The 80s Gay And Straight Buddy Cop Film ‘Partners’

Anyone remember Partners? The film starred Ryan O’ Neal from Homicide Division as Sgt. Benson and John Hurt as Officer Kerwin, a records clerk. It was a buddy cop film from 1982 with a straight white male and a closeted gay man who go undercover to catch a killer murdering beefy magazine pinups. Yes? No?


Okay, it wasn’t a big hit and it wasn’t the finest hour of these notable actors, who by the way are both straight (I was certain John Hurt was gay until I read up on his marriages).

Here’s the reason why I remember the film and why I picked up the DVD to watch it again. I was around 10 when I stayed over at my friend Ryan’s house. His parents rented Partners, but because it was R-rated it was hands off for us two. So Ryan waited until his parents left the next morning to run some errands and then popped the VHS tape into the VCR (yes, VHS!) and we started watching. I honestly didn’t know what we were watching except that it was R and if you were a kid with no access to HBO or Showtime and your allowance of TV at home included The Disney Channel and reruns of Mr. Ed you were desperate to know what all those restricted movies were about.

I can’t remember at the time if I understood what “gay” was? I mean I knew what it meant in terms of slang or derision, but not “gay love.” What I did understand was this movie had female nudity as well as male and so I was fine with seeing gratuitous tit shots…that is until Ryan’s parents returned home about 45 minutes into the film and I never got to see the ending. It wasn’t until I was 20 that I rented the movie for myself and watched the whole thing one night after working my glorious fast food job.

What’s interesting about my life around 20 is that I was a Jesus Freak and I would say it was fair to call me a fundamentalist in my views even though I didn’t look the part. I was into Christian Metal and wore ripped jeans, T-shirts with gospel messages and long hair. I also volunteered my time with a pro-life group that had as part of its agenda to fight “the gay agenda.” After all, man on man sex didn’t equal babies and being pro-life is all about babies. Add to that the political climate with the OCA (Oregon Citizens Alliance) who put an anti-gay rights initiative on the local ballot and it was definitely the right time to watch a film like Partners. And yes, sadly, I voted with the OCA based on my Christian beliefs. Told ya I was a fundamentalist.

I know from doing a little surfing that Partners is not well liked by gay reviewers and Gene Siskel and Rex Reed hated it when it came out. The complaints range from stereotyping to  John Hurt’s character being a mouse of a gay man to the use of the word “fag” with no repercussions to outright homophobia. The other film that attracts this kind of criticism is William Friedkin’s Cruising starring Al Pacino, which I also watched when I was 20. Fact is, Partners is almost like a light-hearted version of Cruising.

As a straight male, I’m sure I don’t have the perspective to grasp the complaints of the gay community or be offended by stereotypes. I do know that certain movies are maligned by activist groups (gay, political, religious, etc.,) because they are perceived to represent every gay man or every Christian or every Democrat or Republican and so forth. In reality, the gay community is very complex and it has a multitude of personality types–some, dare I say, are stereotypical because I have met them–and it does include a leather scene and an interest in gay porn (which is what Partners and Cruising focused on). So to say that Partners is homophobic simply because it is not about showing gay people in a perfect light I think is unfair. You can certainly say it is a two star cheesy movie though and critique its shortcomings.

And it’s shortcomings are that the comedy is lacking, many of the jokes are cheap, the mystery is convoluted and it fails to show more of what the movie was supposed to be about: the gay community, or rather for the sake of straight couples what it was like to be gay. But I will defend the film for what it’s worth because I don’t think this movie was meant to be mean-hearted or its intention was to make fun of the gay community. It’s a curiosity film for straights. At least that’s my best guess because what was the profit motivation for Paramount Pictures? To make a minor gay film to sell tickets to a gay audience? I don’t think so. The profit was to be found in straight people who wanted to know what gay people were like (without having to get near them, let’s be honest) and to laugh at the awkward moments between gays and straights. In a way, you could view it as an exploitation film. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing with Partners.

When I watched Partners at 20 it was exactly for that reason: a matter of curiosity (how can a man love a man?). And I can say I didn’t react like you would think a homophobe would. My mind didn’t shut down with fear, I didn’t start praying over the TV or vomit over the thought of male on male intimacy. I liked the character of Officer Kerwin, he was human. That may sound patronizing, but this was important because the religious political right was making the gay community less than human. At the same time I watched Partners I also watched a propaganda film that said gays wanted special rights in order to spread disease and indoctrinate kids as well as molest them (that’s not an exaggeration). If you were looking for negative stereotypes, the propaganda film had it in droves. Imperfect as Partners was, it countered the negative propaganda. Even Sgt. Benson in the film, who acts like a dick and is filled with straight male anxieties, changes his outlook and looks forward to Kerwin’s attention (as long as it doesn’t involve touching).

Between Partners and the propaganda I was left in a constant debate about the gay lifestyle. Was it a sin above others or was it just a failure to procreate? Did God hate fags or did God forgive all? The Bible certainly didn’t seem to like gay people which unfortunately is what I kept coming back to as a conclusion. Rules are rules! But still, it’s not like gay people were all that bad, were they?

Four years later I lost my Christian faith (a story in of itself) and as far as I was concerned it didn’t matter if you were gay. One of the reasons was that after going to art school I had met several gay people and I really couldn’t think of them as “them” anymore. Since then I continue to work with coworkers/friends who happen to be gay and I would suggest that Officer Kerwin helped straight people like myself get to know someone who was gay before actually embracing real world gays. Wasn’t it Will and Grace that helped straight audiences get to know the gay community? You can view it as cultural propaganda, as exploitation, as stereotypes for straights, but whatever it is I think it works. Too bad there isn’t a popular sitcom about atheists (well, Big Bang Theory, sort of–talk about atheist stereotypes!).

The one complaint I do want to address by reviewers is the accusation that Officer Kerwin is a verbally abused wallflower. I say so what? He’s human! In the film, Sgt. Benson forces him to dance with another gay man and go up to the man’s apartment to have a drink in order to obtain information about the murders. I don’t understand why a gay man can’t be reluctantly shy, or why he should feel the need to hop in bed with every gay man he meets? My interpretation of Kerwin is that he is a closet homosexual who is a romantic traditionalist (old-fashioned, if you will) and just hasn’t met the right man.

There’s plenty of straight shy and insecure guys and gals out there who are the same way towards the opposite sex. Because Kerwin works for the police he may feel alienated from both the gay community and his peers. His main sin by today’s standards is that he’s in the closet. I get that positive films about gay people were rare in the early 80s, but can’t we consider Kerwin to be a person with flaws and insecurities and even strengths that make him an interesting character versus a shiny super gay man with a seal of approval by the LGBT crowd? And yes, he falls in love with his straight partner (another criticism). Isn’t that possible? (It’s also a friggin’ movie! A fantasy!) Sgt. Benson doesn’t seem to care in the end, he deals with it much like any of us would deal with that kind of awkwardness because it can happen with an unwanted gay crush or an unwanted straight crush. Have we never dealt with the adoration of the opposite sex who we were not interested in? As long as Kerwin is not forcing himself on Benson there’s no foul. It’s just uncomfortable at times and that’s life.

Again, Partners is a two star rental for those interested in 80s films and how the gay community was depicted. I’m not denying there are valid criticisms, but I think it’s worth a look and I don’t think it counts as homophobia. It’s cheesy fun. It may also remind you of how far we’ve come in our attitudes about being gay. Most young people growing up these days don’t think twice about it. “What’s the big deal about being gay?” If only they knew how much has changed.