It's Hollywood legend that the 1959 version of Ben-Hur—that went onto win a record 11 Oscars—had a gay romance that many audience members never picked up on.
The hidden gay relationship between the two main characters was brought to light in the 1995 documentary The Celluloid Closet when Gore Vidal revealed that he was brought on the film as a script doctor and rewrote scenes to "hint heavily at a prior sexual relationship between Charlton Heston’s title character and his childhood friend (and later betrayer) Messala (Stephen Boyd)," reports The Guardian.
After Vidal's comments the film's star Charlton Heston wrote to the Los Angeles Times blasting him for tarnishing a Hollywood classic with homosexuality—but Heston didn't know about the relationship between Ben-Hur and Messala because no one told him before the shoot. Vidal did confirm that "he had discussed the matter with Boyd, who duly followed the screenwriter’s lead for the key scene in which the boyhood chums meet again after many years apart."
Even director William Wyler came around to Vidal's reasoning for the need of a past romance between the two characters.
Vidal explained this in his letter to the L.A. Times:
"Over the years, I have told the story of how, faced with a hopeless script for Ben-Hur, I persuaded the producer, Sam Zimbalist (this was an MGM film and the writer worked not with the director but the producer; later the director, in this case William Wyler, weighed in) that the only way one could justify several hours of hatred between two lads – and all those horses – was to establish, without saying so in words, an affair between them as boys; then, when reunited at picture’s start, the Roman, played by Stephen Boyd, wants to pick up where they left off and the Jew, Heston, spurns him."
"This is the scene that was shot and this is the scene that viewers of The Celluloid Closet watched, with my commentary. Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan wrote that “seeing an appropriate clip makes a strong case for the truth of Vidal’s assertion that Boyd was in on the scheme while Heston was not.”
So does the new Ben-Hur remake keep the gay subtext intact?
“It wasn’t something we avoided but it wasn’t something we had,” said Toby Kebbell—who plays Messala in the latest version—at this week's L.A. premiere. “In 1959, the gay context was very important. They need a voice. You shouldn’t have to hide in the dark about something you feel and you’re grown with. That was their own thing they wanted to portray and we didn’t need to. It’s a different time, thankfully.”
“I don’t even know if that was true in that film,” producer Roma Downey (yes, from Touched By An Angel) told The Irish Examiner. “Here we have two brothers. They love each other. They’re raised in the same household and it’s so tragic to see their family just ripped apart.”
Somehow we think Vidal would disagree.
Ben-Hur is in theaters August 19.
h/t: The Irish Examiner