The Auteur of Desire

Long before Pride, Pat Rocco made proudly gay films.

pat rocco
Inside Out

No one today would be particularly surprised to see an interview with a transgender person or a news report about activists picketing an openly antigay business. It’s a little bit mind-blowing, however, to watch Pat Rocco’s films Changes (about one Jimmy Michaels, who says, “People think LSD is a trip, they should try taking hormones!”) and Sign of Protest (involving a Los Angeles pub that hung a placard saying, “FAGOTS [sic]—STAY OUT”). Why? Because these short documentaries were made in 1970, when such topics were far from mainstream media fodder and “gay lib” was just beginning to make some noise following the Stonewall Riots in 1969.

This essay was adapted from the Alta newsletter, delivered every Thursday.

But then, Rocco, who passed away in 2018 at age 84, was way ahead of the societal curve, even at the height of the sexual revolution. Rocco’s considerable, if largely forgotten, contributions to the rise of a public gay culture get some overdue appreciation in codirectors Morris Chapdelaine and Bob Christie’s Pat Rocco Dared, which plays San Francisco’s Frameline on June 25.

Still a garrulous self-promoter in interviews shot at the Hawaii home he shared with life partner David Ghee in later years, Rocco appears to have lived large until the very end.

Born in Brooklyn, Rocco moved with his family to Hollywood as a child and was duly bitten by the showbiz bug. By the late 1950s, he’d had a three-year stint as a member of the singing ensemble on the TV variety program The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show. But even earlier, his precocity had demonstrated itself in other areas: he claimed he came out at age 13 and even had a high school boyfriend.

That fearlessness was on display in the all-male nudie shorts he started making in 1967. But unlike the down-and-dirty peep show fare that pretty much constituted the only gay celluloid content available back then, Rocco’s miniatures were not sexually graphic, but rather romantic, playful, sometimes lyrical, even psychedelic.

The next year’s A Very Special Friend was, according to Rocco, the first film to depict two men kissing (at least in a positive way); 1969’s A Breath of Love featured a naked dancer cavorting in various landscapes, including a not-entirely-empty Hollywood Freeway. Also that year, Rocco’s penchant for guerrilla-style shooting resulted in the gay love story of Ron and Chuck in Disneyland Discovery, covertly filmed in the Magic Kingdom itself. (Once apprised, the corporate Mouse House was not amused.) But fearing publicity, Disney’s lawyers only instructed Rocco to remove it from circulation and never, ever set foot again in the Happiest Place on Earth.

Though such titles as Boy on the Run (featuring a well-endowed hunk on a pogo stick in slow-motion) and Fernando da Jason (an ostensible housepainter-hunk going Jackson Pollock on his own torso) were pure soft-core titillation, Rocco had ambition—and political zeal. He began documenting elements of the nascent gay liberation movement, including L.A.’s initial Pride parade in 1970 and its successors for years to follow. Friendly with Harvey Milk, he filmed a fiery speech by that fabled figure not long before his 1978 assassination.

Police harassment of gay bars and other newsworthy occurrences also captured his attention, footage sometimes working its way into Rocco’s more frivolous films. Nor did he fail to give back to the community in other ways, helping found shelters and other services for the homeless, both gay and straight. Meanwhile, he retained friendships from his days as a more middle-of-the-road entertainer, notably with comedian Phyllis Diller.

All the above are glimpsed in the new documentary, its bounty of vintage clips taken from Rocco’s extensive personal collection, now safely preserved at the UCLA Film & Television Archive.

Still, Pat Rocco Dared (also the name of the subject’s now hard-to-find 2009 memoir) leaves room for a more definitive future account of this fascinating individual and his career. There is an inexplicable amount of screen time given over to executive producer Charlie David, who seems more interested in being filmed gushing over his octogenarian interviewee than he is in the man himself. Somehow, there’s no attention whatsoever paid to answering some basic questions about the scale of Rocco’s filmic output or what kinds of venues it played in at the time. Not to mention the mystery of just what he did for the last four decades or so of his life.

In the early 1970s, the last censorship walls began to tumble, and hard-core pornography became a part of gay and straight lives. While he later denied it, Rocco did make some XXX features (albeit under a pseudonym) to capitalize on that new marketplace. But he much preferred his early work, which he described as “the loving films, romantic films…[with] nudity that was not pornographic.”

As in so many things, he’d been ahead of his time: operating in an era when the rare mainstream depiction of homosexuality remained typically villainous (like the murderer in the 1968 Frank Sinatra vehicle The Detective) or tragic (the protagonists in the same year’s The Killing of Sister George, even 1970’s The Boys in the Band), he’d made films that refused to acknowledge homophobia—letting their handsome, frequently unclad protagonists frolic in idylls of nature. Rather remarkably for a gay man over half a century ago, Rocco not only offered gay men a dream of full social acceptance, but insisted on living as if he already had it.•

Pat Rocco Dared plays the Castro Theatre at 9:15 p.m. on June 25 as part of Frameline46; it’s also available through the festival’s Digital Screening Room June 24–30.

Dennis Harvey is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle and a longtime correspondent for Variety.
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