1950s Los Angeles. Palm trees, movie stars. Guy gets off a bus. Twenty-one and still in his dress blues, bad sling over his shoulder, crew cut, and pearly whites. Doesn’t have a clue as to where to go or what to do; just knows that here is where he’s destined to be. One of thousands just like him. Except there’s something different about this guy: His uniform is snug in all the right places, and waiting for him at the depot is a mild-mannered man who runs a small business out of his mom’s garage. A few hours later, oiled up and wearing nothing but a crotch pouch, the new arrival is posing for “athletic photos.” earning $5 and a place to stay. Eventually he’ll move on from Mary Jane to “mary jane.” and his new friend will introduce him to other ways he can make five bucks.
More or less, that’s the story of many of the young men who passed through Bob Mizer’s life. And thousands of them did, ending up in the pages of his postcard-sized ode to the male form, Physique Pictorial, and in the accompanying photos and 8mm films it offered for sale. Beefcake was born.
Although never out as a gay publication in its heyday, Physique Pictorial became the mold from which all contemporary gay erotica is cast. Spun out of the Athletic Model Guild (Mizer’s agency for boys with acting and modeling aspirations and the artists looking to employ them) in 1951 as a better way of getting Mizer’s beefcake notices, PP was billed as a health-and-fitness magazine that espoused the beauty of the male form (in a straight context, on the surface), with editorials on everything from hygiene to First Amendment rights. It was the first magazine to spotlight men in (most of) their naked glory, lasting four decades and spawning many imitators.
All but forgotten once porn became commonplace, Physique Pictorial has seen a resurgence in the past few years, beginning in 1995 with Valentine Hooven book, Beefcake—still the final word on the history of hot bods. Its publisher, Taschen, returned in 1997 with a three-volume set reproducing every page of the magazine’s run. And this month heralds the release of Beefcake, director Thom Fitzgerald’s follow-up to his award-winning 1996 debut film, The Hanging Garden. “This is part of unclaimed gay history that’s forcing itself to the surface,” Fitzgerald says of PP’s renewed popularity.
Part docudrama and art “excuse for getting a lot of men naked on film,” Fitzgerald’s Beefcake aims to be as innocently wink-wink-nudge-nudge as Mizer’s and—like the magazine itself—a mix of cheese and camp. “One of the things the film captures,” Fitzgerald says, “is the spirit of goofy, beautiful men. It has this underlying tension of oppression, but it’s always having fun.” Beefcake charts the first few years of PP’s existence through the naive eyes of a fictional model, inter spliced with interviews of real-life PP players.
But Fitzgerald offers more than just a sexy romp through gay nostalgia. Beefcakeculminates in Mizer’s mid ‘60s conviction for running a male prostitution ring, illuminating a part of gay history that many modern gay boys might not know about. “No matter how bad it was growing up queer in the 1970s,” says Fitzgerald, “it was nothing compared to the ‘50s,” when chemical castration and lobotomization were punishments du jour for anyone who dared go against societal norms. Arguably, Mizer’s pioneering efforts helped plant the seed for today’s out generation and, according to Fitzgerald, paved the way for the filmmaker to create something Mizer could never have dreamed of making without fear of prosecution: “a movie you could go home and masturbate to.” Wink, wink.
This article originally appeared in the October 1999 issue of OUT.
After 27 years, Physique Pictorial relaunched in 2017 following a successful Kickstarter campaign. Volume 43 of the decades-old publication will be released this winter. For more information, visit BobMizer.org.