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Ryan White, who was Oscar-shortlisted for his 2014 documentary feature The Case Against 8, first discovered the subject of his latest documentary short, Coded: The Hidden Love of J.C. Leyendecker (now streaming on Paramount+), when he was approached to direct the project. “Shamefully, I don’t think I’d ever heard of him before this film,” White tells THR. Leyendecker was a preeminent illustrator of the early 20th century, whose work for The Saturday Evening Post introduced iconic American visuals such as the New Year’s Baby and Santa Claus. But his work in advertising also is influential, as the then-closeted artist often included homoerotic themes in his illustrations. White shares with The Hollywood Reporter what he learned about the illustrator and his impact on American — and queer — culture.
What did you know about J.C. Leyendecker when you began work on Coded?
I had done a series for Apple TV+ called Visible: Out on Television about the history of queer representation throughout television history. It began with the Army-McCarthy hearings [a portion of this Senate subcommittee probe addressed the so-called security risk of LGBTQ individuals in government]. That was the first time the word “homosexual” was ever said on television. It was in the research of that storyline that my team discovered this period before that, which many people refer to as the Pansy Craze. I didn’t know there had been a small burst, but a burst nonetheless, of progress for LGBTQ people in the Roaring Twenties. I was so fascinated with that era, but it predated television, and we didn’t have a space for it in Visible. Imagine Entertainment came to me with the idea [about Leyendecker], and I was hooked right away.
What did you think when you saw his work?
The immediate reaction was how gay [the ads] are and how shocking it is that they’re 100 years old. There are ads for Ivory soap [that feature] men’s locker rooms and showers. It’s very homoerotic, and to most LGBTQ people, it’s shocking that those ads were published in mainstream American newspapers and magazines. Leyendecker’s work is an interesting nexus between art, advertising, consumerism and coding. But even the fact that he came up with so many parts of advertising history — like the consumerist behaviors that he created around holidays, by putting them on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post — really fascinated me as a storyteller. It’s a fascinating avenue for representation, because [advertising is] almost coded by nature. It’s trying to use an image or a message to get somebody to do something. I think J.C. Leyendecker was sort of the O.G. of American advertising.
We live in a time in which queerness in advertising is no longer coded. In comparison, Leyendecker’s work feels less like advertising and more of an artistic expression.
Because of the subtlety, too. While we were making the film, we were talking about the arc of the film [and how] “coded” gradually became uncoded over time, over evolution and progress. We have John Nash in the film, who did the Subaru campaign [that targeted lesbian drivers]. He says he misses the subtlety and coding of LGBTQ art, because it’s so front-and-center now. There are so many ads that feature LGBTQ people that the criticism does not come from social conservatives anymore as much as it does from the queer community, about brands getting it wrong — which I think is a sign of progress, when the blowback is coming from the community being represented and not people that are looking down on that community. That’s one of the benchmarks of visibility over the years.
You also feature as a talking head Jari Jones, a trans filmmaker and model who appeared in a 2020 Calvin Klein campaign.
We were looking for more current storylines that could echo Leyendecker but didn’t want it to be so tangential that it felt unrelated. Jari was the perfect combination of somebody who was the face of an advertising campaign … but she also knew a ton about queer history. I’d never say we’re at the finish line, but she’s on the complete opposite side of the spectrum from Leyendecker. He was a cis gay man doing coded [messaging] in the 1920s, and she’s an out, Black, trans model on billboards in New York. She was an encyclopedia of LGBTQ history and knew about Leyendecker and the Pansy Craze and could speak to these moments in history, and what [artists like Leyendecker did] for people like her today.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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