Since the dawn of time, or 1986 (close enough), people have given Tony Scott’s Top Gun the kind of fluttery side eye that Kelly McGillis gives Tom Cruise in one of the movie’s scenes that takes place in an elevator. Is it or isn’t it... ?
Top Gun, in my experience, is synonymous with its perceived gayness. There are countless pieces probing just how homosexual its depiction of a (mostly) homosocial world of naval aviators is. Such discourse was observable from the beginning, too: Pauline Kael’s review of the film that ran in the June 16, 1986, issue of The New Yorker, about a month after the blockbuster’s release, observed that when McGillis, Cruise’s love interest, is offscreen “the movie is a shiny homoerotic commercial: the pilots strut around the locker room, towels hanging precariously from their waists. It’s as if masculinity had been redefined as how a young man looks with his clothes half off, and as if narcissism is what being a warrior is all about.” (I’m actually at a loss for a conception of masculinity that doesn’t incorporate how a young man looks with his clothes half off. Maybe Kael was off the mark here, or I’m just a product of a world that Top Gun helped create.) The following year, Frank Rich wrote in Esquire that Top Gun was:
a jingoistic film about bomber pilots in which the men (led by Tom Cruise) looked like Bruce Weber models and dressed accordingly, whether in the locker room or on the volleyball court. Even the heroine (Kelly McGillis) wore flyboy attire, though that did not deter the hero from sharing the film’s climactic embrace with a fellow pilot, the impeccably Aryan-looking Val Kilmer.
Perhaps the most famous, and certainly most passionate argument for reading Top Gun as an explicitly gay text is Quentin Tarantino’s monologue in Rory Kelly’s 1994 film Sleep With Me, an apparently improvised (and entirely Tarantinoian) bit in which Top Gun is defined as “a story about a man’s struggle with his own homosexuality”:
This sort of postmodern reading was particularly hip in the ’90s (especially in Tarantino’s work—see the multi-character “Like a Virgin” analysis in Reservoir Dogs), although it is certainly heterocentric and, while jokingly so, predicated on the notion of gay recruitment (Kilmer’s Ice Man, the film’s de facto antagonist, leading a crew representing gay men who are telling Cruise’s Maverick, “Go, go the gay way”). The perpetuation of a right-wing fallacy taints Tarantino’s interpretation, rendering it impractical and not nearly as clever as he seems to think. He tried, though!
On Nexis, the search results for “‘Top Gun’ and gay,” suggest that this discourse only grew in the years after the film’s release.
It’s not entirely unfounded. In the commentary on the physical releases of Top Gun, director Tony Scott says he found inspiration in a book of black and white photographs by gay photographer Bruce Weber. Scott was taken by the haircuts and style of Weber’s models, as well as the “intent of their eyes,” and showed the book to Paramount execs to give them an indication of his aspired aesthetic. “Everyone was scared because it was infamous in terms of the gay community, this book,” said Scott, who died in 2012. “That’s where all these haircuts came from and this hard-edged military look”
On the film’s infamous volleyball scene, featuring a bunch of half-naked boys playing (while Kenny Loggins’s “Playing With the Boys” blares), Scott said:
“This was the scene I struggled with the most, but in the end, it just became hunky bodies and California sun, but it became a favorite with the women as well as the… as well as the guys. Especially, the San Francisco guys.”
Haha. If anything, those San Francisco guys were starved for representation and/or eye candy at the time. Key to the fun of excavating the homoeroticism of Top Gun is its presentation as a bastion of straight culture: It depicts aggro military men in giant jets who are intent on blowing everything up either with their million-dollar toys or penises. “You live your life between your legs, Mav,” the protagonist’s wingman Goose (Anthony Edwards) notes as they prowl a bar.
Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr.’s script is full of gay innuendo, both overt (“This gives me a hard-on,” says one of the naval trainees during a class, to which his buddy responds, “Don’t tease me”) and seemingly unconscious (“I’d like to bust your butt, but I can’t!”). But if interpreting Top Gun as a gay movie is predicated on its intended presentation as straight, effectively teasing out subtext for sport, the fun is largely missing in 2020. Its gay reputation (due in no small part to the yearslong rumors about Cruise’s own personal life) is so established that it reads like a total exaggeration today, especially in a movie with so much open-mouthed hetero kissing.
One could argue that Cruise’s endlessly darting tongue is doing a lot of heavy lifting, protesting too much without saying a word, but otherwise, so much of the supposedly gay dialogue is doing just the opposite. The deadpan invocation of gay sex amongst straight-identified men is de rigueur shit-talking, a way of affirming the unassailability of one’s heterosexuality: “I’m so straight that acting gay will do nothing to alter me.” It’s an expression of power that, however subtly, others gayness and often implies its weakness or undesirability in direct opposition to the man who’s reciting it.
It’s so common, this inoculation by denigration. Top Gun’s usefulness in 2020 is not as an alternate gay text—we have plenty of actual queer texts by now in mainstream media made by actual queer people—but as a straight one that exposes how similar homosocial male environments tend to be, regardless of how they’re organized by sexual orientation. Being straight looks pretty gay, and vice versa. Intimacy among men can be fraught but also passionate, even when no one comes close to getting a resulting boner. There’s a thin line between love and hate, between fighting and fucking, between wrestling and wrestling. To borrow a sentence construction from Ghost World, Top Gun is so straight it’s gone past gay and back to straight.
Certainly, the interrogation of comfort among men, and its limits, is crucial to Top Gun’s enduring legacy. The action scenes remain thrilling, albeit so fast-paced as to be disorienting, and otherwise difficult to parse. Pilots fight unspecified enemies (were they Russian or North Korean?) and rattle off jargon underneath masks that I think only actual military training would make fully intelligible. Bogey bogey bogey bogey. (I had to Google what “bogey” meant during my recent rewatch, and then realized it is misused throughout the script.)
Still, it’s a treat to revisit Cruise at his Cruisiest, all brow and snicker, his face a thing of perilous beauty that just a few altered millimeters might have rendered funny-looking. But no, he’s just gorgeous. I like how his jeans move with a little life of their own here:
Top Gun was part of a wave of ’80s movies with soundtracks that took up a considerable amount of cultural space in their own right. I’m sure this point has been made elsewhere and better, but in an ill-fated special that aired in 2019 on British television to promote Cats, it is argued that the movie musical pivoted away from its traditional, characters-sing-the-songs form to something more MTV-ish in the ’80s via movies like Top Gun (and Flashdance, Footloose, and Dirty Dancing) wherein music retained its importance but functioned at more of a remove, a sort of cool approach to a medium that reveled in its lack of chill.
Giorgio Moroder, the producer partially responsible for most of Donna Summer’s best-known hits, handled the Top Gun soundtrack, which I suppose one could cite in favor of Top Gun’s vague gayness, but his work here is butched-up and not quite characteristic (Kenny Loggins’s “Danger Zone” has absolutely nothing to do with disco or even synth-pop, really).
There are musical-musical moments, though. Goose and Maverick sing “Great Balls of Fire!” in a bar, and then there’s the classic scene in which Maverick takes over a microphone (which just happens to be turned on and sitting around years before karaoke crossed over to the States) to serenade McGillis’s Charlie after setting eyes on her.
I hate how he doesn’t respect the song’s meter (his pauses are too brief!) and this is such a cringy way to pick someone up that she should have laughed in his face, but I do love hearing “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” literally whenever. I think it’s one of the best American songs of all time, and I hate that the alleged abusive and murderous behavior of its mastermind, Phil Spector, complicates the legacy of such a simple pop pleasure. Even for a relic of a different time, Top Gun is particularly saddled with such difficult histories: Weber, the photographer inspiration for Top Gun’s glossy-masc aesthetic, was accused of sexual harassment and exploitation by several male models in 2018, and Edwards, who played Goose, in 2017 accused screenwriter/producer Gary Goddard of molesting him (and friends of his) when he was underage (Ewards met Goddard when he was 12). This is to say nothing of the glossing-over done by Top Gun itself of the ethical breach of the student-teacher romance of Maverick and Charlie.
It’s sobering to look back and see just how full of rot Hollywood has been, in light of recent information. Has Top Gun aged well? How could it have?