In this biweekly column, I look back through a century of cinema for traces of queerness, whether in plain sight or under the surface. Read the introductory essay.

Watching “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” the centerpiece episode of the Coen Brothers’ tricky and terrifying anthology film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, many of us were mesmerized by the shuffling manner and timid masculinity of the character Billy Knapp. Making generous promises of romance and financial protection to Zoe Kazan’s no-nonsense Alice Longabaugh, who’s on the Oregon Trail seeking what sounds like a rather dubious marriage prospect, Billy is the perfect thwarted romantic partner. Undeniably handsome, as a weather-beaten cowpoke ought to be, this appealingly modest do-right dude nevertheless is emasculated by the film at every turn, shying away from an awkward confrontation with a duplicitous wrangler, reluctant to carry out the task of disposing of a yapping little dog, and, ultimately, unbeknownst to him, unable to save his bride-to-be from a climactic tragic turn of events. One leaves this episode doubtful that Billy’s laudable gentility ever would have been much help to Alice, but also wondering who the heck that actor is playing the dashing yet wan Billy.

The pleasurable lack of prior knowledge most viewers have of this actor, one Bill Heck, actually speaks volumes about the lines that persist between queer and mainstream American culture. As is usually the case with such things, Heck’s breakthrough in Buster Scruggs does not come completely out of the blue. In 2013, Heck starred in a romantic drama called Pit Stop, directed by Yen Tan. Small-scale, low-budget, and starless, it nevertheless couldn’t be considered an invisible film: after premiering at Sundance in January of that year, it went on to play South by Southwest, Atlanta, Seattle, Dallas, and other major regional festivals, as well as exclusively LGBT showcases like Frameline and Outfest, before finally receiving a small theatrical release from Wolfe and ending up on various streaming sites, including, at the time of this writing, Hulu. All of this is to say that, despite the fact of gay-themed dramas being niche, Pit Stop has had a relative bounty of exposure for an American indie movie; yet it’s unlikely that many viewers other than those inclined to seek out films about gay characters would have seen it. Still today, in terms of distribution and exhibition, gay dramas and comedies tend to stay in their lane, and, as a result, critics follow suit, allowing this segregation to continue.

I don’t raise this as a gay-vs.-straight “issue” to be overcome, as if I’m resentful that we (queer critics) always watch your movies, so why don’t you watch ours? Often, it’s difficult even for the queer viewer to separate the wheat from the chaff when surveying the annual glut of minuscule-budgeted movies that are targeted at us. This is particularly true of movies designed and marketed to appeal to gay men. They used to line the shelves of TLA Video or screen exclusively at the Quad; now they proliferate on such streaming services as Dekkoo or within the subcategories of Amazon Prime. They almost uniformly seem to flaunt enticing key art of handsome men, often shirtless, embracing or looking longingly or playfully at one another, so as to leave little ambiguity about the type of film they are. Pit Stop might seem to be one of these many films, with its poster of two conventionally attractive, bare-chested men captured in an overhead shot snuggling in bed, their eyes closed in peaceful repose.

Yet as directed by the Malaysian-born Yen Tan (whose previous gay-themed feature, 2008’s Ciao, had so honestly portrayed processes of grief and recovery) and written by the meditative-minded David Lowery (whose directorial debut Ain’t Them Bodies Saints was released the same year), Pit Stop is a sensitive, gratifyingly quiet portrait of loneliness that’s hardly designed for mere titillation. Its two main characters, Heck’s divorced dad Gabe and Marcus DeAnda’s Ernesto, circle around each other in the same small Texas town for most of the film’s duration, never sharing a scene as the former remains preoccupied with his young daughter and ex-wife Shannon (Amy Seimetz), while Ernesto watches over an ex-lover recently in a coma from a car accident. Both use these other people in their lives as excuses to not face their own sexual needs. The relationship between Gabe and Shannon, in fact, often feels like the centerpiece of the film, an unexpectedly rich, complicated, and lived-in pairing defined by years of intimacy—he’s protective of her, acting paternal and intimidating to her own prospective dates, while she’s encouraging of him to explore relationships with other men. We know from the film’s oft-used stills and posters that Gabe and Ernesto will eventually get together, which gives the narrative’s progression its own kind of forward momentum and suspense, and makes the viewer hunger for the moment these two lost souls might connect.

As one might expect from his Billy Knapp, Bill Heck, whose gait, squint, and overall physiognomy can’t help but recall a young Clint Eastwood, plays his role with a kind of unforced, laconic American maleness that reads as purposefully ambivalent rather than dully stoic. The Phoenix-born actor’s penchant for conflicted, head-hung-low masculinity also must have been put to good use when he co-starred in the 2010 off-Broadway revival of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America as Joe Pitt, the dyed-in-the-wool Republican Mormon whose struggles with his homosexuality wreak havoc on his relationships with both his mentor, Roy Cohn, and his wife Harper (who happened to be played in the same production by none other than Zoe Kazan). Heck also played Clifford Bradshaw, the bisexual love interest to Michelle Williams’s Sally Bowles in the 2014 Broadway revival of the musical Cabaret, cementing his queer bona fides and, along with Pit Stop, further making him perhaps better known perhaps to a certain subset of viewer.

With his sturdy and straight, 2018 breakthrough in the Coens’ film, the queer viewer might be wary of the industry pattern that could come to define this actor. For most of American cinema’s existence, it was implicitly verboten for a “serious” male actor to play a homosexual role, especially if he was in any way eyeing mainstream success. With the explosion of independent films in the 1980s, new voices began to emerge, bringing the New Queer Cinema movement, and therefore more possibilities opened up for actors to make movies that might actually be seen on the festival circuit. Many actors have started out in the business this way, getting their faces onscreen in small films before making the leap to bigger pictures, and many of them acted in gay films in advance of that transition. This is just all based on industrial reality: small films are more personal and idiosyncratic, large films tend to homogenize and de-personalize matters of identity to reach the widest possible audience.

The result, though, is the sense that acting in an LGBT film early in your career means that you might be able to “graduate” to something more mainstream, hence more “valid.” Steve Buscemi’s early appearance in Bill Sherwood’s breakthrough AIDS drama Parting Glances (1986) provides a kind of template for this journey; the worthy, often uncompromised career of this very fine, singularly empathetic character actor has gone in many different directions, and is undoubtedly almost exclusively made up of heterosexual—or presumably heterosexual—roles, yet for a queer viewer such as myself, Buscemi’s career will always be somehow defined by Parting Glances’ wiseass Nick. One could say the same for such early “gay for pay” actors as Bradley Cooper (Wet Hot American Summer), Russell Crowe (The Sum of Us), Keanu Reeves (My Own Private Idaho), Anthony Mackie (Brother to Brother), Timothy Olyphant (The Broken Hearts Club), Thomas Jane (I’ll Love You Forever…Tonight), and Jude Law (Wilde), none of whom necessarily continued to take on explicitly gay parts but who nevertheless could wield a power over gay audiences based on these roles. One wonders if this will be the case with Timothée Chalamet, whose leading role in Call Me by Your Name last year will undoubtedly prove to be a generational touchstone for legions of queer viewers present and future, but whose current status as a major Hollywood It-Boy portends a more conventional career. His costar in that film, however, Armie Hammer, the rare established star to take on an explicitly eroticized gay character well into his filmography, points to a potentially different trajectory. Also, the narrative at times feels on the verge of shifting as more and more out actors work in film (though at the same time this hasn’t been reflected in the number of gay characters that correspond on screen).

As Pit Stop showed and as The Ballad of Buster Scruggs solidifies, Bill Heck deserves a visible film career. Some might call this “going on to bigger, better things”—it just so happens that in Hollywood, bigger is so rarely better, and more specifically it means being erased of specificity. The plaintive lonesome song of Pit Stop feels like the province of independent cinema, not Hollywood, both in terms of its regional particularity and its focus on queer people, so it’s not like this is necessarily repeatable on a larger scale. Until that changes—and with the globalist direction Hollywood has been going in, it’s not likely to—movies like Yen Tan’s, and performances like Heck’s, will continue to feel all the more precious.

Michael Koresky is the Director of Editorial and Creative Strategy at Film Society of Lincoln Center; the co-founder and co-editor of Reverse Shot; a frequent contributor to the Criterion Collection; and the author of the book Terence Davies, published by University of Illinois Press.