For gay men who grew up in the ’90s, there are two distinctive eras: the time before we saw Kevin Bacon’s full-frontal scene in Wild Things, and the time after.
It’s been 20 years to the day since Wild Things hit theaters. This was two decades before Moonlight, before Love, Simon, before Call Me by Your Name: LGBT representation certainly existed, in indie comedies (1995’s Jeffrey) or the occasional prestige AIDS drama (1993’s Philadelphia), but it was neither plentiful nor especially mainstream. Many of us who were still figuring ourselves out gravitated less toward more overt depictions of gayness, like The Birdcage or In & Out, and more to subtler, subtextually homoerotic representation.
It feels absurd to use the word “subtle” in connection to Wild Things, the kind of steamy erotic thriller that should have been relegated to late-night Cinemax but somehow ended up with a wide release. It is too deliberately over-the-top to be regarded as true camp, although that doesn’t make it any less fun. But whether intentionally or not, there is an undercurrent of gayness that made it especially titillating to all the curious and questioning teens who managed to bypass Blockbuster’s age-restricted rental prohibitions. On paper, it’s a movie that feels designed for straight bros, but in reality, it proved much more appealing to closet queers.
That’s part of what made it such an attractive option: Wild Things was the slightly more respectable version of watching the Pamela Anderson–Tommy Lee sex tape and keeping your eyes focused entirely on Tommy Lee. The only overt same-sex content in the movie is the steamy pool scene between Neve Campbell’s Suzie Toller and Denise Richards’ Kelly Van Ryan, and the threesome involving the two and Matt Dillon as lecherous teacher Sam Lombardo. These aren’t moments of genuine passion between two women so much as a shameless excuse to pander to straight male viewers eager to see two girls making out. And yet, despite the male-gaziness of those sapphic scenes, there is a distinct feeling of true queerness, a wink to those watching Wild Things not for topless Denise Richards but for shirtless Matt Dillon.
Explaining the plot of Wild Things is an exercise in futility: The film is too twisty and convoluted to merit a full synopsis. Suffice it to say, it involves an elaborate con by an ever-increasing cast of players with shifting allegiances — not only Suzie, Kelly, and Sam, but also (spoiler alert) sleazy lawyer Kenneth Bowden (Bill Murray) and corrupt sergeant Ray Duquette (Kevin Bacon). And the film has aged horribly: The inciting incident is a false rape accusation that was cringey at the time and is now even more unbearable. But we can acknowledge how deeply offensive a movie is and also how formative its climactic shower scene was to a certain subset of gay millennials.
Near the end of the movie, after Sam has double-crossed Suzie and Kelly, he returns to his beach bungalow to find someone in the shower. The figure emerging from the steam isn’t Suzie or Kelly, both presumed dead, but a fully nude Ray Duquette. It’s a pivotal moment that reveals both Ray’s complicity in Sam’s plot and, also, Bacon’s penis. Given the rarity of full-frontal male nudity on the big screen — particularly an A-list actor in a mainstream release — it’s a fairly shocking moment. But it also feels like much-needed confirmation to those who watched Wild Things suspecting there was something gay about it all along. The major twist is that a movie that seemed all about the male gaze is actually about the male gays.
Nudity aside, the scene is as homoerotic as it can be without Dillon and Bacon actually embracing. The men are clearly very comfortable with each other — there’s no hint of awkwardness when Sam walks in on Ray in the shower — and given the film’s relentless sexuality, the idea that these dudes might not just be friends and partners in crime feels more than a little implied. If Wild Things were made today — please, god, without the false rape accusation — it’s likely that the scene would have played out differently, with Sam joining Ray in the shower. (Or perhaps that’s just wishful thinking from a former closeted teen who always imagined it ending that way.)
It’s not surprising that Wild Things has emerged as a queer cult classic: It has all the elements of the genre. There’s Denise Richards, whose ’90s work also includes the quintessential Starship Troopers and Drop Dead Gorgeous. There’s the completely batshit plot, including a what-the-fuck incest twist delivered in some offhand exposition. And there’s the endlessly quotable dialogue, most of it coming from Richards: “Where’d she get the shoes, Whores for Less?” What is surprising is seeing, in retrospect, how much of that queerness might have been intentional from the beginning. It would be silly to suggest that Wild Things was a movie made for gay men — but it would be equally naive to dismiss its queer appeal as mere accident.
Thankfully, in the 20 years since Wild Things, we’ve seen major steps forward for actual LGBT representation — including love scenes between women that aren’t clearly designed to excite straight guys. But as retrograde and objectionable as the movie is in many ways, it’s still a fascinating relic of the era. And for those of us who were drawn to it years before we fully understood why, it’s a major piece of nostalgia, a comforting reminder of how far we’ve come and of those early forbidden thrills.