Forget the “Don’t Worry Darling” drama. Forget the crazed jet-setting back and forth from his 15-night Madison Square Garden residency to premieres in Venice and Toronto of his two movies this season. Harry Styles’ lead turn in Michael Grandage’s “My Policeman” is, as Harries and Stylers would put it, a sign of the times.
The notion of a pop star acting in a movie used to be reflexively derided, largely because of the stigma of the cash-grab affairs associated with the likes of Elvis Presley. Even David Bowie, who cut a very different swath in his acting efforts, referred to his widely panned “Just a Gigolo” as “My 32 Elvis movies rolled into one.” Those with serious screen ambitions — Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra are among those to win Oscars for their acting — were the exceptions that proved the “Beach Blanket Bingo” rule. And even the Crosby “Going My Way” and the Sinatra “From Here to Eternity” were big-studio pictures in a big-studio world of carefully cultivated personae designed for maximum acceptability.
For a guy like Bowie (were there ever other guys like Bowie, then or now?), whose image was established early on as an avant-garde chameleon during a time of sexual exploration culturally, sliding into experimental narratives with art house directors such as Nicolas Roeg (“The Man Who Fell to Earth”) wasn’t nearly as odd as it would be to see Crosby do such a thing. (It wasn’t often one would mention Bowie and Crosby in the same breath, though it did happen.)
But how many cases have there been of major pop stars — boy band refugees at the peak of their screaming-girl popularity — taking roles in art-house films in which they bare it all in steamy, semi-explicit scenes of gay romance? And playing with the hearts of fans even more, roles in which they’re the perfect, adorable cisgender hetero man on the outside and passionate gay lover in a committed homosexual relationship at heart?
In stage veteran Grandage’s film version of “My Policeman” (adapted from Bethan Roberts’ 2012 novel by Ron Nyswaner) Styles plays just that as young Tom — a policeman in 1950s England, when homosexuality was still a crime, to boot. He and girlfriend (eventually wife) Marion (Emma Corrin) form a close friendship with slightly older, sophisticated museum worker Patrick (David Dawson). Marion doesn’t realize that, though Tom is genuinely fond of her, he deeply and erotically loves Patrick. The narrative weaves in and out of their 1950s story and their 1990s reunion as a trio (played by Linus Roache, Gina McKee and Rupert Everett, respectively), after something devastating has happened — the third devastating thing to happen to that character.
The role of the younger Tom requires the emotional availability one would expect from any serious actor, but also blazing commitment to the passionate same-sex encounters that characterize a large part of Tom and Patrick’s relationship. Forget the days of Sinatra or Presley, it wasn’t that long ago (1993, in fact) that Will Smith refused to kiss a man on screen in “Six Degrees of Separation.” Styles, one of the day’s preeminent sex symbols, does far more than kiss in “My Policeman.”
That’s a sign of social change. Styles has long been a vocal supporter of the LGBTQ+ community and his fashion sense has flown in the face of gender convention. This is something different, though, for a teen idol, a star of this magnitude, especially during a time that has simultaneously seen rises in public acceptance of gay people and in anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, as noted in a recent Times piece with several of Styles’ collaborators on the film.
Credit those collaborators along with him, of course, with making that commitment possible. At the brief Q&A following Sunday’s world premiere screening at the Toronto International Film Festival, the moderator asked the trio of actors playing the characters in the 1950s how they bonded to make their scenes of friendship seem authentic.
Corrin said, “We’re very lucky because we had two or three weeks’ rehearsal, which is very rare in film,” said Corrin, guessing that they had Grandage’s theater background to thank for that provision.
Styles said, “I felt very lucky to work with David and Emma. When you have the opportunity to work with people that you just feel good being around — they’re both wonderful people to be around — I think having a base of a real friendship outside of the characters allows for the friendship scenes … it doesn’t require much acting. In the more intense scenes, there’s a lot of trust and a safety there. All of that benefits from a real connection that I felt very lucky to have during this project.”
Dawson said, “Early on, we promised each other we’d look after each other through the process.”
Words that could apply to this most complex of times.