|Colin Blakely as John Watson and Robert Stephens as Sherlock Holmes in Billy Wilder's film|
Concerning on the commercial failure of his 1970 film The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, director Billy Wilder said, “I should have been more daring. I wanted to make Holmes a homosexual … That’s why he’s on dope, you know.”
I first saw it at a drive-in in 1970. It was hard to find. And it was always pretty clear to me from the finished film that Wilder DID make Holmes gay. Despite all the romantic stuff with the beautiful German spy at the end of the film, its most sadly touching moment comes earlier, when Holmes refuses to deny to Watson that he is homosexual.
The doggedly heterosexual, brainy, manic Wilder loved Holmes, and had wanted to make a film about him for his entire career. But perhaps audiences were not ready, in 1970, to see a film in which the Great Detective is both taken seriously and finally defeated.
“Holmes appeals to Wilder for his human failings more than for his legendary qualities as a detective — The Private Life depicts a crushing humiliation which Dr. Watson has suppressed from public knowledge,” Joseph McBride and Michael Wilmington wrote in Film Quarterly. “But Wilder’s tone is unusually subdued, even elegiac, perhaps because the film is set in a simpler, more gentlemanly era far from the barbarism of James Bond and Pussy Galore.”
I’d be fascinated to see the three-and-a-half-hour Private Life that Wilder originally prepared, but wasn’t permitted to release. I always have the nagging sense that even Wilder’s failed concepts were just slightly ahead of their time. The possibility that Holmes and Watson might be gay finally became a mere running joke in the BCC’s Sherlock.
Elementary, Wilder would’ve said.