Because beauty is so ephemeral, many of our most-admired sex symbols have only become "legends" through savvy marketing, rather than through their native merits.
Take Bettie Page, for example— she was always extraordinary, but it was only after decades of cult worship, that she ascended to the Pantheon.
Male beauties have the hardest time making a mark in American pop culture, because their value is measured largely through teenage girls. James Dean may be the only American masculine beauty icon who "crossed over"— as much a legend to gay audiences as he is to straight ones, desirable to every genderation.
I'd like to nominate a new godhead. You may not know Peter Berlin's name, but you know his face and body as surely as you have walked down the street and a hot summer's day and had your head turned by a young man who looked like he was made for sexual worship.
If you lived in San Francisco in the 70s, you must have seen Peter, on a daily basis, roaming the streets in the most eyepopping outfits ever designed for the male body. He MADE those clothes. These were jeans tailored for his cock, his ass, and ripped to perfection. The leather jacket hung on his V-frame like Superman's cape thrown over his shoulder. He had long, shaggy, angel-blond hair, and a face that could might bring almost anyone to their knees.
I thought Peter was a cartoon the first I saw him— Jessica Rabbit. When he opened up his mouth and the German accent came out, I was shocked, because it made him human. My first impression was that he was the most outlandish male hooker I'd ever seen in my life. But I was quickly schooled. I learned from my betters that Berlin was the creator of two unique porn films, his own portfolio, and that he invented, stitched, and lit every aspect of his sexual persona. Mapplethorpe shot him. Warhol filmed him. But no one could craft Peter as well as Peter himself.
Everyone complains about narcissism, but really, how many times do we see it produced on a grand scale? Peter Berlin is the Greta Garbo of the Castro, the ne plus ultra of homoeroticism. He is Tom of Finland come to life.
He was so successful in his self-design that although the straight world remained ignorant of his name, they have been as influenced by his image as they were by disco, leather, and every other 70s gay popcult invention. Before there was Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Berlin was the progenitor of the young, the hung, and hot.
Producers Jim Tushinski and Lawrence Helman have made a documentary, That Man, about Peter Berlin, that inspires my review. In addition to their biographical feature, they have also re-released his most famous movie, That Boy.
That Man, as you might guess, is largely being discussed among gay men, including people like John Waters who practically weep at the mention of Peter's name. However, I would recommend the movie to anyone who takes an interest in sex symbols, and the archetypes of masculine eroticism. It's a revelation from start to finish.
I had no idea Berlin was still alive. Much to my amazement, he has outlived virtually everyone he ever cared about, and carries on a life of creative and philosophical determination matched by few. His take on the 70s, AIDS, drugs, and being the only one of his peers left standing is unsentimental and unrepentant. By the end, I saw that the most bracing part of Peter's beauty, so clear in his old age, is ramrod dignity. You don't see that very often in a pair of tight white pants.