While insanely different, the words “raunch” and “camp” often get confused or misused when describing films. They both are expressions for a type of subculture within explicit films; Camp stemming from a “love of the unnatural” (Susan Sontag, “Notes on ‘Camp’”) and often used to reference gay-themed or identified films, while “raunch” originally meant anything that was highly vulgar or obscene. Both words have evolved over the decades from their harsher, more exact meanings to softer, even fluffy uses today. How many times have you used raunch to describe a slightly suggestive moment in a film, where in fact you probably meant risqué or gauche? Hell, I did it last night when discussing the new film Horrible Bosses, which is what spurred this whole exploration of the two phrases.
Before Sontag named and defined it in the 1960s, the manifestation of camp elements in Hollywood went all the way back to the invention of the medium. Comedies like Charlie Chaplin’s 1916 film Behind the Screen presented cross-dressing and male-male loving. The “gay” kiss between the two main characters is later revealed to be a straight kiss between Chaplin and his co-star Edna Purviance. This film was controversial, but audiences embraced the over-the-top antics of Chaplin (arguably one of the purveyors of “camp”) and flocked to the theaters to see more from the mustached tramp and his pre-Code/pre-Talkie contemporaries.
Director George Cukor brought camp to the mainstream in 1939 with his flamboyant relationship dramedy The Women. Starring future gay-icons Rosalind Russell and Joan Crawford, The Women tells the story of four married and unsatisfied women who are going through exaggerated life changes. Mary Haines (Norma Shearer) is the naïve newly-wed who has just discovered her husband’s extramarital affair and aligns herself almost unwillingly with the brazen Sylvia Fowler (Russell) who is determined to help Mary destroy the reputation of her husband’s mistress Crystal Allen (Crawford). The whole film is about the effects sex has on more than one person, in this case on the three people in the crumbling relationship, and the gossip surrounding the relationship. Here, Sylvia’s sheer boredom at home manifests into a burning need to meddle in other people’s lives. Her own husband is probably “stepping out” on her as well, but rather than face the truth, she chooses to slut-shame Crystal and wiggle her way into Mary’s vulnerable heart. Her lack of realizing her own shamelessness makes Sylvia the epitome of camp, for her failed seriousness makes her so enjoyable.
On the surface The Women is about the cruelty toward and control of women by their rich husbands, but each of these women gets what she deserves in the end. Mary gets her husband back, following the dissolution of his second marriage to Crystal, Crystal gets to feel like more than a mistress, and Sylvia briefly learns to keep her trap shut. These showy characters are the foundation of modern Camp with their “flamboyant mannerisms susceptible of a double interpretation” and “spirit of extravagance” (Sontag).
The 1960s and the 1980s were both great decades for the evolution of Camp in mainstream films, as the style went from referencing gay culture through women to men respectfully dressing as women. Just as audience saw before with Chaplin, 1960’s Some Like it Hot was a game changer for Camp. Two strong, if not effeminate actors donned wigs and bras for Oscar-winning director Billy Wilder, and more than just the gay community loved it. Both Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon) were able to look stunning in their lady-best, but still remained innocently overstated throughout the film—the ultimate accomplishment of perfectly executed Camp. Now Camp culture had a self-reflexive film to look back on, and more than one person to dress up as for costume parties.
According to Sontag, “Camp is art that proposes itself seriously, but cannot be taken altogether seriously because it is ‘too much’.” This perfectly describes Stephan Elliott’s 1994 drag sensation The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Taking a page out of the Some Like It Hot playbook, Priscilla is both mindful of its Camp ability, going “there” when it needs to, but also pulls back to allow the characters to be likeable. Hugo Weaving’s gruff Tick transforms into the seductive Mitzi, Guy Pearce’s sensitive Adam becomes the stunning Felicia, and transgendered Bernadette (Terence Stamp) keeps the cross-touring bus of testosterone from exploding in the Australian desert. The film itself is perfectly campy alone, however the characters are wholly “too much” when they don their lavish performance frocks, wigs, jewels, and most importantly shoes.
The three characters, while not sexually engaged with each other, are androgynously sexy on screen–which often causes more trouble in the towns they pass through than they can handle. After being savagely beaten and almost raped, Adam is rescued by Bernadette and reminded of the power behind the wig. They both find not only solace but control when they are in their loud, campy costumes, and the stage provides them a home no man or woman could offer. In essence, they expect their art to be taken seriously on stage despite their dramatic antics and poor decisions off it.
The best camp is innocent, but aware of its entertainment value. That is why the most prolific Camp characters endure through time, and the style continues to please and confound audiences today.