November 6, 1949– Robert Creel Davis:
“I make my money in an industry that professes to care very much about the fight against AIDS, that gives umpteem benefits and charity affairs with proceeds going to research and care, but in actual fact, if an actor is even rumored to have H.I.V., he gets no support on an individual basis. He does not work.”
Brad Davis became an overnight sensation in Midnight Express (1978) playing the American drug dealer Billy Hayes, who spent 10 years in a Turkish prison before escaping. Almost as quickly as he rose, he managed to destroy his success by drinking and intravenous drug use. There is one story about him at a Hollywood party ripping off his shirt, crying, ”Okay, who’s got the drugs?” while a director prophetically comments: ”There goes that career”. But that sordid tale seems almost benign compared with the tales of his taking a gun to shoot the glass out of framed pictures of himself.
The Husband and I saw the film when we first became a couple. Davis’s mighty performance as Billy Hayes in the emotional thrill ride Midnight Express had us shaking with anxiety and sexual heat.
Midnight Express won Academy Awards for Best Original Score for Giorgio Moroder and Best Screenplay for Oliver Stone. It was also nominated for Best Supporting Actor for John Hurt, Best Director for Alan Parker, Best Film Editing and Best Picture, but no nomination for Davis. He did receive a nomination for a BAFTA Award and won the Golden Globe Award for Best Newcomer. The soundtrack album from Midnight Express sold in the millions.
He was descended from the Southern aristocratic family of Jefferson Davis.
It wasn’t just fame that unhinged him, but a tortured childhood spent with an alcoholic father and a sexually abusive mother. Davis was wildly talented, wildly insecure and, in fact, just plain wild.
I always found Davis to show an underlying sweetness and vulnerability as an actor. He had the hot body of a compulsive athlete, but his soul seemed soft and his emotions accessible. He was a good-looking man. He could never play ugly, yet he is able to suggest a large range of emotions: fury, weakness, love, shame, dread.
Davis was fearless as an actor. His involvement in gay-themed projects was not always a good career move in the late 1970s. His management thought he was wrecking his career, and it was sort of true. It never really bounced back from the hallucinating Querelle (1983) or his stage work with gay playwrights. The speculation about his own possible gayness worked very much against him, despite his spectacular acting talent. It’s a shame, but so much about Davis is a shame.
Along with those gay rumors, Davis rode drugs and sex to an early death from HIV. Since his excesses killed him, why am I still hooked on his tragic glamour? Davis’s best friend, writer Rodger McFarlane, an openly gay man, said:
“Just because Brad had sex with men doesn’t mean he was a homosexual.”
None of his former colleagues from the film and theatre worlds would ever go on record stating that Davis wasn’t straight. His widow Susan Bluestein Davis, an Emmy Award winning casting director, claims that she knew that he worked in a gay hustler bar and lived with a drag queen before making it big, but she wrote in her memoir After Midnight: The Life and Death of Brad Davis (1992) :
“I don’t know why everyone wants to believe Brad was gay.”
I want to believe that Davis was gay because he was so very convincing in all of the gay roles that he played during his 20 year career. He had that sexy vulnerability in his performances. Davis had to live with all those rumors about his sexuality during his life, but since he has been gone, he has become a Gay Icon. His assisted suicide in 1991 adds to his tragic memory. His hard partying, promiscuous image has stayed with him since his death, giving me a small connection with Davis. Bluestein Davis:
“Brad was a bad boy for a very long time. He was always partying, always very promiscuous.”
“Davis was the perfect 1970s clone. He was scrumptious. Anyone who ever had a budding gay libido, including me, saw him on the screen and projected all their post-adolescent fantasies onto him. Long before we became best friends, I had a huge crush on him.”
So did I.
Davis teased with the shower scene in a Turkish prison in Midnight Express (1978), and the gay sailor in Querelle wearing a tank top and white jeans so tight that the film’s gay director Rainer Werner Fassbinderdeclared that the trousers “revealed what religion Davis wasn’t”.
Querelle is an adaptation of Jean Genet‘s novel Querelle de Brest (1947). It was Fassbinder’s final film, posthumously released just months after he died of a drug overdose in June 1982. Querelle was one of the first films with an unabashed gay theme to have box-office success. However, it received mixed reviews; some critics praised as a noble experiment, but detractors called it incoherent. Edmund White who wrote a definitive Genet biography in 1993 considers Querelle the only film based on Genet’s book that works, writing that it is “visually as artificial and menacing as Genet’s prose”. Genet himself said that he didn’t see the film because: “You can’t smoke at the movies”.
Davis’s stage roles were often queer. He starred in Larry Kramer‘s The Normal Heart (1985) and Martin Sherman‘s Bent (1979) Off-Broadway.
“On the stage and screen, Brad said everything gay there was to say at the time. Plus, he was the last example of that decadent free-love era.”
My favorite Davis film role was not a gay one. I really was just crazy for him as Jackson Scholz, a real life American Olympic runner, in the Academy Award-winning Chariots Of Fire (1981). It is frequently mentioned as the worst film to ever win the Best Picture Oscar, but with its depiction of hot 1920s era athletes and that infectious score, I totally dig it.
Davis could be held up as an example of the consequences of living a life in the closet. If he was gay, it’s possible that Davis’s drugs, drinking and dicking was a way to push back against the pressures of the Hollywood closet.
Davis literally partied himself to death. Bluestein Davis has written about her husband’s drug abuse, and McFarlane has said that Davis may have contracted HIV from “passing around needles at A-list parties”. Neither of them seems to make much of the fact that Davis worked as a prostitute when he first arrived in New York City in the early 1970s.
In the first decade of the plague, the secrecy in Hollywood was so extreme that Davis would only see a physician if they would visit his home, and rather than buy any medication that could give him away, he was funneled the leftovers after other people had died. He had a medicine chest filled with prescription bottles with other patients’ names on them.
In 1991, with his wife and an unnamed friend to help him, he ended his life by assisted suicide. He was described as being “The first heterosexual actor to die of AIDS” in the press. He kept his illness a secret until shortly before his death. Bluestein and Davis had one child, a transgender man, Alex, born “Alexandra”. Alex Davis is an actor and songwriter. Bluestein Davis works for HIV/AIDS research and charities.
An anonymous Hollywood producer told the Los Angeles Times in 1991, two weeks after Davis passed:
“We do give money to AIDS and the homeless and the blind. But we’re not obligated to hire the victims of the various diseases or causes we support. It all boils down to business . . . dollars and cents . . . and those with an illness or the potential for becoming ill are an economic risk.”