. The film is not especially light-handed about conveying this. To obtain Nightingale’s hotel address from the waitress at Gillespie’s diner, Bill even goes as far as saying: “To be perfectly honest… it’s a medical matter. Some tests. I know he’ll want to know about them as soon as possible.”

Note that the wording of this dialogue is paralleled later, when Sally tells Bill, due to Domino’s HIV: To be perfectly honest, she may not even be coming back.”

Right after Gillespie’s, Bill goes to Nick’s hotel and talks to the desk clerk (who is himself overtly coded as a feminine homosexual stereotype). Amid lots of entendre regarding Nightingale going upstairs to his room with another man, the clerk says:

“I noticed Mr. Nightingale had a bruise on his cheek. To be perfectly honest, I also thought he looked a little scared.”

On its literal surface level, this line is meant to imply that Nightingale was roughed up by the Somerton goons… however, the bruise is also a reference to the symptomatic skin lesions associated with HIV/AIDS. The line also marks the third use of the phrase “to be perfectly honest” in relation to HIV.

As mentioned, scenes in the film tend to “correspond” to each other. This scene in the Hotel Jason is actually an analogue of something from much earlier in the film, although the parallels are easy to miss due to the large amount of time that passes between the two.

Have a read of Alice’s recount of the naval officer after she fights with Bill (emphasis mine):

ALICE: Do you remember last summer at Cape Cod? Do you remember one night in the dining room, there was this young naval officer, and he was sitting near our table with two other officers?


ALICE: The waiter brought him a messageat which point he left. Nothing rings a bell?

Well… I first saw him that morning in the lobby. He was checking into the hotel and he was following the bellboy with his luggage to the elevator. […] I thought if he wanted me, even if it was only for one night, I was ready to give up everything. […] I barely slept that night and I woke up the next morning in a panic. I didn’t know whether I was afraid that he had left or that he might still be there. But by dinner, I realized he was gone and I was relieved.

Now, compare this with the hotel desk clerk’s description of events:

CLERK: He came in this morning, about 4:30 a.m with two men. Big guys. They were very well-dressed and very well-spoken. But they weren’t the kind of people you’d fool around with… if you know what I mean. Anyways, I noticed Mr. Nightingale had a bruise on his cheek. […] He said he wanted to check out. And then he went upstairs to his room with one of the men. The other guy stayed down in the lobby and settled his bill. When they came back, Mr. Nightingale tried to pass me an envelope. But they saw it and took it away and said that any mail or messages for him would be collected by someone properly authorized to do so. And then they just took him off in a car.

The features of either hotel lobby are mirror images of each other. The things in Alice’s story each have a counterpart at the Hotel Jason– the naval officer matches Nightingale. The two other officers match the two big men. The bellboy matches the desk clerk. The naval officer checks in after receiving a message. Nightingale checks out after passing a message.

We can even see the luggage and elevator from Alice’s story in the lobby of the Hotel Jason:

r/StanleyKubrick - Homosexual Subtext in Eyes Wide Shut

In the film’s fantasy cutaway sequences, Alice is shown with the naval officer in his hotel room. It would appear, then, that Bill is Alice’s counterpart in the Hotel Jason scene; trying to get to Nightingale. Both scenes are catalysts for Bill’s sexual jealousy. We can possibly also assume that Alice and Bill’s feelings in the two scenarios are equivalent: by the end of the film, Bill is no longer trying to confirm if Nightingale is even still alive, and has turned a blind eye to the whole situation.

After the Hotel Jason scene, Nick Nightingale’s role in this narrative thread doesn’t really resurface in a major way… however, this in itself is interesting. It is the two HIV victims (a literal one in Domino and a figurative one in Nightingale) who ominously disappear from the movie.

That just about covers most of the defining elements of the film’s “gay arc”, but there are some other key points of interest worth mentioning:

-As with other aspects of the film’s subtext, there are allusions made to the nature of Bill and Nightingale’s relationship through double entendre dialogue (“I never did understand why you walked away“, Bill says to him at Ziegler’s Christmas party).

-The characters in Eyes Wide Shut display a variety of rings on their fingers throughout the movie, ranging from the simple to the curiously aesthetic. However, Nick Nightingale, despite being a married father of four kids in Seattle, has bare fingers in all of his scenes– he is not wearing a wedding ring. Nightingale not wearing his ring while visiting out of his hometown would seem to feed into the “homosexual tryst” subtext.

-The YALE frat boys homophobically berating Bill plays straightforwardly into the gay arc.

-As referenced by Nightingale, the Sonata Café, where he performs and meets Bill, is in Greenwich Village. Nightingale also asks Bill if he lives in the Village. Greenwich Village is well recognized as the cultural hub of New York’s gay community, and is considered ‘ground zero’ for the emergence of the gay rights movement in the wake of the 1969 Stonewall riots.

-The cinematic framing and the manner in which Bill steadies the napkin for Nightingale when he writes “Fidelio” would seem to connote a sense of sexual intimacy, with Nightingale’s pen as a phallic symbol. Echoing this, the gay coded hotel desk clerk is the only other character who is seen holding a pen.

-In the Sonata Café, Nightingale orders a vodka and tonic. As noted in its Wikipedia page, the drink is famously namechecked in the lyrics of the song “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” by prominent gay culture icon Elton John. This is an implicit tie-in not only with the film’s homosexual subtext, but also it’s recurrent “Wizard of Oz” motif, “the rainbow“. The rainbow is the most prevalent piece of symbolism in Eyes Wide Shut, as well as the adopted symbol of the LGBT pride movement. It’s also worth noting that Judy Garland, who played Dorothy in “‘Oz”, is herself generally considered to be the most universal gay icon.


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