Kenneth Anger, Influential Queer Filmmaker and 'Hollywood Babylon' Author, Dead at 96
Gay filmmaker and author Kenneth Anger, known for his experimental and homoerotic movies and his wildly gossipy Hollywood Babylon books, has died at age 96.
Anger died May 11, but his death was just widely reported this week. He died at an assisted-living facility in Yucca Valley, Calif., Spencer Glesby, a spokesman for Sprüth Magers, an art gallery that represented Anger, told national media outlets.
Anger, sometimes called the godfather of queer film, grew up in the Los Angeles area and began making movies in his youth. He was 20 when he made Fireworks, shot in his parents’ Beverly Hills home when they were out of town. Anger appears in the 14-minute film having “a sadomasochistic encounter with a group of musclebound sailors, one of whom undoes his pants to reveal a Roman candle,” as The New York Times describes the movie in its Anger obituary.
Fireworks “was a daring exploration of gay desire,” The Washington Post notes, and film scholar Ryan Powell has called it “arguably the highest profile homoerotic film of the postwar years.” A theater operator who showed the movie was convicted of violating obscenity laws, but the conviction was overturned on appeal.
His most famous film, 1963’s Scorpio Rising, follows the adventures of a group of leather-jacketed motorcyclists as they ride and party. It “alternately treated the motorcyclists as sex symbols, neo-Nazis and would-be messiahs, intercutting footage from a Christian educational film about Jesus,” according to the Post. Anger said the movie was a documentary using real bikers. Because it featured frontal nudity, Anger was charged with indecency, but he was cleared by the California Supreme Court.
With its extensive use of pop music, Scorpio Rising presaged the rise of music videos. It included songs by Elvis Presley, Ricky Nelson, Ray Charles, Bobby Vinton, and Little Peggy March.
Fireworks and Scorpio Rising are part of Anger’s Magick Lantern Cycle, along with seven other short films. The final one, Lucifer Rising, portrayed Lucifer “not as the devil but as a god of light,” the Times notes, and Anger called Lucifer “the patron saint of movies.” Anger finished the first version of the film in 1972, but he revised it several times. Bobby Beausoleil, a follower of Charles Manson, wrote the score — from prison, where he was serving a life sentence for murder.
Another film in the cycle, 1954’s Inauguration of The Pleasure Dome, grew out of Anger’s interest in the work of occultist and poet Aleister Crowley. It depicts historical and mythological figures in a dreamlike fashion; famed diarist Anaïs Nin was among the cast.
Admirers of Anger’s work included writer and filmmaker Jean Cocteau, playwright Tennessee Williams, and sex researcher Alfred Kinsey. Anger, living in Europe in the 1950s, showed Kinsey a gay cruising area in Italy. J. Paul Getty Jr. was one of Anger’s financiers, and Anger worked with music stars including Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull.
Anger’s Hollywood Babylon books reached a wider audience than his films did. They contained anecdotes about the sex lives of movie stars as well as graphic descriptions of their deaths and other controversial material. The first volume was published in France in 1959 but was suppressed for a time in the U.S., where it finally came out in 1975. A follow-up, Hollywood Babylon II, was released in 1984. The books were popular but were criticized as inaccurate.
Anger defended his work, though. He told the website Dazed in 2011 that he had a rough draft of a third volume but added, “I can’t publish it because it involves certain personalities like Tom Cruise who would sue me, even though the material is very carefully checked out and verified. He and a handful of others, not many, a select bunch, consider themselves Scientologists, and Scientologists love to sue people!”
Anger disdained being labeled a major figure of queer cinema, once saying, “I don’t like being put in a cubbyhole,” according to the Times. But critics have observed that there’s no denying his influence on film in general, queer or not.
Anger’s personality belied his surname, which he changed from Anglemyer, Ronald Bergan wrote in The Guardian. “Having met him a few times in his later years, I found him a charming man, full of witty anecdotes,” Bergan noted in his obit of Anger, adding, “He was a pussycat, albeit one with claws ready to strike when necessary.”