Twenty years ago this week, movie-goers picked up tickets to The Fifth Element, and likely they were expecting a splashy sci-fi flick to kick off the summer movie season. They got that, for sure, but two decades later, we need to talk about what else this Luc Besson-directed hit offered: glorious, goofy gender-tweaking that rendered The Fifth Element queer, if not outright gay.
I speak, of course, of Ruby Rhod, a queer-coded character the likes of whom audiences likely hadn’t seen before in a mainstream “popcorn” movie — and by and large haven’t seen since.
Chris Tucker had a big year in 1997. He’d go on to star in Money Talks and play a memorable role in Jackie Brown. But most audiences would have recognized him from his breakthrough role in 1995’s Friday. Considering that, Ruby Rhod seems like an unusual follow-up role. Ruby wears dresses. Scratch that — he wears Gaultier in a way that would make Lady Gaga proud. He is fashion. He also oscillates between gender extremes — womanizing and hyper-masc one moment, effeminate the next. Ruby squeals. He spits out words at a machine gun pace. He’s basically like Little Richard in space. (And now that I mention it, why isn’t there already a movie called Little Richard in Space?) Even his name calls to mind a mixing up of masculine and feminine.
Per this fan, Tucker kills it in the role. Both Newsweek and the Los Angeles Times dubbed Tucker the most outrageous special effect in a movie that’s chock-full of visual flair. Indeed, he manages to show up Bruce Willis in full-force action hero mode and Milla Jovovich playing an orange-haired space goddess. From the moment he makes his entrance — clad in a leopard print jumpsuit and with his hair coiled into what’s either a unicorn horn or a big blond dick — it’s kind of hard to notice anything else that’s happening.
Given Tucker’s relatively newfound fame, you might expect that playing a queer-seeming character, much less anything besides a traditionally masculine role, would have freaked him out. For one, the role was originally offered to Prince, and most ordinary humans pale in comparison to the late, great Purple One. And for another, The Fifth Element opened only a few years after a similarly up-and-coming Will Smith allegedly balked at kissing another man on-screen while filming Six Degrees of Separation. At least in this promotional interview, Tucker seems stoked to take on the challenge of a character so unlike himself. The closest Tucker comes to a critical statement about Ruby Rhod is one about the impracticality of the wardrobe, saying, “I would never wear this stuff in the street.” Considering the time period, that’s a somewhat progressive attitude, and there are actors working today who might not be nearly as down to play a similar role.
Despite his mannerisms, however, Ruby isn’t gay, though he may not be precisely straight either. As Besson explained to The Advocate back in the day, “I let the actor create his sexual life, so you should ask him.” (They did ask: “Tucker wouldn’t comment, but his wig did.” We’ll take it.) In one scene, it’s implied that he goes down on one of the retro-sexy spaceship stewardesses, telling her “I’ve never felt this way before … with a human.”
You get to decide what he means by that, but it’s worth pointing out that neither the stewardess nor anyone else seems to question his rejection of gender norms — or at least the gender norms we had back in 1997 and mostly still have today. This essay tidily sums up the character’s apparent queerness as having “destroyed gender and reconstructed it to fit his personal style.” In the year 2263, this may be normal, we’re allowed to conclude. Everyone else may be more traditional, gender expression-wise, but no one seems the least bit phased by Ruby’s persona. In fact, either in spite or because of the way he presents himself, Ruby Rhod is one of the biggest celebrities on the planet. (Planets? Galaxy? Universe?)
The unusual gender dynamics in The Fifth Element don’t end with Ruby Rhod. There’s a lot to be said about how Willis’ character, Korben Dallas, has to step out of the tough guy role at points and make way for Jovovich’s Leeloo to do her superhuman thing. And Leeloo alternately plays the part of the damsel in distress and a living weapon, though it must be noted that she’s frequently infantilized despite being the most powerful force in existence.
Ruby presents some problems as well. Writing for Lambda Literary, Fifth Element fan Saeed Jones notes that when you look at the character in terms of race separate from apparent queer status, he is essentially a magical negro who advances the agendas of the white lead characters and doesn’t get much in the way of character development. He’s loud and brash and stays loud and brash. Jones has a point, though he also notes, “I’d rather not think about it.”
Even with that taken into consideration, gay viewers should be paying attention to Ruby Rhod, not just for the reasons I’ve lined out here but also for one more, and it might be the most important. In a different movie, a sissy like Ruby would be the butt of jokes. Hollywood does, after all, have a history of doing exactly that to the most effeminate guy in the room. In The Fifth Element, Ruby provides comic relief, but the comedy stems more from his arrogance, his insecurity, his blatant drive for self-preservation and him just being overwhelmed with the crazy space opera he’s been forced into. He’s not punished for his queer mannerisms, and when Willis and Jovovich save existence at the end of the movie, Tucker is there, too — part of the band of heroes, whether he wanted to be or not.
In closing, please enjoy current Drag Race season queen Aja’s performance of the film’s iconic Plavalaguna diva dance, which I encourage drag queens everywhere to perform more often.
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