'Rocketman' Blazes Trail as First Major Studio Film to Depict Gay Male Sex

Paramount's Elton John biopic made its long-awaited debut at the Cannes Film Festival on Thursday night.

Where other studios have balked, Paramount is leading the way as the first major studio to depict gay male sex onscreen with its Elton John biopic, Rocketman.

The Dexter Fletcher-helmed film, which made its long-awaited debut at the Cannes Film Festival on Thursday night, featured multiple scenes with overt gay coupling, including ones between Taron Egerton, who plays John, and Richard Madden (portraying his first gay lover, music manager John Reid). In addition to frank talk about John's sexuality (unlike last year's Bohemian Rhapsody), scenes included men kissing, simulated oral sex and a steamy bedroom scene with both Egerton and Madden unclothed.

Other films have shown a sex scene between two men, including Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain and Luca Guadagnino's Call Me by Your Name, which certainly struck a chord with audiences, making $178 million and $42 million, respectively. But neither were ever aimed at broad audiences like Rocketman and were released by specialty labels — Brokeback Mountain by Focus Features and Call Me by Your Name by Sony Pictures Classics.

In the '70s and early '80s, gay male sex occasionally popped up in films from companies that might be comparable to a Paramount today. For instance, United Artists backed the 1980 Al Pacino thriller Cruising, about a serial killer targeting gay men. But in recent decades, the prospect of major studios depicting steamy gay sex has become a nonstarter. Fox's Bohemian Rhapsody didn't feature any despite the fact that its protagonist, Freddie Mercury, was bisexual and died of AIDS-related complications. The 1982 Harry Hamlin starter Making Love also broke ground at the time for depicting a gay male couple.

By contrast, Rocketman tackles its subject's sexual awakening without flinching. What's more noteworthy is that it comes at a time when there are only five major studios left, standing in the wake of Disney acquiring Fox (Warner Bros., Universal and Sony also remain).

Given that an R-rated movie featuring gay sex would most certainly disqualify a film from release in China (to score a release in the lucrative territory, Bohemian Rhapsody edited out any suggestion that Freddie Mercury was gay), the studios are increasingly hesitant to greenlight a film with gay characters, never mind graphic gay sex. But Paramount chief Jim Gianopulos did just that when he put the $41 million Rocketman into production. 

For his part, Egerton, who identifies as heterosexual, is surprised by all the hullabaloo surrounding the film's gay sex scenes.

In a cover story with THR, he said: "Everyone is obsessed with it. … For me, kissing a man onscreen is no less appealing than kissing a woman onscreen. I'm not in any way repulsed by the male form. It's an uncomfortable thing regardless of who you're with — it makes no difference as to your sexual preference."