Review: 'ALL MAN: The International Male Story' Brings Hot History Home for Pride Month
Kilian Melloy READ TIME: 2 MIN.
For a generation of gay men, the International Male catalogue was an entree into the forbidden – and absolutely necessary – process of figuring out sexuality... gay male sexuality, that is, a subject that a homophobic society tried (and is trying again) to pretend out of existence through willful ignorance and systemic erasure.
That's more or less the starting point, and the through-line, for "ALL MAN: The International Male Story," a fascinating documentary written by Peter Jones, directed by Bryan Darling and Jesse Finley Reed, and narrated by Matt Bomer that's everything you might have wanted from that other recent doc about "gay" male fashion, "White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch."
Fundamental human drives being what they are, sexuality always finds a way. So it was with the International Male catalogue, the brainchild of Gene Burkard, a man who served his country in uniform during the Korean war and faced the unnerving prospect of being disgraced simply for having a drink in a gay bar.
After his military service, Burkard took a job in Europe, flogging beer and cognac to American troops overseas. It was in Europe that he gained an appreciation for how male fashion didn't need to be drab and repetitive – but it wasn't until he happened to see a supportive male undergarment that the lightbulb clicked on and he saw a way to bring fashion – sexy fashion – to the men of the United States.
As the doc relates, Burkard started advertising his "jock sock" undergarment in The Advocate. When sales took off and he needed some help, he hired Gloria Tomita as a secretary. Despite her lack of secretarial skills, Tomita turned out to be a natural creative fit with Burkard, and the two of them built Burkard's shoestring operation into a major force, designing their own clothing, putting it on ripped "masculine" guys, and selling it (mostly, at first, to women who were keen to dress their husbands and boyfriends up – but also to gay men across the country).
The doc gets into everything: The clothes, the models, the behind-the-scenes chaos and camaraderie, and the creative styling that turned the catalogue into a transformative force for gay and straight guys alike. That was on purpose. Burkard deliberately brought a new take to masculinity, and a new masculine sense to the gay community. "I wanted to butch up the act," Burkard recalls in an on-camera interview. (The doc implies that, given today's extremes of body consciousness and the hyper-masculine focus on muscles, Burkard might have succeeded too well.)
The catalogue's secret? "Masculine guys in not-masculine outfits," we're told. Like a shooting star, International Male lit up the world... for a while. Its eventual fate is all too familiar, but its origins are unique, and worthy of celebration.
"ALL MAN: The International Male Story" arrives on digital platforms June 6.
Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.